Engaging the millennial generation

Do you remember when people used to complain about the numbers of “once a year” Catholics who took over the church every Christmas? Unfortunately, it’s a little easier to find a seat in church at the Christmas Masses these days. If there are families in the pew beside you that you haven’t seen in church throughout the year, chances are they will come from the pool of parents between the age of 25 and 45 that sociologists call the millennial generation.

Millennial parents are as elusive as Moby Dick. The Catholic Church has been targeting this audience with all kinds of programs and media, but the effort does not seem to be effective. Holy Cross Family Ministries, whose mission is to serve the Spiritual well-being of families, wanted to find out why this effort to flood the airwaves with Catholic content is missing its mark. They asked the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate to survey this group of young adult Catholic parents to find some answers.

Twenty-two percent of these Catholic parents are actively involved in our parishes. They go to Mass weekly or more often, prepare their children for the Sacraments and keep them enrolled in our Religious Education programs. If the parents go to Mass less frequently but still attend monthly or more, they are also most likely to send their children to the parish for Sacramental preparation and Religious Education. That is actually encouraging, since the two groups represent more than 50 percent of those polled. The other 50 percent rarely go to Mass, except for the occasional funeral or wedding, and sometimes at Christmas and Easter.

While the Church tends to dwell on the hard numbers of Mass attendance and Religious Education enrollment, there may be more insight to be found in the inner life of these parents, not their public worship practice. The CARA study revealed that Catholic parents believe in the core teachings of the Creed, regardless of their attendance at Mass. More than 80 percent believe that there is a Heaven, that there is one God and a Holy Trinity. They believe all that is taught about Jesus and the Incarnation. This is good to hear because it means that at some point in their 25 to 45 years someone taught them their faith. 

Even more revealing was their prayer life. When asked how often they prayed outside of going to Mass, only nine percent said never. Fifty-six percent reported that they pray more than once a week or daily. When they pray they are more likely to do so alone. Millennial parents are not in the habit of praying with their families. Some said that praying alone makes them feel like they can be more open and honest with God; they enjoy the intimacy of a conversation with God. They are more likely to pray during times of crisis or when they feel anxious or depressed. They are not as likely to pray when they feel blessed. They mostly pray to God the Father (74 percent) or Jesus Christ (59 percent.) Mary, the Holy Trinity, guardian angels, deceased family members or a specific saint also get a nod from this group.

The object of their prayer is less telling than the subject. More than 80 percent pray for the well-being of their families most of the time. Catholic parents rarely pray for themselves. If they do not pray it is usually because they feel too busy or too disconnected from the Church. Very few reported that they don’t believe in the power of prayer, but some said they just don’t know how to pray. The deeper the survey probed, the more it revealed that many parents of this age group simply talk to God. Some even meditate or participate in some religious devotion, perhaps a practice handed down to them within their extended family. 

Despite all of the recent efforts to engage this age group through clever media campaigns, these young parents report that they do not look for Spirituality on a website or app. They are more likely to use the Bible when they pray or some Catholic prayer book. They prefer to go to the parish bulletin to get any information. A few of them will take part in a small prayer group or Bible study, but they are more likely to seek an individualized Spiritual experience.

The lesson we can learn from this study is that the people taking up our space in the pews this Christmas are much like you and me. They have times when they struggle with their faith or have found it difficult to carve out prayer time, but they share our common beliefs. They might not come to the church to gather with us regularly, but on this one day of the year when they share our pews, maybe we can say, “Merry Christmas, I’ll pray for you if you’ll pray for me.”

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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