Twenty-somethings are not going to church. Simply scan an average Sunday service almost anywhere in the country and you’ll see a veritable sea of… lets call it…wisdom and experience, in the form of gray hair and thick-rimmed glasses.
A recent Pew Research study asked all adult age groups a series of questions about their religious attendance. Unsurprisingly young adults aged 18-29 went to services the least often, only 27% reporting weekly attendance. Concerned parents, grandparents, and church leaders have been contemplating what to do about this for decades now.
Most of the strategies out there are conceived of by people in leadership positions within the church and written for parents and other church leaders in mind. I hate to say it but for parents with children who have left the house, either to college, or the work force, the ship has for the most part sailed regarding influence. By this point it is out of your hands. Who then has primary influence? Through whom is God’s Grace primarily acting?
Barring the rare exception who goes to church on her own, young adults are convinced almost exclusively by peers. Simply invite a twenty-year-old to a social gathering of any kind. Their first question will usually be “Who’s going?” People of this age group are more socially attuned, more influenced by mob mentality and group think than any other. Especially in the context of a university, where students live with, go to class with, study with and party with people exclusively of their own age group, and for the first time totally apart from parental guidance.
I am 22 years old and a recent Duke University graduate. When I left for college at 17, I was lucky enough to have already been going to church on a consistent basis and felt that going to Mass every Sunday was just a part of my schedule I did not want to change. I was also lucky enough to attend a university with a stellar Catholic center who always put on amazing Masses. For me, the beauty of the Masses and the built-in habit was enough to keep me going consistently, but for most of my peers, even those who were raised in a Catholic household, it was not enough to get them in the door.
Enter Michaela Reinhart. Michaela (23) was my first bible study leader my freshman year of college and was responsible for more church attendance than anyone I’ve ever met. I saw time and time again, herds of her friends and classmates walking with her to 11am or 8pm Mass, many of whom had never been before, or hadn’t been since getting to college. When thinking about effective evangelists, she was the first person that came to mind, and as someone who was not a professional young adult minister or trained in any formal way, she exemplifies the idea that young adults look primarily to each other for guidance on how to spend their time. I chatted with her about what she thought made her so effective and these were a few of the takeaways that I think any young Catholic can keep in mind.
Don’t be shy to talk about your faith
“I was pretty shy about using God in my everyday language.” She says of her experience as a Catholic first getting to college. “My freshman year if I was going to Mass, I wouldn’t tell people where I was going. I would change my language a bit when talking with people. Like when I would normally tell someone ‘I’m praying for you’ it turned into ‘I’m thinking of you’. Simple things like that. But when I started getting more comfortable talking about God and simply referencing Him in everyday language. It piqued people’s interest. I started having more and more conversations about God and the church and I could actually invite people to church, and they were suddenly much more interested in checking it out. Just because they heard me talking about Him.”
Don’t try to sell it
When I asked her how she tended to approach her invitations to attend Mass she explained, “People hated feeling pressured to come. They almost never responded well if I was just like ‘hey come to church’ it was almost always a situation where we got into deeper conversations and they started asking me a lot about certain things that I wouldn’t have a good answer to.” She laughs a bit, probably recalling certain instances where the debates got particularly intense. “So I’d tell them they could come to church if they wanted, and that it was totally open to anyone and everyone. And then I’d just leave it on the table and not worry to much about how they responded. Just leave the door open.”
Community is number 1
As a member of the track and field team at Duke, Michaela explains how she already had a group of people she was with consistently and how getting both Catholic and non-Catholic teammates to come was usually incidental. “If a few of us were already going, like even just two or three of us, people would hear us talking about going or making plans and would just naturally want in.” She goes on to provide example after example of various friends and teammate who would come to Mass simply because it was something social to do. “It really sort of became a lot about the numbers. Like we would have two or three friends planning on going, but if one more decided to come one week, we’d have exponentially more the next week. And over time people just started going because everyone was going. And when thirty of your friends are going to this activity, it just becomes the obvious choice for something to do.” At this point in our conversation we were both chuckling, remembering some instances when it seemed like the entire cross country team came to church, wide eyed in bewilderment and fascinated by the ceremonies of the Mass. “But Michaela,” I asked her “how ever did you organize such a coalition?”
Use a Group chat
“I just started a little group chat and told people to add whoever they wanted.” She explains simply. “I would just send the occasional check in and people would like the message if they wanted to go and their friends would notice who liked it and their friends would notice and so on. It was pretty much out of my hands at that point, people started joining and then they could see exactly which of their friends were going to be at Mass that day and what time and stuff, which is a huge reason a lot of them were going in the first place.”
Attach Mass to another activity
When I asked her if the people in the group chat only went to Mass together, Michaela got a bit excited and explained “Actually no we started all meeting up at dinner before the 8pm Mass. Isn’t that fun? Just a huge group of people, a lot of em not Catholic at all, a lot who had been but didn’t like going anymore, and suddenly it’s a fun group tradition; Dinner and Church.”
Isn’t that fun indeed! Whether or not you think that going to Church simply because your friends are going, is a good reason or not, there is no denying that getting more people into church at all is a net positive. As Catholics we are called to trust in the Church and have faith that the Mass is indeed mystical and powerful. I for one trust that despite how secular the individual reasons for going may be, God works in strange ways, and I have faith in the efficacy of the Mass itself.