Changing the conversation on faith: New words, attitudes needed to reach the 'nones'
Jul 10, 2019
Editor's note: This is the fifth in a five-part column series written by Sacred Heart Major Seminary and Catholic Biblical School of Michigan researcher Tamra Hull Fromm about the impact and choices of young adult “nones” — those who profess no religious faith — in the Archdiocese of Detroit. See below for additional articles in the series.
Over the past four weeks, I have presented selections from my doctoral study on the pre-evangelization of American young adult “nones.” Among the many findings of my study were the failure of parents to pass down the faith, the critical value of the initial encounter, and the growing need for pre-evangelization. In the final article of this series, I will bring together the outcomes of my study and offer practical recommendations for the parish environment; for laity in secular settings; and ecumenical collaboration with our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters.
Preparing the parish
Because of the breakdown in the transmission of the Christian faith and the growing secularization of the culture, I predict we will see an increase in the number of young adult native “nones” (i.e., those who will grow up without a faith background). These “nones” are more likely to be religiously illiterate and might hold a narrow view of Christianity based upon stereotypes promoted by the media.
These trends are why, I argue, the American Catholic Church needs to get serious about pre-evangelization, both in terms of what it is and how to do it. Evangelical Tim Buechsel claims that one of the primary reasons churches fail to effectively evangelize is that they have not adjusted their approach to a post-Christendom world. (1) An adjustment is needed when we continue to cling to a belief that we can retain young adults in the Church simply through birth or heritage, rather than reaching outside of the boundaries of the parish campus to engage the unchurched. An adjustment is needed when we continue to employ the same language, message and forms of outreach and expect the same results from our efforts.
An adjustment is needed when we continue to cling to a belief that we can retain young adults in the Church simply through birth or heritage, rather than reaching outside of the boundaries of the parish campus to engage the unchurched. An adjustment is needed when we continue to employ the same language, message and forms of outreach and expect the same results from our efforts.
So, let’s talk about the language we use with the unchurched. If young adult “nones” are unfamiliar with both religious language and symbols, then we need to find other words or terms that they can understand.
Consider, for example, that only one of the young adults in my study expressed feelings related to a change in their moral behavior in conjunction with their journey into the Catholic faith. The words “sin” or “repentance” rarely entered the conversation. Yet the kerygmatic message of the Gospel rests on an understanding that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again to save us from our sins.
I am not suggesting the word “sin” and other language used in Scripture have no role in the pre-evangelization stage. However, when young adults do not use religious jargon in their everyday vocabulary, or when a word carries a strongly negative connotation and sounds overly judgmental and indicting to a millennial, we might consider some alternatives.
So, as opposed to words such as “worship,” “truth,” or “conversion,” we might consider expressions such as “silence,” “meaning,” “values,” “healing,” and “transformation.” Terms such as “woundedness,” “brokenness,” or “dysfunction” might be more appropriate substitutes which convey similar meaning for “sin.” A phrase often used by Catholic author Matthew Kelly, “becoming the best version of yourself,” resonates well with the hyper-individualism of the American culture, yet still reflects the call to holiness.
Similarly, initial discussions related to ethics and morality might focus on questions related to the “common good.” An understanding of individual or personal evil might emerge better through an awareness and discussion of social evil, such as racism or sexism. Young adults might be prompted to consider values and meaning through questions such as: “What is important to you? What is valuable? What is meaningful? What has given you joy?”
As for the message, I suggest that the explicit proclamation of the kerygma to unchurched young adults might be becoming even more problematic. When I began my study four years ago, I had surmised that young adults might associate evangelization with proselytism. It was, therefore, not surprising to me when I read a February 2019 report released by Barna Group that “almost half of millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith in hopes that they will one day share the same faith.” Further, 40% feel that even a disagreement about beliefs is associated with judgment. (2)
Does this mean we shift away from the major thrust in our parishes to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ? No … but, perhaps rather than beginning with the kerygma or focusing on theological and doctrinal facts, we might consider simply sharing our personal story. Our stories need not be rose-colored and whitewashed; in fact, revealing our authentic struggles is likely more appealing than pretending a life of faith is just a cakewalk. Similarly, sharing our personal experiences can illustrate how Christianity offers a path in the human desire to “find oneself,” discover meaning and fullness; and how our faith animates this journey.
In my last article, I referenced the use of apologetics as a popular method of pre-evangelization. While it would be naïve to suggest my sample group of young adults is representative of all young adults in the United States, I found it interesting that there was no indication of an intellectual struggle between religion and science. Nor was there any mention of the use of apologetics or argumentative conversation in the process of conversion. It was also surprising that the young adult catechumens in this study did not manifest any conflict with the Catholic Church as is typically described by so called “cradle Catholic” young adults who have left the Church. (3)
I do not mean to suggest that apologetics is ineffective in the pre-evangelization process. But I would humbly dispute the value of this method with contemporary young adults given the polarization of American culture. For example, Stephen Prothero from Boston University remarked that his young adult students could accept a “respectful” conversation but they are allergic to “argument.” (4) Further, by packing other methods into our pre-evangelization toolbox, we recognize that the human person is more than his or her intellectual dimension. As Swinton and Mowat point out, “bearing witness to the Gospel is an embodied task and not simply a matter of the intellect.” (5)
Many of the narratives in my study confirmed existing research on the importance of an atmosphere of welcoming, belonging, and feeling “home” as critical and attractive characteristics of parishes that appeal to young adults. During their initial parish visit, several of the young adults in my study seem to quickly evaluate or “size up” the culture and community to determine whether they seem to “fit.” Therefore, when Catholics do invite the unchurched to either an event at the parish or the Mass itself, we need to ensure that our parishes are equipped to offer the kind of radical hospitality that helps young adults feel like they belong.
Therefore, when Catholics do invite the unchurched to either an event at the parish or the Mass itself, we need to ensure that our parishes are equipped to offer the kind of radical hospitality that helps young adults feel like they belong.
Parishes might evaluate their level of hospitality by asking themselves the following: If unchurched young adults come on their own or are personally invited by a friend or family member, will they feel like they belong? Is the parish “user friendly” in terms of being able to understand or follow the liturgy for the first time? Are there opportunities for young adults to ask questions? Do they get connected to other young adult groups or events, either at the local parish or diocesan level? Are they introduced to RCIA, a point of contact, as well as how to get involved? Are they connected to opportunities to serve the homeless or other marginalized persons within the local community? Is there opportunity for reflection after these experiences or are they merely “atomized” or unconnected events?
Can I get a ‘witness’?
One of the most critical elements in pre-evangelization that emerged from my interviews is the presence of a layperson as witness in the secular environment who authentically practices the faith in a non-judgmental manner, is unafraid to engage in conversation with the nonbeliever, is open to answering questions, and continually invites.
The young adults in my study notably expressed the role of the lay witness as both “antidote” and “accompagnateur.” The authenticity and credibility of the witness might provide the “shock,” “reversal,” or “interruption” to prior negative experiences or presumptions or even unconscious or unvoiced expectations of Catholics, Christianity or Christians in general. As accompagnateur, the witness is often the same individual who walks with the young adult from the very beginning of the initial encounter, is available to answer questions along the first steps of the journey, invites the young adult to the wider community of the parish, and then often serves as sponsor during the RCIA process.
It is important to note what “holiness” looks like to the unchurched. Rather than a veneer of piety and moral rectitude (and certainly intellectual pride), an authentic and credible lifestyle of the witness becomes attractive when it exhibits more of a humility that is aware of and admits one’s individual faults and desire to overcome these through the grace of God. Out of this humility might come a willingness for a continuing renewal of our own attitudes and behavior, especially prejudices that might be outwardly or unconsciously projected toward the unchurched. Insomuch that holiness involves a unique and personal faithfulness to how each of us has been created, the witness becomes a testimony that a relationship with God is dynamic and multifaceted. He or she therefore becomes (once again!) an antidote to a false belief that the Christian God demands a one-dimensional image of followers.
Safe spaces for serious subjects
The participants in my study confirmed existing research that young adults value an environment (whether the parish or secular) where they can ask questions without fear or judgment. Therefore, I would suggest Catholics become more receptive to the questions (even the uncomfortable ones!) that young adults have about the faith. At times, the questions are known and can be explicitly articulated; however, questions might also be latent or buried in the subconscious and need to be coaxed out or brought to the surface.
Therefore, instead of a one-way monologue or attempt to convince the unchurched young adult of the “rightness” of our faith, we might gently seek to unpack the rationale for any misunderstandings about the faith. Such a new paradigm, however, might imply a longer conversion period.
Conversations, too, need to be conducted in “safe spaces” where both Christians and the unchurched share views and feelings without judgment. As Matthew explains:
I needed to have a relationship with God, but I needed to be in a trusting environment where I didn't feel threatened or forced, or I didn't have to make a decision that I was uncomfortable with.
Training for pre-evangelization
Because pre-evangelization is not well defined or even discussed in ecclesial circles, I suggest that diocesan religious education departments and seminaries have a vital role in helping educate those in parish leadership to understand pre-evangelization’s distinction from evangelization and catechesis. This distinction implies a definite change in methods.
First, in terms of pre-evangelization at the parish level, I suggest that the gatherings during the pre-catechumenate stage associated with the RCIA might be more organized around dialogue or even unstructured question-and-answer time. The RCIA coordinator becomes a facilitator of dialogue as opposed to an “expert” who lectures. Once the individual has made the public commitment to go further into catechumenate stage, an appropriate level teaching of the faith might begin.
Hence, training of the laity to engage in pre-kerygmatic conversations and respond to questions will be crucial. While I do not suggest that the witness needs to be a theological expert, he or she should be able to respond to rudimentary questions about the faith or at least be able to become a facilitator of where information can be found.
Second, many parishes who are moving into a kind of “mission” mode in evangelization tend to use “tried and true” methods such as video series, mission talks, and book discussions. These can reduce some of the confusion among clergy and laity about how to evangelize. However, by itself, this approach as pre-evangelization tends to become introspective and isolationist. That is, they are based on the premise that unchurched young adults will come to the parish on their own. I suggest that if Catholics do not move beyond the boundaries of the physical structure of their parish to engage with or encounter others, then the Gospel message will be limited to a great number of young adults, especially those who might never step into a neighborhood church.
Third, I have argued that the initial encounter in pre-evangelization will more likely take place in the secular rather than the parish environment. Hence, training of the laity to engage in pre-kerygmatic conversations and respond to questions will be crucial. While I do not suggest that the witness needs to be a theological expert, he or she should be able to respond to rudimentary questions about the faith or at least be able to become a facilitator of where information can be found.
Pre-evangelization as an ecumenical effort
Finally, my study examined various methods and practices of pre-evangelization (e.g., Alpha, L’Abri, Taizé) that cross confessional boundaries. This comparative analysis affirmed that we can all learn from one another, to discern and appreciate the good in one another’s methods.
I suggest that the American Church is already in the middle of a “faith crisis” for young adults that begs most stridently for an ecumenical response and exploration for a future collaboration in efforts toward pre-evangelization. Catholics and Protestants (and Orthodox, for that matter) are facing the same dearth of membership and loss of its young people in the pews and share the same concern for the growing atheism, secularization and materialism that affect youth and young adults.
Hence, I would advocate dialogue among Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants to recognize the great diversity of methods in which pre-evangelization takes place in accordance with new ways and languages according to the audience. In line with the Vatican Council document Unitatis Redintegratio, we can seek to move more toward of an “exchange of gifts” rather than a retreat into denominational silos. (6)
The Spirit sends us forth
In conclusion, I wish to emphasize that there is no panacea or single method of pre-evangelization that will attract unchurched young adults to the Catholic Church. Despite what I believe is a tendency of American parishes to want to categorize and even compartmentalize young adults for the purpose of implementing a “package program,” (7) pre-evangelization at its best will continue to be more effective if it is approached on an individual basis and attentive to the diversity of the audience.
Fortunately, we have a great advocate and protagonist in the Holy Spirit, who continually drives us in new and creative directions. May we stay open and docile to the Spirit’s leading as we prepare hearts and minds to be able and ready to receive the Gospel.
- See Chapter Five, pp. 167-185 in Tim Buechsel, ‘One size fits all? Uncovering multiple conversion avenues for effective evangelism’, Doctor of Ministry dissertation. Paper 44 (2013) http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/dmin/44 Accessed 23 November 2018.
- Barna Group, ‘Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong’, February 5, 2019. https://www.barna.com/research/millennials-oppose-evangelism/. Accessed April 24, 2019.
- Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study noted a trend among young Catholics to find faith “incompatible with what they are learning in high school or at the university level” together with a “desire among some of them for proof, for evidence of what they’re learning about their religion and about God.” See Matt Hadro, ‘Why Catholics are Leaving the Faith by Age 10 and What Parents can do About It’, in Catholic News Agency (5 September 2016).
- Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), p. 4.
- John Swinton and Harriet Mowat, Practical Theology and Qualitative Research, 2nd edition (London: SCM Press, 2016), p. 6.
- Vatican Council II, Unitatis Redintegratio: Decree on Ecumenism, in Austin Flannery, ed., Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1980), §§28-29.
- See Laura Niemann Anzilotti, “Evangelization: Three Contemporary Approaches,” pp. 28-49, in Thomas Rausch, ed., Evangelizing America (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), p. 35.