Millennials are moving to the suburbs. Parishes: are you ready?


Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal had an article that unpacked some data which showed that, like generations before them, millennials are finally moving out of the big cities and settling down in the suburbs. The reason seems to do mainly with the search for affordable housing, and this exodus from big cities has led to suburbs being fourteen of the fifteen fastest growing cities in the U.S.

As Catholics, especially those of us who are members or leaders of suburban parishes, we have to look at our communities and ask: are we ready for this? Are we ready to go out to, engage with, and evangelize these millennials?

We do know that millennials crave community. We do know that they are a seeking generation, looking for meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in life. We also know that millennials, of which I am one, are the first fully post-Christian generation. Of those of us who grew up Catholic, only 50% have remained so. For those who left, the average age at which they did so was 13. Additionally, there are no indicators that suggest millenials are going to just find their way back to the Faith.

This means that they are not going to automatically make their way back to our parishes and become active members. The Church is going to have to go find them and make the most of our opportunities to engage them when they do find a brief touch point with our parish. Most of my experiences to date with large suburban parishes is that they are not well-prepared for this influx of a millennial population that might not just be willing to naturally fold themselves into the status quo of parish life.

What can parishes do differently to engage with this group? Below are four principles for parishes to guide their efforts to re-engage and evangelize millennials as they make their way out to a suburb near you.

1. Start with “Why”

As parishes, we have to do a better job of keeping the main thing, the main thing. Too often, we tell people what the Church teaches without showing the connection to the “Why” behind it all: the story of salvation history. The basic Gospel message, that we were created in love, fell away from that love, were restored by Jesus Christ in His life, death, and resurrection, and can live out a new life of authentic freedom in His Catholic Church should be the reference point for everything we do in our parishes. For millennials that see the Church as an institution presenting an outdated philosophy and a repressive morality, we have to do a better job of telling our story and showing them the difference that Jesus Christ makes. They are not going to listen to us just because, “The Church says so.” We have to show them why.

Additionally, intellectual difficulties are a big part of why young people fell away. Don’t shy away from displaying the rational coherence of the faith and addressing the tough questions regarding the intersection of faith and reason.

2. Create Opportunities for Life-on-Life Ministry

Real hospitality and building a sense of belonging for millennial in your parish is about creating occasions for actual life-on-life ministry. Hospitality is not something your parish does; it is something disciples do. Millennials will go where they are loved and welcomed, and they are also inherently mistrustful of institutions. Authentic friendship is the ordinary forum for evangelization and, as parishes, welcoming new millennials into our communities will mean that we need to do a better job of forming the Catholics in our pews to really engage in life-on-life evangelization, building relationships that take an investment of time and go beyond the superficial. More millennials are going to be on-boarded into the life of your parish by sipping bourbon on the back porch of one of your parishioners than they are through a welcoming event in your parish hall.

3. Belonging —> Believing —> Behaving

The end goal of Catholicism is life transformation. Jesus comes to sanctify us completely in our humanity and that means a new way of thinking and acting. To help people get to a place where they are open to this kind of new way of life, however, we have to make sure we do not get the three steps above in the wrong order. We first have to let people know that they BELONG, that we love them regardless of what they have done and where they are currently at in life. Then, as a result of that belonging, they might become more open to BELIEVING that Jesus who He says He is and that the Catholic Church is the one true faith and only then will start to BEHAVE differently. If we have not helped walk them through the first two steps, we cannot expect the kind of life transformation that would normally accompany mature Catholicism.

4. Bring it all: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful

Encounters with the True, the Good, and the Beautiful open people’s hearts to a relationship with a personal God but, as Catholics, we have a tendency to emphasize only the one of these three Transcendentals that “worked” for us, that first moved us to the beginnings of belief. We can start to emphasize one in ministry to the detriment of the others and even can begin to denigrate these pre-evangelistic avenues if they do not fit our preferred path.

If we were moved ourselves by the intellectual richness of the Tradition, we might start to think that if we just tell people what the Church teaches, it will overwhelm their intellects to the point that an assent of faith naturally follows. If we love the goodness displayed in the personal holiness of Catholics who live that faith out in the Church’s mission to love and serve, we could start to act like we should not worry about teaching or beauty because that witness alone is all that matters. If we love beauty, especially in the liturgy, we might start to think that reverent liturgy alone will be enough to evangelize people and show them the truth of Catholicism. Catholicism is always the religion of the “both-and.” As parishes, we witness to the fact that God is real when we display the amazing grandeur of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in their symphonic unity. Parishes who are exceptional about sparking curiosity in unevangelized millennials will reflect deeply on how to show forthall three: the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness of God in their parish life.

Tim Glemkowski