A few years ago, my husband and I moved to a different city. As we were settling in, I saw a colleague at a meeting who asked how the transition was going. I explained that things were going well, but that since I travel so often, it was difficult to get connected in our new parish. A year later, I saw the same colleague who, hearing almost the same response from me about travel and difficulties in connecting at the parish, said, "It seems they are very warm and welcoming but just don't know what to do with you." That seems to me to capture much of what young adults meet in many parishes. We smile, welcome them, and hope that they will stay, but we "don't know what to do with them."
As Church, we tend not to know what to do with people who come with perceptions or questions that are uncomfortable or not our own. We expect everyone to develop spiritually in the same ways we have, largely through participation in Mass, with an occasional parish mission or retreat as a boost during Advent or Lent.
As parish practice is now, most young adults (let's face it, most adults, period) find little to honor their stage of life, their unique talents and gifts, and their desire to live an integrated life with little contradiction between faith and daily living. In the words of David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group: "They [younger adults] see spirituality as connected to all of their life, not a compartment within their life. We need bridges between Monday-to-Friday and Sunday."
As I mentioned in the earlier post on engaging young adults, I believe those bridges begin in relationship, or put more plainly, in friendship. We cannot force people to be friends, of course, but we can intentionally find ways to reach out to people, welcome them among us, give them opportunities to be with us and with others, invite them to share their hopes and dreams, their concerns and questions, their desire to understand, without judgment, with mercy.
One of the things people often miss about engagement is that it is about creating an environment of growing faith. The research points to specific factors that help to build such an environment, and those factors often surprise people (clarifying expectations always seems an uncommon place to begin, for example). The reality is that such an environment helps people to open their minds and hearts to God's love and to Jesus' call to discipleship. Engagement is not an end in itself, but rather the way in which we may grow together as Christian people, leading one another, and all who come to us, toward a deep relationship with Christ, lived out in mission.
There is much more to think about here, but for now, let me close with one last thought. The bridges we build as individuals strengthen the parish community, creating that more engaging and evangelizing environment. It seems simple, and in some ways it is. To whom might we build a bridge today?