Most parents, as well as many Catholic parishes, for that matter, are still using a nineteenth-century pedagogical method to try to reach their young adult children.
The only problem is that their children are immersed in a twenty-first-century world. For these young adults, lecturing and teaching, while still holding a place of value, have taken a backseat to personal experience, personal participation, and welcoming relationships. Like it or not, if we want to reach our young adults, we will have to enter into their world rather than expect them to climb into ours.
The good news is that much of what we see in the postmodern approach of young adults is consistent with the Scripture, with Catholic teaching, and with the way Jesus lived. So rather than arguing through the Ten Commandments or imposing unrealistic expectations on them about the “right way to live,” we would probably do better to highlight the ways that their convictions match the convictions of the Church. Let’s take a look at how we can do this.
A Heart for Service. It seems that many young adults have a social conscience that longs for a just world for everyone. Parents—and parishes, for that matter—can capitalize on that and provide opportunities for them to meet Jesus in his poor and needy. For parents, performing corporal works of mercy with your children and grandchildren can be a wonderful opportunity for conversations. The witness of your own compassion and love for the poor will also have a dramatic impact on your children.
According to John the Baptist, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Words like these appeal to the natural idealism of young people, and they give everyone a chance to encounter the poor and to learn each other’s stories.
Remember, stories matter to young people. Stories can have a greater impact than doctrinal teaching. That’s why working together in a soup kitchen, distributing food and blankets to the homeless, or joining an organization like Habitat for Humanity to build houses can be so valuable.
So make it a point to come together as a family and decide how and where you can reach out together. Come up with a plan, and make it happen.
Building Deeper Family Relationships. Many young adults feel a deep inability to connect with their parents, and many parents feel the same way. Parents who have a controlling, authoritative approach to family run the risk of building walls instead of bridges between themselves and their children—especially if their older children have made choices that their parents disapprove of. Remember, young adults place accompaniment and engagement above authority and doctrine. Those parents who find a balance that emphasizes these virtues will find their children eventually respecting their authority and wisdom as well.
So here are some steps you might try: consult with your children; ask for their input on family matters. Give your children opportunities to answer the question, “What do you think?” Ask them, “How can we be better parents and a better family?” Tell them, “Please know that I love you. I am trying my best, but sometimes I make mistakes.” Tell them that it’s part of life to make mistakes and that you are willing to learn from your mistakes—just as you hope they will learn from theirs.
This doesn’t mean that parents should give away their authority or shirk their responsibility. It doesn’t mean that they and their young adult children are peers and equals. But it does mean that parents have an almost inexhaustible number of opportunities to share their experiences, good and bad; to listen respectfully to their children’s input on family matters; and to let them know that they are honored, treasured, and loved.
Most young adults have an instinctive grasp of the value of authority. If you include them and ask for their input, they will respect your authority much more because it will show them that you view your authority as only one element of your relationship with them. They don’t want to see their parents as rule makers, but as mentors and coaches.
Tell Them Your Stories. Individualism is one of the foundations of postmodern thinking, and an individualistic mind-set tends to be self-determined. It can also lead to a self-centered and self-righteous approach to life. This is particularly true when it comes to the way our older children form their values and beliefs. They can begin to think that everything is subjective and that values and beliefs are relative. That’s why it’s helpful to keep in mind how important relationships and community are to young people. This includes a desire for a meaningful relationship with their parents.
So tell your children stories about your life as you were growing up. Let them hear about your struggles and your feelings—obviously only to the degree that is appropriate. Try to find that balance between being the head of your family and being the most caring, loving, and sincere friend that your children can have.
Pope Francis, the Storyteller. You can learn a lot about reaching young adults by watching Pope Francis at World Youth Day this month. He’ll share his own spiritual encounters, struggles, and breakthroughs with everyone gathered there. He’ll use stories from Scripture and everyday life—and he’ll tell these stories as a way to encourage young people to seek their own personal encounter with Jesus.
To achieve this hope for personal encounter, Pope Francis will tell them about how Jesus embodies God’s great mercy. He’ll do this by focusing on the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (Luke 15). He’ll do it by urging them to encounter this mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And he’ll do it by telling them to treat each other with mercy so that they can find Jesus together.
Francis will also talk about how Jesus embodies God’s goodness. For example, he might talk about the way Jesus did not judge the woman at the well, but filled her with living water (John 4). He might talk about the way Jesus welcomed the corrupt Zacchaeus and happily shared a meal with him (Luke 19:1-10). He might talk about how Jesus did not condemn a woman caught in adultery, rescuing her instead from her accusers’ threats (John 8:1-11). And he might talk about Jesus’ compassion when he wept with Martha and Mary over the death of their brother, Lazarus (11:33-35).
Finally, the Holy Father will talk about how Jesus embodies God’s desire for justice. He may speak about how Jesus wouldn’t allow his enemies to abuse, misguide, or condemn the people. Or he may talk about how Jesus wouldn’t let James and John resort to violence (Luke 9:52-56) or Peter “live by the sword” (Matthew 26:51-54). Or he may talk about how Jesus urges us to serve God and not money (Matthew 6:24).
Find the Connections. It is the role of parents and, to a lesser degree, grandparents to help the young adults in their family come to love Jesus and embrace his gospel message. By focusing on areas that are important to them, even if they seem secondary to you, you can begin to open doors for them. You can help lead them to a deeper, more mature faith and a deeper appreciation for your family.
Young adults are concerned about poverty, social justice, and the environment. They are interested in making the world a better place. Well, the gospel teaches us to love God’s creation and care for the poor and needy. Can you see the connection?
Many young people feel lonely and isolated. They long for authentic relationships and community. The gospel is about being a community of believers who love and care for each other. And what better place for this to happen than in your family? Can you see the connection?
Young adults want spirituality. It may not always be Christian spirituality, but they are searching for answers to the mysteries of life. The gospel is about the One who created all things, loving us, saving us from sin, and opening heaven to us. Can you see the connection?
During Mass, we praise God for the way he never ceases to gather a people to himself (Eucharistic Prayer III). In every age and to every generation, Jesus continues to invite people to come to him and discover his love and redemption. That invitation takes different forms and is spoken in different ways to every generation. Jesus is always looking for the good in people and using that goodness to draw them to his side. Let’s all follow the same strategy as we share the gospel with the young people in our lives.