What is with kids these days: Engaging a New Generation

by Father James Gross

“Engaging a New Generation: A Vision for Reaching Catholic Teens” by Frank Mercadante. 2012.

“Maybe the spiritual vitality of your parish is best described as on ‘artificial life support.’ Don’t despair.” These encouraging words are evidence of a surprisingly wide-ranging book from a long-time Catholic youth minister and consultant, Frank Mercadante. Engaging a New Generation was released several years ago, yet the book astutely captures recent trends and draws widely from sociological data and surveys. Using these resources and decades of ministry experience, Mercadante illustrates the changes in the landscape of youth ministry that a Catholic of any age will find instructive.

For one thing, well-meaning youth ministers might become frustrated with what appears to be a lack of interest or momentum in the students and families they now serve. There is frequently the temptation of “begging, pleading, and tearfully imploring from the pulpit” and “to resort to inducing guilt, and finally threatening to shut down the whole program if someone — anyone (with a pulse) — doesn’t volunteer!”

Also, those who grew up in the 1970s or 1980s might project their own memories of adolescence upon today’s young people. Mercadante urges his readers not to dismiss these differences, but to drill down and understand them better. A common title attributed to today’s young people is Millennials —those born between 1981 and 1996. Some social scientists have coined the term of “Homelanders” for the newest generation: children born after Sept. 11, 2001, who have not known life before then. Young people at the front of the Homelander generation will be graduating from high school next spring! This shows how much the landscape has shifted in only a few years.

What are some of the most obvious differences Mercadante has observed? For one thing, Baby Boomers (born 1946–64) and Generation Xers (born 1965–80) tended to create space from the framework of family and home life, which they often found stifling. On the other hand, Millennials are more likely to value time spent with their parents and are more willing to cite their mothers and fathers as role models and even “heroes.” Consequently, the default format that older generations set up for today’s teens may not be the best fit for them. Mercadante puts it this way: “An isolated youth group, marooned from adults, meeting in a semi-remodeled bomb shelter/youth room, and led by a couple of charismatic adults is simply not enough to produce a concentrated, potent form of teenage discipleship in today’s culture.”

Here are some of the main themes I took away from Mercadante’s analysis: 1. Effective catechesis of today’s youth has to involve not only the head (poring over the Catechism), but the heart (emotional investments) and the hands (acts of service). 2. Youth ministry needs to be integrated meaningfully into the lives of families: “We need to be on the side of parents. Seeing them as a ‘problem’ is never a solution.” 3. We best serve our teens by also integrating them into the wealth of the parish community and the experiences of its members. Mercadante advises that “we must transition from running independent, separate ministries, to an approach that recognizes the interdependencies of all of parish life, with discipleship of all parishioners as a common goal.” And again, “Teens can’t help but feel loved by the community when members invest so much in their lives. They can’t help but feel an important part of the community when their gifts contribute to the overall life of the parish.”

Don’t let the narrow scope of the title fool you; Engaging a New Generation provides food for thought for Catholics of every generation who long not to keep their treasure of faith buried in the ground but to share it far and wide.

Father Gross is the pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Grand Forks.