Tips for Ministering with Young Adults

By B. J. Daly Horell

"What is my life about? Where am I going?" young adults are asking themselves.

"Are we going with them?" is the question Christian faith communities should be asking. (Are we?)

A significant change happens in young people as they move into adulthood. They move from being intensely focused on the present (as late adolescents) to thinking about where their lives are heading and how they’re going to get there (as young adults). And where adults are heading almost always involves two things: work and relationships.

So, how likely are young adults to "take us with them" as they make their way in the world? Two real-life examples may shed light on the question:

  • In 1986, a college senior begins worshiping at the parish in town instead of the college chapel because she "wants to see children and grandparents" in church. But, she complains, "No one talks to me there. Nothing in the prayers connects to my life. And when I look in the bulletin, I see nothing that interests me."
  • In 2008, a young man sees a poster for "Vocations Day." Not finding anything there that has meaning for him he asks, "Where is the single vocation?"

These young people are telling the Church two things: (1) they want to take the Church with them on their life journeys; and (2) ministry with young adults needs to be a more intentional and accessible part of our faith communities. How this happens in your faith community depends, of course, on the young adults you’re ministering with.

The next question we should be asking, then, is "How do we find out what young adults want and need from the Church?" And the answer is quite simple: We ask them. Using census data, surveys, and informal canvassing, we identify the young adults of the community. Then we gather them and invite them to talk about where they're going in life and how the Church can support them. Finally, we involve young adults themselves in ministry planning. Keeping in mind a 3-2-1 formula can help guide the process:

  • 3 "S"s: Social activities, spiritual formation and prayer, service;
  • 2 types of programs: programs that integrate young adults into the life of the faith community, and programs that gather young adults as a peer group;
  • 1 way to be effective: Young adult ministry depends upon young adult leadership.

When you engage young adults in the planning process, you are more likely to show young adults the respect they deserve as adults—nothing turns young adults away faster than being treated like kids. And when you engage young adults in the planning process, you "actively invite and welcome young adults into the life of the Church"—another key feature of effective ministry with young adults. (Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults, p. 2) Finally, when you engage young adults in the planning process, both the process and the ministry that emerges is more likely to honor those key questions young adults are asking: "What is my life about?" and "Where am I going?"

Effective ministry with young adults, then, fosters reflection on how young adults make their way through life. It also introduces them to life practices of the Catholic tradition, such as Christian discernment, that can help them answer these questions in a way that fosters "the personal and communal growth and education of young adults toward a relationship with Jesus Christ leading to Christian maturity." (Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults, USCC p. 28)

Finally, as young adults journey into Christian maturity, they benefit from interacting with Christians of all ages, who remind them of their past and help them envision their future. This is why the U.S. bishops give "a preeminent place" to the parish for ministry with young adults. (Ibid. p. 27) Nothing else we do can have significant impact until parishes integrate into liturgies, homilies, and the very patterns of parish life the concerns that matter most to young adults as they consider: "What is my life about?" and "Where am I going?"