Gen Z: The Loneliest Generation

I’ve written many times about the research from Springtide Research Institute here at Transform Your Parish. Today I want to share about a challenge they’re doing this summer for leaders who want to help young people find a place where they belong. The team at Springtide has focused much of their research on Loneliness and Belonging, which you can see a summary of at that link.

Additionally, this weekend I started reading The Gifts of Imperfection to discuss with a friend. Dr. Brené Brown begins this book with a definition of belonging that I find supports this research very well so I’m going to share it as support for this challenge.

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

The Gifts of Imperfection, pg 37

So what does this mean for embracing young people in our parishes?

I think it means that when we are seeking to provide a place where young people belong it’s more than just “having an event” or “doing a program.” It’s about getting to know a young person, finding out who they are, building trust, and inviting them into relationship with the Lord through His Church.

We can use programming or activities to help to facilitate this, but they are just a means to where we’re going, not the final destination. When I was a young youth minister, I was evaluated based on the number of people who attended my programs – like many young ministers are – but I think this is the wrong approach. It’s really about the quality of our programs and how they are inviting young people into a lifelong relationship with the Lord as they become His disciples. It’s a little harder to quantify than counting the number of youth who attend a program. But there are a few ways I think we can evaluate well.

  1. Trusted Adults who are actively involved. This is one of the things that Springtide speaks of often. A trusted adult is someone who notices, names, and knows a young person. They are there to answer questions, share their own experience when necessary, and fundamentally – to be present for the young person.
  2. Invite young people to be part of the planning. This seems obvious, but it’s not something most parishes do. Invite the people you’ll be ministering to into the conversation about how you will minister to them. Be sure to include young people who currently attend and those who do not attend.
  3. Include multiple touch points throughout the year for young people who attend and those who aren’t involved yet. These might include birthday cards, baptismal day cards, Christmas or Easter cards, a note during finals week or midterms, back to school, New Year’s, etc. These notes might include a small gift of a prayer card, a connection to someone in the parish who’s praying for them by name, a free coffee or ice cream at a local place, a sticker, or something else that’s unique to your parish.

The final piece of advice I have for you is that you’re in the seed planting & fertilizing business, not the tree growing business when it comes to young people. This means that you will most likely not see the fruits of your labors in full during your ministry. You’re inviting people into relationship – and those take quite some time to build. Fruit takes a while to grow – so be patient with your efforts – course correct when necessary, but don’t assume something isn’t working because it doesn’t have immediate results.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ
excerpted from Hearts on Fire

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