Book notes: Books reveal truths about young adults

Book notes: Books reveal truths about young adults

By Fr. Kevin Nadolski O.S.F.S.

A NUMBER OF RECENT BOOKS examine the role of faith, church, religion and spirituality in the 20-and 30-something Americans that vocation ministers largely engage as future religious. David Kinnaman’s UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters (Baker Books, 2007) and Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton, 2007) both provide dense, though helpful, sociological assessments of this demographic. The latter offers an especially fine consideration on the role of technology in their faith life.

Despite the scholarship and insight of these two books, the vocation minister may appreciate the more accessible books, Mike Hayes’ Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in Their 20s and 30s (Paulist Press, 2007) and Christian Piatt and Amy Piatt’s My Space to Sacred Space: God for a New Generation (Chalice Press, 2007). These two books look more directly and more quickly at the people they are studying, frequently with interviews, anecdotes and case studies that bring similar data of the other young adult books to life.

Both Hayes and the Piatts approach their subjects from their firsthand experiences of pastoring growing communities of young adults, and they are generous in sharing the challenges and triumphs of their work. While this is a common strength of both books, there is a key difference in their perspectives that vocation ministers may want to consider prior to choosing which text to read. Hayes’ context is the Roman Catholic tradition; the Piatts’ is Protestant. While they both shed great light on the groups they study, this difference touches on a number of issues that each book addresses. From the power of symbol and significance of story to the role of authority and image of God, the treatment of these topics varies dramatically.

Nevertheless, the Piatts’ book can still offer strong insights to the Catholic vocation minister. For example, they offer a thorough analysis on Americans’ image of God and connect it to political leanings and identifications. Whereas sweeping generalizations have been made about conservative people in this demographic, these authors offer the distinction that political views of young adults have more to do with their image of God than their specific religion. Minimally, this could generate great conversation among the candidates with whom vocation ministers work, though more importantly it could offer ministers new windows through which to view and engage candidates on issues of God, politics and ideology.

Another contribution that the Piatts provide is some hard data on the financial habits of the young adults they study. A relatively understudied area, the financial choices that this demographic group makes have long-standing implications and consequences for their eventual vocational choices. With more access to credit than any previous generation, today’s young adults have more debt as well. And, it is substantial: “Credit card debt among the youngest adults (those ages eighteen to twenty-four) is $2,985 per month” (p. 70). As most vocation ministers have vowed poverty and strive to live simply, this fact—like others in the book—can help to stave off judgments on individuals and apply these assessments more gently and with some necessary understanding to the generation from which they come.

A chief strength of the non-Catholic perspective was the chapter on vocations and seminary personnel. As the Catholic Church sees fewer women and men choosing consecrated and ordained life and ministries, information from Protestant traditions can be consoling.Nearly all Christian clergies and seminaries are struggling now and will be in the long-term. Approximately five out of every six current clergy leaders will retire by 2025. A weakness of this chapter, however, was its lack of nuance in its treatment of the clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Attributing it to a permissive attitude and lax admission standards seems to ignore the real issue of little to no attention to human formation or affective maturity after candidates were admitted.

For the vocation minister, Hayes’ Googling God really is a trove of necessary information, perspectives and insight into the young adult set. Easily readable and smartly arranged, his presentation offers at least five key points that are essential as vocation ministers seek to understand or reach out to Catholics in their 20s and 30s. First, he makes clear and important distinctions between Generation Xers and the Millennials across spirituality, ideology, ecclesiology, worship and affection for the late Pope John Paul II. Xers search more for community and faith experiences, especially with service. Millennials seek reason and truth, as they received sufficient loving and “special attention” growing up; now, they want the reason behind the mystery of such love. Second, Hayes’ book has a practical treatment of young adults and technology’s impact on their faith, religion and spirituality. What’s more, he gives easy tips for how ministers can use technology to connect with Millennials. With his experience with BustedHalo.com, Hayes is a trusted expert here.

Third, Hayes grounds his treatment in the theology of the Second Vatican Council. At no time does he unfairly stretch its significance, nor does he constrict its impact on all the adults in question. He skillfully weaves the contributions of Karl Rahner into his discussions on Church and spirituality. Fourth, the book presents clear categories that can help vocation ministers to contextualize the people with whom they are working. Building on the work of young adult specialist Father James Bacik, Hayes offers ways to understand at least seven different expressions of Catholicism that young adults seem to consider as they grow. The author then gives case studies for each of these in order to enflesh potential abstractions. A final strength of the book is a collection of “best practices,” though he resists calling them by this name. Vocation ministers on limited budgets could easily improve both their Web page and their electronic communications by following some of Hayes’ recommendations—several of which are free and user-friendly.

Undoubtedly vocation ministry is challenging. Changes in the church, technology, family life and many of the cultures from which candidates come to religious life make this ministry both exciting and exhausting. The questions and experiences young candidates bring can exponentially increase the challenge for vocation ministers. Thankfully, committed ministers and social scientists are beginning to investigate the social, spiritual and personal dimensions of young adults to make the tasks of vocation ministry not only more manageable, but readily enjoyable. The authors of these works have helped greatly.

Father Kevin Nadolski, OSFS is vocation minister for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and a member of the Editorial Board for the National Religious Vocation Conference. He has also ministered as a high school principal and formation advisor.

 



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