The 2011 Millennial Impact Report revealed that only 37% of millennials interviewed had not volunteered in the previous calendar year. A 2015 AP-GFK poll revealed that millennials were 10% more likely to value community service and volunteering as “very important” than those of the same age in 1984. Couple these findings with sociologists Christian Smith’s and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s categorization of the beliefs of young people as moralistic therapeutic deism in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, and we see that in Gospel centered service work, the Church has a unique opportunity to correct misunderstandings about who God is and invite millennial Catholics into deeper relationship with him.
Catholic millennials range in age from 23 to 38 years old. Many are likely to be or will become the parents of the children in faith formation programs in the parish or Catholic school. Presenting opportunities for service to appeal to this demographic within your community can boost engagement and vibrancy within your parish or school.
Serving those living on the margins provides occasion for helping millennial Catholics deepen their faith and embark on a journey toward discipleship.
Somehow, as a school, we’ve decided to capitalize on this, and frankly, participation in service projects is frequently the gateway to student’s involvement in Campus Ministry and the spiritual life of the school. I believe deeply that if we as a Church adopt this model with millennials, gen x’ers and gen y’ers, we will see more engagement in the rest of the parish’s programs. This actually isn’t even that different from what drew people to Jesus. Often, disciples would encounter Jesus healing the blind, curing the sick, or raising the dead, and then follow. The way Jesus served others was so radical it made tons of people want to know him. We should follow the same example.
There are few caveats though. I think the biggest mistake we can make in this opportunity we have as a Church is making service opportunities feel like something secular or separate from the liturgical and spiritual life of the parish. The most important thing we must consider in using service as the gateway to conversion and engagement is that service and social justice activities must be grounded in prayer and the Gospel. Participants must understand that the service they do as Christians is different than the service they do as scouts or members of a public school community. We must communicate the why, and the why is very different. We can’t have Christian Service separate from the Gospel, because the Gospel is where Jesus calls us to go out and love our neighbor. Catholic young adults can perform meaningful service in the Peace Corps or other social organizations, but that’s not where they’ll find God necessarily, so we have to set ourselves apart.
In our school, we’ve found success in doing this by grounding service in the Sacraments and prayer. We pray together before every service activity or event. We invite students to pray for those we serve in Eucharistic Adoration before we go out to serve. We end events often with Mass together.
The other thing I believe it’s important to put emphasis on in order to have service and social justice activities open the door to conversions for younger generations, is face to face service. Millennials are deeply interested in connection with other people. Maybe its because we’re inundated with virtual relationships and frequently our connections are an inch deep and a mile wide. For that reason, inviting participants into service opportunities where they will experience proximity to the poor, the struggling, or the marginalized can be extremely effective in having them encounter Christ. This shouldn’t surprise us though; this is exactly where Jesus has always been. These are the people he spent his time with. We should expect to meet him if we spend our time there too.
In addition to offering opportunities for service, you can make further inroads by selecting programs and resources that make service part of the religious education experience. You'll find this appeals to Catholic parents and young adults as well as school-age children.
Ready to dive in? Get your community ready by planning a prayer service to kick off your service initiatives. Inspire participants with Scripture as they reflect on the Beatitudes. Include an anointing of the hands about to serve others. Pray for the needs of your participants, your community, and the world. Download a Service Kickoff Prayer Service to use in your community before service events or initiatives.
Interested in increasing your parish's or school's vibrancy by boosting engagement with young parents and young adults? Watch the Social Justice and the Millennial Church webinar to learn ways pastoral workers can capitalize on the millennial interest in service and volunteerism and form programs that help ground participants in the Gospel command to “love our neighbor.”
Sarah Shutrop is the Director of Formation for Immaculate Heart Academy in the Archdiocese of Newark. She oversees the spiritual life of the school and formation of its students. She also coordinates the school’s service program, in which over 1,000 students have participated in the last 4 years. More than 200 of Sarah’s students have been recognized with the Presidential Service Award for their dedication to community service. She holds an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and was recently featured as a presenter for Notre Dame & the USCCB’s pre-synodal conference, “Culture of Formation.” She resides in Northern New Jersey with her husband Kevin, her infant son Luke, and their dog Jacqueline.