Increasingly isolated youth connect to faith through relationship


Young people — including those who are religious — do not see religious leaders as trusted adults, according to a new study.

Only 8% of respondents ages 13-25 who are affiliated with a religious group say they have a trusted religious leader they could turn to if needed.

In contrast, 45% said they could turn to a close adult friend, 35% to a grandparent, and 17% to a teacher, according to the study by Springtide Research Institute.

Informed by more than 150 interviews with study participants, the study’s report released Oct. 20, titled “The State of Religion and Young People,” proposes a new model for youth ministers to build personal connections, encouraging them to practice listening, transparency, integrity, care and expertise, the five dimensions of what it calls “relational authority.”

Data from the 10,516 surveys conducted for the study also indicates that young people who have more adult mentors are more likely to feel a sense of meaning and purpose, and less likely to be lonely.

The study argues that close, trusting mentor-mentee relationships are key to mitigating isolation among youths and having lasting influence in their lives.

One respondent, Felicia, 19, said in her interview, “When I think of belonging, I think of being cared for and having someone show any type of genuine interest in how my life is going.”

“We want to help those who care about young people to care better, and that requires a really clear understanding of the issues and challenges that young people are facing,” said Josh Packard, the executive director of Springtide, which grew out of the team from St. Mary’s Press that created 2018’s “Going, Going Gone” survey on young Catholics leaving the church.

Michael Bayer, a former member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Advisory Team on Young Adult Ministry, told NCR he believes the church will only succeed in engaging more young people if parishes hire trained youth ministers who can train laypeople in the art of accompaniment, laid out in Pope Francis’s encyclical Christus Vivit, the post-synodal document after the 2018 synod on young people.

“All the best practitioners I know are huge proponents of relational ministry and not programmatic ministry,” he said.

“The challenge is that the majority of Catholic parishes and dioceses in the United States are not well-equipped to train people for relational ministry.”

“Parishes or dioceses that have hired professionals who can train laypeople in relational ministry have been successful”

This is partly because Catholic ecclesiology emphasizes the sacraments above all else, he said, which can mean practically that parishes and dioceses with limited resources pour money into sacramental celebrations and ensuring that priests are available, instead of investing “financially, materially and temporally” in training people to do long-term relational ministry.

“It’s really easy to pack a group of high schoolers up on a bus and take them to a one-day rally; it’s really hard to train the adults and young adults of your parish to provide ongoing, one-on-one and small group mentorship and accompaniment over the course of their high school years,” Bayer said.

Parishes or dioceses that have hired professionals who can train laypeople in relational ministry have been successful, Bayer said, citing Patrick Rivera’s work as director of young adult ministries in the San Diego Diocese, which has one of the highest percentages of parishes with active young adult groups.

“Bishop [Robert] McElroy invested in full-time professional staff who could go out and could train young adults to do this, and you see the results,” he said. Continue reading

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