Gap Years: Missing Young Adults Between Graduation and Marriage
A “gap year” between high school and college is supposed to be a time to “find oneself” and mark the important transition from young person to young adult. Unfortunately, as a Church, we have created our own “divide.” There is little to nothing present for young adults once they get past high school. This is the post-high school (even post Confirmation) gap that exists until marriage. It’s killing the Church. So, how did we get here?
We relied too much on national culture: We assumed that, as it had been true for centuries, young people will continue to live in cultural enclaves where much of their customs and ways of life were dictated by past religious principles. This meant that the faith would pass on in the same way that family recipes did. But then, people became more mobile, communication became more accessible, and cultures became intermingled. Suddenly, people had to choose faith, and we weren’t prepared for that.
We missed the marriage train: When the gap that existed between high school and settling into a family was simply a couple of years, we were much more likely to see people stay connected to faith and faith communities. But over the last fifty years the average age of marriage has continued to rise. Our church celebrates enough weddings to know about this, but we just didn’t actually do anything about this.
We went eggs all in one basket: In the 60s and 70s, there was a growing movement around youth ministry to high school-aged youth because Sociology and Psychology were telling us that those years were identity-forming years. But, as any investor likes to say, “Diversify, diversify, diversify.” Youth ministry has done some incredible work, but if you’re only gonna pick the early ripening fruit, you’re gonna miss a lot of the harvest.
So, what do we do now? Let me offer a few suggestions:
- Do not lose them in the relationship shuffle
Young adults are transient. They go to college somewhere else, get a job somewhere else, bounce from place to place for years. That can make them hard to keep track, but we have to try. It’s what I like to call passing the relational baton from one Catholic parish, campus ministry, etc to another. No other institution on earth could do this the way we could if we tried.
- Embrace transitional community
Often as a geographically centered ministry we want those we minister to circle around the physical place, such as our parish, that gives definition to our community. Since many young adults don’t fit this pattern we either count it as too hard or not worth our effort to invest if they’ll be gone within a couple years if not a couple of weeks. Yet we can embrace what it means to have young adults who are experiencing a great amount of flux. We can offer to help pair roommates together, plan welcome and goodbye parties, and create virtual communities that leave people connected no matter where their bed is currently located in proximity to the parish.
- Use language that is not just for families
I love families. They are great. So great, in fact, that I have one that I helped to start! But often I go to church and all I hear about, or read about in the bulletin, or see bringing up the gifts, are families. As the Church is rightfully focusing on the importance of the family we must be aware that for a young adult who doesn’t consider himself or herself to be living out of their immediate family and hasn’t started their own, may not respond to a parish that only talks about families. By the time they fit into that category, they are already out of our churches.
These gap years have left many of our current young adults without a faith-based community and, when people no longer belong, they are much more likely to not believe. We must step in to the gap that we as a society have created to announce the Kingdom of God to a group of people who want to find themselves by finding Jesus. And do it before they get married.
What are some ways that your parish can “bridge the gap”?
We used to speak often of the need to see our teenagers in roles that make them visible to the parish community and their peers. Lectors, Extraordinary Ministers of Communion, Ushers, Pastoral Council, etc. The question we need to ask ourselves is: “Are we lifting up our young adults in the same way?” If the answer is ‘no’ we need to change that in our parish culture. If we aren’t cultivating visible and practical leadership in the young adult community we are only contributing to the problem of disconnect and disillusionment.