We've got Spirit! Learning from evangelicals

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Article Ecumenical & Interfaith Dialogue Young Adults
Catholics can learn a thing or two from our evangelical sisters and brothers.

On a Thursday night last September, Scott Sroda found himself at Primetime, a weekly program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ. Sroda, a freshman and a Catholic from Janesville, Wisconsin, tagged along with a sophomore friend from home who was also Catholic but who had been in a Crusade Bible study the year before.

"I really liked it," says Sroda, 18. He met other new students, enjoyed the speaker, and was introduced to praise and worship music, which he liked immediately.

The following Sunday the two friends went to the 6 p.m. Mass at St. Paul's University Catholic Center, where Sroda got a second dose of praise and worship songs. At the end of Mass the music leader announced that anyone who wanted to join the choir should talk with him. Sroda's friend, a guitar player, dragged Sroda up with him to find out about joining. "I never would have done that on my own," says Sroda, but because he used to sing in his parish's children's choir with his younger brother and sister, he knew that being in the choir would keep him going to Mass.

A few days later, two upperclassmen from Campus Crusade stopped by Sroda's dorm room to say hi and invite him to pizza and Bible study. He appreciated how they looked him in the eye and actually seemed interested in how he was doing. "They're very genuine-and it's nice to have friends that first week," says Sroda. When his hometown friend heard who the Bible study leader would be-his own leader from the year before, a good guy-he encouraged Sroda to go.

It turned out three other guys in Sroda's Bible study-out of six total-were also Catholic. "It surprised me," says Sroda, but he knew part of their reason for being there was probably the same as his own. That first week of college, when extracurricular possibilities seem endless, what really made a difference was the personal touch. "Their initial coming to my room and befriending me was a critical point when I could have gone either way. And that's something Catholics could learn a lot from."

Catholic wasteland

Sroda's story is not unique. Jason Simon, executive director of the Evangelical Catholic, a Catholic organization that works to develop sustainable spiritual renewal to campus ministries, parishes, and dioceses nationwide, estimates that of the 500 or so college students who attend Primetime each week at the Madison campus, as many as half-or more-were raised Catholic. "Some of these students don't feel like they've ever encountered Christ in the Catholic Church," says Simon.

While it's likely that every parent, pastor, and youth- and young-adult minister of both Christian traditions have concerns about keeping teenagers and young adults in the fold, it seems that evangelical Protestants, on average, do a better job of it than Catholics. A glance into evangelical churches and organizations provides countless examples of 15-to-35-year-olds doing everything from leading music teams and Bible studies to publishing books and planting churches.

"Some of the most vibrant movement [in the evangelical world] is happening among young people," says Shane Claiborne, a 34-year-old Christian author and activist whom CNN dubbed one of "the next evangelicals."

By comparison, the Catholic landscape looks a bit bleak. "Being a Catholic teenager does not portend solid engagement in religious practices in the emerging adult years," writes Christian Smith in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford). The book, released in September 2009, presents a new set of data from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) that was collected from 18- to 23-year-olds who had previously been surveyed by NSYR as 13- to 18-year-olds.

Smith, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, points out that nearly 20 percent more young adult evangelical Protestants report strong affiliations with a religious tradition than do their Catholic counterparts, and young adults who leave the Catholic Church tend not to join other churches, as erstwhile young adult evangelicals do.

Young adult Catholics in the study also reported less frequency than the evangelicals in the following categories: prayer, observing a weekly day of rest, participating in a religious music group or choir, sharing their own religious faith with someone not of faith, and attending religious education classes.

The "E" word

So what can Catholics who care about youth and young adults do? Three strategies that have proven successful for evangelicals-although by no means their sole domain-may be the best place for Catholics to start, or to revisit: building relationships, creating a culture of conversion and discipleship, and teaching young people how to tell their faith stories.

First, though, it's no secret that the word evangelical can be a turnoff for some Catholics. Simon recalls how a Catholic campus ministry staff member at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill admitted she was initially hesitant about working with the Evangelical Catholic because, she said, "I'm afraid you're trying to get people to be so bold in their faith that they turn into the Pit Preacher"-a fire-and-brimstone extremist who preached for decades in a UNC courtyard where students gather.

"Too often the word evangelical implies close-minded, in-your-face fundamentalism and coercion," says Simon. "It just means that we're about the Good News. It should really be a unifying word."

A distinctively Catholic understanding of the word, Simon suggests, can be found in Pope Benedict's 2005 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love): "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."

One other crucial point expressed by every source for this story: The primary factor in helping young people develop a vibrant faith life is for parents to do the same.

Long-term relationships

For Brian Katauskas, a high school youth minister at Northland, A Church Distributed, a nondenominational congregation of 12,000 that worships at sites throughout Central Florida and online, relationship is the key element of his ministry. "You can't have influence without relationship," he says.

Katauskas, 31, grew up in Northland and was especially influenced by his youth minister, Vernon Rainwater. Katauskas interned in Northland's youth ministry program for two and a half years during high school and college and worked closely with Rainwater.

"The things I remember Vernon teaching me were themes in his life, not just talks he gave . . . he taught me what it means to be a man after God's heart, how I should treat girls, how there are two types of people: One who walks into a room and says, ‘Here I am,' and the other, who walks in and says, ‘There you are.'"

In his current job, Katauskas says, "The overarching theme of everything we do in student ministries is relationship." That might seem daunting in such a large congregation, but small groups and a "service boot camp" for ninth-graders help make it possible. Also, early in the year the student ministries staff interviews each student that is currently involved in or considering a leadership position to help them see how God has gifted them and how they should use those gifts.

"We're huge believers in student leadership," Katauskas says. "[We're about] equipping, encouraging, and challenging students to love God and love others every day and everywhere." To that end, youth at Northland play in the band, lead worship, and serve as mentors for younger students.

"There's no doubt it's messy," he adds. "High school students are going to screw up. But we can walk with them in grace and mercy and confession. And when students leave here, they have these leadership experiences." Not surprisingly, Katauskas reports that a significant number of students who come out of Northland go into full-time ministry.

Ultimately, all those relationships should help orient students toward the main relationship they need to cultivate, Katauskas says: "We really want people to be in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Engage and energize

"Our parishes have a culture of involvement," says Jason Simon. "We're happy if a lot of youth show up to an event. That's not what evangelicals are satisfied with, and we shouldn't be either." Simon recalls when he was in graduate school at Notre Dame: "We'd have great retreats, and hundreds of students would come and experience this new horizon in Christ." But the retreat would end, and there'd be no clear occasion to go deeper. A culture of discipleship, however, would give young people apprenticeship opportunities.

"It's such a missing piece in the church, and it could be implemented quickly," says Simon. "Even if the youth minister picked out 10 youth who really got it . . . you've got to start somewhere. A lot of times we're trying to make a big, comprehensive program when really it's just relational." Basic topics like personal prayer, scripture, and sacraments would fit the bill.

Parents should recognize that conversion and discipleship are unlikely to happen in religious education classes alone. Father William J. O'Malley, S.J. has taught religion for 44 years, most recently at Fordham Preparatory School in New York City, and knows well the challenges of teaching religion, even to students who attend religion class every day. First and foremost: "You have no religion unless you have a person-to-person connection to God-because religare means connection."

O'Malley has raised concerns about the U.S. bishops' 2007 core curriculum document for high school students, Doctrinal Elements of a Curriculum Framework for the Development of Catechetical Materials for Young People of High School Age. "They've substituted formulas and catechism answers for an experience of God. . . . No one is converted at the end of a catechism."

Part of the problem with the document, O'Malley says, is its lack of contributions from high school religion teachers-people on the front line. "You've got to know the audience. High school religion teachers are salespeople. The Framework presumes interest, which is death. In fact, it presumes faith. You need to know where the audience's resistance is, where they're capable of being seduced. Religious ed should be seductive." And that, he says, is where evangelicals get it right: "Evangelicals use music and enthusiasm and go for the gut. They go with their heart, for the heart."

High school religion teachers-and all adults-need to take a cue from evangelicals here, O'Malley suggests. "We should be an appealing contradiction. [Students] don't feel like they're missing anything-who needs God when you've got a cell phone? My primary job is to make them wonder why I'm happier than they are; to make them wonder what I know that they don't."

One thing young evangelicals do exceedingly well is engage and create popular culture through the lens of discipleship. Christian music is one example, but so is an organization like Relevant Media Group , which publishes Relevant magazine and several websites, including one dedicated to social justice and one "for leaders, innovators, and frontliners who are shaping the future of the church."

Cameron Strang founded the company in 2000 when he was just 24, and Roxanne Wieman, 28, took the helm as editorial director last year after moving from Christianity Today.

"We try really hard to take a whole-life perspective," she says. "God isn't only relevant on Sunday. The way we process media and see redemption or beauty in it is different because we're Christians. Our relationship with God is relevant to how we approach our family and relationships and the stewardship of our money. Every part of life is subject to Christ." Their perspective holds sway with readers-circulation is over 82,000.

What's your story?

Years ago, when Jason Simon worked as a parish youth minister, he interviewed candidates for confirmation and noticed how textured some of their stories were about personal encounters with Christ. He heard how some teenagers felt Jesus' love at their first communion, his forgiveness at their first reconciliation, and how, despite having divorced parents, they had been reassured in prayer of the care of their heavenly Father.

But Simon also noticed the awkwardness many had about telling their stories. "They certainly had never articulated it to anybody," he says. "Teaching a young person how to tell his or her own story of faith and conversion is a really powerful thing. That way, when their friends are bummed out or don't have the meaning they desire in their lives, they can share their own story of encountering the new horizon and Good News of Christ."

Back in Madison, Scott Sroda got a crash course in just that. He continued along with his Campus Crusade Bible study for several months last fall, despite some questions about evangelical terminology. He remembers when his leader asked him to write his personal testimony about receiving Christ. Sroda balked. "I really felt pulled in two different directions-it seemed like it was either the Bible or the Catholic Church."

His leader suggested he read a gospel that week, and they'd revisit the testimony at their next meeting. Sroda picked Matthew. That Sunday he read through chapter 5, the Beatitudes, and stopped to go to Mass. The gospel that night was from Matthew 5. The same thing happened that Wednesday with Matthew 10, which he read before going to Mass that night. "It correlated exactly. I had been praying for a sign, and this was like two giant slaps in the face!"

And then there was the Bible study where he disagreed with some group members about who goes to heaven-only people who had accepted Jesus? Their discussion continued over a long, emotional dinner. "This was the first time I actually couldn't believe something they were saying. I mean, how do you know that Gandhi went to hell? It was like a stab in my heart."

Sroda went back to his room, mad and unsettled. "I prayed really hard that night, just-‘If this is true, God, please help me understand. Please give me a sign. I want to know and love you more.'"

The next morning Sroda went on Facebook and saw a message about a meeting that he'd been putting off-a one-on-one at St. Paul's with a peer mentor named John: "Let's do that meeting at 1:00 today." Sroda went and told John about the discussion the night before, and listened as John explained the Catholic understanding of who goes to heaven. "For the first time in my life, I felt like I was meant to be Catholic," he says.

John encouraged Sroda to go to AlphaOmega-a sort of Catholic Primetime-that night. He did. "I signed up for the new person raffle and won a Koinonia retreat," he says. Later that evening they had Eucharistic adoration, which was the first of many times Sroda would take part.

"I got these crazy goose bumps. I was just totally at peace and totally happy-All I could say was thank you, God, for showing me . . . it was like God was just holding me. It was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had."

Sroda says he's solidly attached to the church now, but he's also grateful for his experience with Campus Crusade, for the friendship and encouragement they offered and the challenge to understand and articulate his own relationship with God. "It's been a huge blessing," he says. And he likes the idea of Catholics and evangelicals collaborating when possible, with volunteer projects or worship services or special events.

"How are we Catholics going to spread the love of the Eucharist and the church if we aren't open to trying new things and learning from evangelicals? People in Crusade fall in love with Jesus, but what they don't realize is that he is literally physically present here on earth. If they truly understood this, I think the world would be set on fire with his love radiating out of other people."

This article appears in the May 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 5, pages 24-28).

Image: Tom Wright