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Stewardship speakers examine faith practices of millennials

10 10.12.17_MILLENNIALS PAGEJason Caywood of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Salt Lake City, listens during one of the morning workshops Sept. 19 at the International Catholic Stewardship Council’s annual conference in Atlanta. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

October 12, 2017
Andrew Nelson
Catholic News Service

ATLANTA – With two youngsters in tow for Sunday Mass, things can get forgotten, like cash, which Ryan Johnson admitted he rarely carries.

He’d love the option to use his mobile phone to donate to a cause at the parish on the spur of the moment.

“We like cashless, paperless, checkless,” said Johnson, a millennial Catholic. The family gives money to the church with an automatic electronic check from his bank.

Faith is so important to him that the 35-year-old Johnson knits it together with his career as an energy engineer by nurturing a network of Catholic young professionals with Catholic Charities Atlanta that he hopes to see grow.

Ryan and his wife, Caroline, 30, joined St. Ann Church in Marietta, selecting from five nearby parishes in part because they can use their phones to read its website, keep up to date with parish news by reading an electronic newsletter, and interact with the 2,500 Facebook followers.

“You want to feel like, if I am talking about the parish, the parish is listening. If I’m commenting sometimes (on the Facebook page), I want an answer. I want to be engaged,” Johnson told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

The leading edge of millennial-age believers is marrying and starting families. Parishes preparing for the future will evolve to meet the habits of this group, said a panel of four Atlanta millennials at the International Catholic Stewardship Council conference.

The conference drew some 1,100 to Atlanta Sept. 17-20. Church workers and priests attended scores of workshops during those four days on drawing people into a richer faith life.

Panels sharing insights on connecting with this digital native generation, who recently outnumbered baby boomers in the national population, were well attended at the conference.

Churches need to be aware of trends to serve those born after 1980 in effective ways. These young adults use technology to streamline their lives, using mobile payment apps instead of cash, are passionate about issues and want to engage with an authentic and personalized community.

Millennials are increasingly important as they move into adulthood and start families, said Father Andrew Kemberling, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Denver. The church must train this age group as good stewards since parents are the most generous of its members, he said.

Stewardship is “a way of life for people,” said Father Kemberling, chairman of the International Catholic Stewardship Council. “We want to offer the best of our tradition. We are not going for the dollars. We are going for evangelizing. The point is to save souls.”

Audience members anxious to draw these young adults into the pews and schools left the conference rethinking old ways.

Carol English, who works at St. Joseph School in Marietta, wants these young men and women to think about Catholic schools for their children. But after hearing that mass-marketing pitches fail, she said the school needs to rethink its outreach toolbox.

“We do have to make our online presence a higher priority, above and beyond,” English said, after learning how this tech-savvy generation lives online and relies on social media.

Schools and parishes could rethink events to appeal to millennial interests, replacing an afternoon of golf with a social event, for example, featuring craft beer and food, she said.

In Marietta, St. Ann Church made an investment in 2012 and again in 2016 to hire professionals to design the parish website, said Graham Kuhn, who is responsible for parish communications.

“You shouldn’t have to lower your standards to look at a Catholic church website,” he said in a phone interview.

A site needs to be attractive, engaging and informative to draw people in, he said.

“Our whole angle on everything is we are focused on building for the future,” said Kuhn.

The parish Facebook page can serve as a community bulletin board. Kuhn’s policy is to respond to all comments. When a parishioner who had a bad experience with a ministry posted it online, she received a call and visit from a pastoral staff person to talk, he said. And other parishioners offered words of encouragement.

Kuhn said he sees that as a strength of social media, when parishioners respond to people’s comments to “heal wounds and build unity.”

Retaining Catholic millennials is increasingly a challenge. The number of people who identify as having no religious affiliation continues to rise. Fewer people in their 20s and 30s are interested in the Catholic Church. In 2014 the Pew Research Center found only 16 percent of millennials called themselves Catholic versus 23 percent of baby boomers.

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