What do American youth want from their Catholic faith? How do Catholic youth describe its impact on their daily living? What factors strongly influence this faith? Recent posts to The Catholic Conversation have pointed to a need for up-to-date, quantitative research on these questions, especially as they are reflected in youth group attendance rates, average age of participants, and the correlation between liturgies designated for youth and youth group participation. These questions press Catholic parents, parish ministers, Church leaders, and all of our readers, in their efforts, as one youth culture analyst describes, to “effectively lead youth through adolescence and into a healthy, God-honoring adulthood.”
The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) conducted a survey relevant to these questions during their biennial youth conference last year, which drew over 20,000 Catholic teenagers and their adult chaperones. The NFCYM survey reflects responses from a sample of 2,011 high school aged Catholic youth from 38 states. The findings may not apply to the wider landscape of American Catholic teens, as the executive summary notes, since the study sample was made up entirely of conference-attending youth. This was a subset of highly enthusiastic and participating Catholic youth, with more than 95 percent stating that being Catholic is important to them. Nonetheless, the factors that have fostered the faith of this engaged group offer insight into which current elements of youth ministry should receive emphasis.
Influencers of Faith
The largest portion of the survey asked youth to rate the level of influence of 30 items or “influencers” on their faith on a scale of one to four (no influence to great influence). These influencers included people, events or programs, and elements of Catholic formation in parish life. Perhaps not surprisingly, religious upbringing was among the more important influencers on Catholic faith.
But an interesting theme emerging from the study is that respondents placed more emphasis on ministry-related experiences outside family life as key “influencers” on their faith development. Respondents attributed much influence to stand-alone events, such as retreats, service experiences, youth conferences, and talks by guest speakers, in their faith formation. These stand-alone experiences, combined with Mass attendance, worship, prayer life, parish membership, and Catholic teachings and beliefs, comprise the ministry-related influences to which youth assigned a strong impact. Indeed, more respondents identified ministry experiences as strong influencers on their faith than cited relationships with individuals.
Approaches to Catholic Youth Ministry
The fact that these highly engaged teens attributed more influence to ministry-related experiences reaffirms the vital role of parish youth ministry in the faith formation of youth. Of course, the setting in which respondents took the survey, during or close to the time of the NCYC conference, should be considered, since this setting itself is one type of ministry-related experience. Nonetheless, the results suggest that providing opportunities for formative spiritual experiences and encouraging teens’ participation in parish life is critical to current youth ministry approaches, even when their faith is also being fostered in family life.
This approach should not diminish the role of family in the faith formation Catholic youth. Other research has demonstrated the strong correlation between the importance of religious faith in teenagers and its importance for their parents. Interestingly, in this survey, youth who stated that their Catholic faith had been important to them for a long time were more likely to cite factors within family life, such as their parents and religious upbringing, as influential on their present faith. Conversely, those who stated that being Catholic had recently become important more often cited factors outside of family life as having greater influence. This points to the special importance of parish life and youth ministry programs for youth with less religious upbringings, but does not diminish their importance in the faith formation of youth from more religious upbringings as well.
The USCCB puts forth three interdependent goals of Catholic youth ministry: to empower young people to live as Christian disciples in the world, to draw them to responsible participation in the Church’s life, and to foster each one’s personal and spiritual growth. Research like the NFCYM survey is critical for equipping youth ministers to pursue these goals with approaches tailored to unique parish contexts and teens from a variety of family contexts. As we come across research like it, we’ll continue to post it here at The Catholic Conversation.