Editor's note: This is the third in a five-part column series written by Sacred Heart Major Seminary and Catholic Biblical School of Michigan researcher Tamra Hull Fromm about the impact and choices of young adult “nones” — those who profess no religious faith — in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Additional columns will be published on a weekly basis.

Part 1: Among young 'nones,' common thread is parents who don't pass on the faith

Part 2: Negative encounters with Christians can turn off young 'nones' — perhaps permanently

In my last article, I discussed the importance of the encounter in evangelization. I also described several examples of negative encounters that unbaptized or unchurched young adults might experience with either individuals or settings that are associated with religion, Christianity or Catholicism. Unfortunately, as the participants in my study affirmed, only one poor experience can be projected or extrapolated to a wider group of Christians and even discourage an individual from pursuing the religious quest.

This week, I would like to examine several positive human encounters that seem to stimulate the spiritual journey of unchurched young adults. I will explain these encounters in terms of the questions what, who, and where?

Human encounters of the positive kind

First, what is a positive human encounter? In Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron defines such an encounter as a “person-centered form of contemplation; it is two people being present to each other with no utilitarian purpose.” (1)

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, contrasted the difference of a positive and negative encounter in terms of how we see and interact with each other. For example, do I see the other person as a subject or as an object? Buber says that I can only see and interact with the other person as a subject by being authentically present to him in his true self. If I instead seek to see the other person through my own lens or desires, I can make him or her an object. (2)

Therefore, when Archbishop Vigneron cautions against a “utilitarian purpose” in an encounter, this could mean that it is possible I could see or interact with the other person for selfish reasons.

There are many ways in which we could see and use another person for our own pleasure. But can we evangelize in a way that is utilitarian? Certainly. For example, if I approach an unchurched individual with the intention of seeking an immediate response (even a conversion), I may be acting out of my own desire to boost my ego in terms of my evangelistic efforts. My behavior becomes too tied to the expected result. In Kinnaman and Lyons’ study, only 34 percent of surveyed young adult “outsiders” believe that Christians really care about them individually, preferring to cut to the chase and get the quick conversion; as opposed to 64 percent of Christians who felt outsiders would view them as genuine. (3)

Further, Archbishop Vigneron admits to the possibility of a series of encounters, which suggests that conversion is more of a continuing process rather than dependent upon a single meeting. Such a model of conversion takes the pressure off the evangelizer who might feel the urge to coerce (or convert) the individual prematurely.

On the other hand, if I am conscious of the other person as he or she is now (rather than how I would like him or her to be in terms of either moral or religious belief), I can better discern and contemplate how God might have already sown the “seeds of the Gospel” in the person’s life. This also allows me to better respond and adapt my language and method of evangelization; in other words, how I respond becomes less programmed or “canned.”

Based upon the narratives of the young adults in my study, I would categorize the positive encounters as those which challenge the individual’s perception or stereotype of Christians and/or Catholics; the encounter also encourages or prompts the move to a new level spiritually. In each case, the encounter appears to reverse the presuppositions and motivate the individual to shift his or her mindset, which launches him or her in a more active search for information on the Catholic faith.

Who do unchurched young adults encounter?

Not surprisingly, each of the 24 young adults in my study indicated the presence of a witness in their life prior to choosing to enter the RCIA process. In 20 cases, multiple witnesses were cited as being instrumental. This data confirms the reality of many contributory encounters along the spiritual journey.

The most frequently mentioned witnesses (41.7%) were a “friend” and “in-laws” (i.e., father-in-law, mother-in-law, future father-in-law, future mother-in-law, or a combination of these). Archbishop Vigneron specifically mentions the important role of family members and friends in evangelization. (5)

The role of the friend in the evangelization process seems to point to the importance of a close relationship in which trust and openness is involved. The friend-witness knows the participant intimately and undoubtedly has made an impression through conversation and lifestyle. The “friends” in my study were all described as “devout,” “religious” or “very religious.”

The influence of friendship also affirms the importance of the threshold of trust, which Sherry Weddell describes in Forming Intentional Disciples. (6) While anyone can be a witness, the element of trust between the witness and the one being evangelized seems to provide the foundation of comfort to share one’s fears and questions. I would suggest that, without this trust, conversations between the witness and the unchurched young adult might become more argumentative and polarizing.

The witness and support of future or current in-laws served as a positive parental role model in 10 of the participants’ spiritual journeys. Here, the introduction into a new social network of relationships through dating, engagement and marriage might facilitate a kind of surrogate spiritual parenthood, which counteracts the young adult’s non-religious or non-practicing parental background.

Notably, several young adults (29.2%) mentioned a memory of their grandmother. The grandmother served as a witness of what might be termed a “traditional” figure in the practice of Catholicism. She is remembered as praying on her knees; her room is decorated with religious objects; she reads the Bible and explains religious figures to the participant as a child. One young adult carried a rosary from her great-grandmother, which is special to her even if she does not know what to do with it. In some cases, the grandmother figure is replaced by an older neighbor or a co-worker who would be the participant’s grandmother’s age.

Yet, the presence and witness of the grandmother appears to have a dual effect. While she mostly features as a positive memory, the grandmother can also serve as an archetype or even stereotypical personality of a religious person. This image was not always helpful when Leisa considered becoming Catholic. She wondered whether she would “fit in” because she views her own personality as somewhat more “raucous” or “rough around the edges” than her quiet, pious grandmother.

Seven participants (or 20.8% of young adults in my study) mentioned a fiancé(e) as being influential. This affirms a 2011 Pew study, which indicated that 72% of Catholic converts (both unbaptized and those baptized in another faith) cite marriage as an important reason for their switch in faith. (7) Sometimes unchurched young adults do not even consider religion until the time of marriage. As David recounted, “I met my fiancée and she was … her family was religious or practicing. So, that was the motivator to say, ‘maybe this is the time.’”

Witness as antidote

The witness can sometimes act as an “antidote” to reverse a negative perception of Christianity or Christians in general. This phenomenon is especially revealing in Leisa’s and Carrie’s cases, which I described in detail in last week’s article.

Briefly, Carrie had experienced rejection from friends when she asked to attend Mass with them; she viewed religious art as judgmental and perceived religion as coercive because of an intimidating experience with Jehovah's Witnesses. Leisa, on the other hand, described Christians with a highly offensive term, mostly because she witnessed rude and hypocritical behavior by a “Christian” at her workplace. She also thought she could not become Catholic because she was a little “rough around the edges,” in comparison to her pious grandmother.

However, later in her journey, Leisa encounters a “grandmotherly” witness in her new workplace. This woman sports a tattoo and rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle, thus functioning as a refreshing contrast to the pious grandmother. The development of their friendship seems to both encourage and comfort Leisa; she eventually becomes satisfied that she can become Catholic and not be forced into a mold. As she states, “… it wasn't until I met Josie that I learned that … um … not all Christians are [expletive].”

Remarkably, when she encounters only one individual who makes a positive impression, she makes a positive correlation of this witness with Catholic Christianity.

Likewise, when Carrie encounters her fiancé’s family, who treat her and each other in a manner with which she is unaccustomed from her own background, she is immediately stirred. Because their behavior so widely contrasts with a previous experience or behavior she had associated with religion, she becomes curious. As she relates:

I had never seen that kind of respect between parents and children and between brother and sister. I had never seen anything like that before. The way that I was raised, my friends, people I had grown up around. And I was wondering … like I had always wanted that family dynamic. What is it that holds these people to these standards? And it's definitely their beliefs, it's the way they were raised. The faith that they've learned and the things that they have been taught. And I was open to absorbing as much as I could because it was just so pleasant to be around and I always wanted that for myself … I recognized something about them that I desired.

Similar to Carrie’s experience, Jeff notices the behavior and interactions of his girlfriend’s family:

I saw kind of saw how, you know, her dad makes them stay after [Mass] on Sundays, like family time … they talk about God at the table … they pray a rosary at nighttime. And I kind of was looking at that, like how they were connecting as a family. Not everything is always going to be perfect. But … I saw that, what they were doing and, you know, I kind of liked that. Me and my dad used to do that sometimes at the dinner table. But it was kind of a hit or miss thing. It wasn't an every night thing like their family does. And I kind of saw that and I was like, you know, that would be something I'd like to do you know in my family one day. So I guess just seeing her whole family connecting together like that is something that helped me.

The above two encounters demonstrate how, as Archbishop Vigneron proclaims, “the witness of a joyful family life rooted in the Gospel can be a spiritual oasis for people in contemporary society.” (8)

Witness as role model

The witness or witnesses might also serve as a kind of “role model” of Catholic Christianity. As explained above, the unchurched young adult identifies a trait or lifestyle of witness that is perceived as attractive and contrasts this against a native family situation or Christian stereotypes. As Leisa effusively praises the witness in her life:

She taught me what kind of woman I wanted to be and the kind of wife I want to be, and that in order to be the kind of woman and wife I want to be, I have to listen to God. And He will guide me into those ways. Because she's like my total role model that I always wanted as a little girl.

Considering that Leisa’s witness is more of a “grandmotherly” figure, I suggest that the age of the witness appears to be less relevant to modeling the faith. However, authenticity in terms of behavior, socio-economic level, work, lifestyle, etc., might make the witness more relatable.

Encountering the priest

What about the role of the priest in the journey of the unchurched young adult? In my study, the priest is mentioned three times as a witness.

Encounters with priests, like those with laypeople, can be either positive or negative. During his first visit with a Catholic priest as part of marriage preparation, Joe described his initial conversation as “enlightening.” Braydon, too, found himself moved spiritually by getting to know the parish priest during his and his fiancée’s regular meetings: “Fr. Xavier is amazing. He makes you inspired to want to do better for yourself and for others.”  

However, Carrie’s comments reflect a different experience:

I had a lot of questions for the priest and he, I don't know … I think it was because of age, like he thought if I was old enough to understand certain concepts or if they really didn't know how to explain something to me but they could never answer my questions.

Here, she is clearly seeking answers in her religious quest, yet when she does ask questions, he appears to brush her off. Such an experience might affirm some of the reasons why young adults are not attracted to religious institutions. Among several reasons cited in Kinnaman and Lyons’ study were a lack of comfort to share their deepest questions, concerns or doubts within a church setting. (9) In particular, young adults felt their theological questions were either left unanswered or answered simplistically. (10)

It is important to note that, in my study, the encounter with the priest takes place only after the young adult has already had several other encounters with friends or family members. The low number of participants who mentioned a priest as being influential at this stage may be due, I suggest, to a power differential. From the perspective of an unchurched young adult who might consider herself an “outsider,” it might be daunting or intimidating to approach a priest out of fear of judgment or self-consciousness due to lack of knowledge. This might also explain why unchurched young adults are not coming to the parish on their own, even when they are curious.

Locus of the encounter

Finally, where do the encounters take place? While half of the 24 unbaptized participants in my study mentioned they had attended a church or church-related small group on a limited basis before attending RCIA, the most compelling encounters seem to take place outside the parish in a secular setting (e.g., workplace, home of in-laws).

Because most lay Catholics work and relate in this secular environment, I suggest this affirms the archbishop’s invitation and focus on the “special calling and privilege of the lay faithful” (11) and the significant role they play at this stage of evangelization.

A positive encounter with a layperson in the secular setting might be even more vital to drawing unchurched young adults to the parish. Despite the growing number of programs (e.g., Alpha, ChristLife, etc.) that parishes offer for entry-level adult faith formation, the unchurched young adult will likely not come on her own. Hill, Kinnaman and Lyons argue that unchurched young adults seem impervious to traditional advertising by churches, such as direct mailings, television, billboard or radio messaging, to get them in the door. (12) Such advertising is suspiciously viewed as a kind of marketing ploy or as a mask for an agenda.

Finally, the approach in the secular setting might require far less deliberation or theological knowledge than many lay Catholics associate with evangelization. As opposed to a kind of militant, in-your-face style of evangelization, I would argue what is more needed for the unchurched young adults is a pre-evangelization or preparatory stage for hearing the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. Since the encounter is less of a predetermined meeting, allowing God to arrange the circumstances, the lay witness simply needs to be present to the daily events of life and to the other person as he or she is. Even if the unchurched young adult shows no external signs of further interest, Msgr. Luigi Giussani claims that a stimulating person-to-person encounter can remain as a positive memory for an individual. (13)

Next week, I will dive deeper into the message (or the “how”) of the encounter as a kind of pre-evangelization and what it might mean for Catholics as they interact with unchurched young adults.

  1. Marker 2.1, Unleash the Gospel (UTG).
  2. Martin Buber, Ich und Du (I and Thou), trans., Ronald Gregor Smith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1937).
  3. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), pp. 66-67.
  4. Marker 2.1, UTG.
  5. Guidepost 7, UTG.
  6. Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2012). The concept of conversion thresholds was first proposed by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp, I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
  7. Pew Research Center, ‘Faith in Flux’, 2011.
  8. Marker 7.3, UTG.
  9. David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church…And Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011); see also Kathleen Mitchell, ‘Are They Finding a Place in Our Parishes? Young Adult Catholics and the New Evangelization’, in New Theology Review, 26, 1 (September 2013), pp. 75-78:.75.
  10. Linda Mercadante, ‘The Seeker Next Door: What Drives the Spiritual but not Religious?’, in Christian Century (30 May 2012), pp. 30-33: 30.
  11. Marker 5.1, UTG.
  12. Bradley N. Hill, ‘Missing the Signs: The Church and Gen Y’, in Christian Century (5 April 2011), p. 29; Barna Group, ‘Five Trends Among the Unchurched’, 9 October 2014, https://www.barna.com/research/five-trends-among-the-unchurched/ Accessed 19 August 2018.
  13. Luigi Giussani, The Journey to Truth is an Experience (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2006), p. 95.