You would be hard-pressed to find someone in the church who does not care about young people. The young are oft-discussed, occasionally included, and wondered about as almost a foreign entity!
However, one avenue where the church has a consistent connection to young people is on college campuses through Catholic campus ministries. We rejoice when young adults, in the prime of self-discovery, make campus ministry a part of their story.
Personally, my undergrad experience accompanied by the Jesuits and my graduate school experience at a premier campus ministry on an Ivy League campus, became "home" for me and informed my own vocation.
And yet — how do we serve not just the "easy targets" who are enthused about campus ministry but also reach those who might never darken the door?
As young adults begin to develop their own sense of identity, their own values newly removed from the systems that formed them, what role can we play?
As they experience the growing pains of young adulthood, like a forming conscience or a broken heart, can we accompany them not with proselytizing words but lovingly standing with them in the chaos?
One area where the church pours out resources is in evangelizing young adults on college campuses. While there are many programs that focus on the "bringing in," a great opportunity for growth stands in the "going out."
Even if we succeed in engaging a young adult in campus ministry for four enriching years, the drop-off postgrad is steep. For those who had a wonderful campus ministry experience, recall what those days were like after graduation.
You left (what I hope was) a vibrant, life-giving campus ministry with beautiful liturgies, profound encounters and quality programming that met your faith needs — and perhaps you were dropped into a very different situation in the "real world."
Perhaps you followed a job far away or returned to your hometown and your childhood parish -- and looking around, found the faith communities near you severely wanting after the nourishment of the oasis of campus ministry.
Sometimes, the post-collegiate experience is not just a desert, but a hostile environment to young adults: Too many times, I have heard of (and experienced) situations where young adults approach a faith community with enthusiasm, armed with secular skills and unmatched energy, and are met with rebuke and dismissal.
Regrettably, the world has addressed that more quickly than the church, capturing those gifts (often for good causes), and young adults lead in various other sectors. The deeply ingrained culture in the church of "paying your dues" and an expectation that one has little to contribute until one is of advanced age is, in my opinion, a blind spot that will be our downfall, lest we seize the opportunity that young people are!
While not all systemic challenges of the church can be resolved at once, one of many positive paths forward is to consider how we cultivate faith-based leadership capacities in young adults on college campuses, so that they feel better prepared for the transition from campus ministry into faith communities postgrad.
We know that "where our treasure is, there our heart is also," and when we invest in the futures of young adults, it pays off dividends. The vast majority of young adults have experienced some sense of leadership preparation in a secular fashion during their college years -- one only needs to review their jam-packed resumes to know that!
However, sharing one's gifts with the church in addition to other demands is a very different experience, with its own subculture to navigate.
Programs like ESTEEM and others that accompany young adults through those nuances leave the church better prepared with a cadre of brilliant, thoughtful, engaged young adults prepped with the energy and zeal to bring about the kingdom of God in meaningful ways.
We simply have to ask ourselves: Are we prepared to invest in them?
Perone is the national coordinator of ESTEEM, a faith-based leadership program for young adults on college campuses. She is also the chair of the board of members for the National Institute for Ministry with Young Adults.