For the youth ministers, religious education directors, and other educators who gathered at Fordham’s Westchester campus on Jan. 18, one question set the tone for the day: Does a generational gap prevent adults who work in youth ministry from truly connecting with adolescents and young adults?
As part of a lecture series sponsored by the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE), GRE faculty members Harold “Bud” Horell, Ph.D., and Kieran Scott, Ed.D., took on the topic, “Youth and Young Adult Ministries in a Complex, Global Age.”
According to Horell, an assistant professor of religious education, adults can connect with young people by drawing on their own experiences. Citing Erik Erikson’s epigenetic cycle of development, Horell said that all human beings undergo a similar process of physical, psychological, and social development—as well as the challenges that come with this process.
“On the one hand, we can connect because we’ve been their age. But on the other hand, the world has changed. They face the same issues we did, but they face them in a different way,” he said.
Shifting societal norms present new challenges to each generation, making the context in which young people develop radically different from the previous generation’s experience.
As a result, Horell argued, youth ministers need to adopt a balanced, “both/and” approach to their ministry.
“I think we can share the wisdom of our faith traditions with young people today and have confidence that it will have some relevance to their lives,” he said. “But we also need to allow them the space they need to reshape, refashion, and in some cases completely re-envision our faith practices so that they are relevant to their lives and unique concerns.”
But Scott, an associate professor of theology and religious education, took a different approach in his response to Horell’s talk. Changing social norms are the not the only challenges for youth ministers. The tendency of today’s youth—a generation known as millennials—to be anti-institutional and apathetic toward tradition also complicates their relationship with an older generation of youth ministers, Scott said.
“For many millennials, institutional religions are not responding adequately to changes in the world. They’re out of sync with shifting attitudes on sex and marriage, and are perceived as cold, impersonal, and empty structures. Millennials look beyond religion and seek a personal faith, more authentic ways of connecting with God, self, and other,” he said.
However, Scott argued, these structures are necessary to ground faith in real, practiced traditions. Without traditions and the institutions that foster them, vague spiritualities risk floating away into abstraction.
Thus, the primary task of youth ministers is not to bridge the generational gaps, but to pass along traditions that help young people develop their spiritual lives.
“Our culture is overdosing on change—we know very well how to change, but we have lost the art of preservation,” Scott said. “Schools and churches ought to serve as society’s memory bank.”
“All our religious efforts should be directed toward… offering our people an institutional church life worthy of their allegiance, and gifting them with a renewed, reinvented Roman Catholic tradition for their time and for each generation,” Scott continued. “All people—young and old—deserve no less.”