Millennial Teens Long for 'Faith of the Heart'


Engaging a New Generation: A Vision for Reaching Catholic Teens

By Frank Mercadante

176 pages, $13.95

Our Sunday Visitor, 2012

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Author Frank Mercadante’s teen credentials are impeccable: He is a professional youth minister with 30 years of pastoral experience and the father of six grown or nearly grown children. His ministry to “Generation X” parish youth was so prolific that he adopted a phrase from that iconic 80s movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Eventually, Mercadante started his own business training other youth ministers in his highly successful methods.

Then the Millennial generation started high school, and even Mercadante was thrown for a loop when he saw youth-group attendance drop:

“Building dynamic, disciple-making Catholic youth ministry had never been child’s play, but the difficulty factor suddenly seemed to be exponentially multiplied. Young people were not coming simply because we built it. It was easy for us … to blame the ever-expanding school programs, zealous coaches and complacent parents for a decline in our attendance. But it was only a smoke screen that camouflaged a deeper reality. Beyond stylistic preferences, young people were thinking and seeing life differently. I was beginning to feel like a youth ministry newbie …”

Mercadante’s analysis of the problem begins with a brief lesson in the history of youth ministry in America and a demographic tour of the various generations since 1900.

Then — and this is where the book proves useful even to people who aren’t directly involved with youth — he provides an in-depth comparison of the baby boomers, the Generation Xers and the Millennials, generations which came of age during the transition from one dominant zeitgeist of the early 20th century, Modernism, to something completely different: postmodernism. Today’s teens — the most cared for and “hovered over” in history — really are different, because they are coming of age in an entirely different cultural milieu.

Millennials are also the most “plugged in” and tech-savvy generation in history, yet, ironically, they are immune to bulletin inserts and slick presentations. To reach these teens, we need the power of what Mercadante calls “affiliative faith,” which comes from a sense of belonging and association. This “faith of the heart” is what high-tech postmoderns really long for.

And the secret to fostering affiliative faith is “immanuelization,” a term Mercadante uses to describe a type of faith sharing that reaches out to simply be the presence of Christ in people’s lives. Polished and well-reasoned evangelization methods may fall flat, but Millennial teens respond enthusiastically to warm personal invitations and authentic spiritual friendships.

Mercadante also stresses the importance of reaching out to the parents of today, since study after study shows that teens absorb their parents’ religious attitudes and practices. If a parish’s teens are listless and uninvolved, chances are the parents are, too.

This is a short book — less than 190 pages — but it is packed with incisive historical and cultural analysis, handy charts and creative innovations. If you are a youth minister or a parent, this book will help you immensely in your role of shepherding and raising young people to be men and women of God in a world hostile to Christian belief.

But even if you’re neither of the above, Mercadante’s prescription for effective evangelization will equip you to share your faith with people of all generations.

Clare Walker writes from Westmont, Illinois.