Even before the pandemic eliminated crucial opportunities for in-person interaction, Gen Z was being called a “the loneliest generation.” The exact cause (or causes) of this increasing isolation of youth is up for debate, but what seems to be a universal truth these days is that young people everywhere value relationships more than ever.
But to have relationship, you must first have communication. And by communication, we don’t just mean reaching out — we mean actually reaching. Parishes need to reflect on how to share the Gospel message with teens in a way that will effectively resonate with them. It’s not enough simply to knock on the door of their heart: we must stand ready to cross the threshold, to be invited in.
The youth need to see that the Church is still here — and that the Church deeply values them. With teens, Gospel witness isn’t as much of a testimony as it is a conversation. A recent study shows that a whopping 83% of young people say they are more likely to take advice from someone who cares about them, and 65% of young people surveyed agreed with the statement: “A person’s expertise doesn’t matter if they don’t care about me.” That means that nothing we offer them from the pulpit, in Confirmation preparation, or youth group activities will carry any weight unless they trust that their parish leaders are approaching them from a place of respect, curiosity, and sincerity.
Teens these days are avid social media users who prefer texting over talking on the phone. They are accustomed to communicating an idea or thought succinctly — think of the brevity of a Tweet or the short length of a TikTok video. They are highly visual communicators who respond to images and video as much, if not more, than written words. They are passionate about their values but are acutely sensitive to issues of authenticity — if “cancel culture” has taught us anything, it’s that young people are becoming more and more practiced at sensing when communication efforts are not genuine. But despite their status as “digital natives” and an ability to connect meaningfully in a virtual way, today’s teens are still human beings who crave face-to-face interaction.
That’s good news for the Church, because however practiced our digital marketing or social media messaging becomes, that’s not even half the story when it comes to discipleship. Our communication efforts have to find the young people wherever they are, and then attract them to the sacraments. And sacraments can never be virtual. But consider this: teens already have a deep desire to be part of a community, and the only true fulfillment of that desire is to be found in the Body of Christ, which we experience when we gather in-person.
All of our efforts to connect with teens need to confirm that God Himself is the great communicator whose language is love and truth. If we keep that in mind, there is no one we cannot reach, and no message we cannot effectively convey.