Research indicates that young adults are highly likely to be present at Ash Wednesday services and to engage in Lenten practices such as abstaining from meat on Fridays and fasting. When I worked in parish young adult ministry we were especially attentive to those young adults who would come to Ash Wednesday services but were rarely seen at other times of the year. To reach out to this group, we started a Lenten initiative called “A.W.E: Ash Wednesday Engagement.” You could easily adapt this program to the needs of your parish and incorporate it into your Lenten season by following these steps.
Step 1: Identify. Shortly after Christmas, a team from the parish meets to identify young adults, including those who are active, sporadic, or non-existent in their attendance at Mass. The members of this team pray for these individuals and discern how to reach particular groups of young adults: those who are single, engaged, newly married, and parents with young children. Young adults who are more regular in their Mass attendance are called by one of the members of the parish team and invited to a meal to talk about their faith. The purpose of this gathering is to identify those who would be willing to walk with other young adults in faith. This gathering could take place at the parish, a home, restaurant, or coffee shop. If you are trying to reach out to parents, providing babysitting is important.
Step 2: Form and Disciple. From these initial meetings, a core team of young adults is formed. The parish team then mentors them in discipleship. The parish team and the core team of young adults meet on a weekly basis in the weeks leading up to Lent. Meetings take place in coffee shops, homes, and the parish, and consist of prayer such as lectio divina, discussions on the art of faith accompaniment, and practical considerations. The young adults are mentored in teams of two by parish leaders and called “Young Adult Ambassadors.”
Step 3: Reach Out. The parish staff helps the Young Adult Ambassadors to identify other young adults who may or may not be part of the parish. During this time, various initiatives are undertaken by the Young Adult Ambassadors with support from parish staff. Calls are made, introductions take place, and care packages are assembled. Conversations can take place in person, on the phone, or online. Sometimes the conversations are about faith and sometimes not. Asking young adults what is on their heart and what the parish can pray for is important. Listening without judgment is critical. During this time, we have young adults who ask to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Others ask for various resources about the Catholic faith. It is important to have these resources readily available, both in print and online. As Ash Wednesday approaches, all young adults are invited to come to the Ash Wednesday services and to bring a friend with them.
Step 4: Going Further. The parish team spends ample time preparing for Ash Wednesday services, knowing this is an important celebration for all parishioners, but especially its young people. A variety of worship times are offered during the day and great care is taken with respect to homily preparation, music, and the quality of welcoming. A social gathering is scheduled following the Ash Wednesday evening service, similar to Theology on Tap. Our Young Adult Ambassadors are asked to be present at the various services and to be especially vigilant for other young adults. They make sure to welcome people personally and to invite the young adults to the social gathering following Mass. A short announcement either from the pastor or from a Young Adult Ambassador is helpful in encouraging people to attend.
From Ash Wednesday to Easter there are scheduled activities and events taking place hosted by the Young Adult Ambassadors. When I worked on this initiative, A.W.E. resulted in a significant increase in the amount of young adults who engaged with the parish. Teams of two young adults became teams of four and five. Spiritual direction and opportunities for retreats, classes, and small faith-sharing groups were offered. Ash Wednesday can be a time of engagement with marginalized young adults, but this approach could also work during Advent and Christmas.
Have you found any effective strategies for reaching out to young adults at Lent or other times during the year? If so, please post your insights below!