By LINDA BEHRENS
Draft beer, Peel pizza and fire pits.
Promotions for an upcoming event focused on these three details as part of a Discipleship on Draft gathering at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in O’Fallon, held at the church’s outdoor pavilion on April 11.
What type of event? Why these three items?
“We are reaching out to young adults,” says Sarah Gebke, age 29, a parishioner and volunteer member of St. Clare’s Young Adult Initiative. “We want to invite them to come to church, but with no pressure. We want them to feel welcomed.”
This outreach isn’t always about beer, pizza and fire pits. Other activities have included trivia nights, painting parties and volunteer opportunities.
In 2018, St. Clare applied for and received a grant from the Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad, Indiana, for its Young Adult Initiative.
Sixteen parishes were chosen to participate. St. Clare is the only one from Illinois. The parishes represent five states and 13 dioceses. Parishes range in size from 259 households to 2,578 households.
The program is funded by a $1.38 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to improve parish outreach to young adults and better engage them with the Catholic Church.
Parishes were invited to apply for the program, and Saint Meinrad received 96 applications.
According to information about the initiative, a number of studies have looked at why so many young adults are not active in their parishes or involved in organized religion.
Rather than continue to ask why young people leave, Saint Meinrad hopes to focus on giving them a reason to remain active in the Catholic Church and to invite their friends to join them in parish life as well.
The key aim of the Saint Meinrad Young Adult Initiative is to accompany and challenge select Catholic parishes to innovatively engage young adults, ages 23-29, both within and outside their congregations.
In time, the hope is those best practices will spread to other parishes in the United States.
Meeting Spiritual Needs
In partnership with Saint Meinrad, parishes are exploring the demographics of their communities, learning more about today’s young adults (ages 23-29), and developing innovative strategies to better meet the spiritual needs of the young adults in their parish.
“The overwhelming response we received to our call for applications is proof that the Church is paying attention to the needs of young adults,” says Tammy Becht, director of the Office of Youth and Young Adult Formation at Saint Meinrad.
“I think that outreach and ministry to the young Church is going through a time of rediscovery and redefinition. We’re honored to be part of the New Evangelization by creating dialogue and an atmosphere that focuses on the young Church with these 16 congregations,” Becht says.
Through the office of adult faith formation and mission at St. Clare, a Multi-generational Core Team was created to guide the work of the parish’s Young Adult Initiative.
“We receive guidance and support from Saint Meinrad,” says Matt Flynn, director of adult faith formation and mission at St. Clare, “and work in concert with them and the other parishes to develop our parish into a faith community that can engage with and integrate young adults into our parish life.”
“As part of the grant, we’ve purchased supplies that assist us with our communications and events,” Gebke adds.
“For instance, during our initial research, we discovered text messaging was the best way to reach those who signed up to participate. So we purchased a text messaging program to assist with this,” Gebke says.
She adds that the chairs and fire pits were purchased with the grant but will be continued to be used into the future.
In 2018, the first year of the grant, the team focused on research.
Events began in 2019 with a wine tasting, bonfires, s’mores and craft beer nights, and a tour of the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, among other monthly activities. Everyone was invited to the parish’s Octoberfest. Through the grant, they were also able to offer reimbursement for babysitting costs.
Things changed somewhat in 2020 because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The group then began offering virtual activities.
“Using Zoom, we offered a painting party with Courage and Grace DYI Art Studio in O’Fallon,” Gebke says. “Members of our team delivered the canvases and painting supplies to participants, and we painted our projects in our own homes. At the end of the evening, everyone showed their artwork via the screen.”
Another online activity included a beer tasting of Schlafly products where the beverages were also delivered to the participants homes for the event.
“Our Discipleship on Draft evening was our first one held in person for a year,” Gebke says. “But we were outside and maintained social distancing.”
She adds, “This past year has been difficult for so many people, especially young single adults and married couples. We hope our activities offer them a comfortable place to connect, to be together.
“We are introducing young people to our church, hopefully planting the seeds so maybe they will come back, even if it’s later down the road. We want them to know they are welcomed.”
Both Gebke and Flynn agree the grant from Saint Meinrad has laid the foundation for the Young Adult Initiative at St. Clare, so the ministry will continue even after the grant ends.