Conference asks: What might the new face of the church look like?

Jamie Manson addressing the NCR 50th anniversary conference Oct. 24. On stage with her are NCR editor Dennis Coday, NCR contributor Heidi Schlumpf and NCR publisher Caitlin Hendel. (NCR photo/Jaratsri Piewklieng)
This article appears in the NCR 50th anniversary conference feature series. View the full series.

River Forest, Ill. — Jamie Manson, a columnist and book review editor for NCR, has traveled all around the country over the past five years talking to different Catholic groups. “There are no questions I get more than 'What is the future of the church in this country?' and 'Where are our young adults?'"

Her answer, she said, might have come as a shock to some of the 750 gathered Oct. 24 to mark the 50th anniversary celebration of National Catholic Reporter with a conference titled "New Faces, New Voices, New Ways of Being Church: An Exploration of the American Catholic Church Going Forward."

First, to answer the rhetorical question, "What might the new face of the church look like?", Manson cited current sociological research into young-adult Americans and her personal interactions with that demographic. She reported that 23 percent of all adult Americans and 35 percent of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) have no religion in particular. Social scientists of religion call them the “nones.”

"The new face of the church won’t have much of a face at all," Manson said before a near-capacity audience in the Lund Auditorium of Dominican University, co-sponsor of the conference, in River Forest, a western suburb of Chicago.

Then she added: "I don’t think the church is primarily to blame for the dying off of interest in institutional religion."

"I think it has far more to do with our culture’s shift from a communal model of society to an individualistic model," Manson continued. "Over the past three generations, U.S. culture has undergone a radical transformation in which the needs of the individual, rather than the needs of the community are of primary importance. And though it may sound like an exaggeration, today young adults are living in a cultural milieu that is without precedent."

Manson was one of four speakers at the late October event. The other speakers were University of San Diego professor of religious studies Maria Pilar Aquino, Marquette University theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale and Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister. NCR is making available this week the text and videos of these addresses. Aquino's talk and video has already been posted. As they are ready, all the talks and videos will be posted here,

Highlights from Manson's talk include:

  • It is well known that Protestant denominations are having the same challenges as Catholics in retaining young adult members. "Even Evangelicals are having trouble retaining young adults. … This is significant because Evangelicals tend have phenomenal skill with youth ministry."
  • Past generations, what grew up in a communal model of society, did what the community expected of them. They weren’t told to choose the religion that made them happy.
  • But young people today decide and define what their values and beliefs are. And this is one of the key reasons why we're not seeing young people in church and why it's so hard to get young people into church. Young people are growing up surrounded by a "spiritual marketplace." And young people get to shop around to figure out what their beliefs will be.
  • For the first time in human history, young adults aren’t born into a community that will surround them and support them for the rest of their lives. Today’s young adults have to go out and seek and build their own communities.
  • The disconnect among Catholics between the Big S and little s sacraments is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the Francis Effect still has not translated into any substantial increase in church attendance or increased commitment to participating in the life of the institutional church. Catholics are compelled by the little s sacraments, but cannot connect them to the big S Sacraments.

Here is a video of Manson’s talk. She begins speaking at about 5:30 minutes. The full text of her talk follows the video and is available in PDF format.



Note: This video is labeled Part 3 because Manson was the third speaker of the day. We are posting her speech before Part 2 because Part 2 is not yet ready.











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