On the Journey
with Young Adults
by Carl B. Trutter

Winter 1985 Vol. 37 No. 4, pp. 304-313

Father Trutter, O.P., has served in campus ministry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Houston, and Vanderbilt University, Nashville. He was an executive board member of the Catholic Campus Ministry Association.

A campus minister with many years of experience describes the journey of faith which young adults make during college years and points to the work of the Spirit in those who are the church's future.

ARE young Christian adults today remaining faithful to Christ and their church? Are they following Christ, or are they turning away from him? Are they growing in Christian living, or are they peripheral to the church of discipleship?

We have many faith stories of single young adults, of college and university students, of young couples. As each person is unique, so each of their stories is unique. But almost every young adult today is on the move. Each young woman and each young man is going through a spiritual, psychological process. Each one is on a journey. As a college student from Massachusetts told me: "Before this growth process, Jesus Christ was someone I visited on Sundays. He lived there, but had no 'home' outside the church [building]. He was more an authoritative figure than a friend. He was more the Santa Claus figure-checking off whether I was good or bad. I was searching for his purpose in my life. Why was he so important to others?"

I would like to describe the spiritual journeys of many Christian young adults and the vision of the church which ministers successfully to, and with, young adults. I would like these young adults to speak for themselves, telling in their own manner how they are moving through the events which comprise their lives.

Most young adults experience this period of their lives in an atmosphere of freedom. They have left behind the constraints of a home in which two parents or a single parent set the norms for daily living. They have gone beyond senior high school where teachers, administrators, and coaches dealt with them as immature adolescents. They have moved from the neighborhood parish, with its pressures regarding Sunday Mass, religious education for teens, youth ministry, and monetary contributions.

As they have left behind -- physically or psychologically -- their adolescent family, school, and parish, they discover new dimensions of freedom. They now choose where they want to live: the city of their choice, an apartment complex, a university dormitory, or fraternity-sorority house. They choose to live alone, to live with roommates, to live in a temporary sexual relationship with one other man or woman. They choose more freely the kind of friends and companions they want.

They choose a general curriculum or a major of computer science, psychology, pre-engineering -- and the study plan is frequently revised in totally new directions.

They also find a new kind of liberty to select a life-style, to look into their personal values, to work out their own goals, to move from one religious group to another. They experience the possibility of becoming the kind of person they want to be as a young adult.

Young adults of the 1980s do experience many limitations, of course. They may not even clearly recognize them. Higher education places enormous demands on college students. Young adult culture prescribes so much about styles of clothing, music, entertainment, vacations, and electronic possessions. Peer pressure dictates so much about the kind of social relationships to be sought, the right bar to be frequented, the attitude toward upward mobility to be adapted, the political approach toward underprivileged people to be taken.

Within this milieu, young adults go through great changes. This becomes a time of change -- sometimes steady and healthy, at other times catastrophic and frightening. Restlessness and instability permeate the culture of the young adult world.

I remember talking casually with an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, a young man whom I had known for several years. I asked him what Denise was doing these days. He looked at me and asked, "Who?" "You know, Denise," I said. "Remember, you were engaged to her last year." Amazingly, he really had to think deeply to recall the girl to whom he had been engaged just the year before.

Among the changes that many young adults experience is in their relation with God, and especially with the church or synagogue. We can delineate four main forms of this changing relationship to God and church.

The "churched" are young adults who participate in a Christian community. They may have dropped out in the past, but now they practice their faith. They may attend various parishes or campus churches which offer them convenient, interesting, or challenging activities. They take part in this community and grow in their faith as they hear the message of the gospel with their peers.

The "inadequately churched" have been exposed to the church, but remain on the fringe of church life. In the experience of a University of Houston student:

I never considered God as a father or a friend. I believed the church more or less tried to scare you to death and, in that way, you believed in God. I felt God was very distant and hard.... the church liked to scare us and [it] was full of hypocrites.

A University of Georgia student explained:

As a teenager, my parents moved away from the church and I followed their example. in my late teens and young adulthood, I wavered back and forth between following a religious conviction or not.

A young man from the University of Houston told me:

I lacked a personal commitment and relationship with God. I had doubts about the need or importance of religion in my life.

A third type of relationship (or lack thereof) is the 'unchurched." The "unchurched" are those whom church leaders do not encounter, those who have not heard the good news. In religious sociology, some survey researchers define an "unchurched" individual as "a person who is not a member of a church or synagogue or who has not attended church or synagogue in the last six months, apart from weddings, funerals, or special holidays such as Christmas, Easter, or Yom Kippur."(1) A university woman described her situation: "Once I moved away from home and was at college, my church attendance and church-related activities dwindled to nothing." Other young adults come from such secularized families that they have never really known a call to faith, to a relation with Christ, or to a participation in the life of a faith community.

The fourth form of relation (or lack of one) is the "alienated." "The 'alienated' are those whose contentions with ecclesial structures, teaching, and/or the personalities of particular ministers have caused them to leave the local Christian community."(2) While alienated persons remain in this attitude, it is unusual for the Christian community to come into much contact with them. However, I have talked with young adult students who gave the following reasons for separation from a faith community:

The sisters in my grade school were mean and they hit us.
I never felt at home in our huge, anonymous, suburban church.
I wouldn't want to attend church now. It wouldn't make sense with the way I'm living.
I don't believe in all that religious stuff anymore.
I think that belonging to a church got in the way of my being a good Christian.

I have also met many Hispanic and black young adults who cannot identify with an Anglo church. Likewise I have encountered homosexual young adults who feel excluded by the Catholic churches they attended. Those alienated because of the authoritarianism of the church and because of male dominance in the church are other young adults I have talked to.

These four types -- churched, inadequately churched, unchurched, and alienated -- are not separate compartments, at least for young adults. Those who minister with young adults and college students know how much movement is taking place. We could say that they are restless and unstable. We can also point to this period as a time of change. We can envision the opportunities for searching, awakening, conversion, growth, and discipleship.


Fr. Edward Braxton, director of the Calvert House at the University of Chicago, sees Catholic students taking one of three approaches to life at their secular universities. (1) Some Catholic students simply place the issue of religion "on the shelf." (2) "The student from a fairly devout and traditional Catholic setting and with a rather clear if somewhat juridical understanding of Catholicism may respond defensively, retreating into a private dogmatic orthodoxy." (3) A more positive approach is adopted by some students. They engage in heavy discussions on hard questions about religion and Catholicism. They may make a good case for religion in general and Catholicism in particular. "They may even come away with stronger convictions, clearer arguments and deeper faith."

As a result of this interior thinking and searching, some young adults embrace a broad relativism which holds all religions to be more or less equal. Others move on to a religious tradition different from their childhood faith; this frequently happens through interfaith marriage. Still others develop a personal synthesis which grows out of personal struggle, dialogue, and prayer. They are able, as mature young adults, to turn toward Christ and his church with a new integrity and conviction.

There is considerable potential for participation in church life for those presently not taking part. In The Unchurched American study, it was found that many would consider becoming active in one or more of the following circumstances: if they found a pastor or church friends with whom they could openly discuss their religious doubts; if they found a pastor or church friends with whom they could openly discuss their spiritual needs; if they found a church that is seriously concerned to work for a better society; if they found a church with good preaching; if they were invited to a church by a member and they liked the people. (4)

Young adults have many stories as they search for personal happiness, investigate possibilities for meaning in life, and develop a religious synthesis. "Finding this deeper level in which they can achieve a sense of identity and coherence within their lives is necessary for continuing their spiritual journeys.

"The Good News at the heart of evangelization is that this deeper level does exist, and that He is 'The God revealed by Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit.'" (5)

A young woman from Texas A & M University told of her journey in this fashion:

I didn't know what was missing in my life. I began to ask myself questions like"What's the point of all this?" Ultimately it came to "Why am I here?' and 'What does my existence mean?" One day it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps I missed Jesus. It seemed so simple -- and yet once I thought of it I knew that's what it was. I needed to meet him -- not just about him as I had most of my life, but really meet him. Frankly, I didn't know him. I just knew I needed him. I began to read theology voraciously -- Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Augustine, Catherine of Siena, Francis de Sales, and lots more. These gave me fuel for prayer, gave words to me. Yes, I spent many a long hour on my knees crying to God. I guess it was my soul reaching and seeking him.

A young man in Georgia stated:

I was searching for a better way of life and a way that I could effectively move closer to the Lord through an active Christian religion.

And, a University of Houston student revealed:

After thinking it over, I decided to give his [my fiancé's] church another try. During this time I also began praying; I really wasn't sure what for or why.... I began to really enjoy going to church and was going every Sunday without hesitations. I felt at ease and able to express myself freely.

We have looked at the young adult, college student scene with its atmosphere of freedom as a time of significant personal change in a variety of relationships to God and church (ranging from active involvement in a local faith community to alienation from all religion) and a time of interior searching and shopping for an integrated faith stance. But what kind of church will assist young adults on their journeys? What kind of church will offer healing and peace to the alienated, reach out caringly to the unchurched with meaning for their lives, draw in the inadequately churched so that they can experience authentic Christian life, minister to active participants by enriching their faith and challenging them to integrate their Christianity with service to others?


It is generally recognized that a church that wishes to encourage discipleship among young adults cannot exude an impersonal institutional aura, stress the discipline of law over freedom, present a clerical model of male leadership, operate according to sedentary functions, stand in facile judgment upon the life-styles of individuals, expect persons to cooperate while remaining in passivity, offer an organization which appears closed in mentality.

The young adult pastoral plan, based on dialogue with numerous young adult groups throughout the U.S., focused upon five basic ministries: a ministry of presence by touching young adults' lives with the love of Jesus in a setting that is nonthreatening and familiar to the young adult; a ministry of listening by hearing their stories and affirming the positive qualities of their life-styles; a ministry of healing by bringing compassion and care to their suffering; a ministry of liberation through freeing them from personal and communal oppression; and a ministry of integration by helping them find their roots and continuity. (6)

Students and young adults with a potential for evangelization and discipleship have high expectations of their church. Only if the church they encounter fulfills many of these expectations will they participate. They are looking for a Christian community which shows itself to be very alive in a human and Christian way.

Besides affirming the ministries mentioned above, I see a church for young adults -- a church very alive in a human and Christian way -- as having the five following characteristics.

Personal. The Christian community is small enough to facilitate individual contacts and relationships. The community extends personalized hospitality to the quite mobile young adults in the environs. The community recognizes the individual, listens to that person, and invites her or him to meet others, to join in activities, and to form friendships.

Involving. The community invites its young adults to take part in its life, its programs, its celebrations. It opens the way for individuals to recognize their gifts -- whether simple or well developed and to use them with their peers for the life of the community. It encourages those who are participating to assume leadership within the community.

Celebrative. The young adult community thrives on the spirit of celebration. Its vibrancy is manifest in communal activities which are joyful, expressive, and enjoyable. It celebrates with food and drink at picnics, beach parties, and luncheons. It celebrates at night and on weekends through parties and dances. It celebrates through liturgies with moving music, creative symbols, and powerful preaching. And the community celebrates every possible event: the end of the academic year, graduations, birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and liturgical feasts.

Flexible. The community is open-ended. It is open to new people, their personalities and interests. It is open to new ideas and policies. It is willing to adopt new programs and to eliminate last years activities. It can move according to recent trends (often critically) with considerable ease. Based on the experiences and input of its people, it is usually open to further change.

Cooperative. Although young adults have reached a certain maturity, they still need the leadership of adult Christian ministers (sisters, deacons, priests, adult professionals, etc.). They are willing to depend upon them and cooperate with them if these adult ministers are authentic disciples of the Lord in a truly human style. If these professional ministers are simply fulfilling functions and playing roles, there may be minimal response. But if it is obvious that they are living out of faith, that they are trying to grow in their own lives, that they are informed about Scripture and theology, then young adults usually appreciate this leadership. The result is frequently a team approach to the ministry-young adults and university students in cooperation with the professional or ordained ministers.


As young adults on their journeys, they respond to God, Jesus Christ, the church, morality in a variety of ways. Some affirm that they are religious, although they do not take part in a religious community. (7) Many take part in small group activities -- Bible studies, prayer communities, discussion groups. Others thrive on a Sunday Eucharist which has contemporary music, challenging preaching, and ample participation. Still others join efforts at tutoring underprivileged children, alleviating local malnutrition, or achieving human rights in Central America. A number commit themselves to VISTA, the Peace Corps, or to church volunteer ministries. Some work on retreat teams to deepen the faith of active Catholics and to encourage those who are more marginal. A few seriously consider a vocation to full-time ministry, religious life, or the ordained ministry.

In various ways Catholic young adults have expressed what they have found in a vital Christian community.

I wish to share with my peers and my Christian community my life and all the joys, contemplations, frustrations and celebrations of this process of growth. I wish to share my faith, my belief in God, the gift of Jesus, and the understanding of the Spirit.... I want to share the knowledge of Jesus, the wisdom of his teachings, and the peace in understanding.

Life at college has enabled me to become a Catholic by providing an open, responsive, understanding, forgiving atmosphere where I can question and doubt and still express faith which seems like the only human, intelligent way to have a religion.

I am still discovering me and it's a joyous experience with the Spirit walking along the way.

Since I have become a Catholic, I feel like I can say God is my Father and he is my friend. My faith in God is strengthening all the time. I feel that as a Catholic Christian I must set the example for others. They need to see the difference Christ has made in my life.

These witnessing words are very encouraging. As a campus minister at three diverse secular universities, I have been strengthened by university students and other young adults who experience personal evangelization. I have been impressed by their desire for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by their love for a challenging church, and by their involvement in many kinds of Christian service.

Each young adult moves along on a personal journey. The Holy Spirit is leading many, many of them into promising futures for themselves, Christian faith, the church, their families and friends, and the world.


1 The Unchurched American (Princeton, N.J.: The Princeton Religious Research Center and the Gallup Organization, 1978), p. 2.

2 Planning for Single Young Adult Ministry: Directions for Ministerial Outreach (Washington, D.C.: Department of Education, U.S.C.C., 1981), p. 16.

3 Edward K. Braxton, "Catholic Students and Secular Universities," America, 28 April 1984, p. 317.

4 The Unchurched American, p. 55.

5 Planning for Single Young Adult Ministry, p. 16.

6 Ibid., pp. 44-52.

7 "What Are the Students Thinking?" Process 3 (Summer 1977): 12-14.