Lost in Translation

Trying to communicate about faith with young adults? Try listening.

It was my sixth plane ride in a week, and I was tired. I was sick of the tiny, cardboard seats, the slightly antiseptic “recycled air” smell, and the snacks that boasted 6.5 pretzels per bag. Not only that, I didn’t feel very prepared for the presentation I was supposed to give in about 2 hours. As I climbed over splayed legs to get to my seat, I stole a glance at the guy in my row. He looked like he was college aged, and I silently prayed that he would just sleep and give me some time to catch up on my presentation. No such luck.

The first question came just as I sat down: “So, what do you do?”

I went for the surefire conversation stopper, at least with someone college-aged: “I work for the Catholic Church.”

After a pause, he told me that he didn’t really care for the Catholic Church. He had been raised Catholic, but was no longer a part of the Church because of the rules and the hypocrisy.

I suddenly realized that though many times I set out to do “ministry” through events and presentations (including the one I meant to prepare on this plane) the gift of truly listening to someone’s story is ministry par excellence . I turned to face him more fully as I asked, “Do you believe in a God or a higher power?”

“Well, of course I do,” came the somewhat surprised response.

“So, tell me about the God you believe in.”

He proceeded to give me a lovely, well-thought-out description of God who was not really a person, but more a force who moved among human beings. God, for him, was not about “religion” per se, but was calling us all to love. His description made me reflect on my own description of God, and I shared this with him.

Eventually, our conversation arrived at the topic of communication with God.

“How do you interact with God? Is that important?”

“Oh yes, very,” he said. He talked at length about when and where he had experienced God, and also the ways in which he and his girlfriend prayed. This led us to talk about community. Did he think it would be easier to live according to his faith within a supportive community—a place where he could come together with others to his relationship with God, and receive assistance to live that out in the day-to-day world?

“Oh, if religion was about that, then I would be all for it,” he scoffed. “But every time people get together, there are politics and rules and bickering, and it becomes all about power.”

“And is that the reason you are no longer in a faith community?” He nodded, and I asked: “Is there ever a time when the benefits of community could outweigh all of the bickering and politics?”

“Perhaps there could be…” he admitted, but then faded off into skepticism.

Unfortunately, this scenario is familiar to many involved in college or young adult ministry. In my ministry with collegians, variations of this conversation have played out in dorm rooms, car rides, and coffee houses, just to name a few. My role in these exchanges often feels like translator or bridge-builder. A chasm has developed between these seekers and their church, partly through failures of language and leadership. Some, whose concepts and categories for God’s presence in their lives come only from the homilies and CCD classes of their childhood, find it hard to connect those words to the ways God is reaching out to them now (or even to the absence of God which they might now be feeling).

In a way, this makes sense. The theological vocabulary of our formal statements of Catholic belief—like the Nicene Creed—is from a different time, culture, and place. Much of it was developed through debates among early Christians during the first five hundred years of our faith, and later in treatises from the “Doctors” of our faith, like St. Thomas Aquinas. Yet, even in the time in which it was written, people were trying to express something true about who God is and how God interacts with the world.

Those authors were a product of their culture, just as we are a product of ours. The problem, however, is one of translation—we haven’t done a lot to make those foreign categories applicable to our lives. Although we live in a different time and a different culture, this does not mean that our faith no longer speaks to us.

At the same time that we have not enfleshed those beliefs in “current” terminology, we are also unable to recognize and give voice to the new ways that the Spirit is present and active in this time and culture. The God whom my airplane seat-mate was describing would not sound foreign to readers of the New Testament, where the Spirit of Jesus had so charged the early Christians that they could not ignore the action of God in their lives. But for some reason, his experience sounds foreign in the church of today. Why?

Perhaps it is that instead of presenting new and creative ways to communicate God’s presence and power to others, Catholic publications and statements from various Church sources often reflect a constant, back-and-forth, inward-focused debate. It’s like eavesdropping on two young children in an argument. There’s backbiting and scuffles, and disagreements about who is “right” and “wrong,” who is “in” and “out.” Certain people are “outside of orthodoxy” because they are associated with “those” groups. Others should not be allowed on campuses, because they are members of “those other” groups. (All of these groups, by the way, consider themselves Catholic). Amidst all of this, I wonder if we just haven’t missed a significant point about the ministry of Jesus, the mission we inherit as his followers – which, if I read the gospels correctly, is about love. It’s about reaching out to those outside of ourselves. It’s about a God who called all people to wholeness and life, offering those who were dreadfully “outside the rules” the gift of a listening ear and a healing touch. Sometimes this was within the structure and the rules of Judaism. Sometimes it was outside of those confines. But it was always done with compassion. To most collegians and young adults, the gulf between the person of Jesus and the praxis of the Church is dreadfully obvious. The Catholic Church claims to be a Church that embodies the God of love and welcome. But young adults see infighting and bickering, polarization and ostracization. They see right through people who are not genuine, and the structures that are about power. Our actions speak much louder than what we say we believe. These same young people could care less about the definition of transubstantiation. They don’t know what Vatican II was. But many do know God. God has formed them and is active in their lives. They search for confirmation that their experiences of God are “valid.” They seek a way of naming God that is consonant with their reality, and they seek communities that create opportunities to encounter the sacred – authentic experiences of God that touch their souls, bring them to tears, comfort and challenge them. Yet we’ve become so enraptured by our own definitions that we can’t even hear their cries.

Some would see these claims as unfounded, based on the presence of the “new faithful”- the group of young people that are increasingly traditional, preferring pre-Vatican II practices of prayer and absolutes in areas of truth and morality. I agree that they are a part of the Church. But let’s get a bit of perspective here. A simple survey – how many of our young collegians are actually a part of campus ministry? I minister with the Catholic Center of a large, 4 year, public university which estimates that 300 students are involved in their programs in a year. That’s 300 out of 40,000, not all of whom are Catholic, of course. But they estimate 40% of the population (16,000 students) claims Catholicism, which means that less than 2 percent of the Catholic population is actually involved in the Catholic campus ministry at that school. I also minister with a few smaller Catholic campuses; enrollment: 2000, mass attendance:15. And once they leave college, how many young adults do you know who are active in their Catholic faith? Look around you the next time you’re in Church. Unless you’re at one of the young adult pilgrimage sites (those churches that cater to young adults, and thus draw people from up to 60 miles away), you aren’t going to see many. And we’re in a Church that is fighting over whether we kneel during the Eucharistic prayer. We’ve lost it. We’ve lost the mission. The exodus of young adults is just a symptom of a much larger problem.

I hear over and over that we need to bring young adults “back to church.” But deep inside that mantra is the secret desire not just to bring them back to Church, but bring them back to “our” side of the Church (I myself am guilty as well). Was Jesus focused on bringing people back to a particular strain of Judaism? Heck, was Jesus even about founding a Church? Or was Jesus about giving us a model for how to fully be human . . . how to love and live with God at the center of our lives? I never once heard him say, “If you are not worshiping in this particular way, you’re out of here,” although he did advise the Samaritan woman that God, who is Spirit, cared less about where you worshiped and more about how you worshiped: “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:23). Nor did Jesus warn, “If you’re not voting for candidates who are against abortion, you’re gone,” or “If you critique the rules, you are not part of my community.” I did, however, hear that those who make the rules their gods, those who are hypocritical, those who fail to love, are in danger of putting themselves outside of the Kingdom.

Translation is difficult work. Those who do textual translation professionally often complain of not being able to find the right words to honor the integrity of a passage. But if translation does not occur, meaning cannot be communicated. There is hope though. I’ve seen examples of people in the church who are great communicators. I’ve visited Church communities and experienced campus ministers who are passionate about the work of translation. One of the reasons these folks have such success as communicators is that they are also great listeners . They listen to people’s stories, honor their experiences, and present faith in accessible ways that speak to the reality of young adults. And those people are the Church—they continuously show me what it means to truly be Church to one another.

As I walked off of the plane that day, I was richer for having encountered someone who had a deep relationship with God—who prayed, loved, and strived to know God’s will in his life. And he is not the exception—many young adults search for God, communicate with God, experience God. We, as a Church community, however, have difficulty crafting a language that speaks to their reality. I am saddened by our ongoing inward focused conversations. Unless we commit ourselves to listening to and honoring young adults’ unique experience of God, and truly reach out with accessible words and ideas, our message will continue to be lost in translation.