For Catholics a generation or two ago, the church was the hub of the neighborhood. It was a place to gather, work and pray together - a place to belong. That concept of community still exists, but it’s evolving.
Thousands of people clap and sing along during a Mass at the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim. Here, inside the Anaheim Convention Center, the sense of community is clear. But as parents shuttle kids from practice to practice while the cell phone rings and the e-mail pings, the sense of community at Catholic churches is changing.
"Community is different. It’s evolving. And just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s not happening," says Father David Loftus, who is in charge of adult faith formation in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
"Today’s young people, they look for community sometimes without even actually being in the same room with someone, they’re going to be forming communities. You’re talking about all the Facebook stuff, the MySpace – you’re talking about all that sense of gathering without actually being present," he says.
Father Loftus says the older Catholic generation has retained a different, more traditional sense of community.
"But for them, they also lived in a time when to be Catholic was to be different in the country," Loftus says. "And so if they were going to do things socially, they tended to do it in their own parishes because oftentimes, they mightn’t have been as welcome in the more secular settings, if you like. And so you find huge growth in parish communities for all sorts of organizations and societies and associations that simply allowed people to gather together, to be together socially simply because they couldn’t do it anywhere else."
Father Loftus says opportunities for community are everywhere now – from recreational sports teams to volunteer groups like Habitat for Humanity and the Rotary Club.
He says the Catholic Church is no longer the only hub of community for Catholics. That’s the challenge: How do you build a church community when there’s so much going on that church has become just another weekend task?
Adrienne Toth is the religious education director at St. Jerome Catholic Church in Westchester.
"We try everything – new marketing techniques, you know. New mandates so the parents, they have to come and then they’ll find out they actually like it," Toth says.
She says her parish tries to get younger people involved in Catholic organizations, like the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Daughters.
"We do things together, but you just don’t see the young people joining in," Toth says.
Those young people, from about the age of 18 to 34, are known as the lost generation in the Catholic Church. Toth says they tend to quit going to Mass or taking part in the church community.
"We have to be honest, there’s a big bridge – or gap – between the older parish members who were used to one way of being part of a parish and the young people," Toth says. "And we have to work on getting them back."
Twenty-four-year-old Erin Hankins is part of the Catholic Church’s “lost” generation. But she takes part in her local church and teaches at Catholic grade school in South L.A. Hankins says parishes need to look at new ways to bring people her age back to church.
"In addition to maybe doing a Bible study or teaching people more about the Catholic traditions and faith – because I feel like a lot of Catholics don’t actually know what their faith entails – they would have to do something fun like go to baseball games together and go hang out with a group of people that they have other interests in, as well," Hankins says. "Because nobody’s going to go hang out with a group of people that they feel too different from. So they have to spark interest in other ways."
Hankins wonders if parishes are willing to put in the effort to bridge the gap and rebuild the younger church community.
Some are trying. At Westchester’s St. Jerome’s, they built a gym so that younger crowd has a place for sports or other activities. But longtime parishioner Adrienne Toth – active in the church but getting older – worries about what’s ahead for her parish.
"Once I’m gone, who’s going to be there to do the work, you know?" she wonders. "I look over and see all the gray heads and even the dyed heads that I know are, like mine, are colored and you’re gonna' – you know, who’s gonna’ be the next leaders? Who’s going to step up?"
Parishes are praying they’ll find an answer.