MILWAUKEE – The number of marriages celebrated in the Catholic Church is decreasing, and that is a “huge problem” for faith formation in the church, said John Roberto during his keynote speech at Marquette University Aug. 4.

“The whole process of faith formation and religious socialization is triggered by marriage – marry fewer, marry later, fewer baptisms, fewer young families, lower Mass attendance,” said Roberto, president of Lifelong Faith Associates and coordinator for the Faith Formation 2020 Initiative.

Parishes need to adapt their programs and can’t ignore the demographic trends, changing views of family and generational shifts that impact the church when they’re “Envisioning the Future of Marriage and Family Ministry,” the topic of Roberto’s talk during the Marriage-Building Construction Zone International Conference, held Aug. 3-6 that was sponsored by the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers and the USCCB Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.

“If we don’t make the changes necessary to reach emerging adults, to reach them before and after marriage, and before and after baptism, we have no one to blame but ourselves, because we now have the technologies and resources to do that,” he said.

According to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) Roberto said that the number of Catholic marriages decreased from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010 – a 60 percent drop, though he noted that the Official Catholic Directory showed growth in the Catholic population from 2001 to 2010.

“To put it another way, this shift is from 8.6 marriages to 1,000 Catholics in ’72, to 2.6 (per 1,000 Catholics) in 2010,” he said.

The generational shifts in defining family structures, changing religious views, decreased Mass attendance and increased cohabitation among those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, is something that Roberto said will continue “unless there’s some dramatic change,” which he doesn’t expect.

“They’re marrying later – 27, 28, 29 – not unusual, therefore, they’re having children later – in their 30s, even early 40s – and we’re seeing declined levels of family faith practice and socialization,” Roberto said, adding, “If you want to pray an ‘Our Father’ now, that’d be fine. That’s the context. Those are the trends.”

Roberto deferred to an Albert Einstein quote to illustrate the challenge facing the church: “The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

“Because doing the same things we did that worked 10 or 20 years ago, well, that was another world,” he said of the issues that are more than technical problems easily solved by buying new textbooks or adding an extra two hours of marriage preparation. Instead the more complex issues require “adaptive challenges,” that call for a change of heart, mind and attitude, he said.

Thinking about adaptive challenges and the need to experiment with marriage preparation and family faith formation ministry in the changed context of today’s world can be overwhelming, he admitted, but necessary.

He said parishes need to work to reach the four different scenarios of Catholics that exist: 1.Those with vibrant faith and active engagement; 2. the spiritual but not religious; 3. the unaffiliated and uninterested; and 4. the uncommitted and participating.

“Our curriculum and our programs are developed around scenario one, even though, in many ways, there are more people in four and increasing numbers in two and three,” Roberto said.

And parishes shouldn’t be surprised that people fall into some of the scenarios, because parishes don’t keep a relationship built before and after marriage preparation, Roberto said. Some Catholics return to the church only for a “rite of passage,” to celebrate a sacrament like confirmation, which leaves a gap in formation before they return for marriage preparation.

“There’s also a three-to-five-year gap oftentimes between marriage and the first child….” Roberto said.

“We’re actually making the trends that are already happening worse, because we’re not being present to them in a relational way throughout the 20s and 30s, so it makes marriage preparation much more difficult. It makes baptism preparation much more difficult,” he said, suggesting three shifts parishes can make to can help change this.

First, Roberto suggests parishes get rid of the “one-size-fits-all programming mindset.”

With the help of technology, parishes can “personalize and customize faith formation around every single person,” Roberto said, explaining that this “differentiated faith formation” allows parishes to focus on the “real” spiritual and religious growth and needs of each person.

“Let’s fashion faith formation around the real people wherever they may be in their journey,” he said.

The second shift Roberto suggested was that parishes use more of the different faith formation models, and blend the face-to-face with virtual, on your own, mentored, at home, small group, large group, church community and around the world.

“Use as many of those models that work, but we need to be a multi-model faith formation, not one track,” he said.

His last suggestion to parishes was that they think about faith formation as a network with the young, emerging adults, married couples and families and use the variety of technological resources available to reach out to each.

“You’ll catch different people in different ways with different models and different technologies,” Roberto said.

Finding the good, Catholic iPad applications, websites and resources for faith formation is up to the parishes.

“People are not going to spend time doing this … but we can do that,” he said, comparing the people in faith formation roles to curators who “curate faith formation content and experiences on behalf of people with different religious and spiritual needs.”

It’s these shifts that will change the way people think about faith formation, marriage preparation baptism preparation and the like, said Roberto.

“It’s going to change,” he said, “because it’s not about following the program anymore – it’s about connecting people to the resource, program, experience, content that meets their spiritual and religious needs where they are in their walk with God.”