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Youth Losing Their Religion

I know it’s kind of an evergreen post around here, but this is a profoundly important phenomenon, one that is not taken with nearly enough seriousness by Christian parents. America magazine reports on a new study about young people who leave Catholicism.  [1]

Among the findings:

Robert J. McCarty, one of the study authors, told the audience that about a third of respondents left over church teaching, most often that on same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

“Young people see dealing with the gay community as an issue of social justice and human dignity, not an issue of sexuality,” he said.

I find that easy to believe. I’ll say more about it in a moment. But first, more findings:

According to St. Mary’s Press research, many of the respondents who stopped identifying as Catholics tended to have weak signs of attachment to the church. More than half of respondents said when they identified as Catholic they attended Mass a few times a year or less. Two-thirds of them had made their first Communion, but only a third had received confirmation. Nearly 60 percent had never been involved in any religious education or youth ministry.

Although their work focused on young adults age 15 to 25, McCarty said disaffiliation from the church is not a problem of youth ministry but a systemic crisis in handing on the faith. [Emphasis mine — RD] According to Pew Research Center, a little over a third of the adults born between 1981 and 1996 do not identify with any religion tradition. Around 13 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics.


Youth ministers at the conference were energized by the idea of change but more cautious on the details. At a roundtable session, youth ministers talked about the difficulty of changing a parish’s mindset to focus on accompaniment and personal relationships instead of programming, and the difficulty of getting parents interested in their children’s faith.

“We need to change how we approach things because we’re still traditional in thinking things that used to work can work today,” Anna Brown, a youth minister at St. Maria Goretti Parish in San Jose, told Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the San Francisco Archdiocese.

Read the whole thing.  [1]

I’m not sure what it means to “focus on accompaniment and personal relationships instead of programming.” But it’s very clear that far too many parents don’t want to take the faith seriously. They would like their children to have some faith, but not so much that they invest themselves in it. I hear all the time from priests, pastors, and religious educators who are frustrated by parental halfheartedness.

Here’s a really good piece [2] by Everett Fritz, Catholic author of a book about “forming young disciples.” [3] Excerpts:

Nearly half of the “cradle Catholics” who become unaffiliated are gone by age eighteen. Seventy-nine percent are gone by age twenty-three. When a soul walks away from the Church, that soul usually leaves when it is young.

Dynamic Catholic states that 85 percent of Catholic young adults stop practicing their Faith in college (most of them within their first year of leaving home). Curtis Martin, the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) thinks that 85 percent is conservative, and that the Catholic Church is losing more than 90 percent of Catholic young people by the end of their college years.

This data isn’t new. One can look at Dr. Christian Smith’s Soul Searching study from 2005 and see the same negative trends. In the 1990s, Mark DeVries of Ministry Architects tried to sound the alarm in evangelical churches that Christian youth were leaving those churches, too. The data has demonstrated the hemorrhaging for quite some time.

The problem, Fritz said, is one of discipleship.

It’s not just with young people, though. We older adults don’t take discipleship seriously. Discipleship — learning how to be faithful — is a lifelong task. I was present years ago as a college student when a friend asked his father how he (the dad) knew that he was a Christian.

“Well, I was baptized as a baby,” the dad said. Which is technically true, at least according to traditional, non-Evangelical Christian theology.

My friend’s father almost never went to church. To be honest, I can’t remember if my college friend was trying to make a point to his dad from a religious point of view (“Dad, you really should come back to church”) or from a skeptical point of view (“Dad, why should I take faith seriously when you don’t?”). The point was that the man’s son was pointing out that there was a big gap between what the older man professed, and how he lived. Scholars have learned that in predicting whether or not a young person will keep the faith as an adult, there is no factor more important than whether or not the entire family actively practiced the faith — and most especially, the father.

In previous eras, the children of a man who counted himself Christian, but never went to church, might have still kept the faith, because broader society was still generally Christian. Those days are long gone. When post-Christian society’s values clash strongly with the moral truths proclaimed by the Church — as in LGBT rights — many young people will reject the Church. In fact, they’ve already rejected it; they just don’t know it.

The most important thing from that America story is that the crisis of faith transmission is systemic. This is not a matter of tweaking this or that approach. Anything short of a systemic solution will fail. The problem, though, is that nobody has the ability to change an entire church system on their own. So what do we do?

What we can do is work in our own families, schools, and congregations to strongly build discipleship through practices as well as catechesis (education). This is the broad gist of The Benedict Option [4]. If young people aren’t holding on to their faith into adulthood now, when times are relatively easy for Christians, how are they going to do it when Christians have to start paying a significant personal and professional price for it? I know a lot of y’all get tired of hearing it, but the evidence keeps rolling in about the collapse of Christianity. A Catholic friend told me yesterday that in his wife’s family, every single one of her grandfather’s children, and all but one of his grandchildren, have left the faith entirely. In one, perhaps two, generations, a faith that had been alive in that Italian family for God knows how many centuries — almost certainly over a millennium — has evaporated. Just like that, it’s gone.

Leaving aside what this means for eternal souls, it is also a civilizational catastrophe. Store up what grain you can while you can; famine is here.

I am very interested to learn from you readers things you have tried — in your family, church, school — that have shown promise. And also, what has not.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Consider the following incident:

We live in a small rural parish. We are afflicted by exactly the dynamics you describe: poor catechesis, indifferent parents, etc….

For a while, we had a really outstanding deacon, who, in collaboration with my wife, came up with an innovative way of dealing with said problems. They would get rid of the old “drop your kids off and hope somebody teaches them something” model. Instead, the idea was to turn catechesis and preparation for sacraments totally over to the parents. A periodic class for the parents (not for the kids) would be offered at the church, so that parents in need of advice/ideas (all of us at one point or another) would have a regular venue in which to ask questions and bounce ideas around. The operative assumption was that the faith doesn’t get passed on if the parents aren’t deeply and visibly committed, and this was to be a trial run at creatively addressing that basic problem. Our priest, at the time, was giving frequent homilies in which he opined that baptism and confirmation were not things one does because “well, it will make grandma happy.” Thus, the time seemed ripe to propose such a solution.

So, what happened?

Our deacon and my wife proposed said idea to our priest. His response was:”But lots of parents won’t do it!”

Of…course…they…won’t…but..the…end…result..is…still…the…same, and it might actually motivate some parents to take their spiritual responsibility seriously. What part about this is so difficult to understand? Beats me.

We gave up, yanked our kids out of CCD, and we’re doing it ourselves. (we were homeschooling anyway). Maybe some of our kids will reject what we taught them, I don’t know. But I do know that they’re better off than they would be if they were still attending church school and then wondering why they never see the other kids at church. Cynical charades benefit nobody.

162 Comments (Open | Close)

162 Comments To "Youth Losing Their Religion"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 19, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

The secularization of the US long predates Bad Orange Man, so damn right I get peeved at simpletons and liars who immediately rush to blame him at every discussion of the decline of Christianity.

This is true. I think there is a valid point to be made, more narrowly, and that is that some Christian circles (I wouldn’t even say denominations) made a big point of celebrating Trump’s win AS A VICTORY FOR THEIR FAITH.

There were a number of “white” gospel artists who had forged some close ties with some “black” gospel artists like Cece Wynans, and I heard some rumbling that these “white” artists had betrayed the “black” artists. Now I believe that as Jim Crow and its residue recedes into the past, we will find a growing diversity of opinion among those previously designated as “black” or “colored” or “Negro” or “of color” of whatever the term du jour is. We shouldn’t expect people who become friends or associate professionally to agree on every detail of politics. However, the sheer in-your-face exuberance of asserting that “our shared Christian faith” triumphed with Trump’s election, was a step too far.

And I know Noah172 does not claim Trump’s election to be a triumph for Christian faith, so this isn’t directed at him, only outlining some facts on the ground relevant to his point.

I remember a black pastor of an independent Bible church who in 2001 was closing his Bible study talking about what good Christians George W. Bush and John Ashcroft were, who has been absolutely ballastic about the perceived racism of Donald Trump, and the increasing manifestation of racism on his watch. Whether accurate or not, the shift in perspective is worth noting.

So we have to believe in an imaginary sky fairy or civilization will fall?

Not only is that trite, as Rod said, but it assumes facts not in evidence. And you know, both history and many religions offer indictments of humanity as pretty sad.

#2 Comment By Rob G On December 20, 2018 @ 6:56 am

“So we have to believe in an imaginary sky fairy or civilization will fall?”

The mention of such things as the “imaginary sky fairy” or the “flying spaghetti monster” is a sure sign of a speaker’s fundamental unseriousness.

“Ah, but the devil is in the details, isn’t it.”

Very true, but let’s not get the cart before the horse.

“Why are all the internal barometers detecting such different versions of it? If my internal barometer leads me to Allah instead of Jesus, does that still get me into heaven? If my internal barometer is faulty, after all, blame the manufacturer.”

If you don’t know or even believe in the manufacturer by what standard do you declare the barometer faulty?

“Once again the internal barometers are, strangely, getting different readings. If all the conversions were towards one religion you’d have a point, but they ain’t.”

It wouldn’t make sense if they did, given that not every individual has encountered the various religions in the same way, if they even have done so at all.

I trust the barometer-maker to get the barometer right in each person’s case. Whether they follow the barometer is between them and God. I put a great deal of stock in the implied answer to the question that Abraham posed: Will not the judge of the earth do right?

#3 Comment By Erdrick On December 20, 2018 @ 8:18 am

Gene Smolko says:
December 19, 2018 at 5:52 pm
So we have to believe in an imaginary sky fairy or civilization will fall? That’s a pretty sad indictment of humanity.

How about believing in the humanity of all people and good will to all? How about believing in American principles of Freedom, Justice and Liberty? This is what unites me with my fellow Americans, a shared belief in humanity and our American principles. Their own personal spiritual beliefs do not concern me so long as they adhere to American principles.

I bet you have a Flying Spaghetti Monster sticker on your car.

I’m not even particularly religious, but this made my eyes roll to the back of my head. Coupling the knee jerk snide “sky fairy” comment with the naive 8th grader speech about “American Principles” made this one funny post!

[NFR: Anytime I hear the words “Flying Spaghetti Monster” or “Sky Fairy,” I assume I’m talking to a male mini-Ditchkins with the mentality of a ninth grader. — RD]

#4 Comment By MISD On December 20, 2018 @ 9:35 am

I do not comment often, but could someone remind me of the study/article to which this comment relates?
“Scholars have learned that in predicting whether or not a young person will keep the faith as an adult, there is no factor more important than whether or not the entire family actively practiced the faith — and most especially, the father.”

#5 Comment By Anne On December 20, 2018 @ 11:05 am

Recent studies of young people and religion offer a plethora of findings, and while all show less religious affiliation by young adults today than among older generations studied (and “studied” may be a critical adjective), the conclusions don’t necessarily support popular assumptions, including the one Evangelical leaders often cite, namely, that even if conservative “Bible churches” are losing a large percentage of younger members, the mainline churches are losing far more. A 2002 Southern Baptist Convention Family Life Council study, for example, had already found 88% of young people raised in Evangelical homes leaving church around the age of 18, while “Exodus,” a 2016 survey by the Public Religious Research Institute, puts church affiliation among young adults at an underwhelming 9% for white Evangelicals (7% for blacks) and 8% and 9% for mainline and other Protestants, respectively. (Catholic young adults do slightly better at 15%.)

Many cite recent surveys showing a growing percentage of university professors (as high as 25%) identifying as agnostic or atheist to blame the college experience for turning the young from religion, yet several more targeted studies indicate teens lose their faith before their freshman year.

Why? Churchmen (and Christian Smith) blame outside cultural influences while young rejectionists blame the churches, but most of those who no longer attend church cite everything from finding more rational answers in science to a preference for a less “regimented” spirituality.

Given that historians estimate general church attendance in America during the 18th and early 19th centuries at 17%, I’d guess we all may be lacking the information needed to evaluate what has become an overabundance of data generating more heat than light.

#6 Comment By Carter Hayes On December 20, 2018 @ 6:11 pm

James Kabala says:

“Xenie: TLM Catholics do not receive the blood at all! As no lay Catholics did before Vatican II. And I have heard zealous trad defenders of the old ways give health concerns as one of the reasons why. (I don’t know whether this is actually true.) Please do basic research before you post.”

Actually, Catholics receive the Body, BLOOD, Soul, and Divinity when we receive Holy Communion in the form of bread only. We don’t receive from the CHALICE, but we certainly receive the Blood. The Blood is just as present in the Host as much as It is present in the Chalice. After all, a body can’t live without blood being present. The introduction of receiving from the Chalice was just another attempt by modernists to undermine the doctrine of the Real Presence. It’s absolutely unnecessary.

#7 Comment By LFC On December 20, 2018 @ 6:28 pm

I think it would be more accurate to change the title of the article from “Youth Losing Their Religion” to “Religion Driving Away Youth”. This isn’t widespread laziness. Many are observing what religion has been bringing to the table and making the decision that what they see is too often immoral. Gay bashing, women as subservient, denial of science, corruption, cover-ups, binding themselves to a political party, Trump worship, and on and on. They aren’t “losing their religion” as if it was carelessly left somewhere. They are actively fleeing from the endless stream of immorality that they see with their own eyes. In this day and age there’s a lot more sunlight on the sordid underbelly of too many of the so-called religious than there used to be. Those that do remain religious avoid the power structures that have been incubators of sin and corruption for centuries.

#8 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 21, 2018 @ 12:01 am

most of those who no longer attend church cite everything from finding more rational answers in science to a preference for a less “regimented” spirituality.

A friend of mine who is sincerely concerned for my immortal soul shared with me a book by Ken Hamm which was basically a lengthy lament that children raised in good Christian homes go to college and learn about evolution and lose their faith.

I responded, of course they do. They have been taught since they were very small that evolutionary biology is contrary to Scripture, and if Scripture is authoritative then evolutionary biology must be false. Then they learn that there is a mountain of hard evidence substantiating the general outlines of evolutionary biology, albeit there are many specifics we don’t fully understand — data their parents, teachers, pastors, mentors withheld from them.

Naturally, they conclude that the Bible lacks the authority they were taught it held.

If they had been raised to understand that the authority of the Bible does not rest on denying obvious facts, that actually evolutionary biology is entirely consistent with (not proved by, just consistent with) the first two chapters of Genesis, they would not be losing their faith when they learn that they have been deceived.

#9 Comment By Rob G On December 21, 2018 @ 6:12 am

~~I think it would be more accurate to change the title of the article from “Youth Losing Their Religion” to “Religion Driving Away Youth”.~~

Didn’t read the article, did you?

#10 Comment By JohnInCA On December 21, 2018 @ 11:42 am

@Siarlys Jenkins
For fear of getting into the “providing answers” business…

[…] they would not be losing their faith when they learn that they have been deceived.

Wouldn’t it be better to just, I dunno, not deceive them?

Don’t teach that your god is a “god of the gaps”, and when kids learn about what fills those gaps they don’t lose god. For all the systemic and hard-to-fix problems of folks losing faith, this one seems pretty simple.

#11 Comment By Rob G On December 22, 2018 @ 10:36 am

“Then they learn that there is a mountain of hard evidence substantiating the general outlines of evolutionary biology, albeit there are many specifics we don’t fully understand — data their parents, teachers, pastors, mentors withheld from them.”

Having grown up in that milieu I can say that the data is generally not withheld out of deceit but out of ignorance. And not ignorance of its existence, but ignorance (sometimes studied, sometimes not) of its validity.

Sola scriptura combined with strict inerrancy may seem to constitute an insurmountable bulwark for faith but in reality it produces a house of cards: if the Bible is shown to have one “discrepancy” the whole thing collapses. And when a young person’s entire faith is based on “the Bible only,” than that faith is just as fragile intellectually speaking.

Fwiw, I found this essay by S.M. Hutchens very helpful when I first grappling with this stuff back in the early 90’s.

#12 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 22, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

Fair statement Rob G., thank you.

Wouldn’t it be better to just, I dunno, not deceive them?

Isn’t that exactly what I said?