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Youth Losing Their Religion

The crisis is systemic -- and it's a civilizational catastrophe
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. 

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. 

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 by Everett Fritz, Catholic author of a book about “forming young disciples.” 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. 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.



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