The research project was comprised of eight national studies, including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.This first statistic is startling - right at 60% of all Christians are leaving the faith. Previous research has shown that religious engagement, after college, by those who are active in their faith during high school is only at 20%. Another way of looking at that previous data - 80% of young adults are falling away (or are fallen away completely) from their faith. We aren't losing a generation - they are lost. The question now is, what do we do about it?
No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective. A few of the defining characteristics of today's teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).The problem here? Young Christians aren't connected the harmful parts of culture and analyzing them. Rather, they absorb them, accept them as valuable, and then have their faith tell them something different. The problem is that we aren't forming them into disciples of Christ first, and then releasing them into the culture. Rather, we allow the culture to form them first. This means the culture has the upper-hand in guiding them and teaching them where happiness is found.
Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow. A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).This is nothing we haven't known for a while, the problem is we have done little about it. Too often we seek to "engage" teenagers instead of challenging them to live out their faith. I am not proposing that the two are mutually exclusive (in fact they can't be if we do both successfully), but we do seem to have a desire to entertain teens more than anything else. This is also indicative of modern parenting. We leave the formation of young people, in faith issues, to the churches and religious schools. Too often parents do not model or teach the faith in the home. Now, do we need to make church relevant? Certainly. But, never at the expense of the Gospel and the call to holiness.
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science. One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.I don't think this is as big a problem in the Catholic Church as it is in fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and Evangelical Protestant denominations, but it is still an issue. Too many Catholics think of Galileo (as taught by anti-Catholics), contraception, and fetal stem cell research. The bad part is most Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is wrong on all these issues. Another formation issue here.
Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church's expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”When you don't have anything to say "Yes" to about sexuality, then you will only here the Catholic message about sexuality as a big "NO". But, this isn't what the Church has ever taught. We teach that the NO to premarital sex, contraception, and other sexual sins is really a big "YES" to God, life, purity, chastity, healthy relationships, spiritual wholeness, bodily integrity, etc. But, if all a kid knows is NO, then the other stuff doesn't make sense. The solution to this one is age-appropriate teaching of sexuality by parents, backed up by the Church's teaching of Theology of the Body.
Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).This certainly isn't what the Catholic Church teaches, but it certainly is the message given to others by many believers. The Church is made up of sinners who can find common-ground with many other faiths. Certainly there are some exclusive claims in Catholic doctrine that are non-negotiable, but if we don't teach the basis of what those are, then they are easy to shoot holes through. In addition, most parishes are not very welcoming and are hard to get involved in. This is terrible. The people of God should always be looking outward, not inward. Now, the final problem here is found in a culture where open-mindedness is esteemed more than truth. Relativism is to blame and we need to continue to fight this false philosophy at every turn.
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).As someone who welcomes questions and doubted myself, I can agree this is a problem. Too often we sell Christianity to others as a package-deal - in other words, it seems we tell others they should accept every challenge Christianity has for them NOW or else. We have little patience for the free will of others to have doubts, fears, and different conclusions than our own. We need to be more open and patient when dealing with the struggles of others. Jesus didn't get the apostles completely on board even after three years with them!
We need a change in several areas of our Church to re-capture this generation of young people:
- We need to all evangelize. We can't wait for others to go and get young people, we need to do it ourselves. This is the purpose of the Church - to make disciples of all nations.
- We need better Catholic parenting. Too often parents check their faith at the door. Formation of parents should be the focus of our parishes. Then they in turn can form their children. This is what the universal church has always taught - catechesis should focus on adults, not children. But, we have it backwards in our parishes.
- We need better youth ministry that is more formation-oriented. When I say formation, I do not mean more class time. Students get enough of that. But, when teaching social justice, take them to a soup kitchen. When teaching sexuality, have young married couples come talk to them. When teaching why the Incarnation is so important, bring them to Adoration. Teach them to pray. Teach them to love Jesus. Preach the Gospel, again, again, and again. I commend the youth ministries that are already doing these things, but too many are not.
- We need better campus ministries. Many campuses have nothing. Most have little. Only a few have good ministries and even these capture less than 50% of Catholics on-campus.
- We need more dynamic young adult ministries. We need something more than a singles' group or young married couples groups. These are fine, when done well, but we need amazingly attractive programs that think outside of the box.
Comments and thoughts are welcome. Please be kind.