Monday, October 10, 2011

Why Young Christians Leave the Faith

newly released 5-year research project from the Barna Group highlights 6 reasons why young Christians leave Christianity. I will comment below, between the quotes of the study.
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. 

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.
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?
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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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.
I wish I had all the answers, and I sometimes act as if I do, but I don't. Rather, let this serve as a call to all of us - THE CHURCH - to do something about it personally, rather than wait for others to do it for us.


Comments and thoughts are welcome. Please be kind.


Ann said...

Something to consider: many children get a lot of their theology from music, and when the music in mass is lacking theologically or is plain wrong or misleading in the lyrics, then the children are learning songs that do nothing for their formation. I speak from experience, I grew up with music that challenged my understanding and as I memorized the songs, the lyrics formed my comprehension of Christianity as it relates to the world.

A second thing is that many of the complaints of young people are the result of being taught to be materialistic and self-obsessed. They do not relate to a Christ centered religion because they have been taught to be totally self-centered by our culture.

By college they are formed and so major conversion experiences are needed to jolt them into revamping their worldview into a Christian understanding.

I agree with the need for adult education of the people who will be parents. I have a MAT, education background, am a mother of adult children and small children, and would love to help teach in adult education-- look me up. :)

Hip said...

I would say we need better young adult groups but well, we actually need young adult groups in the first place. It was easy for me to be Catholic in high school and college, not so much in medical school and I was a disaster during residency. I have returned to the Church fortunately but the struggle remains. I am female and single and still looking for help accepting my place in the Church. Surrounding me I see the ideal Catholic woman as a married homemaker with 3+ children. For many reasons this probably will never happen to me, but regardless of the future I need help now! I am trying to seek out answers, and friends, and support and I wish I felt more strongly the Church was trying to reach out to me. That is why I personally fell away, which might not apply to anyone else, but yes, we do need to do better with young adults. I'm hoping I eventually get to a point where I can minister to others.

Richard Cross said...

As a child of the 1960s and the product of a Jesuit education--which I survived spiritually--I must say that each of the listed reasons come straight from the "id dubito(s)" that I experienced as a high school student. The problems of apostasy now are the same as they were 50 years ago.

Peregrinus said...

The several reasons given for young adults’ leaving the Christian Faith are reducible to one main reason, at least in respect to Catholic Christianity; namely, they do not know what they are leaving. If they did, then they would not leave in the first place. This fact indicates the need for better formation (i.e., instruction), as has been said; but it also indicates the need for better students. Good learning requires both a good teacher and a good student. The typical teen ager or young adult is not willing to make the effort of really learning about his Faith (a difficult and sublime topic), especially since secular culture is easily understood and permissive of what a teen ager or young adult believes brings happiness.

Most people only take the trouble to investigate their Faith later in life after misery, tragedy, or a crisis of identity. The real question, therefore, is: how many of the young adults who leave later return? Many of the strong Catholics I know have left the Faith for a time and have come back after learning what is was that they actually left. Their leaving has, in a sense, made them stronger; for it has forced them to know the reason for the hope that is now in them.

Hidden One said...

If you want to keep a Catholic in the Church, teach him how to pray - that is, have the Saints do it. If s/he prays, the rest will fall into place.

Marcel said...

Peregrinus - the bad student issue is a parenting issue, not a generational one. They aren't teaching their kids the importance of learning the faith.

Marcel said...

Hidden One - I mentioned that in the post and agree with you. Without the personal relationship through prayer, there is nothing to base your faith on.

Sarah said...

Just my two-cents as a twenty-something:
My generation grew up in a world inundated with information. We process so much of it that we've become very good at sifting through what is meaningful and true and what isn't. Necessarily, we intuitively detect any sort of falsehood or duping and are repulsed by it.

I think the accusation that today's youth are apathetic is simply wrong. (Look how we responded to Obama.) We hunger for meaning and for the "real thing", for anything genuine and solid and meaningful, and we are repulse by anything we perceive to be a pretender. Telling young people "church is fun" over and over just drives them away if they plainly see (or think they see) that it isn't. Telling them "faith is important" when their observations tell them something different does the same thing. We are used to having useless things/ideas/beliefs advertised to us. We want the real thing.

The good news is, the Church has the real thing. The question is how to get that message across.

I think the comment about introducing children to Christ before culture can get its hands on them is so very, very important. Young people see the deep conflict between the world and the Church. If the world view of modern America takes a firm hold before the Christian one does, the beliefs of the Church will seem like the fake. The young people are picking sides, but they're picking the wrong one.

The youth don't want an easy faith. They don't want it dumbed down. They want it tough, real, deep, and alive.

That's just my impression; I could be wrong.

Marcel said...

Sarah - I, for one, think you are right on the money.

animal said...

I felt the reason the youth don't want to have anything to do with religion is because of peer pressure. If you have a teenager into Gothic dress and listening to Marilyn Manson, you can add and change all you want to the mass, it won't attract these type of teens. Parents have to start when the child is in their adolescent years to be vigilante on who they let their child befriend. Of all my friends and family with teens with the wrong friend/peers,are the ones you couldn't get to mass if Jesus himself was there.

Christine Falk Dalessio said...

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%)...
I always think - if we somehow could show young people what it means that Jesus in the Eucharist is always there, always new, our beloved, always present, they might come to church to meet their beloved, and might have more chance of surviving boring homilies or liturgy that might stretch what they are used to.

If we could actually have youth, campus, and ya ministry in our Church, people might not be leaving (or never coming)... our diocese, for example, has over 100 parishes, and only 4 paid youth ministers... it's a sad fact that we bemoan smaller numbers of youth and declines in celibate vocations, and yet we are doing nothing in our local churches to answer the need.

Mr. Aitchison said...

Couldn't agree with Sarah more. The youth hunger for the fullness of the Truth. They want the challenge of the Gospel, the kind that calls them out and says, "You REALLY CAN be a SAINT". Heck, we all desire that - deep down (though I think once we hit a certain age we try and ignore that voice within calling us to greatness).

Mandrivnyk said...

I do not disagree with any of your suggested changes.

And, yes, #6 had a bit to do with why I briefly left the Faith in my 20's (although I certainly also used a few other reasons as excuses).

Anil Wang said...

My own experience is, I wasn't taught even the basics of the faith....It shocked me (30) years later that Christians actually believed that Jesus was God. Now I didn't get confirmed (we were told we didn't need to be), but the picture I got was that Jesus was just a good teacher and little different than Mary. Both needed to be honored, but we went to Church to worship God.

But Church really wasn't that important since how you behaved on Sunday should be how you behave every day of the week, so it was possible to make each day a worship regardless of whether you go to Church or not. There was nothing more to Catholicism than that. Be a good person, and you'll get to heaven.

I was not challenged in any way. I was not given any hint that the faith was so large that there was no way I could master it, I could only be mastered by it. If I did not get married to a good Christian woman, I would never have been forced to investigate my faith and eventually come back. If it were not for here, I would never have returned to the Catholic Faith.

Gail F said...

When my daughter was young we belonged to a mother-daughter book club. We were the only Catholics -- all the others were various types of "Christian." My daughter now has a deep aversion to Christianity, not a better understanding of it, one that her Franciscan high school is (I think) finally helping to overcome. Individually, most of these mothers and daughters were really nice. But as a group they were judgmental, intolerant, and "holier than thou." Also, over the years the more inclusive families graduated out and were replaced by stricter ones. For instance, we started reading all sort of books and ended, in middle school, with Christian romance novels because some of the mothers would not let the girls read anything else. Like all romance novels they were shallow and silly, except that in this case they were shallow and silly about religion. Some of the girls were not allowed to watch anything on television (we are strict at our house and don't have cable, but these kids couldn't watch anything but Christian videos) or listen to anything but Christian music. Many of them were home schooled and talked about how bad school was -- some were also creationists. So most of these findings hit home to me. My daughter thinks "Christians" are judgmental, anti-science, exclusive, and condemn everything. Their version of following Christ is not attractive!

Cindy Willmot said...

I have one word for you----Modernism. If you haven't heard about it look it up. Pope Pius X dedicated his entire papacy to battling it---and that was 1903 to 1914! So here we are, 100 years later, seeing the results. The Catholic Church was the only defense against the insidious infection of modernism, yet instead of continuing to fight, the Church embraced it. Where all Popes once took Pope St. Pius' X Oath Against Modernism, they no longer do. Modernism. That is the name of this disease that is destroying our children....

Riley said...

I am 63 years old and remember as an 18 year old that many of the comments about church were my feelings. "Had to go, had to do, etc..." It was a Baptist Church after all! All that ended when I went to college and became a new pagan.

I had been in motion towards the one Holy and Apostolic Church for many years. I became Catholic last Easter Vigil. It's a new world for me, freedom, confession and penance, the Holy Eucharist. I love it all. I was sad that I wasted so much of my life in sin and indifference, BUT, I have been absolved of all those sins.

Now I am troubled about my daughter's faith. She is 31 and just reads her Bible during church (she was raised and is Lutheran). How can I reach her now? We trained her to love and know God.
I pray that all of my close family will eventually become Catholic and see the great journey I am taking.