What will it take to keep young people in the church?

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

The photos covered my Facebook newsfeed: pictures of teenagers donning bright red robes, smiles upon their faces, foreheads shiny with the fresh chrism.

The captions for the photos were all similar: “Confirmed in Christ!” or “He did it! A full-grown Catholic, choosing his own faith.”

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It was nice to see photos of happy families celebrating a sacrament. Far better than any of the political posturing that usually occupies Facebook.

But as I went to bed that night, continuing to scroll mindlessly through social media, a thought kept running around my mind: “I hope all those teens stay Catholic.”

Perhaps because of my profession as a Catholic speaker and writer and practitioner of ministry or because I taught many of those young people just a few years before or because I am a mom or even just because I am a faithful Catholic, in the midst of being so happy that so many in my diocese were newly confirmed, I had a feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach that many, if not most, of those young people will disaffiliate from the faith and walk away from the church in the next few years.

The reasons for their disaffiliation will be varied. Some will leave because they will not find a good faith community when they go to college. Others will walk away because their parents are not there to encourage faith in their lives. Some will get hung up on intellectual challenges, unable to reconcile reason with faith. Still others will leave because they never truly believed in the first place, having no real relationship with Christ or love of the Eucharist.

How do we keep them, or anyone really, Catholic? To keep them, we have to stop asking that question in the first place.

How do we keep them, or anyone really, Catholic? To keep them, we have to stop asking that question in the first place.

I could not fall asleep that night as I kept thinking, “I hope they stay,” because I was bothered by my fundamentally flawed question. I should not start with the question, “What will make young people stay Catholic?” I should first be asking, “How can I engender a love of Jesus within their hearts?” Because it is that love of Jesus that will make them stay—it is what keeps any of us here.

Confused and scared, two believers once wandered on the road to Emmaus, away from Jerusalem and away from what they did not understand, perhaps seeking solace in a place less chaotic and noisy and scary than where they were coming from. On that road they meet Jesus, who listens to them, teaches them, shares a meal with them and inspires them to rush off to tell others of their encounter with him. They cannot help but proclaim the Gospel with their very lives.

When a young person is introduced to Jesus by someone who knows him themselves, they come to realize that Jesus is someone who loves them.

When a young person is introduced to Jesus by someone who knows him themselves, they come to realize that Jesus is someone who loves them, longs for them and is close to them, and they become captivated by him. Their hearts will and do begin to burn. Disciples grow; they are not born. They are befriended, listened to, valued and encouraged by those who have been befriended and heard themselves.

The faith is caught, not taught. It is witnessed to, not merely explained. They stay and we stay because friendships were formed with others, and that friendship and intimacy with believers leads to friendship and intimacy with Jesus himself.

To keep our young people Catholic, we have to grow close to them and help them become close to Jesus. There is no more important work at this moment. There is nothing more essential to the work of the church. There is nothing more pressing than to be companions along the journey with our young people so that they stay in the church and stay in love with Jesus.

I hope they stay. I hope we do, too.

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Kevin Besse
12 months ago

The article gave me a push to reflect on why I still call myself Catholic. I think although it seems paradoxical, primarily it was my acknowledging to myself that Catholicism is one of many religions that are all equally valid paths to what we call God. I realize that I was born into a Catholic family, and reared in a Catholic milieu, but had I been born in another part of the world I would probably count myself as Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or something else. Unfortunately I didn't come by this through any formal catechism, attending Catholic grade school, teaching from the pulpit, or any preparation for sacraments.
I was brought up thinking that being Catholic was the one and only way to avoid eternal hell. I know many adults, if answering honestly, would say the same.
I can't say that a focus on the spirit of the religion instead of dogma, rules, and creed would help young or old folks remain. However it was the focus on spirituality and wisdom that transcends religious belief that helps me.
I have to admit though, that in some eyes, me claiming that I am a Catholic although I don't entertain much dogma, but see some things as wonderful myths that can lead us to union with the eternal (God), doesn't make me a Catholic. I've had healthy discussions with friends who have called me Unitarian and/or atheist. We laugh at the labels, as I imagine God does also.
I don't know if it has ever been tried in a formal setting, to give young people the wonderful permission to question, laugh at, disagree with, discuss, think about, pray about, their religion. I have never heard such from the pulpit, and I admit I have no idea what takes place in a CCD class. Maybe more would leave. But it is a beautiful religion rich with tradition and spirit. I think many would stay. They may not be dues-paying, mass-attending, choir-singing members, but they may appreciate and practice their religion in new ways, and allow it to help them grow spiritually.

Gabriel Marcella
11 months 4 weeks ago

Katie: Young people are idealistic. The best way to teach Catholicism is by linking the application of Catholic social doctrine to contemporary challenges that we and they face--political, social, economic, environmental. This will require a new way of evangelization.

Donna Erpelding
11 months 3 weeks ago

Why the young people, and others, too, are leaving the church??? -- In so many ways Jesus would say 'yes' but the church says 'no'....such as: discrimination against women(Jesus did not discriminate against women though the church keeps women disciples and later deacons and even a bishop under-wraps, discrimination against LGBT community (Jesus included all), discrimination against divorced and remarried baptized Catholics. Jesus would not deny these folks communion. All are welcome to the table of the Lord.. Also, the sexual abuse scandal and cover-up has turned many away. The lack of opportunity for spiritual growth when the church clings to antiquated theologies....simple as The Lord's Prayer we say is not how it was originally translated from Aramaic. The Creed still states that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God but
God doesn't have a right hand....that would be a human characteristic not a God characteristic, etc.

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