Cited below is a summary of a recent report in USA Today on why teenagers leave the Church. As you will see I have a lot of questions about the study which, though admittedly summarized here, seems rather front-loaded. That is, it seems to have asked questions of teens that more imply the expected answer than really seek for the actual answer.
All that said, there is no doubt the Church has had trouble in recent decades retaining young people once they head to college and then begin careers. It used to be that, when they married and started having kids, we’d get many of them back. But with marriage and family being postponed as late as the mid 30s, many of them are lost so long, they never return.
Dubious Study? It is always a good endeavor to seek to understand the dynamics of the current problem. Nevertheless I am not sure this study is very helpful. First, the results seem a bit dubious to me. They seem more a projection of the poll taker’s issues, than authentic issues of modern youth. Second, some of the reported responses seem rather typical of what all teenagers go through to some extent (rebellion, no one is going to tell me what to do, etc.) Third, even if these responses are accurate, I am not sure what the Church is suppose to do about many of them, since to remedy the problem, would be to ask the Church to not be the Church.
Let’s look at the summary of the report. Again, all I have access to here is the USA Today summary, hence the actual report may not fall under every critique I make. The Full USA Today articel can be read here: USA Today – Teens leave Church. The excerpts presented here are in bold, black, italic type. My remarks are in red plain text.
Why do young Christians leave the church? New research by the Barna Group finds they view churches as judgmental, overprotective, exclusive and unfriendly towards doubters. They also consider congregations antagonistic to science and say their Christian experience has been shallow.
Now, does this really sound like teenagers talking? Most teens I talk to reference more basic things like boredom and not understanding what is going on. I have never heard a teen talk about the Church’s “antagonism to science” on his own. Now, if you front load the question and ask “Do you think the Church is antagonistic to science?” The first thing many teens will ask is what “antagonistic” means. Then when you explain it means “hostile” or “against” they’ll likely say yes, since this is often the subtle narrative in their public school curriculum. But honestly, I doubt this is a big deal with most of them and it sounds like the surveyors are putting words in the teens’ mouths.
And can you really imagine a teenager, even an 18 or 19 year old talking about a church being “unfriendly to doubters?” This sounds more like a Gen X or Baby Boomer phrase that comes out of the Willow Creek “seeker sensitive” lingo.
And again, “shallow” sounds like a word that was put in their mouth by the survey takers. I don’t think current teens use words like this. Perhaps, boring, or dumb or stupid, or irrelevant, but shallow?
Pardon me for being dubious about the nature of this survey. It sounds like older and rather cynical poll takers putting thoughts, words and phrases in young people’s mouths.
The findings, the result of a five-year study, are featured in You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith, a new book by Barna president David Kinnaman. The project included a study of 1,296 young adults who were current or former churchgoers.
Researchers found that almost three out of five young Christians (59 percent) leave church life either permanently or for an extended period of time after age 15. One in four 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church.” One in three said “Church is boring.”
OK, these are serious numbers and I’ve sure heard the “Church is boring” claim. But frankly, young people find a lot of things boring including school, family gatherings, museums, conversations, reading, you name it. While we can’t ignore it, there does seem to be something inevitable about boredom at this stage of life. One of my visual images of a teenager is of a young man slouched in a chair, hands in his pocket, looking up and about, somewhat dazed, bored and with mild contempt on his face. Not every teen is this way, but it is a common trait. We can try to engage them better, but there is something of a phase they are going through that may not entirely be the fault of the Church.
As for “Christians demonizing everything outside of the church” this too sounds like a supplied view in the survey. For example, if I were a teen and heard a question, “Do you thing Christians demonize everything outside the church?” I might first wonder what “demonize” meant. Then, having been told that to demonize means “to consider as evil,” I’d probably say, “Yeah, right. That’s exactly right!” But frankly I have never heard a teen use a phrase like this and I figure it was a phrase supplied by the poll takers, not a phrase actually emerging from interviews with current teenagers.
Further I wonder as to the neutrality of the poll takers who speak of “Christians demonizing everything outside the Church.” The question seems more rhetorical than an authentic question. Would these same poll takers think to ask young people if they thought “Scientists demonize or dismiss everything outside science?” No, of course not. That doesn’t fit the narrative that says it is only Christians who are judgmental and “demonize.”
Clashes between church expectations and youths’ experience of sexuality have driven some away. One in six young Christians said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” And 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Catholics said their church’s doctrine on sexuality and birth control is “out of date.“
What to do? OK, but here is an example of data that is not surprising but, at the end of the day, what is the Church supposed to do? We cannot change our doctrine on this. Perhaps we can catechize on human sexuality better. But, frankly, even with a lot of education on the matter, many in today’s world still reject the teaching.
Frankly, many people reject Church teaching on sexuality not due only to lack of knowledge, but mainly because it is inconvenient to their moral life. To a great extent they do know, deep down, that much of what they are doing is wrong. I have never spoken with a cohabiting couple who didn’t know, deep down, that what they were doing was wrong.
But psychologically we usually like to deflect our guilt. And so people say the Church is “out of date,” and if you call me on it “you are being judgmental.” But, deep down, they know it’s wrong.
Also, I am not sure that the “out of date” charge from teens is unique to these times. Even back in the stricter 1950s, I am willing to bet that young people saw the Church teachings on sex as “out of date.” Things like that were just less openly discussed and surveyed in those days. And, there were more cultural mechanisms in place to ensure compliance. Plus, marriage happened a lot earlier, and people grew up a lot faster, and saw the wisdom of the teaching more clearly, at least insofar as fornication and adultery go.
Contraception is another story, and much more has to be done to help people see how this hideous recasting of sex has led huge problems with promiscuity, STDs, abortion, higher divorce rates, an explosion of single parent families, homosexual confusion and on and on. In the 1960s we sowed in the wind and we have reaped the whirlwind. We have discussed that here before, and will need to do so again.
Kinnaman called the problem of young dropouts from church “particularly urgent” since many churches are used to “traditional” young adults who leave home, get educated, find a job and start a family before age 30.
Yes, this is a big shift. When I was ordained, just under 25 years ago, most couples I prepared for marriage were in their mid 20s. Now they are in their mid 30s. Starting a family was a traditional path back to Church. Not any more.
“Churches are not prepared to handle the ‘new normal,’” said Kinnaman. “However, the world for young adults is changing in significant ways, such as their remarkable access to the world and worldviews via technology, their alienation from various institutions, and their skepticism toward external sources of authority, including Christianity and the Bible.“
All this could be said for older Church members as well. There’s no doubt, we’re in a real pickle when it comes to secularization and increasingly vocal hostility to the Christian faith. The Catholic Church is especially singled out for hatred.
But here again, the Church can only do so much. Simply changing to fit the times, has been tried by most of the main-line Protestants denominations and look at them, they are far worse off than we are in the Catholic Church. Surely we must continue to engage the culture in an on-going discussion and use every form of media possible. Fr. Barron’s Catholicism Series is a good example of how we can more effectively teach the faith.
But in the end we are what we are. Paul wrote to Timothy that the Gospel must be preached in season and out of season. Right now we’re increasingly out of season. We can make some strategic moves to better communicate the faith, but at some level, there are also some cultural mega-trends that may simply limit our numbers for now. When it came to numbers Jesus never seemed all that obsessed. In fact, when the crowds grew large Jesus would often give a “hard saying.” (e.g. Lk 11:29; Matt 19:1ff; John 6; Lk 5:19ff; Matt 9:23 ff, inter al). And while it is true that Jesus said we should go to all the nations, he did say we could, should, or would please most of them.
So our task seems clear. We must not cease to evangelize, but we must also realize that these may be times of sowing more than harvesting. Turing around things simply and quickly may be difficult. But above all we must never compromise the Gospel merely to draw numbers. The Church must be the Church. I am working to double the numbers at my parish this year. But we’re not going to do it by being conforming to consumerist demands, but by being compelling in the proclamation of the truth faith.
As always, I am interested in what you think.
At some level teenage rebellion is just a phase. Sadly though our modern culture puts it on steroids by glorifying it in music etc. Here’s an example from my high school daze:
Sittin’ in the classroom thinkin’ it’s a drag
Listening to the teacher rap-just ain’t my bag
When two bells ring you know it’s my cue
Gonna meet the boys on floor number 2
Smokin’ in the boys room
Teacher don’t you fill me up with your rule
Everybody knows that smokin’ ain’t allowed in school