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Sep 19, 2018

Young People Are Leaving the Church—Can We Turn the Tide?

Matthew Pinto

Thirteen is the typical age when young people leave the Catholic Church. If you haven’t read Bishop Robert Barron’s article about young people leaving the Church, you should read it here. In it, he comments on a 2016 study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).  While there are many findings in the CARA study to discuss, Bishop Barron addressed the most common reasons cited for leaving the Church, noting that these reasons could be easily refuted by basic apologetics.

Regarding this study, and trends I’ve been seeing for many years, I say this: I have complete faith in Jesus’ ultimate protection of the Church, which he promises in Matthew 28:20:

“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

This said, I am seriously concerned about the Church’s long-term retention of young Catholics. I have four teenage boys, and for the past several years, I have been observing their peer groups—which is mostly made up of Catholic school students. My observations are that very few of these teens have a solid grasp of the Catholic Faith, and some even lack any interest in associating with the Church at all.

In short, excluding significant immigration from traditionally devout Catholic countries, I believe the Church in America is going to experience a real convulsion in the next five to fifteen years in terms of the loss of practicing members of the Faith. Proportionately, we will lose the greatest number among teens and young adults. Recent studies from Pew, Gallup, and CARA on Catholic youth who have left the Church all support this conclusion. For example, CARA’s stats on the sacraments reveal that many millennial Catholics are significantly less likely than Catholics of previous generations to be confirmed, engage in Lenten practices, pray consistently, or even have a strong belief in God. When these millennials marry and have children, they may baptize them in the Faith, but it is unlikely that they will be able to pass along any real faith. After all, one cannot give what one does not possess.

Let’s Focus on Evangelizing

Despite the dedicated teachers and administrators of our Catholic school system, I believe our entire approach to teen faith formation needs to be reconsidered. We need to shift our focus to evangelizing teens, engaging them in apologetics, setting higher expectations for belief, and monitoring the success of the transmission of the Faith. I also think we need to increase the number of “core” classes in Catholicism that are required (from the current six) to a larger number, which is achieved by shortening their length from one semester to “half semesters.” For example, I have worked with my teens on certain classes and shuddered at the level of almost mind-numbing “drill down” on a given topic (three months on “death and dying,” for example).

In short, I believe our Catholic high school students need shorter courses on a greater variety of topics. They can do more drill down, if needed, in college or on their personal time. And, as stated, these classes need to involve apologetics and dynamic teaching. A new approach must also be couched in the “theology of encounter” language, espoused by Pope Francis, and an intentional focus on evangelizing the individual (versus just catechizing).  Our Catholics schools are great at “sacramentalizing” and pretty good at catechizing, but they are not focused in any serious way on evangelizing. This must change or we, as a Church, are going to face very serious attrition.

This article was originally published on MatthewPinto.com.


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About Matthew Pinto
Matthew Pinto

Matt is the founder and president of Ascension and the author or co-author of a variety of bestselling works, including the teen question-and-answer books Did Adam and Eve Have Belly Buttons?Did Jesus Have a Last Name?, and Do I Have to Go: 101 Questions about the Mass, the Eucharist, and Your Spiritual Life. Matt also co-authored A Guide to the Passion, which has sold over a million copies and is a New York Times Bestseller. Matt has appeared on numerous television and radio programs explaining and defending the Catholic Faith, and he has conducted seminars on a variety of Catholic issues throughout the country. He was also a recipient of the Catholic Leadership Institute’s 2004 Award for Outstanding Catholic Leadership.

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  • I’m afraid this train has left the station and it’s not coming back. Congregations will continue to ‘grey’ and what some regard as the ‘source and summit’ of Christian life will evolve into different forms of worship. Many young people now are spiritual but not religious. They support progressive causes (health care for all, support for immigrants, refugees and prisoners and other things we know the Jesus of the Gospels would endorse). I can’t help wondering if they have read Matthew’s Gospel in which he records Jesus’ response to the apostles when they ask him how to pray. He gives them a double-barrelled answer; not only telling them how to pray, but also how NOT to pray. ‘Do not pray as the hypocrites do in the public houses of worship, using their long and meaningless prayers as the pagans do. They think the Father will hear them because their prayers have many words. When you pray, go into your room and close the door. And pray to your Father in Heaven who is unseen in these words…” which is what we know now as the Lord’s Prayer. He goes on to tell the apostles that their Father in Heaven ‘already knows what you need.’ To sum up, God (as man incarnate in the form of Christ) has given us gold-plated advice about communicating with Him. Do it in private, don’t rely on an intercessor, keep it short and don’t make up prayers for specific purposes. It seems to me that the young may be taking their que from Jesus Himself, as recorded by Matthew. All is well.

  • I am very interested in this topic as a mother of a 6, 5 and 2 year old. Moving around several times while growing up I saw a difference in Catholic Churches and their teen programs. Some have fantastic leadership involvement from members in their late twenties and young marrieds in their 30s. They share their faith journey and are young enough to connect and relate well with the teens. Certain families with large homes will host the entire group at their house and it becomes personal with weekly dinners, outdoor games, acoustic guitar and small groups. It’s a formula I’ve seen that really helps make it something to look forward to. There is a weekend retreat to really drive home all the Bible based messages. This is how I came to commit myself to the Lord. In great contrast with this approach, is the one where teens are required to come to a class at a church classroom where a parent volunteer walks through a set curriculum each week whether or not the teens are receiving or appreciating the message. There is a lot of eye rolling, low participation in class and high absences. I’ve been in this program before as a teen and it severely hurt my commitment and interest in the church. Young Believers need to surrounded by strong believers (not just one volunteer parent that rotates from week to week). This is where I fell away from the church and didn’t return for a decade.
    This is a huge problem in the church – they are not making it personal and attracting many kids. I pray for the church but I’m finding that if I want my kids to want to be faithful, involved and committed at church, I may have to try another denomination that does it right. This is too important to me to gamble with a lackluster teen program and fail my kids.

  • Hi Matt,

    I am a mom of four children ages 22, 14, 13 and 11 (three boys and a girl), our three youngest teens being home schooled for 9 years now.
    I have seen it with my 22 y/o son and now experience this with my 13 y/o son. I currently volunteer in Edge and in the past with Lifeteen when my oldest was in high school.
    We have used a variety of religion curricula in the last 9 years; My Catholic Faith Delivered, Education In Virtue by Dominican Sisters in Ann Harbor, Michigan, Baltimore Catechism level 1 & 2, Seton and Ascension Press studies. We currently use Homeschool Connections classes where my boys take a recorded class from Gary Machuta and my daughter takes a class for middle schoolers on her “Authentic Beauty” based on TOB for middle school.
    I agree with you on this extremely important topic. It is imperative that we help this next generation to fully understand their faith and grow into a relationship with Our Lord Jesus enough to evangelize and be apostles of the gospel.
    Any help, suggestions and guidance from you and your team is greatly appreciated.
    Ascension Press will be in our prayers as they help us Catholic parents teach & engage our teens to be disciples of Christ.
    Thank you!
    Mary Frances Dy-Liacco

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