WASHINGTON (CNS) — Professors, youth ministers and lay theologians across the country give different reasons for why young people are leaving the church, but they all agree that listening and mentoring are key to developing and maintaining faith.
Curtis Martin, president and founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, identified two groups of young people within the church: those who call themselves Catholics, but are slowly drifting away from the church, and those who are actively moving toward the heart of Catholicism.
Martin told Catholic News Service the reason so many young people are drifting away is because the church has “lost its voice.” The church is not talking enough about its first love, Jesus, he explained, but it is focusing on secondary and tertiary things.
Natalia Imperatori-Lee, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, agrees that young people want to focus on Jesus and the missionary work they can do in his name.
“What excites them is hearing the message of Jesus, seeing (Pope) Francis’ concern for the poor, seeing different groups in the church reach out to people on the margins,” Imperatori-Lee said. “Generally they are excited to be part of communities that are acting out the Gospels. I just don’t know that they connect the institutional church with those that are acting out the Gospels.”
She also said the church’s moral and social stances are opposed to many millennial stances. For example, she said the church should stop focusing on “pelvic issues” and help students reconcile their LGBTQ identities with their Catholic identity.
Gregory Hillis, a professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, countered Imperatori-Lee’s theory, suggesting that the sociological discrepancies between millennial morals and the church really stem from a deficiency in spiritual, theological and, especially, mystagogical education.
He explained that, without enlightening young people to the beauty, faith and theological reasoning behind Catholic moral teaching, dogma can feel oppressive and legalistic.
“When I ask my students to tell me, ‘When I say Catholic Church, what do you think of,’ they say ‘law and sex,'” Hillis told CNS. “That is their impression of the Catholic Church, that it is dogmatic and not beautiful.”
Hillis said he combats this phenomenon by teaching students about the church’s contemplative tradition, immersing them in Trappist Father Thomas Merton, St. Gregory the Great, St. Therese of Lisieux and other writers.
Most of Hillis’ students attended Catholic schools, growing up with daily or weekly religious education classes. Yet, he said, they have no idea that the church possesses this wealth of writing and thought, and often they ask him why they were never taught this in high school.
On a fundamental level, Hillis said young Catholics are overwhelmingly disconnected from mystagogical tradition. He said he takes his three sons to the nearby Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani “to hang out with the monks.” This kind of spiritual immersion is more effective than the typical catechesis young people receive today, Hillis said.
Jonathan Lewis, assistant secretary for pastoral ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington, shared Hillis’ concerns, but added that young people leaving the church are simply mirroring their parents’ gradual disaffiliation.
Lewis referenced “Sticky Faith,” a book by Kara Powell and Chap Clark, which says young people need at least five mentors who support them in their faith and life journeys in order for their faith to stick. Typically, this should include a priest, parish staff, small groups and parents.
However, Lewis said the church often fails to provide lifelong accompaniment to its members. In a survey of young Catholics in the District of Columbia area, less than half said they had either a mentor or a friend at their church.
“Young people are looking for the church to be home,” Lewis said. “You should belong there, people should know your name, you should feel welcome, you have the key, you have some authority, there is a table, you are provided for. The church should have all these elements of a home.”
Martin suggested a more aggressive approach that does not rely on waiting for the church to change. Instead, he said lay groups such as FOCUS must raise up spiritual young people who know how to survive when ripped from the comfortable spiritual luxury of college ministry, where they are surrounded by friends and mentors on fire for Christ, and dropped into spiritual wildernesses.
He said young people who find themselves in inhospitable faith environments first need to seek the “water and shelter of faith,” like daily prayer and frequenting the sacraments. However, once they have secured their own spiritual campground, they must gather a group of people and start a fire.
“Jesus changed the world with 12,” he said. “You don’t need a lot of people, but they need to be radically faithful and committed to being fruitful.”
Martin said although social media, videos, synods and councils are helpful, he believes the greatest hope and the greatest weapons for the Catholic Church are personal relationships.
“This is how Jesus Christ did it. His social media was the Ten Commandments, which people started breaking before they even left the mountain,” Martin said. “So Jesus became man and led a scandalously relational life. The amount of intentionality of relation that he demonstrated is our example.”
Martin said if each person who believes reached out to five other people, and each of them reached out to another five people, there would be real hope for the future of the church.
“It is very hard, must be the hardest thing they have done, but it is possible and it is occurring across the U.S.,” Martin said. “We are battling an exponential battle; either we are going to lose and it’s going to be terrible, or we are going to win and it is going to be magnificent.”
However, Hillis said he worries that if the church continues to make decisions without consulting young people, it will never connect with them.
Lewis, who audited the 2018 Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, said it was a positive example of church leaders truly listening to and engaging with young people.
“Pope Francis as pastor and teacher was trying to model for the universal church and bishops worldwide the right kind of process to engage young people in,” he said.
This included listening, friendship and leadership opportunities for young people at local levels. Lewis said he has not seen any widespread examples of implementation yet, but he is optimistic that communities will begin to change in the next year “because Christ is alive. He is always new, ever young, ever attractive, and ever alive.”