Why are young people leaving the Church?
by Francis Tuson
There is no doubt that the number of young people in our churches is dwindling. This is a catastrophe because without them there will be no Church in the future.
There are many and varied reasons for this tendency to leave the Church, even after Confirmation. Research gives reasons why people leave: the misplaced belief that Catholicism is incompatible with science; misconceptions about, and disagreement with teachings of the Church; and the behavior, and/or hypocrisy, whether direct or indirect, of other Christians themselves.
This uninviting behavior comes in many forms, but one I would initially like to highlight is that of judgment. Parents all over the world have often used the fear of a higher power to coerce their children into behaving themselves, and so, usually unintentionally, have programmed the idea of a judgmental and intolerant God into their children’s psyches. As children grow into teenagers, and then into young adults, they often go through rebellious phases. These phases should be constructive times for young people, for example they could be attempting new ways of thinking and expressing themselves, which help keep our society from stagnating. Instead of embracing the youth’s exciting differences and vigour, parents, and often other older members of parishes, including priests, stifle it. Often this is done by emphasizing and enforcing rules legalistically and small mindedly. People allow their disgust at (unfortunately) socially encouraged youthful excess to dictate their interactions with the young, instead of attempting gentle guidance-tempered by forgiveness and understanding.
As young people become more independent, they tend to shy away from the judgment and associated (and often unfounded) guilt. No-one likes to feel guilty and judged. Can one blame them for coming to church less and less?
This situation is aggravated by the lack of meaningful faith and spiritual education. Young people are often either bored out of their minds by well-meaning but dull and out of touch educators, or have a fiery zeal enkindled in them by passionate and charismatic youth leaders, which gutters as soon as they’re no-longer at a praise and worship camp. There is no depth to their understanding and experience. Parents especially contribute to this lack of understanding. They themselves often went to church as youngsters because it was the socially accepted thing to do and not because they necessarily had a deep faith and understanding. Despite their faith having grown over the years, they often cannot answer their children’s questions and concerns satisfactorily. For example, 31% of adult Catholics don’t believe in evolution despite scientific proof and Papal acceptance of the theory. This has led children and young adults to form mistaken assumptions about the Church which are reinforced by popular culture and their peers.
When questioned by unbelieving friends, young people are embarrassed by church scandals. They are not only unaware of basic apologetics, but of the fundamental teachings of, and reasons for their faith. Young people, especially after a traumatic or painful experience, often convince themselves they never really believed anyway.
In trying circumstances like these, it is easy to slowly stop coming to Church, to ultimately become an unbeliever, as faith trickles slowly through your mind and out of your heart…