Why Young People Leave The Church And What We Need To Do About It

by Evangelization, Faith & Life, Morals & Values, Self-Knowledge

Earlier this year, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young Peoplespeaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the seventh of his articles here. You can find the other parts of his series at the bottom of this page. 

Why Young People Leave the Church and What We Can Do About It

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ This quote has been attributed to Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain, but it turns out that this isn’t actually the definition of insane at all (by law courts or by dictionaries) and it was probably never said by any of those esteemed gentlemen, it just kind of floats around the internet briefly inspiring people scrolling Facebook. Nevertheless, it is an interesting place to start talking about how many young people leave the Catholic Church. This year I heard a friend use it in the context of a story she told about the day before the confirmation of one of her classes:

‘Then one girl piped up with perhaps the most honest thing she had said all year: “I’m not even sure I believe in God, you know.” It hit me like plunging into ice-cold water – it took my breath away. In one and the same moment I loved that this girl had finally and honestly said what was on her mind, but I was hit by the realisation that we had ploughed so much effort and time into a course – week after week – only to produce… this: a teenage girl who wasn’t sure she believed God existed but nevertheless had a beautiful outfit ready for Confirmation Mass the following week. She was having no second thoughts about going through with it.’ (A Handbook for Catechists, Hannah Vaughan Spruce)

It’s a good anecdote to paint where we’re at. How are we forming young people in the Church? Why do the things that used to work no longer seem to work? All big questions, and the questions that I imagine prompted a synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment in the first place. Just what is going on here?

What is the scale of the problem?

The most recent detailed statistics for Christians leaving the Church are probably those that come from the Pew Research Center’s ‘America’s Changing Religious Landscape’ report, most recently from 2015. ‘The major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points from 16.1% to 22.8%.’ This continues a much spoken about trend – the decline of Christians and the rise of the ‘nones’; the non-affiliated with religion, these declines that the report notes are mostly ‘among mainline Protestants and Catholics’.


Wondering what generation is the most unaffiliated? You’ve probably already guessed that it’s younger people. ‘While many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young – and getting younger, on average, over time. As a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaches adulthood, the median age of unaffiliated adults has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) population median age of 46.’ The report goes on to state that ‘There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., and this group – sometimes called religious “nones” – is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants, according to the new survey. Indeed, the unaffiliated are now second in size only to evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S.’

Why is this happening? And where are people going?

This shift throws up all of the hard questions I posed at the beginning, and the answer to ‘what’s going on here?’ has to be that the world has been in a period of rapid change in the last fifty years. Canadian priest Fr James Mallon in his book ‘Divine Renovation’ puts this well.

‘Fast forward through the 60s, the sexual revolution, mass media, new media, postmodernism, materialism, relativism, individualism, hedonism and every other “ism” we can think of and all of a sudden the fault lines are revealed for all to see. Hundreds of thousands of faithful, believing Catholics carry the enormous burden of children and grandchildren who have abandoned “the faith”. These faithful Catholics carry the extra burden of blaming themselves for this situation, unsure of what they did wrong: after all, they did for their children what their parents did for them. Pointing fingers is, well, pointless. The fact is that the rules have all changed. We no longer have the cultural props we had before, and the social current has turned against us.’

The inspiration for this series of articles was to paint an accurate picture of this change in all directions, be it technology, sex, relationships, family, truth or trust and how these changes have affected young people. This cultural change is massive and teenagers rocking up to parishes on Sundays are going back to all of that for the rest of the week. In the wake of all of this, the Church has clearly become less effective at evangelising people even within its own walls, with younger generations increasingly finding the religion of their childhoods’ irrelevant. First then, we need to assess what we’re already doing to recalibrate, in order to effectively bring the same Gospel and Saviour to a new societal landscape.

Education, education and education

So what do young Catholics currently receive in terms of faith formation? Sherry Weddel tracks the history of this very well in her book ‘Forming Intentional Disciples’.

‘Since the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Catholic retention strategy has been (a) childhood catechesis and (b) sacramental initiation. Four hundred years ago, CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) and the Catholic school system were cutting-edge responses to the crisis of the Protestant Reformation. Setting out to give every Catholic child a solid catechetical background was an extraordinary vision that had never before been attempted. The endeavor was deeply influenced by a Renaissance optimism about the power of education. The assumption was that a carefully nurtured religious identity acquired in childhood would endure throughout life. The Jesuit motto said it all: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”’

Now, I don’t know about you, but most of my problems in life came after I was seven. Whatever the case once was, Weddel states clearly that ‘…the evidence suggests that what worked in the seventeenth century does not work in the twenty-first. Pew researchers found attending CCD, youth groups, and even Catholic high schools made little or no difference in whether or not an American Catholic teen ended up staying Catholic.’ Education about the faith as a child and Sacraments as rite of passage into adolescence are clearly not enough – after all, it’s after the teen realm of Confirmation that there be the real dragons and critically that is when faith needs to become personal.

Where do people who leave the Church go and why?

To answer this, Weddell again has some really interesting insights. When discussing the 2008’s ‘U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices’ report from Pew, she tracks the behaviours of those who leave and it gives some interesting results.

There are two basic paths or tracks taken by the vast majority. The 15 percent who eventually become Protestant (Track A) – which includes the 9 percent who join evangelical communities – are motivated differently than the 114 percent who become “nones” or “unaffiliated” (Track B). … Catholics who become Protestant say that their strongest reason for doing so was “that my spiritual needs were not being met.” Interestingly, cradle Protestants who join a different kind of Protestant faith, as well as those “nones” who were raised without a faith but chose one as an adult also told Pew researchers that this was their primary reason for changing faiths. Hence, all three groups share a similar basic motivation for their spiritual journey: “My spiritual needs were not being met.”’

Isn’t that a fascinating sentence? ‘My spiritual needs were not being met’ – I loved reading it because it sounds pretty hopeful to me, and it was the largest statistic. Why is that hopeful? Because the Church is totally capable of meeting spiritual needs! But clearly, this is a part of the faith that is lacking for many Catholics.

As for Path B, the route to becoming unaffiliated with religion altogether, Pew found that most people chose “just gradually drifted away”, and “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings”. Again the highest answer here is something that the Church can speak to, it’s a gradual loss of interest at a Church that has failed to grip them. After that there is a great number who struggle with the teaching too, and Weddel writes that majority took issue with the teachings on ‘abortion, homosexuality, birth control, divorce and remarriage’.

So there’s two groups to speak to here, one that leaves after finding Church spiritually lacking and one that gradually moves away over painful issues. In our formation within the Church we need to know that that these are largely the issues, and if we were to meet them head on we would see change. The same report stated that of Catholics who became unaffiliated, 79% left by 23, 48% left by 18 – so again, the majority of these guys are young.

Just what do we want to form anyway?

Having established the scale and why many leave, we can now talk about the ideal. What is it that we would want to form people to be? What’s the aim? What does this ideal, thriving, young Church look like? Again Fr James Mallon has a fantastic section on this. He begins with what is called the Great Commission, the last words of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, the purpose he clearly outlines for His Church, it reads as follows.

‘Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”’ Matthew 28: 18-20

Fr Mallon then carries out an interesting test. Bear with the grammar lesson, it gets fun I promise.

‘Jesus gave his nascent Church four tasks: go, make, baptize and teach. Of these four imperatives, we find in the original Greek that one of them is a finite verb and three are participles. A finite verb is always the grammatical hinge of a sentence, and participles are verbal nouns that, although they qualify a sentence, ultimately make sense only in reference to the finite verb. So it is with the Great Commission. One of these verbs is the grammatical centre of the sentence and thus, also, the theological centre. I have asked groups to choose which of the four verbs is the hinge of the Great Commission and therefore, the heart of our purpose, the very task that gives us our identity. I have asked groups of lay people, priests and even bishops. … The right answer is always chosen by the least amount of people, and not just by a few but by an insanely small minority.’

So what do you think?

I thought it was go, so did my Mum and Dad, we were all wrong, you probably are too. Here’s what Fr James says.

‘The finite verb is “make” – literally, “make disciples” (matheteusate). This task is the very heart of the Great Commission, and it is around the making of disciples that all the other missionary aspects of the Church revolve: the going, the baptizing and the teaching. Think about this: in recent centuries, the Catholic Church had the distinction of being a great missionary Church. We went. We have a rich didactic tradition and are famed for our schools and universities and curricula. We teach. Surely we know how to baptize and celebrate all the other sacraments, but our one pastoral weakness, the task we struggle with the most is that which lies at the very heart of Christ’s commission to the Church: to make disciples.’

I was amazed by that and I had never read our purpose as Church so clearly articulated. The focus of the Church’s energy and what it needs to be challenging young people and young adults to, is a life of discipleship, which at the moment is not the culture we find in many of our parishes. But then, we need to define that term disciple well. Fr James highlights this too.

‘In Church culture, we often use terms such as “disciple” or “apostle” without understanding the meaning of these words, but “disciple” is so key to our mandate from Jesus that we ought to know its meaning. The word in Greek for “disciple” is to be a learner. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be engaged in a lifelong process of learning from and about Jesus, the master, Jesus the teacher. The English term “disciple” comes from the Latin discipulus, and provides the connotation that this learning process is not haphazard, but intentional and disciplined. To become a disciple is to commit to such a process of growth.’

I think is also at the crux of the issue for all those who leave because their ‘spiritual needs were not fulfilled’. If the Catholic Church really looked like a people unified behind learning about Jesus intentionally and engaging in that lifelong process overtly, that would shift our culture, and it would appeal to people. That’s ultimately what we want for the young people in our Church, not just that they become believing Catholics, but that they become disciples.

The problem of Disney Jesus

However, as we’ve established, the Church doesn’t look like that, and the confusion about our core purpose, beliefs and founder is pretty deep.

In England & Wales this year, the Catholic Youth Ministry Federation published a report called ‘Complex Catholicism’ a survey of 1,005 Catholics between fifteen and twenty-five, involving both self-identified or non-identifying Catholics. It reported that 38% of self-identified young Catholics believe that Jesus was just human. That was tough to read, but clearly shows that we are very far from coaching young people into a lifelong learning about the person of Jesus, as many are not even on board with the reason why He is worth listening to, His Divinity, His central claim. Without that, He is not worth our time, as C.S. Lewis put it, ‘You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.’ Weddel presents a similar statistic in her book, again sourced from Pew’s 2008 survey ‘only 48 percent of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship. … How much of our faith can make sense to millions of Catholics when the bedrock foundation – belief in a personal God who loves us – is not in place?

This confusion about the person of Jesus and the nature of the Christian God could come from young people not being correctly transitioned from childhood ideas of faith to adult or theological ones later in life. Brian Holdsworth, a popular Catholic online commentator puts it this way in his video ‘Why Youth Leave the Church’.

‘When we’re little, we’re taught a version of Christianity that is fit for bedtime stories … We paint this portrait of God and Jesus that has more in common with the Tooth Fairy or Santa Clause than it does with the incarnation of truth, goodness and beauty. And when I listen to pop atheist thinkers … say that we worship an old man in the clouds, I’m reminded that they’re not really confronting the God of Thomas Aquinas or C.S. Lewis – they’re denouncing a strawman Sunday school version of God. … When we make Christianity childish for the sake of children, we run the risk that they will end up discarding it like all the other things they’ve discarded that were childish as they grow older and become more mature.’

This was the conclusion of Jonathan Morrow, Director of Cultural Engagement at the Impact 360 Institute and the lead on their Barna Group project Gen Z. ‘With the best of intentions, we bubble wrap our kids and create Disney World-like environments for them in our Churches, and then wonder why they have no resilience in faith or life. Students are entertained but not prepared. They’ve had a lot of fun but are not ready to lead. When the pressure is turned up and the tyranny of tolerance presses in, Christian teenagers tend to wilt if they do not have the confidence that only comes from knowing why they believe what they believe.

Once presented with this clear image of Jesus, it is then that a choice has to be made, before discipleship: do I want to follow? Young people at some point need to be challenged to answer that, culturally we should encourage this becoming deeply personal to each individual. Other Churches have this as norm.

‘An old saying captures our situation as Catholics vividly: God has no grandchildren. One of the deepest convictions of evangelical culture is that every person, whether raised inside a Christian tradition or not, has a personal decision to make about whether he or she will live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. It should therefore not surprise us that 49 percent of American adults who are now evangelicals were raised outside of evangelicalism, and 18 percent outside Protestantism altogether. … In contrast, Catholic pastoral practice still assumes that religious identity is largely inherited and stable throughout one’s lifespan.’ Sherry Weddel, Forming Intentional Disciples

Back to basics

Without being offered a more mature understanding of Jesus, one who is life changing, who offers forgiveness for sins, who dwells in His Church and in the Sacraments, young people are not going to be evangelised – and if they are not evangelised, of course they will leave. We need to go further back to the fundamentals and to properly build a clear vision of Jesus, so that we don’t keep bringing kids to Confirmation who don’t believe in God.

In truth, the Church needs a culture shift to engage young people, it needs to walk the walk not just talk the talk, it needs to articulate clearly that its purpose is to make disciples, to bring people to personal relationship with Jesus. This culture shift is essential because of the 38% of young British Catholics who think Jesus is just human and the 48% of adult American Catholics who don’t believe in a personal God. Because that’s the point of it all and that’s ultimately what we want for our young people, to be engaged in lifelong learning about Jesus. So many are missing the point, so many have their spiritual needs unfulfilled. Let’s get back to basics.

As the Synod on youth begins and continues throughout this month of October 2018, please pray for it to be fruitful!

For further reading check out:

‘America’s Changing Religious Landscape’ by the Pew Research Center

‘Divine Renovation’ by Fr James Mallon

‘Forming Intentional Disciples’ by Sherry Weddel

’U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices’ by the Pew Research Center


Why Young People’s Distrust in Institutions is Sometimes a Good Thing

Why Growing Up with Relativism Has Millennials Searching for New Rules for Life

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We Now Have A Generation Who Grew Up With Porn: What Happens Next?

Why Does The Most Connected Generation Ever Feel So Lonely All The Time?

Photo by  Simone Savoldi on Unsplash

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