It isn’t news that many of our young people have left the Church. The good news is that, as missionary disciples, we were made for this time. Those who don’t identify with any religion are known as the “nones” or the unaffiliated. And the unaffiliated are a big part of our mission field in the New Evangelization. The harvest is plentiful.
Of those who identify as unaffiliated, 79% of them disaffiliated from religion before the age of 24. The median age when they stopped identifying as Catholic is 13 years old. This is a phenomenon happening all throughout our culture, and we see it playing out in our local parishes. We know we’re losing people, and we’re losing them young.
So why are they leaving? Through several studies, we have the answers to that question directly from the unaffiliated themselves. There are multiple reasons why people leave the Church, but one of the main reasons for many of them is that they believe that faith and religion are incompatible with science and reason. This is closely tied to one of the “roots of the crisis” that Archbishop Vigneron identifies in Unleash the Gospel . He writes that “scientific fundamentalism is a belief that all questions about human existence and the world can be answered by experimental science… Anything that cannot be proven scientifically is assumed to be false or at least unimportant.”
Our young people walk away from the Church with their questions unanswered, thinking that in order to believe, they must abandon their reason. But we know that the Church has a strong intellectual tradition. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio that faith and reason “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” Our faith and reason do not conflict.
So how do we prevent young people from leaving for this reason, and how do we get back the ones who have left?
Bishop Robert Barron, as Chairman of the Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis for the USCCB, has created a resource to begin addressing this issue called “ Outreach to the Unaffiliated ,” which consists of a video and accompanying booklet. He suggests five paths for getting back the unaffiliated. One of these paths, the Path of Truth, directly addresses the above issue.
Using a Path of Truth, Bishop Barron and the Committee strongly encourage us not to dumb down the faith. We must present the full truth of the Church’s teachings, explained with love in a way that our young people understand. We must answer their questions and engage with the worldviews of the culture.
What might this practically look like?
Religious education and youth ministries are excellent opportunities to provide time for young people to ask the hard questions that they are wrestling with. We can engage their questions and provide real answers. We should acknowledge to them that their questions are good ones that many have asked and wrestled with before. If we don’t know the answer to the question, it’s okay to say so. We can research a good answer for them, or, even better, encourage them to be part of the search for the answer. This is already happening in so many religious education and youth ministries, so be encouraged to continue in these efforts.
For those parishes and ministries engaged in social media, this is another opportunity to share the truth of the Catholic faith in a way that is approachable. There is a wealth of great articles and videos from Catholic sources that can easily be shared that address the issues young people face today, explaining the truth of Catholicism in a way that makes sense in their lives. These include Word on Fire , Ascension Presents , Unleash the Gospel – WHY? Series , Trent Horn , Grotto Network , and Matt Fradd , just to name a few.
The entrances to our churches can be perfect spots to place free material that can explain and answer the questions young people are struggling with. Many of the same sources mentioned above have excellent books that can be used for this purpose, like the Catholic Answers booklet series . One particular resource that may be helpful for parents in answering their children’s moral questions is Trent Horn and Leila Miller’s Made This Way: How to Prepare Kids to Face Today’s Tough Moral Issues . This book provides ways to answer these questions for both younger children and older children.
Providing these resources in our church entrances and through our social media channels might not always get the answers directly in the hands of those who have already left, but we will be equipping our parishioners to be able to answer those questions as they interact with loved ones and others who are away from God and His Church.
Getting back the unaffiliated and preventing young people from leaving the Church in the first place is not going to be solved just by providing good apologetics with clear answers. This approach needs to be combined with other elements in a comprehensive effort to evangelize. And we know this will not have as much impact if we are not living an authentic, Christian witness ourselves. Not dumbing down the faith is only one component. But it is one important part of a larger solution as we reach out into the mission field of the unaffiliated in the New Evangelization.