Recently, a friend from high school friended me on Facebook. It took me a minute to recognize him but I accepted. We got chatting and it turns out he’s become an atheist. He couldn’t get beyond the necessity of matter and denies free will. The third in our small group of friends left the Church for Mormonism during high school because a priest said something too stupid to be repeated here except as a joke.
I think we in the Church are often satisfied with the status quo. However, I want to present the statistics that show that the status quo is insufficient. I do not want to promote a certain form of youth ministry here as I believe there are many good ways to minister to teens and they each build up the Church. (For full disclosure, I’m the author of significant parts of one, Conquest and Challenge Clubs.)
The Pew Research Center says that 1/3 of those raised Catholic are no longer Catholic, that’s 10% of the US population. When they studied those who have changed religious affiliation, they found that over 70% of those who leave the Catholic Church do so before age 24. That means we are talking about 22 million Americans losing their Catholic faith in their teens or college years.
You might think that if they’re losing their faith before 24, we need young adult ministries. We do. However, in Young Catholic America,Christians Smith points out that the number 1 determining factor for faith practice in the 20s and 30s is faith practice in the teens. Someone may abandon the label “Catholic” later but if they do so, they usually abandon the practice as teens. He also shows some fairly compelling statistics to show that the percent who come back to a practice of the faith when they get married or have kids is very small; if you follow those born in the same year, the percent who attend mass weekly remains stable from teenage years on.
But we want more than weekly mass attendance. It’s hard to measure how many really understand their faith or how many are every-week vs. Easter-and-Christmas Catholics. Many lose the depth and beauty of their faith while still checking off “Catholic” on a form. We need to reach them to. The teen years are key formative years that set who a person is for the rest of their life.
The Church is called to be missionary. The Church is called to be missionary to all the teens – Catholic or not – in our local area. If we are missionary, we should not just be making sure the Church doesn’t shrink but working so she grows.
Our ministry to teens doesn’t seem to match up to its missionary mandate. In another book, Soul Searching,Christian Smith says that only 24% of Catholic teens are involved in any “religious youth group” which is lower than any other religious group except Jews. (This book was based on the largest survey of teen religiosity in the US.) Randy Raus of Life Teen has stated that only 5% of teens who are not involved in anything in their church as teens remain weekly attendees as adults. Read those together: fewer than 30% of current Catholic teens can be expected at mass every week as adults.
In fact Matthew Kelly has stated on numerous occasions that of the 1 million confirmed each year in the USA, 85% will stop practicing their faith within 7 years. Are we really ready to face mass attendance barely above the single digits?
But there aren’t just stats; it’s personal. As a teen I almost became a Protestant. My logic was: if it gets them excited about Jesus, it’s likely true. At my parish, almost nobody between 12 and 25 seemed excited about their faith. I went to a rather large lower-middle class suburban parish and I don’t remember anything offered from when you finished confirmation in 6th or 7th grade till marriage prep.
The Church needs to do something! Teens and young adults are leaving in droves. It may seem like a problem beyond me or you but if each of us helps at our parish, something will begin to happen. Don’t worry about all the kids falling away; work so that 5 or 10 more at your parish stay active Catholics.
My goal is not to be a prophet of doom. Most of my posts here present ideas for the solution. I just wanted to present the main stats on the need in one place.
(Note: all my statistics are American but I think they would be similar for English-speaking Canada.)