Another day, another study. Young people, researchers from the US Evangelical Barna Group say, are walking away from church; that’s if they were ever really there to begin with. So what else is new?
While brand-Catholic private schools might be full of beaming young faces, the pews of churches – where the source and summit of Catholic life happens – are nearly bereft of people under 60.
To state the painfully obvious, the Catholic Church in the West has been haemorrhaging young people for decades. And no-one knows what to do about it.
Years after leaving my three-year stint at Catholic Youth Ministry – as its co-ordinator and then, its director – I’m beginning to think that is a good thing. Even academic Richard Rymarz, who has been studying the Catholic “youth problem” for over a decade was equivocal in a recent journal article (‘Some Principles for the Evangelisation of Younger Catholics in Secular Cultures’).
Valuable insights notwithstanding, his final advice amounts to “try a bunch of things and if they don’t work, try something else”.
As the bishops’ conference continues down the route of bolstering a professional class of youth ministers – diocesan bureaus of hard working and sincere people – I remember the no-nonsense words of Catholic author, Amy Welborn, back in 1998:
“Underlying teenagers’ complaints about how they ‘don’t get anything out of going to Mass’ is the same experience that drives adults away in droves – including many friends of mine, most of whom have gone through periods of being very ‘active’ in faith, but now, well out of that emotional, post-conversion… high, find themselves barely able to drag themselves to church on Sunday.”
Welborn went on to talk about the ‘banality’ of contemporary worship and the usual liturgical goofiness that riles and yet strangely excites conservatives.
Certainly, the ‘shallowness’ of young peoples’ experiences of Christianity is one of the top two reasons cited for rejecting Christianity by young, one-time Christians in the Barna Group’s study (simplistic, overprotectiveness being the other). But that’s only part of the story.
I suspect the “experience,” for most, is really a non-experience. While I have had the privilege of visiting many lively parishes led by good, effective, priests and laity over the past seven years, even the best struggle against the tidal waves of social disconnection and secularism beseiging ordinary people.
A visit to many parishes is enough to make one wonder whether Margaret Thatcher was right: maybe there really is no such thing as society.
This is no disrespect to priests and lay people who try to get people together in a more meaningful way than sitting and standing in the same space with others for 50 minutes per week. It is simply to state the obvious.
It doesn’t get us very far to blame “the people” for this, as I have heard some clerics and purple circle types say. I think most of us are “those people” – products of our own choices, but also a lack of commitment or, at best, thin commitment, engendered by contemporary life.
Add to that time pressures and the almost total absence of community events and rituals that used to bring people together with a shared sense of meaning and belonging, including at its most basic, an understanding of what is true.
Viewed in this light, the “youth problem” is not a “youth” problem; it’s a whole-of-Church problem. Successfully ‘impacting’ young people for Christ, as the lingo goes, is nothing less than fixing what looks like the busted-up corpus that is the Catholic Church.
Working within the structures of that corpus was a major headache during my time at Catholic Youth Ministry. The politics of the thing meant that, after a successful youth event, you were supposed to direct people back to their own geographic parishes, regardless of the health, or otherwise, of that “community”.
There were two problems with this. Firstly, if you knew the local parish “had issues”, so to speak – and usually the young person could tell you that themselves – advising or insisting they go there was negligent in the worst of ways. If God had opened a window in someone’s heart, it wasn’t my job to shut it again. Secondly, you can tell people to go to their ‘local’ all you want; if it’s not working for them they don’t and won’t do it. There is some irony here. Whereas parishes once grew among a community of the faithful, now the faithful (and by implication, the Holy Spirit) are supposed to comport to wherever the Church owns assets, whether parishes or schools.
I hate to think how many enigmatic priests and religious, not to mention lay people, who felt God calling them to some sort of face-to-face, hands-on ministry were effectively put down or hobbled by petty political concerns.
Given the success of new movements, why not let the structures follow the faithful, a ‘free market’ of initiatives, if you will? How indeed, can we find out what works when we’re not allowed to try new things?
In what You Lost Me author David Kinnamen describes as a “misguided adbication of our prophetic calling”, churches have segregated their own congregations into silos of age. “Youthy” initiatives will make most young adults run a mile. Yes, young people want to spend time with their peers but, at base, they want what all religiously inclined people want; a place to belong and to grow in communion with their God and each other, even if they don’t know it yet. Coming into contact with older Catholics is not a negative but a massive plus.
“The concept of dividing people into various segments based on their birth years is a very modern contrivance, emerging in part from the needs of the marketplace,” wrote Kinnamen. “Flourishing intergenerational relationships should distinguish the church from other cultural institutions.
“The Christian community is one of the few places on earth where those who represent the full scope of human life, literally from the cradle to the grave, come together with a singular motive and mission.”
The trite “see how they love one another” angle – for young and old alike – has to be one of the Church’s greatest hopes in visioning a grace-filled alternative to the nihilism of postmodern life. It’s as simple and as soul-searchingly difficult as that.
Robert Hiini was Coordinator of the Perth Archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Ministry from 2006- 2007 and Director from 2007-2008. This article first appeared in The Record, December 7, 2011.