Millennials and High Church Liturgy

by Fr. Michael Driscoll

Recently a friend suggested that I read an article in The American Conservative (January 14) titled “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: Is the High Church the Christianity of the Future?” by Gracey Olmstead.  I was anxious to read it to see if it would shed some light on the millennial generation with whom I spend a lot of time in the class room.

The author makes the claim that America’s youth are leaving churches in droves. Citing the 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll, it seems that one in four young adults choose “unaffiliated” when asked about their religion and 55 percent of those unaffiliated youth once had a religious identification when they were younger.

But to my great surprise, the author claims that many young people, rather than abandoning Christianity, are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations – notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox denominations due to the attraction to the liturgy. The author claims, “This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.”

I read the article with great interest but I remained unconvinced. I had to agree with one of the online comments that “an article positing a ‘trend’ should cite some statistical evidence, not just three anecdotes.” This was my initial reaction as well. One of the anecdotes is drawn from a blog CreedCodeCult.com. I quickly discovered that the blogger Jason Stellman, a recent convert to Catholicism, has all the verve and naïveté that you might expect. His blog conversation seems to be a three-way argument with a certain Kevin and a DeMaria in which the tone is extremely polemical and at times quite uncivil. I hoped that we had moved beyond the insult hurling as a result of the Reformation, but it is clear that an ecumenical spirit does not live on this blog.

At the Catholic Academy of Liturgy meeting a few weeks ago in Orlando, Fl, we had Mary Gautier from CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) as our keynote speaker. She presented huge amount of data from the newly released study that looked at the rich demography of the Catholic Church in the United States. This study was conducted for the Committee of Cultural Diversity in the Church for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and CARA utilized county-level U.S. Census data for 2010 to estimate the total population sizes for racial and ethnic groups within ecclesial boundaries. Catholic parishes serving these particular racial and ethnic groups were then identified using a variety of methods and were mapped to the population centers for these groups. A part of CARA’s study is generational, including the Millennials. Two indicators that she found alarming is the sharp decrease in baptism and marriage, which would seem to contradict the article in The American Conservative. See the CARA website. You can download the full report here.

So that’s my initial reaction to the article. I was basically nonplussed by it. If you are going to discuss trends, I am a sucker for data!

Fr. Michael Driscoll is professor of liturgy at Notre Dame University. He is currently on sabbatical and a fellow of the Collegeville Institute.

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14 comments

  1. I read that article and was also nonplussed by the initial data being responded to by anecdotes.
    There was also a study that appeared in a social media news stream about the changing demographics during the past decade of those who are religiously-affiliated and opposed to abortion; the data showed a decreasing median age (i.e. getting younger) along with some shifts in religious affiliation. What the study failed to present was what percentage of the total US population the two groups represented (the second, I suspect – given the ongoing abandonment of organized religion by young people – would be a smaller percentage). I suppose the shifting demographic has some interest in and of itself, but for the big picture, only as part of that bigger picture.
    As it becomes easier and easier to procure and present data, maybe we all need to take a statistics course, to make sure we can accurately read, understand, critique, and utilize it.

  2. Wishful thinking on the part of the folks at AC. The meme is not old, but seems to get refreshed every few months or years.

    What will draw people into the Church, young or old, high or low, is a commitment to intentionality. To the degree that conservative liturgical churches offer this, individual faith communities might be more or less successful. Assuming they don’t drive away the dissenters.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #2:
      Todd, I’d like to know if you have any ideas about particular steps that a parish would take to implement such a commitment.
      Maybe this could be the subject of a new post?

      1. @Jeff Rexhausen – comment #7:
        Jeff – one suggestion that is gaining traction in many Texas dioceses is the use of Matthew Kelly’s book – “The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic”. You can purchase in paperback for as little as $4 and he outlines plans to help parishes invite and call out to achieve increasing dynamic catholics. Kelly has done numerous parish wide workshops and many parishes have given the book away to all parishioners with a parish plan to put it into action.

  3. Well, data come in many forms, and numbers and statistics alone rarely, if ever, tell the whole story in its full complexity. To the broad picture rendered by those numbers, individual case stories and studies can add more depth, richness, and nuances.

    With that said, I too am unconvinced by the premises put forth in the article, not least because, as has been noted already, they were unwarranted/unsupported, even as I found those stories cited intriguing. (I admit I didn’t much like its use of “high church” this and “high church” that either.)

  4. The depressing Public Religion Research Institute statistics presented in the article throw into high relief Pope Francis’ mission imperative. The Catholic Church in the US has to learn to preach the Gospel outside the walls of its churches.

    The anecdotes presented in the article seem to have this in common: the three converts who were profiled were essentially seekers who found (at least for now) what they were looking for via self-motivated study and church-visiting. What is missing from those anecdotes is any mention of anyone reaching out to them or speaking words that touched them. These three seekers found high-liturgy churches without really being evangelized. For seeking and finding to happen on scale large enough to shift opinion survey numbers in a positive direction, evangelization is necessary. Just my view.

  5. Every few years there are articles about what youth want and don’t want. It’s a stock piece of writing, thematically speaking. A good practice is to avoid the trap of negative attention: missing what is not being said and who is not being heard from.

    All this said, progressives should not trap ourselves by spending too much effort on discounting or marginalizing narratives that less congenial to our preferences and principles. It’s one thing when one fisks a fisker in turn, kinda begging for it as a matter of closing the rhetorical loop, but there’s more than a whiff of defensive condescension or epistemic closure in some reactions to pieces to stories of this type.

  6. In regard to the American Conservative article.

    1. There is simply a huge amount of religious switching that is going on in the USA. How many people are switching out of liturgical churches and how many are switching into liturgical churches? Perhaps some enterprising graduate student could go back to all the hundreds of denominations in the General Social Survey and classify them into some liturgical framework, and then we might be able to find out. It could make for an interesting study. The GSS is one of our largest databases and it asks both for one’s current affiliation as well as affiliation at age 16. Most conversions usually take place in late teens and early twenties. Since the data start back in 1972 generational differences could also be tracked. The data are public available online.

    2. Most of the research on conversions indicates the strong role of personal relationships. For example in the classical studies on cults, it was found that people hung out and became friends with cult members and only later began to change their beliefs and behavior. When we look at intergenerational religious conversions parents sometimes alienate their children by pushing too hard for religious conformity. What often happens is that the kids do indeed “get religion”, it is just that it is a religion other than their parent’s religion. Social scientists are generally a little skeptical about reasons given for a conversion. In our culture it is not particularly easy to admit that one changed one’s religion to conform to one’s new friends, or to show one’s parents that one is independent. Surely in the matter of religion we should have more rationality and depth than that.

  7. In regard to the CARA data on baptism, they seem to have an update posted on their blog website:

    http://nineteensixty-four.blogspot.com/2014/01/daily-double-infant-baptisms-and.html

    there are two factors with statistically significant and negative relationships with baptism outcomes. The first is the number of Catholics per parish in a state and the second is the state Catholic population percentage. Together, both may represent the effects of “super-sizing” the American parish through mergers and new construction focused on “mega-parishes.” Essentially, the baptism deficits are most likely to occur in states with large Catholic populations and few parishes, controlling for all other factors.

    These results reveal a possible institutional shortfall in the U.S. Catholic Church in areas where the Catholic population has grown strongly and quickly in recent years (i.e., South and Southwest, and the suburbs). Essentially it shifts our focus to a new set of hypotheses: Are some Catholics simply being crowded out? Is there a “limit” to the size of a vibrant Catholic parish? Do Catholics in some states feel like they are on a “waiting list” for baptism or other sacraments? Do large parishes inhibit registrations? Is a large regional parish less effective in building and maintaining the faith than multiple smaller neighborhood parishes?

    Some very interesting questions indeed!!! Remember the importance of marriages and children in maintaining denomination numbers. For a long time people thought the evangelicals had some conversion magic that was keeping their numbers up. Even famous sociologists maintained that “strict churches were strong growing churches.” Greeley showed 80% of their numbers were caused by the fact that their birth rates came down much slower than Mainline and Catholic rates. And of course now we are seeing that even the Southern Baptists are in trouble including their adult baptismal rates!

  8. “Surely in the matter of religion we should have more rationality and depth than that”

    Jack — The key word there is “rationality”. Americans have historically been notoriously “anti-intellectual”, i.e., anti-rationality, until they go to college, that i, where they meet teachers, both of science and the humanities, who insist on students learning to be being self-critical. And, unfortunately, to most science teachers this means being anti- all religious belief. (Most unfortunately, the students are not taught to be critical of science itself.)

    What I’m saying is that there is an over=looked influence on religious belief in the U.S. — the influence of college education in U. S. colleges. College education became generally available here only after WW II, with the advent of the G. I. Bill which provided tuition for veterans. They were the first generation to hear the critiques of religious belief that is (rightly) inevitable in colleges. I suspect that the newly acquired ability to critique one’s own beliefs has contributed greatly to the loss of faith in many, many students, and this will continue to happen until the Churches take the criticisms of the academics as seriously as they should be taken.

  9. What I’m saying is that there is an over=looked influence on religious belief in the U.S. — the influence of college education in U. S. colleges.

    Ann : Yes college has a great deal of influence but not because of the faculty or the curriculum, or critical thinking. Rather fellow college students have a great influence upon one another.

    There is much evidence across generations and many countries that people in their late teens through their twenties are strongly influenced by the events of their times as processed by them with their fellow generation. The efforts of our parish education programs are undone when people go to college and meet many students articulating the undeniable hypocrisy of the clergy, politicians, etc. But it is a social not an intellectual process, as most conversions are.

    In regard to college professors and curriculums, I suspect negative critiques of religion like the clergy’s negative critiques of society have little or no effect. That is not to say that students will not use their professors’ words to justify their choices to their elders. But they are giving a post hoc rather than a propter hoc explanation.

    Count me as very skeptical about how much critical thinking is acquired in college. If one looks at Catholic organizations critical of the Church such as Voice of the Faithful, most of their members have more than a college degree or have gotten the equivalent of a MBA in life experience. In my experience critical thinking comes from professional life. I did a good job of faking it when I was still in academia.

    Most of the parishes around here are full of college educated Catholics. Very few of them have the guts to be honest with their priests or even their lay pastoral staff. Except if you give them an anonymous survey.

    Of course with the internet college age people no longer need college to process the world with their own generation or to gain access to critiques of religion.

  10. Speaking as another millennial – and one who loves traditional liturgy – I disagree with the American Conservative article. There are some young folk who really get into learning the rubrics and chant, etc. Many are conservative otherwise but some like me are quite liberal. But we really are a rarity in the church and population at large based on my personal experience. Millennials tend to like to become “geeks” about different things. Everyone chooses their own obsession to learn a lot about – the more obscure the better for some. Hipsters are just one particular manifestation of this generational trend. Just because some of us are liturgy geeks does not mean that most of us are or even would be if we could just be exposed to well-done traditional liturgy. To most people, not just young people , it seems arcane, campy, or both.

  11. The American Conservative article and comments- more than 100 as I write this- ring true to me. A good friend is an Episcopal priest (curate) at an Anglo-Catholic “shrine” parish. Around 2005, he mentioned many of his younger members came from Christian colleges, conservative or home-schooled backgrounds and and were quite focused on traditional liturgies and traditions. The parish mostly celebrates the Prayer Book’s Holy Eucharist Rite One, with a professional choir singing traditional chants (often in Latin) and hymns. They call this the High Mass, except when a bishop is the officiant, when it’s the Pontifical High Mass. My friend said recently that after 5-6 years of enthusiasm, about 1/3 seem to be staying in the parish, 1/3 move away or stopped attending. and 1/3 become Roman Catholic or Orthodox. A small number belong to one of the local Ordinariate groups.

    As an Episcopal priest in an urban parish, he is used to it being a bit of a way station for people heading in different directions and is pleased 70-80% of his younger recruits are still attending Sunday Mass, albeit in different denominations and traditions.

    I attend occasionally and once an older parishioners there shared that he was raised Catholic and couldn’t take the modern Mass, etc. I love their services, too, but privately considered his position as: “The Catholic liturgy is too modern so you joined the Episcopal Church?”

    Occasionally worshiping with Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians has given me a different (mostly positive) spin on the revised translation we’ve been using since 2012. It’s a post-modern world, and using fancy words, traditional hymnody and classic postures and gestures do not necessarily lead to more orthodox beliefs or respect for episcopal authority.

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