Viewpoint: Eight Reasons College Students Turn Away From Church

by M. Francis Mannion

A recent blog on Huffington Post written by religion commentator Bob Smith lays out what he has found from experience to be the principal reasons college students turn away from their churches.

I will enumerate these and offer a comment on each.

  • Going to church wasn’t something they did growing up, so there was never an established routine or a sense of the importance of church-going.

Comment: Makes perfect sense. This is true today even of Catholic students at all levels of education. Even now, the majority of parents and students in Catholic schools do not go to church, making the future look rather bleak.

  • Many expressed the feeling that church leaders and members of the congregations do not practice what they preach, but often pass judgment on others, and are hypocrites.

Comment: Sure, there are hypocrites in the church—and among the clergy. But I have always thought the casting a pall of hypocrisy over the majority of church people unwarranted and lacking in foundation.

  • Lack of trust. Clergy scandals seem to be common today, with clergy engaging in Illegal and/or immmoral behavior; the way the churches have responded has only compounded that perception.

Comment: A very legitimate concern. I know devout Catholics who have left or thought of leaving the church over the sex abuse scandals. In Ireland, for instance, the church is on the verge of collapse over the clergy scandals.

  • The more college students learn about other traditions the more they question which one is the true religion, if there is one.

Comment: I believe the tendency toward religious relativism could to some extent be met head on by good Christian education which at all levels would teach children and young people about other religions and the need to be faithful to their own traditions.

  • The churches refuse to adapt. In order to survive they must be willing to adapt to the changes in society.

Comment: The church is not called to adapt to society and to make social norms the pattern for its own practice, but to transform society, while accepting critically from society what is deemed valuable.

  • The practice of not permitting women to hold the same positions as men in the church and the reluctance to welcoming members of the lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transsexual/questioning (LGBTQ) community has resulted in people turning away.

Comment: I believe many church leaders, Pope Francis notably, are struggling with the question of how to incorporate women into the administrative and decision-making processes of the church and of reaching out more effectively to the LGBTQ community.

  • The churches make people guilt-ridden. Who needs that?

Comment: That charge may have been true in the past, but I don’t think this is the case today. Many commentators complain, in fact, that homilists rarely talk about sin, and go out of their way to avoid making people feel guilty.

  • Relationships between college students of different faiths are quite common. Some traditions lose members when someone from their church marries a person of a different faith.

Comment: Mixed marriages are a challenge, but when the challenges are dealt with openly and honestly, both partners can remain faithful to their particular traditions and live happily without compromise.

Apart from my comments above, I would like to add this observation: Many young adults (18-39) lack commitment to all sorts of things, particularly to the practice of  faith,  marriage, and family. Indeed, many do not leave the church on matters of principle, but simply slip away due to a failure of commitment.

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.

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16 comments

  1. It is difficult to actually abandon a faith community you have never really been a part of. We Sacramentalized this cohort–and their parents–with little regard for calling them to conversion. We attempted to teach them things about God, about the church, about disdiplines and practices, but did little or nothing with regard to the preaching of the kerygma. Many of these disaffected young Catholics are the subjects of the new evangelization. There are no doubt many effective instruments to call these folks to a loving connection with Jesus Christ, but the one I know most about is the Alpha course pioneered at Holy Trinity in London. They went from being a moribund parish of a few old members to a thriving community of 2500 with an average age of 25. This course is a great introduction to the faith that comes to us from the apostles–ever ancient ever new.

  2. Interesting. As for #1, the key drop-off point for Catholics is First Communion. And it has been for at least 30 years. Once we realize that college students have been away from the church for ten years, not a few weeks, we can adjust accordingly.

    #2 & 3 are related: about leaders behaving badly. Bishops, pastors, and lay ministers could all take a lesson from Pope Francis. Or better, imitate a worthy saint like John Bosco and make one’s own mark.

    #5 adaptation is about how to communicate the faith. I don’t get why otherwise experienced churchfolk like Msgr Mannion interpret it as changing with the times.

    #6 is somewhat related to #2-3 and Msgr Mannion admits that many *churchmen* have no idea how to relate to women or lay people. Sitting down with us and listening to our concerns as women, parents, lay employees, people in the world, etc., would go a long way. Including a consistent reflection on these concerns in homilies would be a natural next step.

    Fr Jack is right: the key is forming disciples, not catechesis. Alpha is good, and there are other options stateside–but beware the old “program” approach. Problem is when you get company men and women in parish leadership nobody wants to blow up old approaches to formation, liturgy, etc..

  3. When I was in college, it struck me that pretty much everyone who left Catholicism didn’t really seem to know what it was they left. They learned very little in CCD and were not really regular church goers or participants in any sort of devotional or prayer life. Those who did attend Mass regularly didn’t seem to know what it was beyond a dull community event. Their parents didn’t seem to practice it either. The Church was like a distant relative they met in passing a few times when they were young and know a story or two about, but whose funeral would elicit little more than a token sympathy card.

    I would agree with Fr Feehily that we need to make more disciples, even though I think we would disagree about the cause and solution to this problem.

  4. As a father of four, ages 26-19, everything on this list pales before #5 as further opened by Jack, Jack, and Todd above. My kids stay because they find relevance to their lives, and chafe and think about leaving when Mass is irrelevant. 17th century pronouns, theological navel-gazing, and alleluias sung as dirges all point to a God somehow disinterested in their lives and passions. Our diocese has promulgated 5 pages of rules for weddings, then wonders why people complain or just go elsewhere.

    When we are relevant, all this “old stuff” becomes palatable and renewed and interesting. When we focus on these peripherals, it shows in the deserved disinterest of those who should burn with desire. We should listen and learn from their responses, rather than cluck our tongues.

  5. A few thoughts from the pews, as a 38yo mother of three, pediatrician married to a stay-at-home-dad, who was transformed by my positive Catholic college experience –

    Regarding mixed marriages- many of my female friends married to lapsed Catholics or men of other religious traditions intended to take their children to mass and get involved in their parish. The reality is that parish life is often not hospitable to single parents. Without a nursery or other ways of helping with the children, it would be quite difficult for a parent of more than one young child to manage on their own during mass. Moreover, our parish does not have events that would welcome single parents. We have Theology of the Body lessons and a women’s prayer group that meets during the workday.

    The role of women in the church seems huge, and the church isn’t doing a good job recognizing changing demographics. In many households, women are the primary wage-earners, yet Catholic culture doesn’t seem to know what to do or say about this. Catholic radio seems pretty clear that moms are specially suited to stay home with kids, and preferably until those kids are 3yo. For women who are working full-time, it’s hard to belong to a church that can silence women on a whim, that speaks to male headship of the family, that seems uncomfortable with women working outside of the home.

    The intermingling of Republican politics and Catholic social teaching is pushing people away. Millennials are tired of being told that it’s sinful to vote for someone other than the Republican candidate. Our parish makes a big deal out of Fortnight for Freedom, but doesn’t pray for refugees being persecuted for their religious beliefs. We talk about the evil of contraception much more than the plight of immigrants from Central America. Young Americans see blatant inconsistencies there.

  6. Young people love consistency.
    The perception is that church leaders lay burdens to do with sex on the laity that they publicly fail to uphold when it comes to protecting their own. They find this impossible to defend to their unchurched friends.
    They find themselves having to defend perceived inequality and discrimination when it comes to gays. And for the young in particular those are unforgivable sins, up there with slavery.
    They find themselves having to defend the corruption that is publicised in high places in the church.
    It might be that they have grown up in an exclusively churched milieu and have not had to face a world that is sometimes pretty hostile to religion in general and Catholicism in particular.
    Sometimes the institution of the church makes it very difficult for the young to stand by their beliefs. Eventually they stop defending the apparently indefensible.
    However they can often carry the core gospel values into adult life, and sometimes return to church when they have their own families.

  7. I read many of these lists as to why young people/youth/college/young adults cease to practice the Roman Catholic faith, or turn away from the Church altogether (and those are two different things).
    What I have yet to see is a list of convincing reasons they should stay. My increasing hunch is that either we can’t/don’t proclaim the Jesus/Christ event as exclusive, or even normative for life. More bluntly, the “no salvation outside the [Roman rite] church” or “hope for heaven/fear of hell” teachings. If Jesus is viewed only one of the great moral teachers, and we understand that all faiths provide a venue to the divine, why stay with this one religion, if with any religion at all?

  8. I sometimes read these things with a bit of skepticism. To begin with, I think too many of them seem to have in mind a population far more homogeneous than in reality. In my opinion, young people are as diverse as any segment of the population. Some don’t come to church because they find it insipid, unappealing, lacking in any rigor; others may not come because of various concerns on the stance on social issues and others have never given it much thought one way or the other. Some are drawn by traditional liturgy, others find contemporary worship more attractive, some don’t care about liturgy but prefer other aspects. Etc., etc. This is not to say that broad trends cannot be drawn from the population, but I think many lists of reasons seem not to adequately appreciate the diversity.

    Similarly, I feel it is a trend across the spectrum for people to project their own dissatisfaction and reasons onto young people, and then often (but not always) find them confirmed by the circles they move in. Thus, on one side you have people arguing that young people would appreciate a stronger traditionalist line, liturgically and/or doctrinally, while on the other side, people see lack of inclusion, clericalism, outdated doctrine, etc. as reasons for alienation.

    1. @Joshua Vas:
      Great point about each of us projecting our dissatisfaction onto young people. I know that I fall into this trap.

      It would be interesting to look more in depth at this heterogeneous group of young adults. We have a small, elite, liberal arts college in our town. I find that the culture and temperament of Catholic students here is a mismatch for our conservative, clerical, don’t ask any questions parish culture.

      I wonder what the experiences are for college students who intend to continue attending church in college versus those who are ambivalent about church? I wonder what it’s like at larger universities with Newman Centers versus small nonreligious private schools versus Catholic colleges?

  9. Hmmm. In the original blog post, we find:

    Spirituality is becoming more the focus for students. With a lack of commitment to organized religion but still having a sense of something greater students are becoming more focused on spiritual practices that are often done in private or, at least, in smaller groups that often lack a central authority.

    Is going to Church presented as a spiritual activity? I’m not even sure what that means, and I know we could get many diverging opinions on it. But Jesus told the Samaritan we would worship “in spirit and in truth,” not on this mountain or that, so I think it is an important question to answer.

    It also poses a question about answers that rely on “good Christian education.” Education will lead to more questions, not fewer, and ultimately to the Lord’s description of worship in spirit and in truth. Why are we asking about people coming to this church or that, to this mountain or that?

    This redirects questions about religious relativism and mixed marriages and maybe all of the other reasons. St Paul has taught us “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.* If Catholic students leave the Church when they do this, how do we change to keep up with them?

  10. Each May my parish has the twin rituals of 8th grade graduation (graduation from our parish school and PSR) and Confirmation (graduation from the church.) These take place within the same month, sometimes within the same week. A few students stay involved in church and youth group into high school, perhaps before dropping out when they go off to college. But for the most part, each May is a “bon voyage” to our students.

    Of the ones who stay involved in church, there is a second exodus when they come across one of the megachurches just up the road. Amazing, life-changing preaching? Concert quality music every week? A variety of worship/study/faith sharing/service opportunities? A variety of ministries for children and youth and young adults? Frankly, they are running circles around us in those areas.

    People don’t change churches because of theology, they change because they are seeking a more active, engaging community in which to live their faith. While the churches of our diocese are looking at empty pews and consolidating parishes, the megachurches out on the highway are expanding, filled largely with ex-Catholics. When I hear someone lament, “no one goes to church anymore,” I remind them that plenty of people are going to church, just not our church.

  11. Coming from the point of view of one who attends a church in the midst of a major secular university, we get many young inquirers, searching, longing, looking for a connection with God and a parish family. We have much in place to get them involved and establishing a relationship with God and other Christians. However, when they leave after four years and look for the same or similar experience when they return home or to wherever they go, they find nothing and fall away (again). It’s disheartening.

  12. I suspect that Msgr. Mannion is trying to be empathetic and inclusive when he calls for a greater inclusion of LGBT in parish and liturgical life. I thank him for his magnanimity towards me and my tribe, but his emphasis on sexual identity is misplaced.

    For one year I’ve attended a progressive parish. I model this decision on Einstein’s decision to try observant Judaism for a year. I’ve found that the constant liturgical action, ostensibly to foster FCAP, actually obscures the metaphysical and existential core of Mass. The celebration of Mass is the birthing into the temporal world the infinite cosmos. This is lost in the emotionalism of FCAP in its frequent interpretation today. Perhaps younger adults like myself would be more inclined to attend Mass if an intellectual rather than emotionalist or kinesthetic interpretation prevailed.

    This exhortation is largely exclusive of gender or sexual orientation.

  13. I am a little horrified to discover that, at 40 years old, I am only out of the “young adult” category. Putting the top limit so high smacks of desperation.

    On point 5, I am shocked to find Mgr Mannion simply dismissing what seems, from my ever-aging perspective, to be the single most important point in the list. Whilst ostensibly true, the church is called to transform society rather than to follow along behind it, have we not consistently missed the boat on every issue that comes along?

    We should have led the way in caring for people with AIDS in the West. We should be leading the way in caring for those suffering in Africa, not actively encouraging its spread with our blind adherence to patriarchy and our abhorrence of condoms. Where are the voices of bishops howling from the rooftops that anti-gay laws in Uganda and Nigeria are objectively sinful and must be repealed forthwith? Why does the church still terminate the employment of hugely dedicated, competent and well-loved professionals when someone discovers that they are gay or transgender?

    Why are we not shouting about the anti-transgender bathroom bills that are in front of 19 state legislatures in the US?

    If we were serious about tackling poverty, we would promote the education of women; we would give them access to family planning services; we would uphold their agency and their autonomy. The single most effective method of combatting poverty is the empowerment of women. The church does not care.

    Jesus Christ commanded us to be the voice for the voiceless; he commanded us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner.

    We should have led the campaign against slavery; we should have led the civil rights movment; we should have led the gay rights movement; we should be leading the trans-rights movmement. Wherever anyone is oppressed, we should be there, fighting for their rights as a child of God.

    But we are not.

    Truly, if we were to follow the words of Christ, our churches would be packed to bursting.

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