Where are the young people?

By Chris Ángel, PT editorial assistant and masters student in liturgy.

It’s one of the most common worries of every parish: Where are the young adults?  Why aren’t there more of them in the pews?

Laura Kelly Fanucci, graduate of Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary, has done extensive research on young adult ministry. She is sharing her results in Saint John’s “Theology Day” series. Her research focuses on Roman Catholic churches, but also includes other denominations and has relevance for them. She confirms that, in some ways, it really is as bad as people think. Young adults are the largest inactive group in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. While many parishes have groups for adolescents and seniors, few parishes are able to fund young adult ministry positions. Those that do often find that it’s one of the first to be eliminated.

Fanucci emphasized that “young adult ministry” is very diverse.  When people think of “young adults,” they’re often thinking of college students or graduate students. However, as many churches (and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) use this term, “young adults” are men and women from age 18 to 39. This very diverse group includes college students, parents with young children, single people who are dating, current and former members of the military, recent volunteers in programs like AmeriCorps, people working long hours at their first job in a new area, and many more.

Demographic data on young adults and how they view religion are instructive. Many of today’s young adults are members of the so-called “Millenial” generation (born 1980 and later).  Millenials have grown up amidst pluralism and diversity. Many of these young adults believe that the church provides just one more voice in a cacophonous crowd.  One reaction to this pluralism can be seen in what Laura called the “new conservatism,” where a small but growing percentage of Catholic young people are attracted to elements of Catholic tradition such as the Tridentine Rite Mass and Eucharistic adoration.

Fanucci offered a possible explanation for this new conservatism. Religious behavior is often a cultural reaction, not merely a theological one. Consider Eucharistic adoration. Many young adults who are drawn to Eucharistic adoration mention how wonderful it is to be able to pray in complete quiet. This is a novelty for a generation that has grown up with personal MP3 players, cell phones, and nearly constant distractions.

Fanucci shares success stories and brainstorms on ideas to help churches reach out to young adults.  The 1996 statement of the US bishops, Sons and Daughters of the Light, provides many suggestions.  The things most attractive to young adults are things attractive to any age group – strong catechesis, vibrant preaching, and dynamic music. Web sites and social ministry can be part of a successful outreach; see, e.g., the site Busted Halo, run by the Paulists in New York City. Much of their material is of special interest to young adults – relationship issues and vocations, catechesis on basic elements of the faith (such as a how-to video on going to Confession). Many young adults work long hours, including evenings, weekends or even Sunday mornings.  Hence, some churches have liturgies on Sunday evenings, or hold Bible studies late in the evenings.

There is no magic solution to the problem. But as Fanucci stresses, there are plenty of reasons for hope.

Laura Kelly Fanucci will be presenting “Call and Response: Young Adults and the Church” twice more in the “Theology Day” series: in Alexandria, Minnesota (October 21) and in Minneapolis (October 28). For more information, or to register for this and other Theology Day presentations, go here.

30 comments

  1. +JMJ+

    Technical question for Fr. Anthony (or whoever else)…

    Is there a reason these posts by Chris Ángel are not being posted as such? They’re being posted by “Other Voices” or “Editor” instead of by “Chris Ángel”, even though he is listed in the “Contributors” column on the right side of the page. This makes it difficult to find the articles he has written (regardless of whether they are summaries or reviews or other original compositions).

  2. My typical suburban home parish displays the usual pattern of under-representation among young adults. It appears to me that most tend to disappear shortly after confirmation, and conspicuously so after high school graduation.

    On the other hand, in the Sunday Latin Mass community in an adjacent parish, young adults are noticeably over-represented–including the master of ceremonies, the choir director, the organist, several schola members, etc, and a couple of seminarians and a religious sister postulant from their number in the last couple years, plus several active discerners. With the median age of the whole TLM community probably being somewhere in the 30’s. Whereas the median age at the OF Masses I attend appears to be over 60.

  3. Young people in our culture need to find their own identity, including their own religious identity.

    Years ago when I was in academia, a young women told me how she had grown up in a very sheltered Presbyterian adolescence. When she came to the state university campus, she went wild with freedom, but was sobered up when she woke up one morning and could not remember what had happened last night. Her solution was Youth For Christ. This provided a structure for her new freedom. She told me about going to Florida on spring break to evangelize the youth. Probably equally as important, her parents did not approve of YFC!

    I suspect one attraction of traditional Catholicism for many young people is precisely that it is not their parent’s Catholicism. But that was as true of my generation (we had Vatican II to contrast with pre-Vatican II).

    While my basic Christian values come from my parents, the major Catholic superstructures, the importance of the Divine Office and an interest in reading theology, were all “discovered” by me before I was eighteen, with only small amounts of help from a seminarian, visiting Benedictine priests, and a high school teacher.

    I did not like the religious education provided by the parish, and was glad we did not have a parish school. It was important that none of my “helpers” were really in control positions.

    Young people need to be exposed to the richness of Catholicism, including diverse Catholic helpers.

  4. Are Catholic schools partly to blame? Are sacramental efforts and spiritualities promoted as part of a school (parish, high school, Catholic university) culture, rather than what may have taken place in the past: the school as a part of an overriding Catholic culture?

    I’m not sure parishes and dioceses are prepared to do what is needed: solicit the input and leadership of young adults who do get involved. Too often there is a sense of entitlement: “We are the Catholic Church, and we deserve all these young people to come knocking at our door. (Even if we don’t tell them where it is.)”

    1. I don’t know if Catholic schools are to blame. I think it all hinges on their parents and their expectations. In our own parish school, the problem is that a significant number of the parents don’t bring their children to Sunday Mass on a regular basis. Of course these are young parents in their 20’s and 30’s, some older. Our homeschooling parents are a different story altogether. They teach at home not only the secular subjects but the catechism, pray at home, do devotions at home and make sure their kids are at Church on Sunday. The more parents are involved in their children’s educational life, religious and otherwise, the better children do. Finally, I think secularism is taking its toll on us, later than Europe, but still creeping in.

  5. “I suspect one attraction of traditional Catholicism for many young people is precisely that it is not their parent’s Catholicism.”

    This may be the biggest reason why the future of Catholic liturgy might as well be spelled t-r-a-d-i-t-i-o-n. It probably makes much little difference what we older folks like, or what we do with, to, or for the youth who are driven in droves out the door by Catholic liturgy as we have known it in recent decades.

    Very likely, many of the “best and brightest” of those Catholic youth who are flocking to the EF would be happy to stay with the OF if they could find it offered with similar beauty, dignity, reverence, and solemnity.

    But I fear that so many of the rest of our youth have been left by non-existent catechesis with so little sense of Catholic identity that it may be next to impossible to reclaim them for the Church.

    1. CHE – You write as if all youth have attitudes which, – surprise, surprise – just happen to support your agenda. Why am I skeptical? Because your analysis comes from your opinions and not any real proof. We need data, for example, on how many youth are “flocking” to the EF, not just anecdotes. Or again, I have not seen any research showing that liturgy in recent decades has “driven out” young people “in droves.” Regarding non-existent catechesis, have you looked at any textbooks recently (all of which are now scrutinized closely by the bishops)? The return to solid content, and lots of it, happened some time ago. The effect so far? Zilch. Or more precisely, a drop in religosity which is continuing and increasing dramatically.

      It drives me up the wall when people look at huge, complicated sociological mega-trends which have so many causes – historical, societal, economic, cultural, and much more – and give simple analysis and even simpler solutions. If they just did liturgy in my style, and had better religious ed, it would all be different. Yeah, right.

      awr

      1. I don’t remember there being textbooks for CCD. We did worksheets sometimes. Perhaps this is a recent trend (with “some time ago” meaning in the last ten years?). I’m 26, and don’t remember learning anything of substance in CCD – very little of the whats or whys of Catholicism were taught or reinforced. Most of my peers seem to have a similar experience.

        If your diocese has exceptional education, then great! But it’s not something I would assume for all places.

        I do wish that more studies could be done. I once had the privilege of teaching school in the same area of town as my parish. Kids would sometimes volunteer their thoughts to me unprovoked once they recognized me as being from their church (I used to usher, so they’d see their teacher taking their parents’ money 🙂 ). The general consensus, even among those who served at the altar, was that it was rather boring at best, and irrelevant at worst. These weren’t young adults in their 20’s (they were middle school aged kids), but if their attitude towards liturgy has been formed to be not in favor of it, then I doubt they are going to appreciate it all of a sudden. The kids were reacting to a standard American OF Mass with OCP music.

        I agree that we can’t simplify things, but to assume that the drop off in religious practice is occurring *in spite of* education or liturgy seems naive to me. There are many factors, but liturgy and formation would seem to be two of them.

      2. Fr. Ruff: “…have you looked at any textbooks recently
        (all of which are now scrutinized closely by the
        bishops)?”

        My niece graduated from St. Ben’s in 2008. She told
        me she took three classes in religion. I’m pretty sure
        that St. Thomas and probably most other Catholic
        colleges have similar requirements.

        She received a nursing degree and a husband while
        there, so she is thrilled with her experience. But it
        didn’t give her much of a religious education, no
        matter how good the textbooks.

        Of course, it didn’t help that after she was confirmed,
        I heard her say, “I don’t have to go to church any
        more.”

        It starts with the parents and for most, it doesn’t start.
        Most parents can’t (or don’t want to) afford a Catholic
        education for their children. Or don’t have it
        conveniently available.

        Maybe this generation of children will be responsible
        for educating their children as Catholics.

        The Church does indeed move slowly.

  6. I think it has to do partly with moral development. The first phase is obedience to rules, regulations, obligation and also fear of punishment for failure to observe these. The next phase is more mature acceptance of these laws and eventually moving to the most mature type of moral development following rules and regulations out of a concern for the common good, out of love for God and neighbor, out of a sense of profound responsibility. But each stage builds upon the next and no stage is eliminated in proper moral development. Can it be that someone has indicated to these young people that the sense of obligation, the fear of punishment and the need to follow rules is no longer required of those who have moved to a different plateau in their maturing process? Has our catechesis failed them? Do they see the Church as Walmart, themselves as customers instead of all of us as servants of the Church? Just some thoughts. I think too people are so busy today that the Church and her prayer life are not high on the list of priorities of things to do.

    1. I agree with you, Fr. Allan, that the consumer model has influenced our norms for Christian nurture and moral development, sometimes very negatively indeed.

  7. When it comes to not having a “young adult ministry” in a parish, I think part of the problem comes from an old fashioned mentality amongst older Catholics that believes the current crop of lapsed 20-somethings will return to the Church once they are ready to get married and have children. This may have held true in the past, when there was seemingly more of a social stigma against marrying outside the Church, but this stigma has largely gone away. A lot of my peers have no real real attachment to the Church or liturgy, and don’t really desire to get married in the Church or baptize their kids unless their parents make a huge fuss about it.

    As for attraction to Latin Masses. I have noticed that younger Catholics are overrepresented at those Masses that are scheduled at a decent time on a regular basis (as opposed to, say, 4pm on the third Sunday of the month if something else isn’t going on). Since people attracted to Latin Masses tend to have a keen interest in good liturgy, these Masses tend to have the “strong catechesis, vibrant preaching, and dynamic music” that attracts some younger people who are looking to fill the void left by the lackluster CCD and mediocre music they grew up with. Also, younger Catholics, unless specifically formed otherwise, don’t have deep-seated prejudices against traditional things in general. They’re more open to seeing traditional stuff for what it really is and how it relates to them rather than what it meant to folks in 1960.

  8. Well, I can only verify the situation at our EF Parish anectdotally, and that is in agreement with the above.observations… For what is a fairly small (although rapidly growing) parish, “young adults” under 30 make up a very large part of the congregation, and a very large part of the active laity.

    Fr. Ruff;

    Why has nobody done a real study to get real “hard data” about the current trends? I suspect that such a study would bear out the informal observations that the author of the above-mentioned research made, namely that there is a strong trend towards tradition for whatever reason. To try and address lackluster youth participation by offerring yet another manifestation of LIFE TEEN or it’s predecessors would seem to be misguided if that’s the case, and yet that seems to still be the approach.

  9. If you wish to get young people you must give them something to do. Going on pilgrimage is one such thing. See the youth greeting the Pope in London or going to Lourdes.
    Once you get them interested don’t do a half hearted approach: they will want the real McCoy. You will not get them with a “The Anglicans are as good as us” approach: we are the best, all others are wrong.
    Then encourage their curiosity: why do we take care with purification after communion? An adult explanation is required. Remember that if they have studied at school or university, an academic subject, their 10 year old knowledge of the faith may seem infantile.
    Show then things: look at the stories of the various windows at Chartres. They are not there by accident. Stoke curiosity.
    Don’t dumb things down.
    Keep a sense of humour: look from where the stem from Jesse rises.
    Treat people with respect. The Pope addressed “Mr Uche” outside Westminster cathedral. How ofton do we have the forced intimacy of first names?

    There you have a few ideas to kick around. Good hunting!

  10. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that Millenials are considerably less likely to be religiously affiliated across the board.

    Here is a sentence I found telling. “The large proportion of young adults who are unaffiliated with a religion is a result, in part, of the decision by many young people to leave the religion of their upbringing without becoming involved with a new faith. In total, nearly one-in-five adults under age 30 (18%) say they were raised in a religion but are now unaffiliated with any particular faith.”

    http://pewforum.org/Age/Religion-Among-the-Millennials.aspx

    A very sizable increase in numbers of those who consider homosexuality normal suggests that Catholic teaching on this subject could be an alienating factor.

    I would like to see the data that substantiate the claim of a “growing percentage” as stated above:
    “a small but growing percentage of Catholic young people are attracted to elements of Catholic tradition such as the Tridentine Rite Mass and Eucharistic adoration.”

    Are they really growing or has it peaked? I know I read a survey recently that said that the upcoming younger people are uninterested in the old Latin Mass. There was a surge from those who grew up after the Council and felt they missed something, but Catholics younger than that band aren’t interested. (Now, I wish I’d written down where that survey was, because I don’t have the link. Sorry!)

    1. Was it this survey? http://www.cathnewsusa.com/article.aspx?aeid=16278

      It states that most Catholics born after 1982 have “no opinion,” which isn’t really the same as “no interest.” It’s actually what I would expect – it’s not like they were ever given anything with which to form an opinion, and I wouldn’t be surprised if for some of the people polled it was the first time they even heard of there being a Latin Mass at all. I’ve had people ask me in all seriousness if the Latin Mass I go to occasionally has mariachi music in Spanish. If anything, the figure would indicate an openness to it since those with “no opinion” likely have no preconceived notions for or against it.

      I will say that Eucharistic adoration is very big amongst my peers who are still actively religious. Not scientific, I know.

  11. I think in those intentional communities, such as homeschooling, Latin Mass, Charismatic Covenant, etc, you have a much higher rate of participation in the Church by the young, a higher commitment to the values and teachings of the Church and a pro-active involvement of one’s faith in the market place. You also have a higher rate of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in these communities. What I think you see in these communities is a re-capturing of the spirit of Catholicism that was present in many local parishes prior to the Second Vatican Council. In these intentional communities there is a strong Catholic identity, although spirituality can be very different, there is little or no dissent that imposes a divisiveness that diminishes one’s Catholic life, and there is an obedience to the truth, a personal relationship with the Lord and an evangelical spirit to take the faith to the world even if counter-cultural. The sense of community in these intentional communities fosters active participation in the life of the Church even if many modern Catholics seem to think the spirituality of the EF Mass is non-participative. They are very mistaken in this view and very narrow in their understanding of participation which goes beyond the Mass and uttering aloud words. I think the strong parishes prior to Vatican II had a strong sense of community built upon a small geographical area, similar economic backgrounds, several clergy in the parish, several religious in strong schools, simple catechism that taught the basics through memorization, etc.

  12. As parents of six, my wife and I chose to communicate a love for the church and for God that has stayed with our children into adulthood (at least for the three of them who are grown). I realize that some will think me fortunate that my adult children (age 19, 22 and 24) go to mass every Sunday, but I have to think that choosing building our lives around getting to mass on Sunday ourselves without compromise may have had something to do with it. At least we provided the environment for divine grace to establish roots in their hearts and continue to grow. My wife’s parent’s did not have the same results: out of 8 adult children my wife is the only one who attends mass with any regularity. Part of that may have been the change in society in the sixties and seventies, it is very hard to say why it happened, but I know better than to be smug about my adult children going to church. Many have provided what we did and more and have had their children neglect mass as adults.

    While I realize that this comment has no studies cited or sociological evidence of anything (other than this small sample), I offer it as a reminder that parents can still have a huge influence on their children, but there are no guarantees, just the prayers of Monica for Augie, so to speak. And we still have three more who are not adults yet, so the prayers continue.

    Oh, and one of our adult children occasionally attends the EF, but not the others.

  13. Much of this discussion is very narrow, taking place in a vacuum.

    In our society people between the ages of 18 to 39 are preoccupied with finding their place in the job world. Our parishes are oriented toward families, and have very little to offer in regard to work life. Sometime during those years, many young people get married and begin to raise families and therefore parishes become more relevant.

    Research has consistently shown that the younger generations do not want to repeat the work obsession of the boomer generation. They want a “life.” There has been some speculation that the work environment may change drastically as boomers retire, and that younger generations will get their “life.” That depends a lot upon the economy (in complex ways, e.g. lower house prices may help).

    If the younger generations get the leisure for a “life,” the future of congregations may depend upon their ability to creatively give these people a life. More that our present liturgies and family programs are needed. Opportunities for community service may be a draw since the younger generations seem to be particularly open to volunteer service. Congregations are also cultural centers; expanded music and artistic opportunities could help provide a “life.”

    We have a similar problem for the retiring boomers who are going to have a lot of time on their hands.

    Perhaps we need to think of parishes as leisure centers as much as liturgy and family centers.

    1. Well, due to the current depression, Boomers and early wave Gen-Xers will not be retiring in great numbers as early as previously thought (though anyone who’s 50 or over will have a hard time finding new work with health benefits, because American employers manage costs by keeping their health plans from being too top heavy with older workers, no matter how illegal it is to do so, it’s easy to get away with this, and ultimately those costs are socialized to the people as a whole). And, in the US, the SS retirement age For Gen-Xers and Millenials will likely be raised to 70 within the next few years.

      The phenomenon of early retirement will likely prove to have been a temporary bubble for the Greatest Generation, Silent Generation and early-wave Boomers.

      1. The economic future is the most unpredictable since it depends upon many things around the world, and how they play out here. For example lower housing prices and interest rates may allow some of the younger generations to acquire homes more easily and therefore not work as much.

        The effect of values upon the future is more predictable since values are generally formed early in life. Younger generations who have already decided that they want a “life” will likely react to adverse economic conditions much differently than boomers who have a long history of competing with each other in the work environment and may be very willing to work rather than retire.

        Again, as often, my basic model for this is the World Values Study which shows about equal weight to long term economic processes and prior cultural values in shaping future values, and shows strong cohort effects on values with the adolescent and young adult period shaping those values, and less strong temporal effects for economic cycles.

  14. As someone who interacts with evangelicals on a regular basis, I can say that they do a superb job keeping young adults engaged. They know that young adults primarily love being with each other, serving their community, and going on mission trips (which connects the two). They also know that young adults (esp. college-age) are very aware of their emotional lives. The services and music play on these unguarded emotions very powerfully. Are these good things? I’m not sure. I know too many evangelicals in their middle age years who are still stuck in this phase out of habit and nostalgia.

    One of the reasons I love the EF is that it challenges me to a deeper engagement with the theology of the liturgy. Yes, i can do this in the OF too, but I detect (and that’s all it is) far too much flexibility and accommodation (creeping relativism?) theologically. This is apparent in the lack of challenge I hear in homilies and the total relaxation of dress and liturgical standards I see in far too many churches. One man’s take on the landscape.

    1. Michael you have some good points about evangelicals and Protestants in general. In a sense, these denominations are intentional communities. If you belong, there will be some very specific requirements along the lines you mention, but also tithing. Usually these communities are of like-minded people and not very diverse ethnically, although non-denominational churches in my neck of the woods are racially mixed and more diverse for some reason. In terms of your last statement about the EF, the reform of the Mass was read by many as making casual the ritual of the Church rather than reaching for “noble simplicity” in ritual and action. I think it is a misreading of what SC intended and the eventual reform and on-going reform of the Mass. This misreading and “misimplementation” of the reform has led to a casualness that does not offer much other than feel good experiences, if that, and boredom. Our altar servers for the EF Mass love the regimentation, the complexity of what they must do and that they are not mere decorations but need required skills to carry out their ministry. That makes an impression on the young. I think the ongoing reform of the OF Mass we are experiencing coupled with the influence of the EF Mass on the OF will help overcome the silly casualness that has been associated wrongly with the reform of the Mass.

  15. I notice that at our parsh EF the young, young parents and the old are relatively over-represented as compared with the later middle aged. The age spread at the OF is more even. I do not have statistics to back this up but it is my impression. I also notice a greater number of physically and mentally challenged people at the EF. For those of us in particular need, or whose faith may not be storng enough to be met by an OF, the EF seems to have a particular appeal. My take is that the OF can be consiered OTC whereas the EF is more “prescription strength”. It could be that for some people who, for whatever reasons are not having their needs met by the OF, the EF is an answer. My concern is the (likely much greater) number who simply drift away altogether – some may come back when they become parents but not all.

  16. Ceile De: “I notice that at our parish EF the young, young parents and the old are relatively over-represented as compared with the later middle aged. . . . . . I also notice a greater number of physically and mentally challenged people at the EF.”

    Very interesting comment. I hadn’t thought of this complete combination as such, but it would be interesting to know of someone’s EF community that doesn’t agree on all counts with your description.

    Not that anywhere near a majority of those in any of these groups attends an EF Mass. Rather, that each of these groups occupies a greater proportion at an EF than at a typical OF parish Mass. At the expense of those later middle aged–perhaps those in their teens in the 1960s or early 1970s–who may predominately attend the OF.

    1. “it would be interesting to know of someone’s EF community that doesn’t agree on all counts with your description.”

      I suppose I’m rather lucky in that I live in a part of the country that is relatively EF-heavy. Most are close enough that I’ve taken it upon myself to check out all the ones I can get to in about an hour (about six different parishes). As I said in an earlier post, if the Mass is regularly scheduled at a decent Sunday time (meaning it doesn’t conflict with NFL Football – people around here will and do choose football over any particular Mass, regardless of their preference), it’ll have a decent turn-out of young people and families. If the Mass is later in the afternoon, it’ll still attract a decent variety of age groups, but not be as well attended. The only EF I’ve ever been to that had a majority of elderly people was one that replaced a Saturday evening Mass as a “special event” that wasn’t really advertised outside the parish. It was one of the those urban parishes where the congregation was mostly elderly anyway. I think I was the only person who went who wasn’t a Saturday regular, and maybe one of ten people under 50.

    2. Our EF community agrees on most counts with this description, although I think one has to add a caveat here insofar as it is necessary to consider WHERE the particular EF community is located.

      The elderly (70+) make up a VAST majority of the OF parishes in our diocese because the elderly (70+) are a VAST majority of the population here in SW Florida. So when I say that there are large numbers of younger Catholics in our EF community, it is truly something of an anomaly in terms of the makeup of a Catholic parish in this area.

      Like Jack Wayne above, this is what would be considered an “EF- heavy” area thanks to Bishop Dewane. In addition to an distinct EF Parish, there are 3 other regularly scheduled EF Masses on Sunday within a 45 minute radius, as well as Ave Maria University which has regularly scheduled EF and Latin Novus Ordo Masses. All within three years time….

  17. … Regarding non-existent catechesis, have you looked at any textbooks recently (all of which are now scrutinized closely by the bishops)? The return to solid content, and lots of it, happened some time ago. The effect so far? Zilch. Or more precisely, a drop in religosity which is continuing and increasing dramatically.

    It drives me up the wall when people look at huge, complicated sociological mega-trends which have so many causes – historical, societal, economic, cultural, and much more – and give simple analysis and even simpler solutions.

    You’ve done exactly the same kind of “simple analysis”. You can’t say that the return to solid content has had “zilch” effect, because you’re not comparing it against a control of any kind. Sure it hasn’t magically turned things around completely, but it’s entirely possible that things are better than they would be otherwise.

  18. C Henry Edwards: one other point. Our EF is at 1pm – that way earlier OF’s and the 5pm Teen Life OF were not disturbed. 1pm may not work for some groups (many people would like Sunday lunch around then), but may actually may be more convenient for others (perhaps those up late the night before?).

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