How to keep the young people away

Ben Boruff (I like his last name, especially the last four letters) gives good advice on how to keep young Methodists away from church.

Now here’s an ecumenical issue: the alarming loss of our young people seems to be true across many or most Christian traditions. Some evidence suggests that U.S. Roman Catholics are losing young people at a higher rate than other Christian churches. Let’s hope we can all learn from each other, and work together on this huge pastoral challenge.

As you perhaps guessed, Boruff really wants to keep the young Methodists in. Judging by his photo, he appears to be one himself. Some excerpts from his tongue-in-cheek advice:

Young people are, by and large, missing from the church. This realization came one day when I opened my eyes and saw pews full of heads that were, with few exceptions, bald, gray or slightly wrinkled. You may suggest, of course, that a percentage of those gray, wrinkled heads belonged to newborns, but you’d be mistaken. Very few babies attended church that day, and the yells and cries of those that did suggested that they were as surprised by the lack of young people as I was.

1. Bore young people with vague affection. Talk often about loving young people, but never let that love result in anything tangible…

2. Do not, under any circumstance, ask young people what they want…

3. Refit traditional services with guitars and muffins, but change nothing else…

4. Fill the church with references to past generations…

5. Refuse to acknowledge today’s pop culture. Follow this rule: If you can’t say something bad, don’t say anything at all…

6. Use the phrase “does not condone” as much as possible…

7. Whenever possible, remind young people that they are, indeed, young people. Sometimes youth must be reminded that they are not high on the Christian hierarchy…

8. Be unapologetically nostalgic…

Read the rest, “Take heed UM churches, and youth will stay away,” here.



  1. This comment is certainly not based on any scientific investigation, but it does represent frequent visual sightings on Sundays here in St Louis on my way to and from wherever I was presiding at Mass. There always seem to be crowds of young people heading into non-denominational churches, such as The Gathering, The Journey, and so on. After an early Mass, I have sometimes tried to sneak in at the back of one of these churches. No sneaking in and hiding: the Hospitality Ministers spotted a newcomer immediately, welcomed me and gave me a quick but adequate orientation to what was going to be happening in the service. Given most Catholic churches I have been to, that is just one of the telling differences. We seem indifferent to who comes. Many who are not Catholic think that they have to be Catholic to come to our services and to participate. And many young Catholics think all too often that they have to think exactly as their parents, teachers, priests, etc think in order to go to church, just when they are trying to deal with all the questions they have about what it is the Church professes and what that all has to do with their lives. It takes a lot of courage and faith for anyone to venture into a Catholic church, unless a Catholic is accompanying them.
    And that is just getting into the front door ….

    1. I have been to a few Catholic Churches where, even though a stranger, I have really felt welcome. One offered different types of music at the two Sunday Masses. I could not say what might appeals to a young adult, but there was an appeal to me.

  2. What? Guitars don’t bring young people to church? Every DRE and Youth Director confirmed in the 1970’s will have to re-think their entire “strategary”!

  3. While it is proper to be concerned over young people drifting away, it is also important to be aware that there just aren’t that many young people around. This is not the middle of the Baby Boom, with 20 or 30 children being baptized each month! Those babies are now in their 50’s and 60’s, so of course there are a lot of gray heads at Mass! I say this because it is often assumed that a parish with a lot of older people is a dying parish.

    That said, I think the question brings us back to the basics. We are enjoined to preach the Good News to all nations, but how do we go about that? Do we preach the Good News, or do we condemn others week after week? What is the function of a parish? Is it only to support a building to have Mass in, or is it also to build a Christian community?

    1. For the record:

      The US population that is under 18 years of age has never been larger than it is now. It has been growing since the mid-80s.

      The age 0-5 population reached a post-boomer low in 1977-78.

      The smallest under 60 cohort is people in their 30s.

  4. I went from here to my Facebook, and found out that one of my daughters at college spent the week-end on retreat with the Franciscans. She was with a group of about 30 students from half a dozen regional colleges. I’m not sure what all went on, but from the photos, they spent a good deal of the time walking through the woods and fields.

    Like I said, I’m not sure what methods the Franciscans use, but I do know she is very seriously planning to volunteer with the Franciscans for several years after graduation. Maybe one key in attracting young people isn’t in serving them, but in giving them opportunities to serve!

  5. I once asked a Catholic teenager –a real nice kid– why he didn’t go to church. He told me he felt there’s too much about him he’d have to change before he’d be considered anyting but a trouble-making kid.
    How to kid young people away? Just (wrongly) assume they have no interest in God, church or religion. Just (wrongly) assume all they’re interested is ‘drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll”. Just (wrongly) assume the older adult church is already doing ‘plenty’ for the kids, and ‘if they don’t appreciate it………”
    How to keep the young people away? Just keep going on going on.

  6. 9. Endlessly fight about receiving communion on the tongue or in the hand, like Lilliputians divided between those who prefer cracking open their soft-boiled eggs from the little end, and those who prefer the big end.

    1. Ha! Well said. I once had a slightly-more-than-middle aged Catholic tell me, when I mentioned that I receive on the tongue, that he hates young Catholics “like you” (he may even have poked his finger in my chest at that point) who think we shouldn’t receive in the hand and who are trying to bring back the Latin Mass and the incense and bells. (I think that last part had to do because my parish sang the Angus Dei in Latin during Lent.)

      I told him the truth: I have no problem with Communion in the hand; I receive on the tongue because I usually have a child in my arms and it’s just become a habit.

      1. Jonathan, interesting story that came to me as I read your post.
        In a recent meeting at church, one of the older ladies, somewhere in her late 60s, early 70s, commented how fortunate we were to have a “pre-Vatican II” church.
        FTR, I’m 43. i asked, somewhat shocked, “You mean post-Vatican II, right?”
        “Oh no,” she replied, “before Vatican II. We are very blessed to still have our statues and artwork and such,”
        “That has nothing to do with Vatican II” I told her, to which she gave me a confused stare.
        “Vatican II said nothing about removing the statues and artwork,” I went on. “There is nothing in the documents of Vatican II that said those things had to go.”
        She was honestly stunned at the revelation and I encouraged her to read the documents herself.

  7. Use of phrases such as “contracepting and aborting” is apt to thin out the pool of young people interested in Church. By and large, those Catholics practicing contraception consider themselves to be balancing the demands of married life versus proper stewardship, not engaging in wild, meaningless sex! To imply that Catholic women are out there casually getting abortions is insulting to them.

    FWIW – the young people on retreat with my daughter are all out there publicly practicing the faith on secular campuses.

    1. The implications are all yours, Brigid. And you may well believe that contraception and abortion have had no affect on the number of Catholic youth; I do not. I am in no position to judge who does what and why they do it; however, I can look at the results of those actions.
      I’ve also had the experience that many Catholic youth want to know the Truth in a world that praises relativism.
      If you want a good look at Catholic youth in action on secular campuses, look no further than FOCUS:
      They, too, are part of the youth movement.

      1. Obviously, the use of contraception has meant that the Boomers and those who have followed have raised smaller families. However, I would suggest it is possible that continued insistence that a prime teaching of the Catholic Church is that contraception is an unalloyed evil has the effect of making many people walk away, old and young.

        Sad to say, but from what I know of Opus Dei, the Legionaries of Christ and similar groups, I tend to distrust any group engaged in the “New Evangelism”.

      2. re:Brigid Rauch on February 20, 2012 – 5:30 pm

        Brigid, I agree that contraception should be elevated to a extraordinary sin as some of the “new evangelization” groups are wont to do. All sexual issues are highly personal. Sermons should be homilies, so far as publicly preaching about others’ private failings is not the intent of homiletics. You’re quite right that public shaming counteracts any benefits of evangelization. The first emphasis in evangelization should be the mercy of Christ, and especially the mercy shown in the Eucharist.

        The Gospels, and indeed the entire Bible, are a consistent call to the mercy of repentance as well. Homiletics is, to some extent, a explanation of the consistent theme of repentance in God’s Word. I’ve noticed two pastoral extremes with regards to contraception: either over-emphasize sexual morality or even chide parishioners for receiving Holy Communion without regular confession, or ignore self-examination and contrition altogether out of a fear of possibly tripping over the issue of sexual morality. Neither is consonant with the the centrality of repentance in Christianity. Indeed, the first presumes that most communicants are unworthy simply because of their state in life. Not even a priest has a right to presume worthiness.

        I understand that the plurality of married lay Catholics who use contraception might not want to confess. I only hope that more priests invite their parishioners to confess, especially in Lent. There is great peril in extending this invitation. The invitation should be made even if few, for reasons of their own heart, do not choose to confess.

      3. re: Jordan Zarembo on February 20, 2012 – 6:34 pm

        Brigid, I agree that contraception should be elevated to a extraordinary sin as some of the “new evangelization” groups are wont to do.

        Should be instead

        Brigid, I agree that contraception should not be elevated to a extraordinary sin as some of the “new evangelization” groups are wont to do.

        I miss the edit function.

      4. Jordan – some users appear to still have access to the “edit” feature, e.g. Mary Burke (here: “It’s clear from the way you bandy the word “dissenter” that” was added to the beginning of her comment).

  8. Looking for the young people? I can tell you where they are. They’re at my FSSP parish.

    When we first began attending seven years ago, my wife was astounded that two elements whose absence she bemoaned at our regular Novus Ordo parish for years seemed to have turned up and flooded the pews- young people and men.

    I’m 49, and thought I was too young to praise God in my Nunc dimmitis, but there it is.

  9. In my experience what keeps young people away are:

    The idea that you have to already accept everything and never question or struggle with anything. Catholicism isn’t exactly the easiest religion to accept unconditionally in today’s world. Many people seem to think the Church is for self-proclaimed perfect people (and thus see most Christians as hypocrites when the find out religious people can be jerks and sinners).

    Boredom – I laugh when traddies tell me the Novus Ordo is all about entertainment – the number of people who would call a typical Mass entertaining is incredibly low.


    Young Catholics really like churchy (“pre-Vatican II”) looking churches. This seems true regardless of what music or level of formality they prefer.

    Young people can’t be pegged as liking one particular style of liturgy. They do like quality, though. Liturgical style needs to be divorced from ideology, however. I know progressives types who really can’t stand informal liturgy and conservatives types who find little appeal in the Latin Mass – yet you’d never know it reading magazines and websites. That’s what I hated most about Commonweal when I briefly subscribed to it.

  10. Just to second JD Kabel’s observation. I was at a EF low Mass yesterday and I also can vouch for where the young people and men are. The monthly Mass just started Last December in that part of the state, and already there are crowds in comparison to the NO. Can hardly wait when the pastor gets comfortable with celebrating a Missa Cantata, maybe there will be standing room only.

    1. JD Kable and V Wowcjuk are doing some wishful thinking about “where the young people are.” We need hard data. Until we get that, we need some perspective and some more accurate observation.

      It looks to me like these little enclaves of traditionalism are growing, but are still a rather tiny fraction of the whole church. If you go from .5 % to 1%, from inside the enclave you’ve doubled and it looks like your flourishing. But almost everyone by far is somewhere else.

      True, young people involved in church are generally more conservative than older generations. But the majority of young church-goers are not hard right, not by far. If some position is held by 1/10 of the middle-agers but 1/5 of the younger folks, there is a clear trend… but the vast majoirty of young worshipers are still the other 4/5.

      Research has shown that young people, including evangelicals from conservative traditions, are turned off by conservative moralizing, and look at issues such as same-sex relations quite differently than people my age and older. Research has been showing for decades now that traditional liturgical worship is in decline.

      My hunch is that the traditionalist enclaves will grow a fair bit more, but when they plateau they’ll remain a pretty tiny part of the whole Church. Only a fairly small part of the Church will ever be attracted to something so exotic and seemingly extremist. And while the most convinced progressive Catholics increasingly walk away, the big broad middle that remains will never really warm up to the traditionalist worldview, nor will they ever come to agree with the magisterium en masse on controversial issues.

      I espouse all sorts of minority things (eg. Latin office when travelling), which is fine, but I don’t claim that my oddball thing is about to become wildly popular. Catholic traditionalists do make such claims. I think they’ll be disappointed someday.

      1. re: Anthony Ruff, OSB on February 20, 2012 – 9:57 pm

        Fr. Ruff: My hunch is that the traditionalist enclaves will grow a fair bit more, but when they plateau they’ll remain a pretty tiny part of the whole Church. Only a fairly small part of the Church will ever be attracted to something so exotic and seemingly extremist.

        Traditionalism will result thus without course correction. I don’t think of myself as an ‘extremist traditionalist’, although some might beg to differ especially because of my earlier posts. I prefer to call myself “traditional” because I realize that the prescriptions of the Council are the solution, and not the enemy, of a mature EF liturgy and culture.

        Pastoral dysfunction is the true stumbling block of Catholic traditionalism. Catholic traditionalist parishes often resemble families which refuse to talk about “issues”, especially sexual issues. Contraception is demonized without regard to the unique circumstances of couples, gay and lesbian people are routinely dehumanized, and priests frequently preach a perfectly bleached, surplice white unachievable morality. The suffering required to bear the hyper-ideal is immense. The mental duplicity required to worship as a Tridentine and avoid the puritan toxicity of Tridentine culture is unhealthy. If it were not for my abiding love of the Latin language and its literature, I would not inhabit such a psychologically hazardous environment.

        A good friend of mine is a ministry student for the United Church of Canada. He preaches and worships in a very liturgically and socially liberal denomination. Occasionally he will hear Mass, Evensong, and even Triduum at the local Anglo-Catholic church. Why? Traditional catholic liturgy augments his postmodern ministry. It might be better to view Catholic traditionalism similarly.

      2. Can one be a “broad/middle of the road” or “progressive” Catholic and find the TLM appealing? And does preferring the old Mass make one a traditionalist even if they do not subscribe to other common traditionalist positions?

        It’ll be interesting to see if “traditionalist enclaves” will remain more conservative (or “extremist,” if one prefers) in the coming decades.

      3. Can one be a “broad/middle of the road” or “progressive” Catholic and find the TLM appealing? And does preferring the old Mass make one a traditionalist even if they do not subscribe to other common traditionalist positions?

        Being born post-Vatican II, I was firmly brought up in the vernacular mass era. I never had anything against the fact that some people attended the Latin mass, or that they preferred it. In fact, in my parish we always have sung the Agnus Dei, using the words in Latin, and when I was a member of my church choir – as a teen – we occasionally sang Latin hymns.

        So no, I’ve had nothing against traditionalists or against people who want to attend the mass in Latin, until last year, when the changes in the missal introduced the feeling that the traditionalist are starting to plan to slowly destroy my progressive options within the church, little by little.

        Everything was fine until the missal change and since then the well seems poisoned, like progressives have to continually look over their shoulders.

      4. re: Jack Wayne on February 20, 2012 – 11:53 pm

        Jack: And does preferring the old Mass make one a traditionalist even if they do not subscribe to other common traditionalist positions?

        I don’t think that a preference for the EF automatically implies that a person supports reactionary positions. The point I was trying to make the my long-winded previous post is that a perception of the EF movement as esoteric and extremist is not necessarily unfounded.

        I was a bit heavy handed about perceived moral rigor in EF communities, and painted with a broader brush than I should have. Still, the indult/EF movement has had a past of (sometimes fierce) antagonism with local hierarchies, as well as a perception that post-conciliar pastoral practice has been morally lax. I don’t believe the latter to be necessarily true. Nevertheless, I suspect that is the prejudice of a number in the EF community.

        I would like to see a more progressive EF which is more open to some liturgical, pastoral, and theological integration with the OF and post-conciliar communities. However, at this point it is unrealistic to expect a more centrist view from a community largely scarred by years of recusancy.

      5. Fr. Ruff, I actually agree with much of what you say here, though with some nuance. I don’t foresee more than a small minority being devoted in the future to exclusively EF communities, nor more than a small minority remaining bound to the 70s/80s style OF liturgies that currently still predominate in many parishes.

        But I think would be a mistake to continue to cast the EF and OF in the dichotomy of either-or alternative. I foresee them co-existing in an increasingly easy and mutually supportive ambience–as they already do in some of our parishes, with some parishioners drifting back and forth, without anyone being uptight about it either way.

        As for the young folks, I doubt that anyone intends to predict that a majority will suddenly thirst for serious liturgy, even if they see young folks as the majority at their own EF Masses (as do I). It may be that the TLM is not so much where the young folks are, as where certain older generations are not.

        I myself suspect that the majority of young folks will continue (at least for some time) to continue to leave the Church. But I’d suggest that a disportionate fraction of seriously committed young Catholics, lay and clerical, are already inclining to more traditionally worshipful liturgy, both EF and OF, without making the sharp distinction between them that older generations do.

        Consequently, the present line between EF and OF surely will continue to blur under those famous forces of mutual attraction and enrichment, perhaps with the two forms converging in time to a single form that admits much flexibility as to Latin and/or vernacular worship.

  11. Jack and Jordan are making an important point – people are a complicated mix of worldviews (including moi), and lots of mix and match goes on. I’ve known of very high church ritualist Anglicans who take radical revisionist views on sexual ethics, for example. I don’t mean to say that “everyone who likes the pre-Vatican II Mass believes x,” because that isn’t necessarily the case about any given traditional/conservative/reactionary theological view.

    Let me revise my statement and say this: I think (but what do I know about predicting the future?) that there will never be widespread support among Catholics either for the 1962 Mass or for the whole traditional theological program taught by the magisterium, once these last two are disentangled.

    Thanks for your contributions.

    Fr. Anthony

  12. I would submit that these days, the plurality of married lay Catholics who use contraception think they are doing the right thing and therefore have no need to confess!

  13. I suspect with the youth it is not the just parish in general that needs to be concerned and hospitable to their needs, but also those who are their “ministers” whether lay or ordained. Sometimes older people seem to resonate with them. The retired pastor in my parish who is now in his mid 80’s certainly did and still does. Pope John Paul II even in his old age did as well. In both cases it is their perceived authenticity, holiness and kindness and the sense they conveyed that they loved young people and enjoyed their company. But I know too that a younger priest can have a profound impact if he is caring, articulate and consistent. Our young newly ordained Polish parochial vicar who wears his cassock everywhere but is still somewhat “hip” by today’s standards (“hip” I realize betrays my age) seems to be extremely appealing to our school age and young adult age members and our programs with them are currently booming. The oldsters like him too.

    1. Anecdotal material is very interesting. However, it’s helpful to bear in mind how on an earlier posting your co-diocesan was able to complement your account of how wonderfully the new translation was going down in your diocese and of how little dissatisfaction it caused among the presbyterate.

      I’m sure every thing traditionalist is going down very well.

  14. Most of our young people have not yet learned to judge the value of things (or people) by their ‘accidents’. The kids & their friends espouse so many kinds of clothing that they are quite ‘chill’ with people wearing what makes them comfortable. It’ll take them a while to learn there is only a thin, blurry line [if even that much] between ‘accidents’ and ‘substance’; their tolerance level will hit the cellar and their judgementalism will be right up there with the best of them.

  15. I second Fr. Anthony’s comment about “little enclaves of traditionalism.” In my ten years of interacting with students at Saint Louis University (2001-2011), I could count on one hand the students who were drawn to high-church ritualism (Latin, chant, etc.) while the vast majority were fairly or very progressive in their morality, ecclesiology, and liturgical preferences. In our liturgy courses and seminars it was very common to get pointed questions about why we don’t ordain women, why we don’t use inclusive language, why we don’t practice open Communion, why we don’t elect our bishops, why we don’t use guitars/drums/Praise&Worship music more regularly, etc. And these questions were from students who had a high enough interest in liturgy to take elective classes in it, and most ran to church every time the bell rang. That is, a church with piano/guitar/drum music that attracts 1000+ students every Sunday night.

    1. Seriously? Did you only know one person who voted for Nixon?

      I need more than one hand to count the number of “students who were drawn to high-church ritualism (Latin, chant, etc.)” I knew in four years (1999-2003) at the secular University of Rochester. That at a University with one-third the number of undergraduates as SLU and with only one-third of the student body Catholic.

    2. I was speaking of the students which I interacted with in classes and seminars. Roughly 8-10 per year over 10 years, perhaps 100 students total. I can think of 3 who showed interest in the Latin Mass, perhaps there were a few more that I don’t recall. But clearly a small minority of students. When I did my history of sacred music lectures, presented without bias for one form over another, there was little interest in chant/polyphony/high classical periods beyond their place in history. I would encourage them to attend a pontifical liturgy at the cathedral and an EF high Mass at the oratory, and more often than not they described these experiences as “boring,” “cold,” “unwelcoming,” “distant,” etc. One young woman walked out of the EF Mass when she perceived that women wearing chapel veils were somehow being repressed.

      These progressive views did not begin and end in the 1960s and 70s, they are still very much a part of the landscape among 20-something Catholics.

      From time to time one of the Jesuits offered a Latin EF in one of the dorm chapels, which would attract between 50-100 students. The campus ministry Mass in College Church attracts 1000+ students on Sunday night–with a very progressive style of music and liturgy.

      I can’t speak for the entire student body, and I don’t claim to. I can speak of my direct experience which was as I describe. And for those who don’t know me, I certainly don’t have a progressive ax to grind: I myself prefer high-ritual styles of worship. When I was their age I was spending hours each day in the chapel practicing Bach, Brahms and Franck. I’m just reporting what I experienced.

  16. Why not just have The Unadulterated and Un-popped up Roman Rite in all its glory, with all its glorious music and ceremony. Why sell youth short? I would expect that they would be attracted, honoured and greatly enhanced in their estimation of them selves, considering that God showers them with such beauty and richesse, such treasures

    Why would one want to pander to those who want pop music and other corny stuff. If this is all they would attend for, they come for the wrong reason and do not need to be there giving the (false) impression that this is what MOST if not ALL youth want.
    It is a sin to dumb people down and allow them to be so much less that what they could become.

    1. All the gestures, all the music, all the language are there to communicate; either to teach us what God wants us to know or to allow us to address our prayers to God. How we communicate in part determines what we communicate. Who communicates determines in part what is communicated. One person’s glorious music is another person’s empty pomp. One person’s raucous noise is another person’s heartfelt joy. But when the methods we use to communicate take priority over what we communicate, then we are on the wrong path.When we mock each other over the methods, we are on the wrong path. When we take pride because we worship this way and “those people” worship “that way”, we are on a very wrong path indeed. And it doesn’t matter whether “those people” are dressed in a magna cappa or a burlap chasuble!

    2. If everyone could just see it your way it would all be so much easier. Of course, “they” might say that if you just saw it their way…

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