Friday, April 20, 2012

Why Aren't Young People in Church?

My husband's thoughts about the topic. Does any of this resonate with you?

There are a number of factors keeping young people out of the Church. This is not just a Catholic problem, or just a problem in Rochester. I did not write this sooner because I'm always hesitant to try and speak for my generation, but in the past few months, many of my Christian friends have independently brought up many of the same lamentations I have about church culture.

Here are the mistakes that I see happening many places and what I think can be done to correct them:

Don't patronize us. This is probably the biggest factor, at least for Mass attendance. We have had ideas dismissed because "we're young", or have just generally had to endure condescension and aren't-they-cute tones in our conversations. The term "young adult" is generally aggravating to anyone with a mortgage, spouse or child, because we grew up in an age when "young adult" was a term used to placate middle school students who believed they could make their own decisions. (For example, I assure you there's nothing in the "young adult" section of the library I'd remotely consider reading.) Even "it's so nice to see young people here" is counterproductive. The bottom line is this: people want to fit in. This may be especially true of my generation. Getting treated like a child (even if you're the same age or younger as that person's children) does not help you fit in. The reason "it's so nice to see young people here" is counterproductive is that it underscores the fact that it is unusual to see people my age in church regularly these days. (Honestly, this may or may not even be empirically true, but comments like that make it seem that way.) While we can't exactly mandate a "Gen Y Sensitivity Training" for all parishioners, we can at least train the greeters in how to engage young people.

Get people involved in the community, but NOT necessarily the ministries. In the last 4 years, I have been recruited for just about every ministry in our cluster. Most of these efforts came from people I don't even know. This is a big problem. It suggests that the criteria for participation in these things are one or more of "young", "male" and "alive". Besides the fitting in issue discussed in the previous point, that doesn't make them seem particularly desirable. A friend has said that he believes the lack of priests in general and in Rochester explicitly can be attributed to the efforts to make priests seem "just like everyone else" to the laity. "Why," he asks, "would anyone ever want to be 'just like everyone else', and also have to be celibate, make $20,000 a year and have to live wherever the Bishop tells you?" If there's nothing special about the group, why join it? People do want to fit in, but they want to fit in because of some common factor or personal strength, not because "we really need people and you look healthy". Or, worse, the implication that the job is so horrible that they can't find anyone else willing to do it. If we want to get people involved, start with having events that are FUN. That's how you draw people in. Then, once you get to know them, their strengths and gifts will become more apparent and it can be a personal recommendation for a ministry, which means ever so much more.

Improve catechesis for everyone. People are not inclined to belong to an organization if they don't share it's values, in our case, belief in Christ and in the Catholic Church. We're now coming up on a second generation of people who have not been well-taught in the reasons behind things. Their views on the teachings of the Church, even if they were raised in the Church, come primarily through the media. That's what we're up against. And I'm afraid we're not doing a very good job combating that. Many CFF teachers are not adequate. Some are great, but many either do not have a strong knowledge in the Catholic faith themselves (rarely rising above "God loves you" even with older children), and others do but are not good teachers. (CFF is another thing I was recruited for at one point, even though I myself am a really terrible teacher of children.) Provide classes up through high school, perhaps even into college. Encourage all adults to be involved in a faith formation group, whether a Bible study, book club, or discipleship and faith-sharing. The first step is to offer it. The second is to make it worth their while. I don't know what we need to do to ensure that our CFF instructors are both knowledgeable and engaging, but we need to do it. Even if we don't add more programs, we should at least fix what we've got now.

Practice what we preach. These are all sort of related, and this goes back a bit to being "just like everyone else" and the lack of knowledge about our faith. If you don't understand the doctrine, it seems arbitrary and outdated at best, oppressive and ignorant at worst. If anyone does bring up the doctrine to you, that person becomes the enemy, because it's not going to be backed up by the church authority. How can we talk with someone about divorce, for example, when we have priests who publicly state that it's OK?  I'm not saying we need to be fire and brimstone; in fact, I fear all of Christianity is doomed to swing between these two extremes for eternity because people seem to fear moderation. I'm just saying we should create an environment in which Catholic teachings are explained and CELEBRATED in LOVE. That's what we're missing. I used to think the Catholic Church was a dinosaur at best and demonic at worst. I had to read 3 books and talk with about a dozen priests before I finally understood Catholic doctrine - not the mysteries of our faith, not Aquinas' writings, but stuff like "why is NFP OK but condoms aren't?" Most people are not nearly that patient. I don't expect all people in authority to have every answer, but I do expect them to have answers to the basic questions that come up frequently. More specifically, I expect one answer - the Catholic answer, even if you don't personally agree with it. To me, Tradition and solid, consistent theology are what the Catholic Church has to offer to followers of Jesus. Without those, we're "just like everyone else" - except with a bunch of seemingly arbitrary restrictions on what you're allowed to do in your bedroom and occasional inconsistent guilt trips about not attending Mass weekly.

Jeremy considers CatholicMommy to be one of the great CFF teachers, and not just because he has to say that. If he has anything to say about anything, he typically has a lot to say (this post was once twice this long); yet, most of his writings that are available online can be seen on Twitter @top10wolves. How odd.

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