What is the average age kids decide to leave the Catholic Church?
16? 18? 21? From research, we know a little over half of the people who leave the Church do so before the age of 21.
But does that statistic tell the whole story? How young are they leaving and why?
Too Young to Leave?
A few weeks ago, I watched a St. Mary’s Press webinar discussing a CARA Institute study they sponsored. They asked disaffected young adult Catholics, 18 years of age and older, when they left the Church and the reasons why.
They found almost two-thirds stopped self-identifying as Catholics between the ages of 10 and 17. A whopping 18% said they quit from 5-9. The median age was 13.
Think about that. Children at 13, sometimes as young as 10, deciding they no longer want to be Catholic. At first, I was shocked. 16-year-olds? Sure. College-age? Well, we all know higher education decimates the faith of Catholic youth.
But 10 and 13? That’s too young!
However, when I thought about it, I realized I gave up on the Church at that age. Even though I went to Mass with my family, in my heart I was already gone.
One of the webinar presenters, Bob McCarty, had an insightful conclusion about this data — our children are asking profound questions at younger and younger ages. He remarked that if at 13 they’re already challenging their identity as Catholics, we need to “go deeper quicker” in our religious education to reach them.
12 Years Old and Disaffected
My youngest son was in the 7th-grade Confirmation prep program last year, so I volunteered as a small group leader. One vocal young girl was a perfect example of the statistics above.
At 12, she had already rejected the Catholic Church. She hated that women could not be priests, and she didn’t believe in God. She was there because her parents forced her, but she didn’t want to receive Confirmation. Her mind was set to stop practicing Catholicism as soon as she could.
Throughout the year I heard other kids express similar doubts. Is this unusual? I don’t think so. The webinar presenter was exactly right. Kids as young as 10, but most certainly 13 years old, are having doubts. I think that’s normal … at least it is now.
The problem was our Confirmation program (as well as most of the adults volunteering in it) assumed there were no doubts. It took as fact that these kids had faith and they simply needed to be educated on the what the sacrament was to be ready to receive.
The truth was, many of these kids had serious doubts. What they really needed was to talk about them and work through them. Our religious education is misreading the need. It doesn’t go deep quick.
The Difference Going Deep Makes
This year, my parish gave us a home-study option for Confirmation prep. I took it!
Our assignment was to watch videos from the Ascension Press program, Chosen, then discuss and answer a set of study questions. Not bad, but I wanted something different.
In addition to the video lessons, my son and I began a study I use in my discipleship work. It was an adult study, but I knew he could handle it.
The methodology for this study is unique. It asks probing faith questions, then points to Scripture passages for the answers. However, the key is in asking follow-up questions to figure out why that answer is given. Your goal is to uncover obstacles so you can address them.
Did he have serious questions? Absolutely, a ton! Did he have doubts? You bet he did … don’t you? That’s okay. I knew there would be some. This kind of formation was set up to bring those doubts to light and so you can work through them.
Moving Toward Meaning
McCarty remarked that “boring” is the kiss of death for youth ministry. But for young people, the opposite of boring is not spectacular (energetic, funny, entertaining). The opposite of boring is meaningful, and meaning comes from connecting faith with lived experience.
There’s a spiritual hunger in our youth. The question is, where are they going to have that hunger fed? Often it’s not in the Church.
How can you do this? How can you have a significant impact on your child’s faith? You cannot rely on the generic, academically-oriented religious education programs. Those might be great at imparting information, but that’s not where their thirst lies.
How do you know where it does lie? That’s easy. You ask her … and then you listen.
Your child facing moral dilemmas every day. What she sees and hears at school makes her rethink what she learned from the Church. Friendships she experiences challenge her ideas about sexuality, morality, and the purpose of life. YouTube videos expose her to many different kinds of thought, some dangerous to faith.
You don’t need a formal study. You just need to set up an environment of trust where your child knows she can talk and be honest. Listen to her and discuss the issues that concern her the most. Keep asking why until you get to the root obstacles. Then start working through those. It may not be easy once you start, but that is how you begin.
Whatever you do, don’t just say she’s wrong or take her to your pastor to “have a talk.” If you don’t know the answers, agree to investigate it together.
Above all, pray and fast for her. Pray with her and talk to her. She has doubts, but they don’t have to lead her away from the Church.
She just wants answers that are relevant and useful, to see your witness of faith, and to know you love her.
What are some ways to start a faith sharing conversation with your child? How have you handled doubts with your children? What was the result?
Copyright 2017 Marc Cardaronella