Why Youth Leave The Church


Why are young people leaving the Church as they reach adulthood? Is it because as children they are being taught a version of Jesus and God that has more to do with Disney than Saint Thomas Aquinas?


I remember, at certain intervals of my youth, that the thing my peers and I were all interested in would suddenly become obsolete and in such dramatic fashion that if you didn’t quickly catch up and denounce that silly thing for younger kids too, you’d also become the object of that contempt.

It could be a toy we all liked, or a movie, or a style of music, but once the early adopters of the herd had decided that we were too old for that kind of thing, you didn’t have much time to jump on the bandwagon before you were left behind.

Like my oldest daughters, for as long as they’ve been aware of it, have been in love with the movie Frozen. The number of Frozen emblazoned items in our household would make you think that we were preparing for a post apocalyptic world in which Frozen memorabilia is the only acceptable currency of trade.

Then, suddenly, about a week ago, my oldest daughter announces to me that she and her cousin have decided that they no longer like Frozen. And this, clearly, has nothing to do with whether or not they actually like it, but instead some adolescent revelation about being too old for Frozen. And so, over night, she’s become someone who wouldn’t be caught dead watching that movie. And now I’m using the Frozen branded electric toothbrush so that it doesn’t go to waste.

And, I think something like this happens with the faith that so many people inherit as children but don’t hold onto as they transition into young adulthood. This is the point my friend Hudson made in a conversation about it recently.

When we’re little we’re taught a version of Christianity that is fit for bedtime stories. Something simple, easy to understand, often heretical, but comforting. We paint a portrait of God and Jesus that has more in common with Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny than the incarnation of truth, goodness, and beauty.

And when I listen to pop atheist thinkers make comparisons of God to flying spaghetti monsters or claims that we worship an old man in the clouds, I’m reminded that they’re not really confronting or wrestling with the God of Thomas Aquinas or CS Lewis. Their denouncing a straw man Sunday school portrait of God.

And this is the risk we run when we blur the lines between Disney, the tooth fairy, and Jesus. When our kids are learning about their Christian heritage in a style that trivializes it by reducing it to that same level of sophistication.

When we make Christianity childish for the sake of children, we run the risk that they will reject it as a childish thing as they get older in the same way that they discard all those other things that they think themselves too mature for.

When I was a kid I had an illustrated children’s bible, but it had something that most of the stuff I’ve seen on my kid’s bookshelf didn’t. It had an illustration of the crucifixion that didn’t shy away from including blood. I remember as a kid just staring at that page and wondering what it meant.

I remember thinking, this is different. This isn’t the same as the Easter bunny. This is mature, this is chilling. This is important. It’s not silly or trivial and I will never outgrow whatever this means. St. Paul said, “We preach Christ crucified.” And I think it’s important that something of that quality is preserved in the way we hand on the faith to our children. We should never water down the parts that are troubling. They can handle it and it is, after all, an essential part of the gospel.

The other thing we have to do as a Church and as parents is ensure that when they are ready, they will encounter a mature presentation of our faith. They need to discover the faith of Lewis and Chesterton; of Paschal and Aquinas; of William of Ockham and Augustine.

And if you feel inadequate in transmitting that caliber of understanding, then I’d say it’s time to grow up in your own faith. You can’t ride the crest of Sunday school formation your entire life. At some point, you need to go deeper yourself.

When kids grow into adulthood, they’re going to discover opposition to their faith, and that’s probably a good thing. But if that is the first time they encounter a sophisticated treatment of the topic and it’s exclusively in favor of an atheistic conclusion, then their juvenile faith isn’t going to survive. They need to have inherited something with some meat on it and it’s up to us to make sure that happens.

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  1. Brian,

    Good article and food for thought. I work with middle and elementary students in a parish setting. My goal is to have them develop a relationship with Christ so they’ll want to continue developing their faith. Do you have any suggestions on how I can give them the depth and beauty of our faith at such a young age? What kind of a creative professional are you and what age do you work with?

    Pam Walsh

  2. Dear Pam,
    Teach the youngsters in your charge about the Holy Trinity (explaining the Virgin Mary’s relationship with each Person of the Trinity; Daughter, Mother, and Spouse is a good way to broach that important topic), especially inform them about the Holy Spirit, Who resides in them as an effect of their baptism. Once they start speaking to and listening to the Holy Spirit in their conscience, they will naturally have a full blown intimate relationship with Jesus, crucified and Risen!
    God bless,

  3. unbelievable….rationalizing the loss of members to events in our society.
    How about loss of members because the Catholic Church nno longer cares about its people. There are so many families and individuals experiencing pain through family issues, financial problems, poverty, illness and coping in todays society. The catholic church cardinals hang out with pop stars, the Pope argues with Donald Trump….and Pope does not see the misery of its people. Why is there no ministery to the poor, homeless and sick?
    Young adults just have to look at the actions of our Pope, and Cardinals.

  4. I think what you state is part of the issue. However, as you state teens are so influenced by what is popular, social media, their peers in general. My experience is that that they don’t know how to relate to God, the Bible…they may have learned that God struck people down and they realize that doesn’t happen that way. But they don’t know how God is really playing a role in their lives. Teens are very tangible and they can’t see God, can’t often feel him in their lives and so they tend to let go….at least for awhile. Hopefully they will remember their early years and come back to the church as the Bible says they often will (….raise a child up…). I wish there were more Catholic churches, especially outside of larger metropolitan areas, that offered youth programs, had youth ministries that were really engaging and seemed cool to these kids. Many Catholic churches don’t engage the teens in a way to make them want to stay. They need to know how the Catholic church can help them, how to pray, how to use the words of the Bible to understand their complicated lives, how to handle sex/drugs/social media – not just say “don’t do those things”. They don’t respond to that. They need to know and learn how to use social media safely, how to handle when their friends are not and what they can do to still fit in, how to not get sucked into it being their only world as it is addicting, how to not use drugs/alcohol and still be accepted. How to become sexually active and still be accepted by the church.

  5. A great article. I didn’t think my children were fed their Faith like an Easter Bunny or Santa Claus. They attended 13 years of Catholic school and we went to Mass every Sunday and Holy Days.My husband and I participated in doing other things at our Parish, and now all 4 of my children have left the church and of course didn’t get married in the Church. I often wonder what happened. Dee Ewing

  6. Dee, I am sorry to hear about your family situation unfortunately this is all too popular in the current state of the Catholic Church.

    Pam, I recommend that you give your kids the Baltimore catechism as age-appropriate. Your kids are able to understand much more than we give them credit for and giving them cartoon catechism will not challenge them or feed them at all.

    Concerning the video : The author makes a valid point about cartoons in our catechism, however I would argue we don’t need cartoons at all. Cartoon catechism is meant to simplify the teachings of the church for youngsters. The problem I see is that modern catechism books never give people the fullness of our churches teaching regardless of age. Because our children and adults are not getting the fullness of the teaching of the church, their knowledge and ability to explain our teaching to others and themselves is lacking. As a result they are easily swayed by the flavour of the day that they see in Protestantism. The roots of their faith have no depth and they are easily toppled when challenged.
    We need to go back to the Baltimore catechism and teaching basic Thomistic theology even to our young people.
    With all due respect Kerygma is garbage. We are allowing second graders to receive our Lord at communion, yet this catechism presents Our Lord as a cartoon. Our children need to be challenged more than this. “ Kerygma type” catechism is a great example of why our kids leave the faith. Come on, Give them something that challenges their mind.


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