By Christina Lee Knauss
Catholic young people in the U.S. are leaving behind traditional models of learning about and living out their faith, and clergy, youth ministers and others will have to make some drastic changes to their ministry style if they want to keep them engaged.
That’s the bottom line of “The State of Religion & Young People 2021 — Catholic Edition,” a report released Feb. 23 by Springtide Research Institute, a Minnesota-based nonprofit sociological research institute dedicated to exploring the spiritual lives of young people. Its current research focuses on the demographic ages 13-25, also known as Generation Z.
The report highlights the results of surveys and interviews done with 1,630 young Catholics nationwide and reflects Catholic responses out of a pool of more than 10,000 from a wide variety of faiths whose responses were compiled for Springtide’s annual report on the state of religion and young people.
Springtide’s data shows that while religion is important to many young Catholics, they’re not seeking it out in the same way or following the same practices their parents and grandparents did. And unlike many of their older family members, most of them don’t look to the church as a source of help in difficult times.
According to the report, 87% of young Catholics considered themselves to be religious; 85% of the respondents said they were at least slightly spiritual; and 55% indicated that they attend Mass or another religious service at least once a month.
However, only 26% said they use faith as a guide when they are confused about things. And of the young people who identified as “very religious,” only 40% said they reached out to their faith community for help during uncertain times such as the pandemic. Instead, the data showed they were more likely to reach out to friends and family in challenging times.
Sadly, the report also shows that Catholic faith leaders may have missed some important chances to connect with young people during the stress-filled days of the COVID-19 pandemic at its height.
According to the data, just 6% of young Catholics reported hearing from a faith leader during the first year of the pandemic, from March 2020 to March 2021. That is the lowest percentage of response on this question among all faith groups Springtide surveyed.
Josh Packard, executive director of Springtide Institute, said the report’s findings indicate many reasons why young Catholics don’t turn to the church in difficult times:
- 54% said they don’t believe some of the things they hear talked about at religious gatherings.
- 51% said they didn’t feel like they could be themselves in a religious community.
- 50% said they weren’t sure how to get connected to a religious community in the first place.
Packard said a lack of trust also is a big factor — almost 42% of respondents said they don’t turn to the church for help because they don’t trust the “people, beliefs and systems of organized religion.”
A big part of the disconnect is that many young Catholics want clergy and older adults to listen to them and their concerns, rather than constantly offer doctrine or advice, Packard told Catholic News Service.
“Based on the data, if you’re interested in engaging with Generation Z, you need to listen, listen generously and listen well,” Packard said. “Religion and faith are not a matter of checking off a box for them — this is a long-term journey. The approach needs to be one of accompaniment.”
Springtide’s report also indicates that many young Catholics aren’t relying on weekly Mass attendance or other established church traditions as the only way of acting out their faith.
Many are becoming part of a larger spiritual trend that Springtide calls “faith unbundled” — referring to a growing tendency among young people to construct a religious faith that combines practices from a variety of traditions rather than one set system.
As an example, Generation Z Catholics also report using a wide variety of activities as a religious or spiritual practice, including physical activity, 63%; meditation, 53%; art or music, 79%; being in nature, 74%; writing, 63%; and acts of service, 58%.
In other words, young people aren’t just looking for God inside the walls of a church building, but rather are trying to find ways to connect with the divine in all facets of daily life. Educators and church leaders can connect with them by presenting faith as a way of life, according to Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, which is Catholic.
“Too often we present faith to young people as a kind of checklist — if you do this and you don’t do that, then you’ll be Catholic,” said Imperatori-Lee, who contributed to the report. “That’s a kind of sterile faith that doesn’t work with this generation.”
“We need to present the Catholic life as an invitation to conversion, a passionate engagement with the world and with God that can be a life-changing experience,” she said. “Young people are seeking meaning, not a slate of things to do or avoid.”
The report also indicates that old ways of catechesis aren’t working with Generation Z. More than 50% of young Catholics said they don’t like to be “told answers” about faith and religion, but discover the answers on their own.
Becca Meagher, a theology teacher at a Catholic high school in Minnesota who contributed to the report, said she started to see the different ways Gen Z prefers to engage with faith a few years ago after doing some surveys with her students about what teaching style they preferred.
The results led her to switch to a seminar-style format where students explore answers to theological questions through research and discussion.
“One of my students told me she had been in Catholic school her whole life, and it was the first time she felt like she was allowed to ask her own questions about the faith,” Meagher told CNS.
One of the key takeaways of the report is the fact that Catholic young people want the church’s teachers and leaders to meet them where they are, an approach that has been promoted by Pope Francis, said report contributor Josh Noem.
He is a senior editor at the Grotto Network, an inspirational online resource for young Catholic adults.
“We have to be willing to walk outside the doors of the church buildings and meet them outside during the ordinary circumstances of their lives,” Noem said. “That is going to require a very different model of ministry. In past generations we have grown accustomed to people showing up. What young people want first is accompaniment. We must learn to walk with them as human beings.”
Noem acknowledged the report shows obvious challenges for future ministry to Catholic young people, but he looks at the data as a refreshing indication of the beginning of a new era of ministry in the church.
“It’s really easy to look at these numbers and feel discouraged, but I really believe this is an era of renewal — the Holy Spirit is speaking to us through this generation and calling us to be faithful in new ways,” he said. “This is going to be a very disruptive time for the church, but I also believe it’s going to be very fruitful.”