Lots of people wonder why young people leave the church. Most people that look at this question ask those that left why they chose to leave. They then analyze the data, and select reasons that seem satisfactory to them. Secular or liberal-minded folks conclude that the church is too backward on social issues like sexual orientation and the status of women. The church needs to “change” to “get with the times.” Progressive-minded folks conclude that the church is not accessible enough. More music, louder music! Create great social opportunities. Invite even the lukewarm to participate in everything. Above all, people ought not to feel judged or like there are rules they ought to abide by to be welcome. Maybe then people will come back.
I think this is the wrong approach.
It is better to go to those who stayed, and ask, ‘Why?’ I’m no expert, but I have personal experience. I’m young, and I have attended many different ecclesial communities and parishes faithfully all my life except for the first year of university. I’ve stayed (even when bored.) Why?
The reason is that Jesus Christ is my Lord and God. I know He can save me from death so I can join Him in heaven. I love Him. I know hell’s real and populated. I know that the church is a necessary and indispensable part of God’s plan for salvation. I know Jesus is the only way to God. In short, I stay for the same reasons that I go to confession: because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because I love my God, who is all good and deserving of all my love.
Many people don’t hear Christians saying these things anymore. It’s not comfortable to talk about these things; and often Christians have a habit of reducing the epic and ancient faith to feeble platitudes and empty symbols. The demanding, grueling faith of old is now an ‘easy in, easy out’ experience. We know Jesus loves us and is our friend and brother, but we don’t know that we ought to approach God in fear and trembling. That’s why young people leave; and I suspect it shows up less on surveys because most of them don’t even know the substance of what’s missing. Protestants have the additional challenge of their low ecclesiology, which can make it a struggle to articulate exactly why you have to be part of a church.
Sure, if the church changed her teaching and gussied up her externals, it might become a newly acceptable social club. But there’d be no commitment, and it would die. The church is too late to the party to be progressive – any progress would be too little, too late. It would alienate those who have stayed and defended church teaching; the net result might be a loss of members. The church is too archaic to be relevant; and if it could get rid of everything that made it archaic, it would no longer have anything to offer, making it an unnecessary burden. No matter how cool it becomes, it’s still “churchy.” There are better things to do if it’s not true or if it is feeble enough that one can ignore it safely; things that are more immediately exciting and less taxing. The same applies to other Christian communities.
I’ve seen flourishing parishes where silence in the nave is strictly enforced, Latin is in use, veils and head-coverings are not uncommon, and Gregorian chant is still to be found. Paradoxically, the pews are packed with young people. That’s because the young people who stay in the church – few though we may be – stay because the Church teaches the Truth and is necessary for salvation. An older person might stay because of habits formed in his youth; we are still forming our habits. A dead language, ancient rites and music older than our great grandparents is no bar to that. In fact, ancient externals help proclaim that the sacred, truthful, timeless nature of the faith once and for all delivered to the apostles is not just words. Truth forces a decision; one who never hears the Truth or only hears it in shaky whispers will do what is convenient.
My guess is that those of us who stay do so because of what the church was, and is, and could be again. We long for a heroic faith; a timeless faith; a faith that moves mountains. We long to go to church and feel that we are participating in the sacred worship of the God of all the universe. That’s what moves me at least; something hard, something necessary, something sacred.