By Christina Lee Knauss, Catholic News Service
Young Catholics in the United States are abandoning traditional patterns of learning and practicing their faith, and clergy, youth ministers and others will need to make drastic changes to their style of ministry if they want to. keep them engaged.
That’s the gist of “The State of Religion and Youth 2021 – Catholic Edition,” a report released Feb. 23 by the Springtide Research Institute, a Minnesota-based nonprofit sociological research institute dedicated exploring the spiritual life of young people. His current research focuses on the 13-25 year old demographic, also known as Generation Z.
The report highlights the results of surveys and interviews with 1,630 young Catholics nationwide and reflects Catholic responses on a group of over 10,000 from a wide variety of faiths whose responses were compiled for Springtide’s annual State of Religion and Youth Report.
Springtide’s data shows that while religion is important to many young Catholics, they don’t seek it out in the same way or follow the same practices as their parents and grandparents. And unlike many older family members, most of them do not see the church as a source of help in difficult times.
According to the report, 87% of young Catholics consider themselves religious; 85% of respondents said they were at least slightly spiritual; and 55% said they attend Mass or another religious service at least once a month.
However, only 26% said they use faith as a guide when confused about certain things. And of young people who identified as “very religious,” only 40% said they had 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 during difficult times.
Sadly, the report also shows that Catholic religious leaders may have missed important opportunities to connect with young people during the stressful days of the COVID-19 pandemic at its peak.
According to the data, only 6% of young Catholics said they had heard of a religious leader in the first year of the pandemic, from March 2020 to March 2021. This is the lowest percentage of response to this question among all religious groups surveyed by Springtide.
Josh Packard, executive director of the Springtide Institute, said the report’s findings point to many reasons why young Catholics are not turning to the church in difficult times:
— 54% said they don’t believe some of the things they hear about at religious gatherings.
— 51% said they did not feel able to be themselves in a religious community.
— 50% said they didn’t know how to connect to a religious community in the first place.
Packard said lack of trust is also a big factor – nearly 42% of those surveyed said they did not turn to the church for help because they did not 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 offering doctrine or advice, Packard told Catholic News Service.
“Based on the data, if you want to engage with Gen Z, you have to listen, listen generously, and listen well,” Packard said. “Religion and faith is not a matter of ticking a box for them – it is a long-term journey. The approach must be one of accompaniment.
The Springtide report also indicates that many young Catholics do not rely on weekly Mass attendance or other established religious traditions as the only way to express their faith.
Many are part of a larger spiritual trend that Springtide calls “unbundled faith” – referring to a growing tendency among young people to build a religious faith that combines practices from various traditions rather than a single system.
For example, Gen 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 are not just searching for God within the walls of a church, but rather 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, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, who is Catholic.
“Too often we present the faith to young people as a kind of checklist – if you do this and you don’t do that, then you will be Catholic,” said Imperatori-Lee, who contributed to the report. “It’s a kind of sterile faith that doesn’t work with this generation.”
“We must present 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 looking for meaning, not a list of do’s and don’ts.”
The report also says old ways of catechesis aren’t working with Gen Z. More than 50% of young Catholics said they don’t like being “told answers” about faith and religion, but discover the answers for themselves.
Becca Meagher, a theology teacher at a Catholic high school in Minnesota who contributed to the report, said she started seeing the different ways Gen Zers prefer to engage with faith a few years ago after making surveys of his students about the teaching style they preferred.
The results led her to move to a seminar-like format where students explore answers to theological questions through research and discussion.
“One of my students told me that she had been in Catholic school all her life, and this was the first time she felt allowed to ask her own questions about faith,” Meagher told CNS.
A key takeaway from the report is that young Catholics want teachers and church leaders to meet them where they are, an approach that has been promoted by Pope Francis, said Josh Noem, report contributor.
He is editor of the Grotto Network, an inspirational online resource for young Catholic adults.
“We must be prepared to walk through the doors of church buildings and meet them outside in the ordinary circumstances of their lives,” Noem said. “It’s going to require a very different model of ministry. Over generations past, we have become accustomed to people showing up. What young people want first and foremost is support. We must learn to walk with them as human beings.
Noem acknowledged that the report shows clear challenges for future ministry to young Catholics, but he sees 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 truly believe this is a time of renewal – the Holy Spirit is speaking to us through this generation and calling us to be faithful in new ways,” said he declared. “It’s going to be a very disruptive time for the church, but I also believe it’s going to be very fruitful.”