An unspoken truth about teens who flee the Catholic church

by Jennifer Mertens

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"So are you going to force religion on me?"

On the first day of class, a handful of teens express this sentiment. Three weeks in, countless more admit to having entered with this fear. Initially, the feedback startled me. Now, I expect it. Thanks to polarizing debates and preachy clichés, a significant percentage of young American Catholics express discomfort, flippancy and even boredom with their church.

"They don't get us."

"Church doesn't really matter to the rest of my life."

"Who cares what we think? No one listens to us anyway."

Typical teens? Adult Catholics often bemoan these comments as evidence of a rather grim forecast in the American church's future. "Oh, what a sad, lost generation!" With young people now fleeing church pews in droves, the concern is well-founded. And while today's graying parishes have become subject to intense study and debate, we frequently miss how it is precisely young people's spiritual hunger that leads many away.

Look closely. Today's young people experience profound spiritual hunger. This hunger permeates my own millennial cohort and surfaces daily among my students. As teens struggle for wholeness in a fragmented world, such hunger compels them to fearlessly pursue tough questions:

"If God is good, why did he let my grandpa die?"

"Why doesn't God talk to us like he does in the Bible?"

"I don't get why the church teaches that."

Young people live in a flurry of questions about human life and meaning. What often goes unnoticed is the extent to which their hunger remains unfilled by our churches.

Cookie-cutter answers. Prepackaged faith. Young people commonly describe their relationship with the church as characterized by judgment, defensive posturing and hollow platitudes. This relationship, especially when it comes to hot-button social issues, generally lacks the deep sustenance young people seek. When all these elements mix together, is their aversion to church really any surprise? We've concocted the perfect recipe for a massive youth exile from our pews.

The whole situation resonates with a sad irony. While our Christian tradition steeps in a timeless and powerful revelation, we struggle to distill its message in ways that engage and transform young lives. Only a modern lens can sustain a 21st-century faith.

"How, then?" Standing daily in front of my students, the question looms. "How to impart a faith to our youth?" As a young adult in teen ministry, a few truths ring strikingly clear.

Young people can be powerfully engaged and nourished by our Catholic community. A solid faith identity, however, is not secured by simply preaching all the "right answers." While faith engages intellect, it first enters the heart. We must remember how the faith that enflamed the disciples' own hearts -- on the road to Emmaus, at Pentecost -- erupted from a deep encounter with the living Christ.

This commitment to encounter must characterize all our engagements with young people. Called as we are to form Christ's body on Earth, we must seriously examine how the faith identities of our youth are formed in their encounters with each of us.

Indeed, relationships prove decisive. As a teen, I didn't just attend church; I belonged there. I belonged in an intergenerational community deeply present, supportive, and inquiring about my life and development. I grew up experiencing myself as a community member, knitted to a parish in which the hopes, concerns and realities of young people shaped its identity and priorities. Vibrant song, homemade Communion bread, card games with our priest: simple yet impressionable experiences fostered a sense of belonging that has decisively shaped the trajectory of my young adult life.

In contrast, most of my teens describe parishes in which they feel disconnected from the community and, naturally, Catholic worship, symbols and tradition. Their language reflects an understanding of their role as spectators, not engaged participants. Passive worship breeds empty hearts and empty pews.

Young people must be valued as active, respected and fully engaged members of our faith communities. Teens long to be taken seriously, to be heard, considered and included. As adults, we do not possess or control the living revelation of Christ. We journey together with our youth.

While parishes undoubtedly shape the faith identities of our young people, other settings are increasingly critical in meeting their spiritual needs. Retreats, service opportunities, religion classes and youth group outings: These experiences can also offer the fertile ground in which faith takes root:

"I feel like I can ask questions without being judged."

"After I heard her story, I felt able to share my own."

"When I feel closer to my classmates, I feel closer to God."

In a unique way, these settings can empower teens to unwrap and engage Christian symbols that generally remain vague, fluffy and largely meaningless. Here, the Word floods out beyond church doors and plunges into the lives of our youth. Building God's kingdom means holding the hand of a woman in a nursing home. The way of the cross becomes a journey through the pressures of teen media culture. Bread rips open before the deep hunger of an eating disorder or the poverty of a man on the street.

Teens need to feel, hear, smell, taste and touch their faith. Dripping oil. Fragrant water. Light piercing darkness. What does it mean to breathe these symbols in through the heart, allowing them to grip, assail and transform us? Ultimately, only in this way will young hearts learn to beat with the heart of Christ. Only in this soil will faith -- and a future -- begin to grow.

[Jennifer Mertens recently completed her Master of Divinity from the Catholic Theological Union. She teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati.]

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