Earlier today, this "12th Day of Christmas," I celebrated Mass for a group of young people in our religious education program who are preparing to be confirmed this coming spring. Taking advantage of the fact that school doesn't resume after Christmas vacation until tomorrow, they were having a "retreat day," all very well planned and executed from what I could tell. It was a joy to be there and to be part of the day's activities.
Back home now, as another blanket of thick white snow descends on Knoxville, that joy is somewhat tempered, however, by the haunting image of the Church's apparent inability to hold onto young people in their 20s and 30s. To bring the point home further, I just got an ad today for a conference that begins: "Twenty-somethings raised as Catholics are swelling the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Even those who continue to identify as Catholic are regularly absent from the pews and are likely to judge faith less important in their lives than did their parents and grandparents."
It is seriously estimated today that perhaps as much as 60% of Americans who were raised Roman Catholic have either left the Church entirely or remain nominally identified but do not practice. The main reason the Catholic Church continues to hold its own at 24-25% of the US population is because its numbers continue to be augmented by (predominantly Latino) immigration. (Approximately 1/3 of US Catholics and nearly 1/2 of those under 30 today are Latino).
Not just the Catholic Church, but Christian churches in general seem to be experiencing this pattern of decline. Between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of "nones" - Americans self-identifying as "no religion - almost doubled from 8% to 15%. Meanwhile, younger Americans appear to be in the vanguard of this movement, dropping out of church in unprecedentedly high numbers. Whereas, in 1990, 11% of 18-29 year-olds claimed no religion, 22% did so in 2008. Literally putting faces on the numbers, one analyst has suggested taking a group photo of teens in one's church and then crossing out 3 out of every 4 faces in anticipation of what will likely happen to their church identification in their 20s and 30s!
It is, of course, true that young people traditionally have been less anchored in church than their elders - just as traditionally they vote less, etc. On the other hand, it does seem to be the case that young people are dropping out religiously at higher rates than previous generations. Perhaps more ominous is the evident change in the pattern of young adulthood. It used to be that by their early to mid-20s, most young people were working and settled down in marriage and a career or in the process of doing so. (For young men in the post WW II era, the experience of military service also functioned for many as a widely shared transition to stable adulthood). All that has so obviously changed. If once upon a time marriage and parenthood tended to re-anchor young people in church, today's prolonged adolescence/young adulthood and the delay in getting married and settling into a career path have put into question those old expectations. And the group that seems to be being left behind in terms of educational and economic opportunity and opportunities for marriage is also the socio-economic class that is less likely to go to church.
So what do we need to be doing to stem this tide and change these patterns?