Brandon Vogt is the Senior Content Editor at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, an organization established by Bishop Robert Barron to provide tools of evangelization for Catholics. Recently, I listened to Vogt speak about his new book called Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church. The book was the fruit of Vogt’s many years of research on the sky-rocketing number of people who were raised Catholic but no longer practice their faith. I know many Catholic parents who lament the fact that their children do not go to church, and there is a growing number of grandparents who worry that their grandchildren are not even baptized. Vogt’s book cites statistics that are truly harrowing, especially the one that shows that 50% of the “millennial” generation (which represents people now in their 20s and 30s) who were baptized and raised in the Church, no longer identify as Catholics. A 2014 study by the Pew Research Center found that for every one person who comes into the Church, 6.45 people leave. Clearly, these numbers are disastrous. Vogt’s book examines three things: 1) the reasons why people are leaving, 2) where they are going, and 3) what can be done about it.
According to Vogt, the most common reason that people leave the Church is that they just slowly drifted away over time. It’s not for any particular reason beyond falling out of the habit of going to Mass, especially once they leave home to go to college. The longer they are out of the habit, the less connected they feel to the Church. Detached from the Church, their views on things end up shaped by influences outside of the Church, many of which are hostile. The good news is that because they didn’t leave for any dramatic reason, there probably isn’t anything that necessarily would keep them from returning. It might just take time, requiring lots of patience.
Another reason that people give for leaving the Church is disbelief in Church teaching. The most common teachings that people find problematic are the existence of God, the problem of evil, the relationship between faith and science, and the Church’s understanding of marriage and human sexuality. There is also a widespread mistrust in institutions among young people, even beyond the Church. Due to scandal and corruption, people are much less likely to affiliate themselves with any institution, including institutional religion.
So, where do they go when they leave? According to Vogt, surveys show that about 50% of them end up in some kind of Protestant faith tradition. 25% of them end up in non-Christian faiths, usually because they’ve married someone who practiced that religion. 25% of them remain unaffiliated with any kind of religion. This group often professes to be “spiritual but not religious,” agnostic, or even atheist.
When considering solutions, Vogt cautions against buying into the myth that young people who have fallen away will return when they get married or have children. Studies simply do not show any evidence of that, especially as people delay marriage and children, spending even more years away from the Church. He also counsels parents not to assume all of the blame for their children’s apparent lack of faith, since the guilt people feel about it can be crushing. Even the children of deeply devout parents sometimes end up away from the Church. The key, he argues, is to focus on developing a gameplan to help them return. Vogt encourages parents to have conversations with their kids, asking them in a non-judgmental way why they no longer go to church. Each person has his or her own reason for leaving, so it’s important to listen to them to learn why. By working on their relationships with their children, opportunities for good conversations about the meaning of life and the importance of faith can arise. Parents should also try to learn their faith better. Having learned the reasons why their children no longer practice, parents should try to learn the answers to their objections. Vogt also recommends the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting. Innumerable are the souls that have been prayed back into the Church through the daily rosaries of parents and grandparents. Giving up dessert or alcohol or electronic media for a period of time can have a powerful effect. We should never forget that God continues to love those who have fallen away, and He never stops inviting them to come back to Him. With that in mind, neither should we.