The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. Half of young Americans (50 percent exactly) who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today. Four out of five Catholics who left the Church left before age 23.
Today, millions of parents grieve for their fallen-away children and describe their situation as “helpless” and “hopeless.” They feel helpless because their children tune them out or ignore them whenever they bring up religious topics, and they feel hopeless because they think it’s impossible for their children to ever come back. These parents are desperate to do something—they just don’t know what to do.
That’s why Catholic evangelist Brandon Vogt, the content director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, researched the problem, talking with experts and those who have left and returned, all to determine what really works to draw young people back. The result is a collection of resources that pulls together the best tips, tools, and strategies.
It’s called RETURN: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church and Brandon was gracious enough to discuss the new project with Catholic World Report.
CWR: Let’s start with an important question: why are so many young people drifting away from the Church?
Brandon Vogt: It’s easy to assume that young people leave because they’re self-centered and lazy. But in general, this isn’t the case. A growing number of surveys from dioceses like the Diocese of Springfield and the Diocese of Trenton, along with massive national surveys from the Pew Research Center, have identified some of the actual reasons people leave.
The most common one is that people just drift away unintentionally, over time. Depending on the survey, roughly 7 in 10 former Catholics say they “just gradually drifted away from the religion” or they just “lost interest.” In other words, nothing really pushed them away. The problem was nothing anchored them to the Church. And we know the strongest anchor is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, something they never experienced.
The second most common reason people drift away is because their “spiritual needs were not met.” The majority of these people end up in an Evangelical or non-denominational community. These people are, in general, deeply interested in God and spiritual things. They pray and take the Bible seriously. But for whatever reason, they were never fulfilled in the Catholic Church and see it as spiritually impotent.
Other reasons people give for leaving include no longer agreeing with the Church’s teachings (particularly those on marriage, sexual morality, and the male-only priesthood) and “dissatisfaction with the atmosphere,” which many describe as “stuffy,” “boring,” “too ritualistic,” or “too formal.”
The good news is that all of these problems can be overcome. In fact, millions of people who once felt this way about the Catholic Church have switched their views. And if they can, any young person can.
CWR: What are some big myths about fallen-away Catholics?
Vogt: Probably the biggest one I hear from parents, priests, and Church leaders is, “Oh, they’ll come back to the Church eventually once they get married or have kids. Let’s just be patient.” That may have been true in decades past—though even that is controversial—but studies have affirmed, again and again, that it’s no longer true today.
One reason is that young people are delaying marriage and childbearing longer than ever before. In 1960 the median age for first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women; it’s now 29 and 27, respectively. Those six-to-seven extra years away from the Church make it much harder to return.
Second, fewer and fewer young people are getting married in the Church or, when they have kids, are having their children baptized. The sacraments won’t draw people back if they’re totally bypassed.
Overall, the “wait-and-see strategy” is just a losing game. Let me pose a thought experiment: what would the CEO of a Fortune 500 company say if he learned that 75 percent of his customers just stopped buying the company’s products? Would he say, “Oh, no big deal. Let’s just sit and wait for them to come back. They’ll probably come back one day, right?”
No! He’d do everything in his power to track down the former customers, reconnect with them, answer their objections, and re-propose his products in new ways.
We parents, priests, and Church leaders should have the same reaction. In light of the millions of young people who have left the Church, we can’t respond by saying, “Let’s just wait for them to come back.” We need to say, “Let’s do everything possible to help them return!”
CWR: You spent several months working on a solution to this problem, which you call RETURN: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church. It’s a collection of resources, so can you tell us what’s in it?
Vogt: RETURN includes several tools to help parents draw their children back to the Church. It emerged from my own experience working with countless parents and young people over the years, and is packed with proven, practical advice. The resources include:
RETURN Video Course – 16 professionally-filmed video lessons with over 220 minutes of HD content. This reveals a complete game plan for drawing your child back.
RETURN paperback book – Companion guide to the Video Course which builds on its content and features a Foreword by Bishop Robert Barron.
RETURN Master Series – Video interviews with 10 Catholic leaders who are experts at helping people come back to the Church, including Dr. Scott Hahn, Jennifer Fulwiler, Father Michael Schmitz, and many more.
RETURN Seed Gifts – The 12 most effective DVDs, books, and CDs to give your fallen-away child, including Bishop Barron’s CATHOLICISM series, booklets from Catholic Answers, and books by Peter Kreeft, Matthew Kelly, and more.
RETURN Private Community – An exclusive, online community where parents can join hundreds of others to find encouragement and support as they draw their children back.
Parents and Church leaders can learn more at ReturnGameplan.com.
CWR: You’ve written books on the new media, Catholic social teaching, and evangelization. Why this topic?
Vogt: It emerged from two places. First was my experience, over the last several years, speaking at Catholic events around the country. Each event typically closes with a Q&A session and, inevitably, the most common question I hear is some version of, “My son/daughter has left the faith and I’m devastated. What should I do?” I’ve heard this hundreds of times, and my other Catholic speaker friends confirm the same thing; it’s the most deeply-felt problem among Catholic adults.
Then there was the release of the latest Pew Religious Landscape survey. Every seven years, the Pew Research Center surveys over 30,000 American adults to check the religious pulse of our country. The 2014 survey data was published in May 2015, and although the results were dire for most Christian traditions, they were especially disheartening for Catholics. Three statistics stood out:
50 percent of young people raised in the Church no longer identify as Catholic today;
79 percent who leave the Church leave before age 23;
6.45 people leave the Catholic Church for everyone that joins.
Think about what that means. Over the last 20-30 years, half of the babies you’ve seen baptized, half of the children you’ve seen confirmed, and half of the couples you’ve seen married in the Church are gone—they’re no longer Catholic. Worse, for every person who enters the front door of your parish, six-to-seven people are leaving through the back.
This is an epidemic. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. That’s why Bishop Robert Barron says, “The most significant challenge facing the Catholic Church today is the attrition of our own people.”
We haven’t done nearly enough to resolve this problem. We have lots of books and programs on keeping our kids Catholic or raising good Catholic children—and obviously these are needed—but we don’t have much for parents after their children have already drifted away. That’s why I created RETURN.
CWR: What would you say to a parent who thinks their child is just too far away, that it’s hopeless and there’s no way he’ll return to the Church?
Vogt: “Hopeless” is not a word in God’s vocabulary. As long as your child still has breath, there is always hope. God loves your child even more than you do. As much as you yearn for your child to come home, God desires his return infinitely more and is continually working to make that happen, even when things appear dire.
Just look at St. Augustine. By all accounts, his situation was beyond hopeless. He was a wild teenager who partied, roamed the streets, and stole food. He took a mistress, moved in with her, and got her pregnant. He didn’t want anything to do with Christianity. He openly mocked and denounced his mother’s faith.
But then what happened? Monica prayed fervently for him for years, and her prayers were answered through the pivotal figure of Ambrose, who stepped in and began meeting with Augustine. Ambrose helped Augustine become open to the possibility of God, and eventually Augustine asked to be baptized. He’s now remembered not only as one of the greatest saints in history, but one of the key figures in Western civilization.
If God could turn this pagan, egotistical playboy into a great saint, why can’t he help your child return? As Padre Pio said, “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”
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