Keeping Kids Connected to the Church: A Few Proposals

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We have a good idea of what factors cause young people to leave the Catholic Church, but what factors contribute to them staying? Here are seven suggestions parents and Church youth workers might consider.

By Jerry Windley-Daoust, Blog, Peanut Butter & Grace

In the first part of this article, we looked at a new study that asked young former Catholics ages 15-25 why they left the Church. In this second part, I’m going to ask a question not explored by that study: Why do young Catholics stay in the Church?

Listening to the stories of young people who have left the Church is helpful—both for the Church and the young people themselves. (In fact, many of the study participants expressed relief that someone was “finally” listening to their stories.)

But, as the study itself points out, young people who have already left the Church are unlikely to return, at least in the short term. For parents and Church workers alike, then, it is just as critical to look at the factors that help young people form healthy, mature bonds with the Church—and to strengthen those factors in their work with kids.

Unfortunately, the question “Why are you Catholic?” was not part of the study (“Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” by Saint Mary’s Press and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate). Perhaps it will be a question the researchers follow up on.

But we’re not completely without answers, or at least strong hunches. In this article, I’ll propose some habits, practices, and attitudes that we as parents and Church workers might adopt to nurture a more positive relationship between young people and the Church. Some of these proposals are solidly rooted in research; in other cases, I’ll be drawing on my own experience in Catholic family ministry. I’ll try to give you a heads up on which is which.

If you’re in a hurry, here’s the short and sweet overview:

  1. Model the faith for your kids

  2. Practice the faith in the fabric of family life

  3. Nurture kids’ relationship with God

  4. Talk with kids about stuff that matters

  5. Tackle the tough issues

  6. Offer many paths to practice the faith

  7. Help them forge faith-based friendships

And before we wrap up, I’ll also touch on our most important job—loving our kids in a way that makes us icons of God’s love for them, no matter what their faith ends up looking like.

1. Model the faith for your kids

For years now, my wife and I have had a sign taped to our bedroom doorframe at about eye level. “You are your child’s first image of God,” it says.

Really, no pressure.

But the sentiment is backed up by plenty of research: parents (and grandparents) are one of the single biggest influences on kids’ attitudes, beliefs, and behavior on everything from exercise to risky behavior to politics—and religion. That’s not to say they’re the only influence, of course, but some of the research finds that their influence is more powerful than that of religious education programs, or even peers.

Parents exercise this influence not only in what they say, but in what they do. The old adage holds true for religious practice: “Actions speak louder than words.” That’s because kids are hard-wired to imitate the behavior of the adults in their lives—it’s a survival instinct thousands of years old. The more importance adults place on the behavior, the more likely kids are to imitate it.

Consistency is important, too. It’s no surprise that a number of the young people interviewed for the “Going, Going, Gone” study cited the hypocrisy of family members or other religious people as one of the reasons they left the Church. Researchers find that the consistency of parents’ beliefs and actions—and in the beliefs of both parents—affects the likelihood of kids adopting those beliefs and actions.

“Don’t be religious hypocrites!” might be the motto here. Or, putting it more positively: “Live the faith you want to see in your kids.”

2. Practice the faith in the fabric of family life

Besides modeling faith for their kids, parents can help kids practice the faith by weaving it into the fabric of everyday life. It isn’t a given that faithful parents will do this, especially given the busyness of two-income households. But the time and energy required to be intentional about practicing the faith with kids is well spent, researchers find.

“It is evident that youth who are most likely to mature in faith are those raised in homes where faith is part of the normal ebb and flow of family life,” says John Roberto, a widely respected expert in Catholic family faith formation, in his excellent summary of the research. “The Effective Christian Education Study provides convincing evidence of the power present in the religious practices of a home. Religious practices in the home virtually double the probability of a congregation’s youth entering into the life and mission of Christ’s church.”

The Saint Mary’s Press study confirms the importance of that finding, albeit in a negative way. Among the young former Catholics surveyed, 37 percent had not received their First Communion; 67 percent had not received the sacrament of Confirmation; and 54 percent attended Mass a few times a year or less.

But practicing the faith in the “ebb and flow” of family life means a lot more than just going to Mass regularly and celebrating the sacraments. Ideally, the faith that parents profess on Sunday ought to influence what they (and their kids) do on Monday—and every other day of the week. The research tends to focus on four areas of family practice:

  • Talking about faith issues as a family.

  • Celebrating rituals, both with the wider community and at home.

  • Serving others.

  • Praying together.

To these research-based findings, I would add my own insight that sacrifice is an important dimension in the way families practice the faith. Sacrifice—giving up something good for the sake of a greater good, especially the good of another—is absolutely central to the Christian faith, as the crucifixes we place in our churches and homes attest. But sacrifice is also a sociological signal of the importance of a behavior. When we get up early to go to Mass (sacrificing sleep), or spend a Saturday afternoon in a service activity, or refrain from shopping on Sunday, or pass up a lucrative business opportunity on ethical grounds, we’re sending our kids a powerful message that the spiritual benefits of these practices outweigh the temporal goods being sacrificed.

3. Nurture Your Kids’ Relationships with God

Is it more important for kids to know the content of the faith or to know God? Or put another way, which takes priority in faith formation, evangelization or catechesis?

You might think, “Well, those two things go together: you have to know about God before you can know God.” And you’d be right. But too often, we parents and parish leaders invest more time and energy into providing kids with information about the faith at the expense of creating the conditions for growing in faith. Or we teach them about God without ever checking on how well they know God in a living, vital way. Presenting information about God to kids who don’t have a relationship with God is a little like painting wood without priming it: it looks good at first, but it doesn’t last.

Now, I’m not aware of research that directly backs this up, but in the place of research, I’ll point to two thousand years of Church practice. From the time of the apostles forward, our wisest leaders have understood that evangelization—the initial proclamation of the Good News—is preparatory to catechesis—the systematic explanation and “unpacking” of the Gospel, what we typically think of as “religious education.”

If you have the time, skim The General Directory for Catechesis, the massive Church document that provides the norms for catechetical activities. From the start, the document places catechetical activity in the context of evangelization: “Only by starting with conversion, and therefore by making allowance for the interior disposition of ‘whoever believes,’ can catechesis, strictly speaking, fulfill its proper task of education in the faith” (#62).

Skimming a little further along in the Directory, we find that even catechesis is supposed to be oriented toward nurturing a person’s relationship with God: “Truly, to help a person to encounter God, which is the task of the catechist, means to emphasize above all the relationship that the person has with God so that he can make it his own and allow himself to be guided by God” (#139).

The end goal of evangelization and catechesis is a living relationship with Christ. And as many of our saints demonstrate, a living relationship with Christ doesn’t require a thorough knowledge of the catechism.

Let me re-emphasize that I’m not minimizing the importance of teaching kids the content of the faith. If our kids are going to leave the Church, they at least ought to know what they’re really leaving behind, as opposed to leaving the Church they think they know from the caricature presented by the mainstream culture. Here, I’m simply suggesting that we need to pay more attention to nurturing kids’ relationships with God, even if that feels “soft,” or something we can’t control.

What can we as parents do to nurture our kids’ relationship with God? That’s a big enough subject for another article, but briefly, I believe we can create conditions that encourage and support that relationship:

  • We can love our kids in the way that God does, and thereby become living icons of God’s love.

  • We can teach them to pray—really pray, not just recite memorized words. This means teaching them to pray spontaneously under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in everyday life, especially in time of need, but also giving them experiences of meditative and contemplative prayer.

  • We can send them on retreats, and otherwise connect them with other people of faith, including their peers. As the General Directory for Catechesis points out, our relationship with God is often mediated by our relationship with other people.

  • We can practice an examination of the day with them, providing them with a language and a lens for noticing the work of God in their lives.

The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, by the way, is a good model of catechesis that prioritizes nurturing children’s relationships with God.

4. Talk with Kids about Stuff That Matters

Earlier, we noted that having faith conversations with kids is one of the “big four” family practices that help kids grow in faith. The importance of this practice is well-supported by researchers, as well as the extensive pastoral experience of the Church.

But how we talk to kids about faith matters—a lot.

Are our talks isolated, preachy sermons—not so much conversations as one-way proclamations—that aren’t connected with the events and experiences of family life, and kids’ lives? Do we listen to kids’ stories, to their questions and concerns—even when they challenge us? Or do we shut them down, especially when the conversation wanders into uncomfortable territory?

Here’s a summary of what we should be aiming for (most of the time) when we talk to kids about the faith:

  • Making connections between faith and everyday life. Is an emergency vehicle passing by? Stop and pray with your kids. The same goes for all the little personal crises kids face throughout the day: lost iPods, skinned knees, breakups. Doing a daily examen, or review of the day’s events, offers a good opportunity to talk about how God has been present in our daily lives.

  • Listen to kids’ stories. Everyone wants to be heard—and in fact, one of the common complaints of the former Catholics interviewed in the Saint Mary’s Press study was that no one ever listened to them or took their concerns seriously. As we raise our kids in the faith, it’s important that we treat them as human beings created in God’s image, not objects to be molded in our own image. The next time you take your kid fishing, or out for ice cream, be quiet and listen to what he or she has to say—for what makes him or her tick. It might not seem like you’re doing faith formation, but the act of listening and acknowledging another person is a holy imitation of God. Plus, people are more likely to pay attention to someone who has taken the time to really listen to them.

  • Treat questions as opportunities. Someday, our kids are going to ask, “Why didn’t God answer my prayer?” or “Why does the Church discriminate against women?” Or they’re going to tell us, “I don’t believe in God,” or “Church is boring,” or “The Church is full of hypocrites.” After we’re done freaking out (out of view of the child, of course), our next move ought to be to take a deep breath and recognize that such questions and challenges are necessary moments in our child’s maturing in faith. They’re an opportunity, not a crisis—even if we can’t resolve the question right away.

“Connected to moments that matter” might summarize the type of conversations that really make a difference when it comes to kids’ faith development. Again, that’s not to dismiss the importance of more formal presentations of the content of the faith like you might do in family catechesis. But when we have these “transactional conversations,” as the researchers like to call them, then we’re helping kids figure out how to live their faith in everyday life—how it can help them make sense of their experiences, what God might be telling them through those experiences, how to negotiate the values of the Church in relation to the values of secular culture.

5. Tackle the Tough Issues

If you read my previous overview of the Saint Mary’s Press study, you may remember that the researchers named three broad categories of former young Catholics: the injured, the drifters, and the dissenters. This last category includes a whole range of young Catholics who say they left the Church primarily because of differences over doctrinal or moral teachings. Some had trouble with the basics (believing in God); others left because they disagree with the Church on social issues.

What are these issues? The Saint Mary’s Press study yields a predictable list: gay marriage, abortion, divorce, contraception, women’s ordination, gender identity, and scientific objections to religion, to name a few.

These are tough issues on several fronts. Often, the social issues are framed in a way that presents the secular view as compassionate, over and against the Church’s “illogical,” “rigid,” “uncompassionate,” or even “bigoted” teaching. This challenge is compounded by the fact that the Church’s teaching isn’t easily reduced to soundbites. Much of the Church’s social teaching is rooted in a Christian anthropology—that is, a Christian understanding of what it means to be human—that secular culture simply doesn’t get.

To take one example, the Church’s teaching on sexual matters, including contraception and gay marriage, is partially rooted in its understanding that the procreation is an essential element of what makes sex “good.” And why does the Church believe this (besides the obvious fact that sex evolved for this very purpose)? To understand this, you have to dig down into the Catholic understanding of what it means to be human—that as creatures “made in the image of God,” we are made to be creative and generative and relational.

Where does this leave parents when kids raise a tough issue?

For one thing, we parents shouldn’t expect to get off the hook with an easy five-minute answer to questions about gay marriage, gender identity, scientific proof for the existence of God, and so on. It isn’t going to be enough.

Moreover, we shouldn’t expect much help from the Church, because to the extent that the Church has a coherent response to these questions, it often isn’t easily accessible by the average layperson, much less in a format that speaks to kids and teens. That’s partly because of the complexity of the issues, and partly because some of these issues are so new, the Church is still formulating an appropriate theological and pastoral response.

But, as the Saint Mary’s Press study underlines, avoiding these tough issues is not an option, not for parents and not for the Church. Our kids deserve thoughtful, collaborative conversations that explore these issues in a way that draws on the Church’s rich pastoral and theological tradition. They deserve such conversations because their questions aren’t unreasonable, to the extent that they are driven by a genuine quest for truth, love, and beauty. And they deserve the best answers we can give them because the secular culture will demand reasonable answers from them. If we send our kids out into the world without some way of responding to the secular culture’s objections to Church teaching, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they choose to leave the Church rather than be labeled uncompassionate or unscientific.

Until the Church steps up with better resources, parents are going to have to do their own research into the rationale behind the Church’s teaching on these issues, and then attempt to translate that into terms that their kids can understand.

One strategy for doing this might be to make it a joint project: If your son or daughter has questions about Church teaching that you can’t answer, rather than avoiding the topic, set out to explore it together. In doing so, you’ll be modeling mature Christian faith to your child—a faith that is rooted in a relationship with Christ first and foremost, a faith that isn’t afraid to ask questions, and a faith that is always open to growth.

6. Offer Many Paths to Practice the Faith

Of the former Catholics surveyed in the Saint Mary’s Press study, a full 51 percent of the young people left the Church for another religion. Many surely did so because they didn’t agree with Church doctrine or had a bad experience, but some of that number did so because another religion felt more like “home.”

And that brings me to another proposal, supported indirectly by research that shows that successful parents provide kids with “flexible structure”—not too squishy, not too rigid—in their disciplinary approach. I believe that principle is easily translated to raising kids in the “discipline” of the faith as well.

If our goal is for our kids to have a living relationship with Christ, mediated by the Church, then it makes sense for us to provide them with as many possible paths to that goal as possible. What does that mean? Very simply, not limiting our kids’ experience of Catholicism to a single “flavor,” but instead exposing them to the rich variety of spiritualities and faith practices contained within the tradition.

We have many, many legitimate ways of worshipping within our Catholic tradition. We have ornate, formal Latin liturgies, and we have liturgies inspired by the charismatic renewal. We have First Fridays and Benediction, and we have contemporary Christian praise and worship music. And have you ever been to a Mass at a parish associated with a particular immigrant community? I’m thinking of those boisterous, really long East African liturgies.

We have many legitimate ways of praying, too. As great as the rosary is, our kids shouldn’t discover the beauty of meditative prayer for the first time when someone at college introduces them to Buddhism or New Age practices. Last I checked, there were at least 77 different ways we Catholics pray—and that’s surely a conservative estimate.

What about Catholic social teaching? We parents may have our own political priorities, but as our kids grow into adulthood, they may develop other priorities or interests. They should know that the Church’s social teaching offers wisdom and leadership on a whole range of important issues, all rooted in concern for the dignity of the human person and care for God’s creation.

And whatever our children’s “spiritual style” might be, they can probably find a precedent in the Church. Among the Catholic saints are cloistered nuns and globe-trotting missionaries, artists and scientists, politicians and poets, and holy men and women of every culture—each with his or her own distinctive spirituality.

Obviously, it’s impossible for us as parents to give our kids a personal experience of the many ways of “being Catholic.” But it might just be enough for them to experience a healthy diversity, and to know that the rest is out there, should they ever wish to explore.

7. Help Kids Forge Faith-Based Friendships

My wife teaches theology to students at a Catholic university. One of the best things she does every semester is assign her students the task of writing their own spiritual autobiography—the story of their faith lives, or (too often), the story of why they do not profess religious faith. Over the years, she’s probably read more than a thousand of these papers. What are the most common factors contributing to these students’ faith?

Formal religious education, even if it surely played a supporting role, is (as far as I know) never cited as the key factor. More commonly, students point to important relationships with people of faith—a parent, grandparent, friend, youth leader, or another mentor. Other students point to a retreat or youth group that provided just the right environment for their encounter with God. (Based on these papers, my wife says that the campus ministry’s Together Encountering Christ retreat is one of the most important things it does for the students.)

I mentioned it above, but it’s important enough to reiterate as its own point: relationships with God are usually mediated by relationships with other people, by God’s design. Young people who grow up to be active in the Church will often point to these relational experiences as a major factor: a pilgrimage to World Youth Day, a summer camp, a retreat experience, a youth group, a priest or nun or youth leader. As parents, we can help forge these connections by being involved in parish life, getting kids involved in the life of the parish, and providing them with opportunities to forge relationships with peers who share their faith.

Love Them No Matter What (It’s Our Most Important Job)

In all of this, it’s important to keep our role as parents in perspective: we are stewards of God’s children; we are not God. We have certain responsibilities to provide our kids with what they need to grow in faith. Beyond that, though, it’s God’s work.

There is no magic program that is going to guarantee that our kids grow up to be faith-filled adults or active members of the Church. The Bible and the history of the Church is filled with stories of holy men and women whose children abandoned the faith, and all the research bears out the reality that family dynamics aren’t the only factor at play when people choose their religious or spiritual worldview.

When my kids were younger, they would sometimes ask, “What if I stop being Catholic when I grow up? Will you still love me?” And I say, without hesitation, “Yes, I will still love you.” I will never negotiate my love or affection in exchange for my children’s religious practice. God loved us before we loved him; therefore, my love should also be unconditional.

It all comes back to that sign on the doorframe: “You are your child’s first image of God.” That is our first and last job as parents, to love our children as best we can, giving them some hint or glimmer of the divine love that holds them in the palm of God’s hand.