Surveys say the Catholic Church in the United States is losing a generation of leaders. Young people — in particular the millennial generation born between roughly the early 1980s to the late 1990s — are walking away from their faith in droves.
Fully 41 percent of American adults of all ages who say they were raised Catholic now no longer identify themselves as such, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey.
The most alarming indicator for Jacob King is that among the group that has left the church, 79 percent have done so by the age of 23.
King was among them at one time as a teenager, but today he is a young man of 32 on a mission to reconnect young adults and youth with the Catholic faith of their heritage by proposing it in a whole new way.
He is the director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s initiative in this area, which formerly was called the Office for Youth and Young Adults until it closed in 2012. The new name for the office he leads, Anthem, reflects in one word a shift in outlook and in strategy for the church.
“We have to present (the Catholic faith) in a whole new way,” King said. “We have to start with new directions, things (young people) haven’t heard, and present the church in a different way, hoping they’ll give it a second thought.”
The name Anthem, chosen through a planning process facilitated by the Canadian consulting firm Glass Canvas, has a universal appeal because while it has a secular connotation it also has a religious meaning related to biblically rooted sacred music. “It has a Christian undertone but it’s not something that would sound like church,” King said.
He and his team, which includes assistant director Meghan Mastroianni and events coordinator Abby Gutowski, identified characteristics of the church including authority and teaching, and that of secular culture, which emphasizes friendships. They noticed that young people tend to strongly desire friendly relationships, so they developed their Anthem “brand name” and its focus in that direction.
“We realized we need to be more toward the secular and friend (view), and invite people into a relationship,” King said. “It’s a new way of looking at the church (as) a relationship with Jesus.”
That orientation might be new to young people who for whatever reasons have developed an unfavorable view of the church, and because of that, have not explored developing a relationship with Christ.
Gutowski, the 24-year-old staff member, explained how many young people perceive the church and their role in it: You first learn about behavior and moral living, then about Jesus, and only then are you invited into the church community — if you have demonstrated the first two.
“Truthfully, it’s a little bit backwards,” Gutowski said. “To appeal to (young people), you can’t start out with behavior. That comes (later, when) you’re not even looking at them as rules. Those are things you are going to desire to do because you already have that relationship with Jesus.”
Emphasizing the invitation to a welcoming community based on relationship with Jesus, then exploring moral teachings, flips the church perception on its head, and is most likely to attract young people, the Anthem staff believe.
“First, you belong,” said Gutowski. “It doesn’t matter where you are in life; whether you are a beginner, a cradle Catholic, still unsure why we do the things we do. No matter who you are, you belong. And once you belong, you’re going to desire to know more. Once you have that from the start and you age in that relationship, the behavior will come.”
Only when young people feel they belong to a church that welcomes them and in which they experience their relationship with God can Anthem begin to address hot-button issues and form youths in the faith.
Popular misconceptions on what the church teaches on moral issues “is what pushes young people away from the church,” Gutowski said. “They think Catholics hate those who are different, those who don’t fit in. We’re actually all about love and mercy.”
Getting the attention of millennials who are no longer in a Catholic school setting and who are pulled by so many secular forces will be challenging.
That is why Anthem is planning to host an annual large-scale regional concert event with big-name secular artists to attract young people who otherwise are not inclined to give the Catholic Church a second look.
They are drawn to big parties and festivals because they are fun, “and if we’re not offering something of that caliber, they’re not going to want to come,” Gutowski said. “We have to bring that entertainment value to the events that we do.”
Also in the planning are numerous smaller events with speakers and service activities hosted in more intimate settings throughout the archdiocese. Some events would be geared for young adults, others for teenagers and youths, with respect to the differences in age and interests.
Another goal for Anthem, besides hosting events, is to support and train parish youth ministers and leaders of parish-based young adult groups. Such programmatic support and training from the archdiocese, King believes, will free those youth leaders to get out from behind their desks and into the community where they can entice more young people to belong.
Just as St. Augustine sought God with a restless heart more than 15 centuries ago and proclaimed “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” King believes the apparent drifting from faith by today’s young people is itself an opportunity for a new evangelization.
“The Catholic Church has that fullness of relationship with Christ,” King said, calling it “a love affair where you can fall the most in love with Christ and the sacraments that really draw (people) into Christ.”
For the Anthem ministry, “the goal is walking with someone all the way from having no faith up to discipleship and to wanting to give my life to God,” he said.
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Only one thing I’d like to add/ suggest. Secular culture is fond of distinct groupings but Catholicism is universal and desires unity. The devil Satan likes to cause divisions. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to include people of all ages in Anthem? My young adults say of Youth 2,000 is not for them it’s for 18-30yr olds! There is no outreach for their age group ( just turned 30) yet they will raise the next generation of children – will those children also be lost to the church by limiting outreach to ” youth” to specific age ranges. Why not welcome all ages and encourage young and old to form complete communities where young and old integrate. I am still learning a lot from the older generation by the way they live their lives in their late 80’s. Let unite!
I like the idea of all age groups. The church is universal. You might find that people where once away from the church as youths and cam back can relate to the youths and share their stories.
Love this new initiative – innovative, responsive, thoughtful, fun and invitational. Hope to hear more about how it’s working!
This is a well meaning seemingly secular program that I hope will be successful. Kudos to the Philadelphia Archdiocese and Archbishop Chaput whom I have nothing but the greatest respect and admiration.
As to the increasing declines in the Catholic youth population it seems to me that the root cause is spiritual in nature, not secular. Youth programs that are based primarily on temporal pleasures such as friendly relationships and happy emotionalism are many times unsustainable due to loss of interest as their novelty wears off. Eventually they fail. Hopefully not so in this case.
The overall root cause of why the Catholic Church is declining, especially among the youth, is because the Church no longer presents a clear value proposition of who it is and also what is its primary mission. The Church is not currently showing the differentiators that separate Catholicism from all other religions and also what makes Catholicism unique. Instead today’s Church has decided to subordinate itself and to falsely project Catholicism as just one religion among many. This seems incomprehensible and wrong.
The Catholic Church is The One True Faith (the one and only religion founded by God) and the only Certain Pathway To Salvation. The Prime Mission of the Catholic Church is to Save Souls through worldwide evangelization that will convert the whole world to Catholicism. When the Catholic Church begins to lovingly and fully proclaim and evangelize this, without guilt or apology, the Catholic Church will grow once again and prosper. If the Church continues to remain silent then it will continue to shrink in numbers and eventually become irrelevant.
I’d like to know more….
Very good idea! As a mother of 2 sons, ages 21 & 27, I believe this is a good start to try to win back our young Catholics. I believe we in Central Ohio start to lose our youth right after Confirmation. Their religious studies seem to go away, unless you send your children to Catholic schools. The other Christian religions in our area are better equipped with fun youth groups that draw enormous numbers of young people to their church. I’ve heard from youth, and adults as well, that judgment is harsh in the Catholic church. I think a more approachable understanding and discussion of why we should avoid certain bad acts would be more receptive. I also believe that the music ministry would draw in more young people. I’ve always preferred the traditional music at mass, however the recessionals in our area need to be a little bit more uplifting. We are leaving church to celebrate the word of God! I believe offering a mass with more upbeat music would appeal to the younger generations and me. Good luck with all your work! I look forward to seeing this ministry spread! If you need any help in the Columbus, Ohio area, I’m willing to help.
Is it the sacraments that really draw people into Christ, or is it a relationship of unconditional trust in Christ. When you emphasize the externals, it is usually at the expense of the reality behind the sacraments. The same is true when you pay more attention to Mary and the other saints than to Christ. The only one that brings you Christ is the Father, and He expects you to go directly to His Son..
Hi I am 66 years old now, but was a Youth Minister in the Philadelphia Archdiocese many years ago. I have always believed so deeply in ministering to young people (who are so amazing!). I am excited and grateful that a new movement is happening to revitalize this ministry.
May God bless you and guide you as you do His work.
I was SO pleased to see this AS A 79 year old grandmother, I have seen almost all of my grandchildren leave the Church? I knew their HAD to be a NEW approach to get them into even contemplating a return to Catholicism. I think this idea should be flooded throughout the ENTIRE Catholic Churches . Europe has been lost. Let us bring Catholicism back to this country
Ambitious plans. May they bear good fruit and be a sign of encouragement to many. After a time maybe you could share your ideas with adult faith formation leaders and those who educate the children. I’m sure some of the same techniques could be helpful on either side of the young adult spectrum. God bless your efforts.
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! Having become strongly for the Church only after experience in Taize encountering Jesus in silence and friendships–the “prayer continued”–I believe your approach is a way forward.
a suggestion: it would have been good to include contact information or link or way to forward to members of the “audience”.