How to pass the faith on to teens

Our Faith

Sean Reynolds cheerfully agreed to torpedo tired old thinking at the National Symposium on Adolescent Catechesis last November.

The symposium, dreamed up by Catholic leaders who have been staying up nights worrying about the dismal showing of Catholic youth in the ongoing National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), gathered more than 100 Catholic leaders who work with youth. Their charge? To ask themselves what must change about the Catholic approach to forming adolescent faith.

Reynolds’ presentation, late in the gathering, was designed to blow up any thoughts of convenient retreat into conventional Catholic remedies, such as, “All we need are some better religion books.”

No way, he said: If Catholic youth have not learned nor committed to the faith in the way we hoped, we need to turn our attention to our parishes, to our sacramental system, and especially to parents, who today are asked to do much more with far less support. Parents need help and training to introduce their kids to Catholicism as “a comprehensive way of life,” says Reynolds, borrowing a phrase from church historian Scott Appleby at the University of Notre Dame.


Reynolds has spent the last year and a half visiting parishes to explain the hair-raising results of the NSYR to parents and parish staff members in his Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Just as he did at the symposium, he raises quite a few eyebrows.

Why were Catholic youth the only ones to get their own chapter in Soul Searching (Oxford), which discussed the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR)?

I asked the author and head researcher Christian Smith about that, and he said it was because the NSYR researchers were so absolutely stunned at how poorly Catholic kids did relative to other Christian denominations and relative to the researchers’ own expectations.

Researchers were looking to find out, among other things, whether young people attend worship services, do Christian service, read the Bible, pray, and whether they are involved in some sort of youth ministry or religious education program.

Catholic young people were found to be 5 to 25 percentage points lower than their conservative or mainline Protestant peers on many of the indicators that they were looking for.

Is there any good news to go with the bad?

The good news and bad news are two sides of the same coin. The good news is, as the Catholic Church has consistently taught, that parents have the most significant impact on the faith of young people. I’m a Catholic parent myself, and we have much more authority in a positive sense in the lives of our young people than we give ourselves credit for. That comes not only from the NSYR but from other studies on millennial youth, which suggest that the more that kids are barraged with information from the Internet, from media, and from electronic devices they’re plugged into, the smaller the circle of voices they trust.

A few years ago our office in Cincinnati decided it would be a great idea to develop a video highlighting the heroes of young people. We were going to be real cutting edge. Well, it was the most boring video you can imagine because all the kids talked about was mom and dad or grandma and grandpa.

Isn’t that interesting? Kids are taking their signals from their families, despite the popular assumption that kids are rebellious regarding faith, that they’re going to reject our beliefs and traditions and maybe later in life come back to them. The research shows that this is not true for this generation.

So the good news is that parents have a tremendous amount of impact on the faith of kids. The bad news is that parents have a tremendous amount of impact on the faith of their kids. If parents aren’t living their faith, if they are not insisting that their kids engage in faith—just as they insist that kids engage in a variety of other things that are good for them—then it turns out that kids are not very committed. Parents can look in the mirror and see by and large what their kids are going to be; they have that much impact.

So by “insisting that their kids engage in faith,” you mean dragging them to Mass on Sunday, right?

I do use the word “insist,” but I use it in the sense that there are many things that we as parents don’t bend on.

If one of your kids would say, “You know, Dad, math is boring. I don’t want to go to math class anymore,” would we even consider saying to the child, “Oh, honey, you’re right, math is boring and so you only have to go to math class through the eighth grade and then no more math for you”? Of course not, but something has happened in us Catholics over the last 40 or 50 years so that the faith component in our kids’ lives has become optional. Connecting the dots, that would suggest that it’s become optional for parents as well. Math has not become optional, but somehow faith has, when Mom or Dad say, “Once confirmed, that’s it for religion classes, and Sunday Mass is up to you.”

Getting back to your question, I really am very blunt with parents. Now I don’t want them going home and yelling at their kids: “No more Mr. Nice Guy; there’s a new sheriff in town, mister, and you’re going to Mass.” Rather we equip parents with a couple of assessment surveys [available at] for both parents and teenagers, so they can look at how they are living their lives in faith, consider how they can improve, and talk to one another about how to do better.

With elementary school kids it’s different: Certainly there as a parent I would just say, “You’re going to Mass, period, end of story.” Isn’t that what we parents do with anything else that’s so important?

Tell us more about how Catholic youth scored in the NSYR.

Keep in mind what they were studying in this research was not simply kids’ opinions about whether they believe in God. Rather, they were looking for the evidence. The question I sometimes ask teens is: “If you were arrested and accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

When the researchers looked at Sunday worship attendance, there was not a significant difference between Protestant and Catholic young people. But when they looked at other ways of being connected with a church, that’s where they found big differences.

What about Hispanic youth? They comprise half of Catholics under 18.

I am certainly no expert in that area, but one finding I’m aware of is that both Hispanic and Anglo young Catholics evidence a similar dropping-off in terms of church attendance and religious behaviors. I said earlier that young people in this study mirror their parents, but that’s apparently less so in Latino families: What researchers found is that even if the parents are regular Mass-goers and strong Catholics, that is not reflected as frequently in their kids.

My conjecture is that’s a reflection of the assimilation of those young people into the broader culture.

Do Catholic kids at least believe in God?

Yes, they do. The NSYR refers to the faith of teens as a kind of “benign whateverism,” whose credo can be boiled down to five elements that the researchers termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” They found it emerging as a new kind of adolescent religion across America. What’s frightening is that it seems to be replacing the doctrine and practices of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish youth in the United States. The five elements:

First, there is a God that exists who created the world and watches over human life on earth.

Second, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair as taught in the Bible. How many times in the New Testament does Jesus ask people to be “nice”? Never. I’ve actually had parents come to me and say, “I don’t want my kids to know about the church’s teaching on justice or nuclear weapons. I just want them to be nice to their brothers and sisters.”

Third, the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. Now, what’s the big complaint about Sunday Mass? “It’s boring. I don’t get anything out of it.” In other words, it’s not doing something for me. Remember that we have kids who interact with screens all day, who are used to watching stuff, who will just move on if it’s not fun or interesting or doesn’t make them feel good. They have no idea how to participate in liturgy, which is not about them. They need to be taught how to do that.

Four, God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem. So that’s God as therapist.

Five, good people go to heaven when they die. In Soul Searching a researcher asks a young person whether there is punishment after death for bad people like Hitler. The response is, “Well, he probably thought he was a pretty good guy.” You might agree this is a pretty low bar in terms of accountability for one’s behavior. Where’s the sense that the decisions I make make a difference to God? This is God saying, “Whatever.”

What’s the problem with “benign whateverism”?

Obviously there’s a significant person missing from those statements: Jesus Christ, missing in action. No Trinity, no Resurrection. God is “out there” and doesn’t make demands on me; there are no challenges beyond being nice. And as long as I’m nice, I’m going to go to heaven, or whatever.

I’ll go to church, like my parents do, if it is a feel-good experience for me. No sense that I’m here for everybody else, which of course is the communal dimension integral to Christianity in terms of our worship, our commitment to justice, and our connections with the poor. And even more troubling, it seems to be replacing what we really believe with a very thin imitation without much notice.

So how do parents react when they hear about this in your presentations?

I’ve had some parents come up and say, “Thanks so much. Our family has gotten so sloppy. You’ve given us a little bit more backbone, and we’re going to try to get back on track.”

There are no bad guys, there are only good guys in this picture. All parents want what’s best for their kids.

It’s too bad that so often pastoral ministers are angry with parents. Parents are who we’ve made them to be when we set up a system of programs that implicitly say to them, “Leave this to the professionals; don’t try this at home.” Parents are doing the best that they can and are under incredible pressures. When I share this information with parents, I don’t want to leave them feeling bad, but informed and hopefully empowered to make some changes. Yet I’m sure some inevitably do because the information is really sobering, a huge wake-up call.

How have we ended up here?

Church historians have referred to it as the demise of the Catholic subculture. Fifty years ago, multiple institutions supported parents in handing on the faith: largely homogeneous Catholic families, Catholic neighborhoods with parishes at the center, ethnic Catholic communities, Catholic schools. Even the media helped reinforce values.

These were buttresses, like those that hold up a cathedral. Today they have largely fallen away. What was sustained by mutually supporting institutions is now being sustained by religious education and sometimes youth ministry and by parents and family. When you think about it, there really isn’t much else. Even if you include Catholic schools in the mix, they affect roughly only one of ten Catholic teenagers in the United States.

Yet we continue to fall back on conventional thinking and business as usual, assuming that the institutions that served us so well in the middle of the last century will do the job for us today, with no Catholic subculture holding it all together and filling in the gaps. This research suggests that’s just not the case. The usual stuff isn’t working.

What can parishes do about all this?

If I’m a parish director of religious education, responsible for cradle-to-grave faith formation, I might realize that I need to focus mainly on empowering, equipping, and enthusing young parents about faith: Our focus needs to shift from providing sacraments for children to empowering parents to rear their children in the faith.

Consider matrimony. When a couple walks in the rectory door and says they want to get married, that’s not the time to say, “Oh, you’re cohabiting? Come back when you’re not.” These are the rare, golden opportunities to help people reconnect with their faith.

When parents bring their kids for Baptism, let’s not think of it just in terms of “baptismal preparation” and hoops they need to jump through, but as an opportunity for hospitality and faith-building for the parents.

We have trained Catholics to expect to hear, “You have to do these things, then you get the sacrament. Then you’re finished until the next sacrament, at which point you come back and jump through more hoops.” That’s the consumer model of church, and it’s killing us.

We need to rethink our sacramental system. You don’t “get” a sacrament. We live the sacraments. We need to begin to mentor young married couples and young parents in how to do that.

Is it realistic to think we can “restore” a Catholic culture?

Scott Appleby has said that young Catholics need to be introduced to “a sense of Catholicism as a comprehensive way of life.” I’m not, and I don’t think he was, talking about restoration of a former style of Catholicism.

So what does it mean then?

What it means to me is that a person has made an individual and personal decision to lead a Catholic way of life and to do that comprehensively, so my faith affects every aspect of my life.

It means that Sunday Mass and an occasional religious education class aren’t nearly enough. It means that Jesus Christ is the compass I use to navigate through the moral questions in my life. That I have spiritual underpinnings rooted in Catholic thinking about spirituality and stories of Catholic saints, which I can rely on when my life is falling apart. That the Catholic faith is imbued in my relationships. It means that I pray, and not just on Sunday, but through the week. It’s how I live; it’s not just something that I do.

Family life is so frantic today. How do you establish a comprehensive way of life when you’re so busy with everything else?

I don’t think there’s any way of doing it except counterculturally, or at least with some awareness about what the culture does to you, to your children, and to your family. We try to equip people with some lenses to look at how they’re living their lives and ask themselves, “Are you happy?” or as Dr. Phil says, “Is that working for you?”

What about parents who are doubtful about their own faith, maybe frustrated with the hierarchy or the sex-abuse crisis, for example? Would you tell these parents to involve their kids in the Catholic Church?

I’ve had that question phrased exactly that way, and my response is yes. As parents don’t we teach our kids many things that are allied with ideas or groups we don’t agree with on every score? Does teaching kids the Pledge of Allegiance imply that we agree with everything our country does?

Talking to parents, I would, in a compassionate way, raise the question: Are those things that are troubling to you a reason to deny your child an experience that so clearly benefits her in so many positive ways? I am suggesting that you put aside those concerns, as we parents so frequently do in other areas.

The research shows that there’s a strong correlation between positive life outcomes and how religious a person is. You may not even see the good in religion at this point in your own life, but if you want to make a decision based on what’s best for your kids, you’re going to get them to church, let them build a connection with the faith community and learn to pray.

Let your child have the experience of faith. Later on there will be plenty of time for her to figure out women’s ordination or whatever list of issues that are a problem for you.

Is part of the issue that parents themselves are not as articulate about their faith as they used to be?

Some observers say that the faith formation today’s parents received was inadequate to the task, that all religious education after Vatican II was fluff. I was teaching back then, and I know that’s not the case. There was fluff, but there was substance as well.

I suspect Catholic parents have never been especially articulate about their faith. I think about my own mom, God rest her soul: She knew the Baltimore Catechism by rote. Was that knowing the Catholic faith?

She knew it in her bones, but could she explain it the way we now expect parents to? Have parents ever been fully equipped to pass on the faith, or have we grown up assuming a Catholic subculture that no longer exists will pass on the faith?

So the challenge of Catholic parents today is more difficult than anything our parents ever faced? 

There’s an assumption out there that today’s parents forgot or never learned what their parents knew, and that by comparison we’re deficient. I think that’s a misreading of history.

We’re asking parents today to do something completely new: to explicitly and intentionally decide to live the faith themselves in a way not supported by the wider culture, and to be able to share it with their children—without the benefit of the buttresses of the Catholic subculture that our parents enjoyed.

Parents need help to do that. How do you pray with your child? That’s really hard for many parents; many are uncomfortable praying with anybody out loud.

Parents need to make a connection with other parents and meet with them on a regular basis to support each other. That was one of the huge assets my own kids had growing up: we had a small faith community we prayed with, other parents we shared our struggles in parenting with.

The hope is that faith is so much a part of your life so that you can’t help but bring it up at the dinner table. You end up talking about what happened in the news or praying for people who are sick and hurting.

What would it be like for your sons and daughters if, instead of hearing the Today Show when they wake up in the morning, it was quiet and you were sitting on the couch with a candle lit and scripture in your lap, praying and meditating?

What would it be like if your son or daughter saw you doing Christian service regularly and not just because you have to as a parent to get your kid there?

I call it living faith out loud. Not letting it be a secret, but living it openly at home so your young people catch it, learn it, ask about, grow in it. That’s how faith gets in them.

If we were to talk with your sons, what would they say was key for them in terms of faith?

They might acknowledge that we made many investments over the years to be sure that faith would get into them. Not just Catholic schools, but many other things. Once we changed parishes just to get a good youth minister because we knew we couldn’t do it by ourselves.

Unfortunately only about 20 percent of our parishes have full-time youth ministers, who are significantly more effective than part-timers or volunteers. But people still balk at paying for them: “What are they doing all day? Are they worth the money?”

We have to make a commitment to have people in youth ministry who are trained and effective.

Where will we end up if we fail?

Here in the United States, aside from growing numbers of Hispanic Catholics, I can see us going the way of Europe, where the parish is relegated to a gray-haired minority, principally women. Or there could be a retrenchment if a significant number of bishops try to turn the church toward a regressive, clericalized Catholic enclave.

I hope there is a third way, not irrelevance and dissolution and not retrenchment, but a pioneering effort in the style of Elizabeth Ann Seton and Katharine Drexel and saints like them. They didn’t have marching orders, they didn’t have a script. They read the signs of the times and responded with prayer, creativity, passion, and genius, and just look at what grew out of it.

I think we’re in one of those historical moments that call for saints, that call for us to step out, take courage, and take some risks. Who knows where that will lead, but it will surely be full of faith and spirit.

This article appeared in the April issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 4).

Image: Unsplash cc via Priscilla Du Preez