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Why Young People Leave the Church

Young people are “losing their religion” in record numbers, particularly within the Catholic church. A new study turned to some of these young former Catholics to ask why they left. Here’s what they found.


The first of two articles. Get part two here: Keeping Kids Connected to the Church: A Few Proposals


by Jerry Windley-Daoust


“Studies indicate that more people who were raised Catholic—often young people—are leaving the faith than ever before.”

That’s the provocative jumping-off point for a major study released a few weeks ago by Saint Mary’s Press in conjunction with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). The heart of the study, titled “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” involved a qualitative survey of 204 teens and young adults ages 15-25 who were once Catholic, but who no longer identify as Catholic. In a qualitative study, the researchers pose open-ended questions—in this case, “In your own words, what are the reasons why you are no longer Catholic?”—and then analyze those responses for common patterns.

It’s not only Church leaders and workers who ought to be interested in the study results. The stories of these young “disaffiliated” Catholics have something to teach parents striving to raise their children in the Church, too.

Saint Mary’s Press was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the final report. Here, I’m going to highlight some of the results that might be most interesting to Catholic parents. Then, in the second part of this article, I’m going to propose some possibilities for what parents might do with that information. What do the results tell us about how to give our kids the gift of faith in a secularized society?


The Dynamics of Disaffiliation

Before we get into the results, I want to catch up anyone who isn’t aware of the larger trend toward religious disaffiliation we’ve been seeing in the past decade or two. Churches have been tracking declining membership for a long time, but a 2015 Pew Research survey brought that trend into sharp focus for Church professionals:

A high percentage of younger members of the Millennial generation – those who have entered adulthood in just the last several years – are religious “nones” (saying they are atheists or agnostics, or that their religion is “nothing in particular”). At the same time, an increasing share of older Millennials also identify as “nones,” with more members of that group rejecting religious labels in recent years.

Overall, 35% of adult Millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 1996) are religiously unaffiliated. Far more Millennials say they have no religious affiliation compared with those who identify as evangelical Protestants (21%), Catholics (16%) or mainline Protestants (11%).

Meanwhile, the share of Millennials with low religious commitment is also growing, Pew notes. These broad trends are affecting the Catholic Church more than any other denomination, although that’s not apparent from looking at raw numbers; the number of U.S. Catholics has remained more or less steady over the years, but only because of the effect of Hispanic immigration.

The point of the Saint Mary’s Press survey was to explore the underlying reasons for these trends, mainly by listening to the stories of “disaffiliated” young Catholics. The results won’t surprise anyone who works with young people, but the study is helpful in backing up that anecdotal experience with more rigorous, statistically reliable research.

Anyone looking for a simple explanation—or something to blame—for kids leaving the Church is going to be disappointed. The research found that Millennials leave the Church for many, often interconnected, reasons. However, the researchers cautiously propose three broad categories of disaffiliation:

The Injured. These young people point to some painful experience as one of their reasons for leaving the Church. The death of a loved one, differences in the religious practice of parents, divorce, the perceived hypocrisy of religious family members, and other family issues may be the source of the injury. But negative experiences within the Catholic community are all too common as well: a pastor arrested on charges of sexual assault, a parish that fails to reach out during a family crisis, or the unchristian behavior of professed Catholics.

The Drifters. These young people shrug their shoulders and ask, “Why bother?” “Their experience of Church seems to emphasize meaningless rules and rituals encased in confusing structures without any connection to their ‘real world,’” according to the study’s authors.

The Dissenters. These young people more actively reject the Church, and sometimes personal faith, as well. Some question core teachings of the faith (such as the existence of God), while others reject the Church’s stance on social issues. Same-sex marriage, birth control, and abortion top the list of social issues cited by these young dissenters. unlike the drifters, dissenters tend to be actively invested in their choice. They “seem to share a desire for meaning and purpose and connection,” as the study authors note, and often end up in other faith communities. Many expressed deep frustration that their faith questions were not answered—or even heard in the first place—within their Catholic community.

Besides these broad categories, the researchers also noted six “dynamics” of disaffiliation—that is, factors that contribute to young people leaving the Church.

  1. A precipitating event or insight triggers a process of questioning and doubt.
  2. Faith and religious practice are seen as one option among many—a reflection of the broader secular culture.
  3. The individual feels free, happy, or relieved at the decision to stop believing and/or to leave the Church.
  4. The individual believes religious practice was forced on them, and vow not to “force religion” on their own children.
  5. The individual says, “I can be ethical without religion.”
  6. The individual cites a lack of evidence in God or “something bigger,” but isn’t closed to religious belief—if a rationale or scientific argument for belief could be presented.

Among the study participants, 35 percent identified as having no religious affiliation (what researchers call “nones”), while 14 percent identified as atheist or agnostic. Some 51 percent of the young people who had left the Church said they were now affiliated with another religion.

“Disaffiliation from the Church is largely a thoughtful, conscious, intentional choice made by young people in a secularized society where faith and religious practice are seen as one option among many,” the study concludes. “Like the breakdown of significant relationships…it happens one ‘chip’ at a time until finally one last ‘chip’ breaks off a big chunk and one finds one’s self ‘done.’”


What about the Role of Families?

Where does all of this leave Catholic families—particularly Catholic parents?

The report acknowledges that family dynamics “frequently play a role” in the decision of young people to leave the Church: “For example, young people may cite the religiosity of their parent(s), their parents’ mixed-faith marriage, the perceived hypocrisy in the lives of family members who profess religious belief, or feelings associated with being forced to attend church or religious instruction….”

But a look at some of the quantitative survey results reveal that there might be something deeper going on. Of the young people surveyed:

  • 37 percent had not received their First Communion;
  • 67 percent had not received the sacrament of Confirmation;
  • 54 percent attended Mass a few times a year or less, while only 34 percent attended Mass almost every week or more.

The picture that emerges from those numbers, together with some of the stories and reasons for leaving shared by the respondents, strongly suggests that many young people who leave the Church were never fully part of it in the first place. Taking your children to Mass every week and having them receive the sacraments of initiation does not guarantee that they will choose to remain Catholic as adults (a reality underlined by the study data), but not practicing the faith with your children—at even the most basic level—sure doesn’t help their faith lives.

That insight dovetails with a large body of research that points to the religious practice of families—and the example of parents—as one of the biggest factors in the faith maturity of young people. “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.

So, what can we parents do to help our kids grow into a mature faith that is able to engage, in a healthy way, with the secularism of the dominant culture (not to mention some of the bad stuff that they’re bound to encounter inside the Church)? The Saint Mary’s Press report doesn’t venture to offer answers; the next phase of its research involves convening study groups with various groups within the Church to see what emerges from a broader conversation about the data.

But we’re Peanut Butter & Grace, and helping Catholic parents practice the faith with their kids is what we do. Next week, I’ll hazard to propose a few habits, practices, and attitudes that parents might adopt to strengthen their kids’ long-term affiliation with the Church.

Continue reading part two: Keeping Kids Connected to the Church: A Few Proposals

Follow Jerry Windley-Daoust:

Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

2 Responses

  1. claire.clemens@gmail.com'
    | Reply

    Thanks for this summary. I agree with the three categories of disaffiliation completely. Each one summarizes an element of why I left the Catholic church for almost 10 years. Only through God’s inspiration, grace, and healing am I back!

  2. Onaleemcgrawegi@gmail.com'
    Onalee McGraw
    | Reply

    Thank you for this excellent work! Just want you to know I share your goals as a 78 year old great grandmother and mother of a priest. I develop Classic Film Study Guides to help captivate the “nones” through the imagination. You can’t argue or debate but you can share truth and love with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life and repair a lot of the hurt with beauty goodness and truth. I tried to sign up for your email but not sure it happened. God bless you in all you do. If you want to check out the stuff I do, just type in my name on Amazon and it pops up.

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