Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics

Posted by Jerry Roth on

[Note: The panel presentation of "Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics" will air on Minnesota Public Radio on Jan. 25. The report is available for purchase at catholicresearch.smp.org.]

A new survey of youth and young adults aged 15-25 was just released through a collaboration between  St. Mary's Press and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

“The study [Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics] included survey questions and open-ended interviews, with some participants who were asked to tell their stories of disaffiliation. Thus, it went beyond the numbers to dig deeper into the why: Why are young Catholics leaving the faith? ‘We weren't interested in the quantification of the question but the qualification of the question,’ said John Vitek, president and CEO of St. Mary's Press.”

This study strikes right at the heart of what may be the most critical issue for church staff and leaders today. When looking at current demographic information of our younger generations, it is very clear that multiple generations are finding less need for organized religion. Pew Research documented this change in Why America's Nones left Religion Behind. We also discussed this theme in the blog post Loving Jesus But Not the Church.

It is critical for staff and leaders to better understand the dynamics of this issue. Highlights from this study include:

  • “Approximately 12.8 percent of young adults in the U.S. between 18 and 25 are former Catholics.
  • Approximately 6.8 percent of U.S. teenagers between 15 and 17 are former Catholics.
  • Seventy-four percent said they stopped identifying as Catholic between ages 10 and 20, with a median age of 13.
  • About one-third (35 percent) are "done" with religious affiliation but still believe in something bigger, perhaps even God.
  • About 14 percent say religious affiliation and faith are "nonsensical."
  • Nearly half (46 percent) are looking for another faith expression or practice that better aligns with their sense of spirituality.”

Notice the last bullet above. Many studies have concluded that younger generations are still expressing a spirituality or belief in God. They are just not sure if the best way to understand and live out this belief is through organized religion. This should be a call to action for all church staff and leaders.

The study presents “six common dynamics of disaffiliation”:

  • “An event, series of events, or insight triggered a process of questioning or doubt.
  • Cultural secularization led some to see faith and religion as options among many options.
  • Disaffiliation brought a sense of happiness, relief or freedom.
  • Religion was forced on them as children, and they won't do the same to their own children. Religion should be a choice.
  • Living a moral life doesn't require religious belief.
  • Whether a believer or disbeliever, the person might believe if a rational argument could be presented for doing so.”

I would strongly encourage staff and leaders to use these points as a basis for several action steps that might include:

  1. Read and discuss the summary article, study-asks-why-are-young-catholics-going-going-gone.
  2. Purchase and study the full report, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.
  3. Establish focus groups of 15-25 year old members of your church community and use this resource as a starting point for ongoing discussion, reflection and understanding of this important issue.
  4. Incorporate learning from the above activities in your annual and strategic planning processes.

Most importantly, be open to the reality of change that is coming to all of our churches. Resist the temptation to either deny these facts or choose to ignore them and continue with ministry planning and implementation that was responsive to a different world. The Spirit is actively nudging us to use these amazing resources to engage all generations in seeking the future that God has planned for our churches. Now is not the time for the meek. Now is the time for honest, responsive leadership that will guide our faith communities into the future.

The Center for Parish Leadership can provide relevant consulting and facilitation for your staff and leaders that is responsive to these emerging issues. Please contact us to explore how we can support you on this journey.


Jerry Roth

Research Analyst

The Center for Parish Leadership


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