Mass exodus of young adults from church? Not so fast

By Julianne Stanz | Special To The Compass | January 12, 2021

“How has the past year been for you?” This question has likely garnered a whole host of responses over the past few months. “Wonderful” and “best year ever” was one reply from a colleague, while another friend remarked that it was “definitely the worst year of my life so far.”

For most of us, our thoughts fall somewhere in the middle. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all full of cheer and goodwill as collective lockdowns eased the pressure on our schedules and the busy pace of life slowed down. Slogans of “we can do this” and “we’re all in this together” became mantras for the spring of 2021, but wore thin quickly as the pandemic went on and on and on. We are still not out of the woods yet, in terms of recovering from 2020, and won’t be for some time. But one thing is certain, conversation about faith and our spiritual health is more important than ever, especially when it comes to our young adults.

During the month of December, I had the opportunity to virtually listen and pray with some college young adults, what researchers call Generation Z. As they poured out their hopes and dreams, I asked what they had learned about themselves, others and the world during the pandemic. “I realized that I am stronger than I thought,” said one young woman, “but fragile at the same time.”

The group murmured in agreement. “I learned that, without faith, family and friends, my life doesn’t have a lot of meaning,” said Frank. “When I wasn’t able to go to church early in the pandemic, I realized how much I needed prayer and the Eucharist for my mental, emotional and physical health,” he added. Heads nodded. I left the conversation feeling heartened and hopeful.

Despite the grim warnings portrayed in the media that young adults have absolutely dismissed faith, research bears out that young adults still hunger for meaning, connection and community. Released in 2017, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics” sought to understand more fully, and in young people’s own words, why they have left or are considering leaving the Catholic Church. A statistic that should disturb us is that approximately 6.8% of U.S. teenagers between ages 15 and 17 are former Catholics and yet nearly half (46%) are looking for another faith expression or practice that better aligns with their sense of spirituality. 

Has the pandemic changed this? While it is too early to say definitively, there are signs of hope all around us.

A poll, conducted Aug. 27 to Sept. 1 by RealClear Opinion Research in partnership with EWTN News, surveyed 1,212 likely voters who self-identify as Catholic. Seventy-nine percent of young adults – those between 18 and 34 years old – said that they have found themselves closer to God during the pandemic, and 93% said they have grown closer to their family. Also, Gallup’s November health and health care survey reveals that those who attend religious services weekly were the only demographic to see their mental health improve in 2020.

It seems that many people, including young adults, are taking a second look at faith, which is good news for all of us. The college students that I was listening to in December certainly displayed a more open attitude to faith, despite their challenges.

Holly summed it up this way: “I think a lot of what I had invested in for years fell apart during the pandemic. My favorite restaurants closed. I couldn’t go out to the mall like I used to. I couldn’t go to a concert or the theater. I saw polarization in our government, locally and globally. None of this was attractive to me. When all that I had invested in was taken away, I asked myself, ‘What did I have left?’” 

“So, what was your answer?” I asked. “Family, some good friends and, for the first time, an excitement about the faith that carried me through 2020,” she said. “That’s a great way to begin 2021,” I responded. “I couldn’t agree more,” Holly said.

In what might feel like an endless winter, with news that is grim and demoralizing, it is important for us all to be aware of these signs of hope in the church. This year, may we all see such buds of new life emerge through 2021, especially when it comes to the faith of our young people.

Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).

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