If church membership is not the metric for young people, what is?

Anyone paying attention to religion in America has heard about the trend, especially among young Americans, toward disaffiliation with institutions, including the Catholic Church. So I arrived at a recent talk on “Seeking Common Ground Across Generations” prepared for dire and depressing statistics.

But I walked away with hope, thanks to speaker Ellen Koneck, executive director of Commonweal magazine, who was frank and honest but also insightful and upbeat about the future of our faith.

Her April 14 keynote, subtitled “The Context and the Concerns of Young Catholics,” kicked off a weekend-long gathering co-sponsored by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative and the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union.

“There is no reason to fret. The Holy Spirit is always creative,” said Koneck, who is herself a millennial and formerly worked for Springtide Research Institute, which focuses on young people ages 13-25.

Koneck acknowledged what we already know about millennials and Generation Z: They don’t trust institutions, skepticism is their default attitude, and they are leaving or never joining churches at higher rates than ever.

Yet even among the unaffiliated or “nones”: 19% attend religious gatherings at least once a month; 38% say they are religious and 60% say they are at least slightly spiritual.

But even these questions about religious gatherings and “religious” and “spiritual” don’t acknowledge that these and subsequent generations are “doing religion” differently, if they are doing it at all, Koneck said.

“Stats about disaffiliation are great for hand-wringing, but not that helpful for understanding young people,” she said.

While religious institutions are understandably concerned about membership and attendance numbers, “membership is not a particularly meaningful metric for understanding a young person’s beliefs or relationship to God or others,” she said.

She also noted that concern about polarization in the church ignores the more pertinent issue of alienation among young people. In fact, polarized Catholics on the left and the right actually have much in common in that they care about the church — whereas many young people are already out the door.

“Polarization is a sign of passion, that the church is worth fighting for,” she said.

When young people leave the church, “it must be received as a witness,” Koneck said. “This is the work of our generation, of our generations,” she said, to “roll up our sleeves” to address both polarization and alienation in the church.

During the Q&A, I followed up on Koneck’s point about membership not being the metric, while noting that data about beliefs and practices also were not high for young people. If these things are not the metric, what is?

She didn’t skip a beat with her answer: “Relationships.” Continue reading

  • Heidi Schlumpf is NCR executive editor.
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