You can read the first part of this essay here

The first part of this spiritual excursion on the life and experience of the Rich Young Man story in Mark’s Gospel (Mk. 10:17-22) was for the purpose of exploring disaffiliation and young people in the United States. The purpose of this second section is to discuss some of the reasons young people are leaving the Church. It is imperative that pastoral leaders consider these concerns and questions in order to adequately develop ministry initiatives and revitalize youth ministry programs in congregations. For a brief moment, we will turn to consider the mindset of the young man in this story with a view to some of the deep concerns emerging adults may be experiencing as they distance themselves from the Church and increasingly categorize themselves as a part of the “none” generation.[1] We will then turn to discuss recent studies on youth and disaffiliation which touch upon key areas of disconnection among young people. Disclaimer: what follows is a speculative reflection from the perspective of young man in the Gospel passage. There is no evidence in the Gospels that any of these thoughts or reflections actually occurred. We don’t even know if this young man ever did return to become a disciple of Jesus after having thought about the master’s challenge. It would probably be helpful to spend some time in prayerful consideration of this passage before reading this reflection in the voice of the young man who walks away from Jesus. This story is considered one of the great “cliffhanger” stories of the Gospel where we never hear about this man again. What could he have been thinking? This is my guess…

Reflection in the voice of the Rich Young Man:

I was told that Jesus would be coming through my town and I need to see him. You see, I have been brought up living my life following God’s law and commandments. I have learned the rules of proper treatment of my neighbor and going to church regularly, not stealing, honoring my parents. But, with all that said, I still feel like something’s missing. Perhaps I will ask Jesus the deep burning question that I have had for so long.

I have been waiting all day in the town square to see if I might catch a glimpse of him. (Pauses as he sees Jesus approaching in the crowd) There he is, I run up to him, kneel before him and ask this most lingering question: ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus’ response is shocking. He says: “Why do you call me good?” No one is good but God alone. Just my initial encounter with him tells me that there is something of God in him. The way he looks at me, his kind, yet confident demeanor. He begins to recite the commandments:

“You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” 

I respond with confidence, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” But I did not expect that he would pause and patiently, lovingly look at me. His eyes pierced the depths of my souls. I have just met this man and immediately I feel as if I know him and he knows me intimately. How can this be?! I am taken aback by his tenderness, strength, and power as he responds to me. I pause to take in the words he is about to speak.

“You are lacking in one thing. Go sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.”

I am stunned by these words that cut to the core of my being. These words are crushing as if he were exposing my greatest flaw. My riches are my most precious possessions, but he is telling me that in order to be his disciple I have to part with them. How can this be? (Pause) I am saddened by the words of Jesus. Why would he be asking me to give up my riches to follow him? Could it be that he sees something in me that I don’t see in myself? Could it be that he is inviting me to experience a new level of freedom and trust in God’s will and plan for my life? What would my friends say if I left everything?

As I walk away I have so many questions about why I cannot be his disciple. I am confused about my life and decisions that I make each day. I think I am following God’s way but who can help me with the many struggles and questions about life. Should I walk away from the Church and choose to take my own path? Will I ever decide to give it all away to follow him? Am I too entertained by my friends, popularity, material possessions or the acceptance of what the world has to offer me? Even though I walked away sad because I could not part with my riches, there is still a yearning for meaning and purpose in my life. How will I fill this longing and restlessness for the things that really matter? Who can help me? If I go back to the Church for answers to these questions, will I be welcomed or accepted? Or, will I be judged and vilified; shunned for my appearance or because I live a certain lifestyle that is not in keeping with the faith? Who will share God’s love with me? Where can I find answers to these deep questions and doubts that fill my mind and heart?

As we pause to reflect on these comments within the mind of this young man as he walks away crestfallen, it would be helpful to consider some of the reasons youth and young adults are leaving the Church today. The most recent CARA study on disaffiliation Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics indicated that three out of four pundits said they left the Church during their teenage years with a third no longer wishing to identify with any particular religion.[2] The CARA research team made some summary observations of the rationale for disaffiliation, which are worth enumerating as these are consistent with the aforementioned sentiments and the findings of the NSYR taken a few years ago. First, in some cases disaffiliation is precipitated by life altering events which triggered a period of questioning for which the Church did not have answers. Second, their disaffiliation reflects the pluralism of religious offerings that are now available to them. Third, there is a sense of relief in disaffiliating with the Church. Fourth, because religion was forced upon them, they will not force a particular religion on their children and will give them freedom to choose. Fifth, being moral or ethical does not depend on the influence or adherence to a particular religious tradition. Sixth, these individuals are open to religious belief if rational arguments are presented to support these.[3] Despite some admitted limitations of the study, these summary sentiments are also resonant with the generational research findings shared in other important studies on youth and religiosity such as the National Study on Youth and Religion, Pew Research, and Barna Research studies.[4]  

Ben White. Contemplating Woman. Source: Unsplash

 These broader considerations led the research team to identify three major categories of disaffiliated youth which they named “The Injured,” “The Drifters,” and “The Dissenters.” The first group named the injured identified youthwho distanced themselves from the Church due feelings of abandonment or lack of pastoral presence when experiencing moments of crisis in family dynamics such as divorce, illness, or death. The following personal testimonials of two youth featured in this category demonstrate the need for such presence. “Amy” remarked:

When I reflect back, I think my initial doubts began with my childhood diabetes. I would always ask, ‘Why me? Why would God do that to somebody? Why would he let that happen to somebody who has been going to church religiously and doing everything they were supposed to be doing?[5]

Adam describes his disaffiliation as stemming from “watching my whole mother’s family… pray for my grandpa’s lung cancer. And everyone is praying for him, probably over 150 people. Personally praying for him and still there was nothing done to help him and that was my first skepticism.”[6] Also included in this category are those who felt members of the Church or their own family were inauthentic and hypocritical. Fran stated: “It was like the feeling of not feeling like you are part of something because sometimes you have these people that are extremely religious and then they become extremely hypocritical. And they think they are better than everybody else.”[7] Some youth mentioned often being forced to attend church or Catholic schools.

The Drifters group represent those youth that are often trying to find the relevance of Christian faith to their lives. There is a clear disconnection between religious belief and practice and their connection to lived experience. In the initial phases of the study conducted by CARA, senior research associate Mark Gray asked young people why they were leaving the Church their parents attend or are choosing other religious traditions or spiritualities. Here are the most popular sentiments given:

  • “Because I grew up and realized it was a story like Santa or the Easter Bunny.”
  • “As I learn more about the world around me and understand things that I once did not, I find that the thought of an all-powerful being to be less and less believable.”
  • “Catholic beliefs aren’t based on fact. Everything is hearsay from back before anything could be documented, so nothing can be disproved, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
  • “I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.”
  • “Need proof of something.”
  • “It no longer fits into what I understand of the universe.”[8]

It appears that these sentiments stem from a perceived incongruity of the Church’s message to the reality young people experience. The CARA report contends that this professed incompatibility between scientific knowledge and religion could be due to a lack of understanding of the relationship between the Church and science and perhaps symptomatic of the decreasing number of millennials being exposed to a Catholic education.[9] Additionally there seems to be no value found in personal faith or the need for the community in these groups. The gradual drift away from the Church community triggered a number of respondents to feel abandoned, not having family members modeling faith or “companions on the spiritual journey.”[10]

“Church leaders have focused too heavily on imparting the teachings of the faith tradition and information rather than formation based on an encounter with the Lord.”

The third category of The Dissenters represent those youth who have intentionally disaffiliated from the Church due to disagreements with Church teaching or practice. “Dissenting young people who actively leave the Church express disagreement with Church teaching on many social issues, particularly same-sex marriage, abortion, and birth control.”[11] As was the case with the NSYR, the influence of peers was highlighted in this section of respondents in terms of whether these would resort to atheism/agnosticism, science, or another religion. Also consistent with the previous studies mentioned, the CARA research team stated that for dissenters “disaffiliation from the Catholic Church—or any religious denomination-is not necessarily equivalent to rejecting the spiritual dimension in life. For many, rejection or dissent does not necessarily rule out the possibility of belief in something else or a returning to the Church in the future.”[12] Thus youth in this category were disaffiliated because they had not been offered sufficient evidence to understand certain positions of the Church regarding moral or doctrinal issues, thus calling for a healthy apologetic. Young respondent Barb expressed her disappointment in the following manner: “In social studies as school, I learned Christianity as, like, opposed to Judaism or Islamism. But I wasn’t like, fully understanding the differences between Catholicism and other forms of Christianity, because nobody would fully explain that to me I guess.”[13] The researchers surmised that:

Though many in this group were involved in Catholic education, parish religious education, and youth ministry, they expressed deep disillusionment and frustration that their questions were never answered or that they didn’t have the opportunity to voice their questions in the first place.[14]

Pope Francis argues that the Church has not provided young people adequate answers to their many questions and concerns due to what he called becoming theologically narcissistic. In a pre-conclave meeting, then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio expressed a call for the Church to decide whether it will be continue to be self-referential or a Church which comes outside of herself.[15] Becoming self-referential, Church leaders have focused too heavily on imparting the teachings of the faith tradition and information rather than formation based on an encounter with the Lord. Evangelizing is the antidote to the self-referential posture that has plagued the Church for so many years. In his encyclical the Joy of the Gospel, Francis echoes this previous sentient declaring: “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.”[16] The Pope’s injunction to “come out of our comfort zones” applied to youth ministry is a clear call to reassess current methods. It is imperative that pastoral ministers seize this short window of opportunity to engage these groups of disaffiliated youth in order to facilitate the journey from ambivalence to relevance. In order for this mentorship process to take place a new method of transmission and dissemination of the faith is crucial.

In summary, the research data on disaffiliation conducted by these studies reveal three major themes which have caused the gradual to precipitous decline of young people in churches in the United States. The first theme deals with the lack of pastoral presence during crucial moments. Many pundits have expressed concerns that the Church through its ministers have not been able to adequately respond to important existential questions or provide pastoral care during moments of crisis such as divorce, illness, or the loss of a loved one. One might summarize the sentiment of these youth with the question: “Where was the Church when I needed them?”

A second major area concerns the relevance of the Christian message. In this increasingly globalized society and influenced by diverse cults, religious traditions and spiritualities of peers, celebrities, internet and social media outlets, young people no longer see Christianity as the sole means for spiritual transcendence, but one among many. Some crucial questions young people seem to be asking in this area of relevance are: Is the message of Christianity still relevant? How does the message of Christ connect with culture today? Is the Christian worldview an adequate response to the questions young people have? Already identified as among the most educated of populations, a third major challenge posed by these studies points to the need for evidence or coherence of the Christian theology with scientific inquiry and the perceived incongruous moral stances of the Church with certain nonconformist lifestyles.[17]

While not providing solutions to these pastoral challenges Robert McCarty, long time director of the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry and one of the lead authors of Going, Going, Gone, summarizes the findings of the research by identifying five fundamental hungers that are not being fulfilled by the Church in its current approaches.[18] He maintains that emerging adults are hungry for 1) meaning and purpose in life; 2) connection to an ideal or cause that is higher than themselves; 3) recognition of the gifts and talents they possess and a desire for these to be heard and expressed; 4) fulfilling experiences of encounter with the holy; and 5) justice for self and others; especially those who are marginalized in society today. [19] By not responding to these hungers pastoral leaders risk the continued decline of young people in our churches. The areas of harm caused by the Church will continue to be experienced unless a new ministerial paradigm based on engagement is undertaken. McCarty argues that alternative approaches to accompanying young people through these questions and yearnings will be necessary in order for youth to return to finding a place in the Church.[20] In my third section I will be proposing ways of accompanying youth as a response to these important concerns gleaning knowledge from the recent Church document Christus Vivit, written by Pope Francis as a response to the Synod on Youth. There is certainly an urgency to develop pastoral strategies to meet young people where they are in order to invite them to return to the community. Disciples of Jesus are called to go after the rich young men and women of our time.  


[1] Michael Lipka, “Millennials Increasingly are Driving Growth of ‘Nones’”, Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/12/millennials-increasingly-are-driving-growth-of-nones/. Accessed April 26, 2016.

[2] CARA, Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics (Winona, MN: St. Mary’s Press, 2018), 6.

[3] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 25-30.

[4] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 9. Also see Christian Smith et al, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) and David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011).

[5] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 17.

[6] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 17.

[7] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 15.

[8] Mark M. Gray, “Young People are Leaving the Faith. Here’s Why,” Our Sunday Visitor News Weekly, August 27, 2016, https://www.osvnews.com/2016/08/27/young-people-are-leaving-the-faith-heres-why/.

[9] Mark Gray, “Young people are leaving the faith. Here’s why.” According to the report 42% of millennials were never enrolled in Catholic schools. This is a significant increase compared to previous generations.

[10] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 18.

[11] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 21.

[12] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 24.

[13] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 22.

[14] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 22.

[15] Vatican Radio, “Bergoglio’s Intervention: A diagnosis of the Problems in the Church,” Ecumenism in Canada, March 27, 2013, https://ecumenism.net/2013/03/bergoglio-intervention.htm.

[16] Francis, Evangelium Gaudium, Vatican va., 20.

[17] Pew Research Center, “How Millennials Today Compare with their Grandparents 50 Years Age: Millennials On Track to the Most Educated Generation to Date”, March 17, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/16/how-millennials-compare-with-their-grandparents/ft_millennials-education_031715/.

[18] CARA, Going, Going, Gone, 32.

[19] Robert McCarty, (March 12, 2019), “Going, Going, Gone…Now What?”, [Webinar] In NFCYM Webinar Series, accessed March 12, 2019,  https://www.gotostage.com/channel/3137548062961020934/recording/c96232939c704b7d8329ce579e0c7eda/watch?source=CHANNEL .

[20] Robert McCarty, (March 12, 2019), “Going, Going, Gone…Now What?”.

Featured photo by James Owen on Unsplash

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