Those who are in professional ministry, especially those in youth ministry, are often asking the question “Why are so many young people leaving our churches?” As a mother of three teenagers who have been raised in Catholic parochial schools, I have some insights into this phenomenom. I propose that the real message behind someone who says, “I am spiritual but not religious,” or “I don’t believe in formalized religion,” is really, “I value what is sacred within me and I am not willing to spend my life supporting a pastor who is only a CEO of another large corporation.”
Young people may not be able to articulate what they understand to be “sacred” but they know it when they see it. For example, my husband and I took away our teenage son’s video games as a consequence for poor behavior. Our son reacted in anger to this situation by punching a hole in his closet door. After a few weeks passed by, I put a large religious poster of a Catholic Saint over the hole in his closet door explaining to my son that God was watching over him all the time and this image of a Catholic Saint was a reminder to him of God’s merciful presence in his life. I went on to explain that God’s love covers all our sins like this poster covers the hole in the closet door. (This Catholic Saint happened to be the Patron Saint that my son chose for his confirmation.) I expected the poster to be torn down within days. However, the poster still remains a year later exactly as I left it, intact. Let me assure you that my son is not the kind of kid who would leave the poster on his door just to please his mother. Weeks later I overheard my son saying to a friend, “I got a big Saint watching over me all night long.” My son may not be able to articulate the Catholic theology of grace but he seems to recognize that there is something sacred about being aware of God’s constant presence in our lives.
Another example, one afternoon my teenage daughter, her friends, and I were eating at a fast food restaurant where we saw a homeless person sleeping outside the restaurant. After finishing our meal, one of the girls asked if anyone wanted her extra French fries. We were all full. However, her friends said, “I can think of someone who would want your fries…” I was impressed with the compassion and thoughtfulness of the girls. So, I bought another hamburger, drink and added the fries to give to the homeless person sleeping near our car. The girls were tentative about approaching the homeless man. However, I knew that this was a sacred moment to take what is a daily part of a chaplain’s work into my ordinary life as a mother. I knelt down before the homeless man and touched his shoulder asking him “Sir, would you like some lunch?” He eagerly accepted what we had to offer with a huge warm smile and thanked us graciously. On our drive home, these teenage girls talked about all the ways they wanted to help hungry homeless people. These young people may not be able to articulate the Catholic teachings of social justice but they know when something sacred has happened.
The workings of the Holy Spirit cannot be orchestrated or planned according to some well-thought out pastoral action plan. The sacred breaks into our lives according to it’s own timing and it’s own agenda. We are simply called to respond. Young people today need the social support of healthy church communities where their own spiritual, social, and emotional needs are met so they can go out and meet the needs of the world. Young people today will not support a pastor who is simply looking to climb an institutional career ladder. Young people today will not support a pastor who lives two separate lives, a professional life and a personal life that are not integrated. Young people today are the most well-educated generation of all time and they will not support agendas that do not make sense to them. Young people today are savvy to psychological truths; they can see through to the motivations of other people’s hearts. More than any other past U.S. generation, young people today want to experience what is truly sacred and precious about human life.