It’s the 5:30 p.m. Sunday Mass at Epiphany Catholic Church in Normal. This used to be the parish’s “Life Teen Mass,” but it isn’t any longer. White-haired and middle-aged people fill the pews—even some couples with children. But there are few teens or young adults. That concerns Father Eric Powell, Epiphany’s pastor.
“There’s a wave crashing across this generation from Australia to Europe to the United States that we are only starting to get our heads around," Powell said on GLT's Sound Ideas.
That wave is a burgeoning trend among young people to reject organized religion, though many still say they yearn for a spiritual life. These are the so-called “nones.” When asked about their religious affiliation, they say they have none.
It’s a trend that affects denominations across the board. The Pew Research Center says about a quarter of Americans under the age of 30 describe themselves as either atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
The Catholic Church, still feeling the effects of a clergy sex abuse scandal and decades of stricter orthodoxy under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has been particularly hard hit. Now Pope Francis, who has set a more open tone, wants to hear from young people. He’s put a survey on the Internet asking Catholics between the ages of 13 and 29 to tell him about themselves, and what they are seek from church.
“It has to do with a lot of the young people growing not necessarily disaffected with the faith, but part of generation that has different priorities. Pope Francis wants to get ahead of that and say, where are you at, how can we accompany you and minister to you in a meaningful way?” Powell said.
Powell has hired several youth ministers over the years, but said they often end up quitting. The hours are long and the pay is low. He once vowed to stop shaving until he found another youth minister—which resulted in a Biblical-style, chest-length beard for several months.
“I think the stopping and starting with youth ministry made it hard for the kids to bond with someone and find that person credible, and so the brand then suffered," he added.
But the problem goes deeper. Some young people are like 14-year-old Joseph Dubravec of Bloomington. He still attends church because his parents want him to, and because he feels the draw of the sacred.
But does he get much out of it?
"A lot of times it depends on if I’m tired or not, because if I’m kind of almost dozing off it’s hard to listen to what they’re saying," Dubravec said.
The average age of Catholic priests in the U.S. is now 63 compared to 35 in 1970. Dubravec said he might not snooze during sermons if the priests delivering them were hipper.
“Once they get younger priests going in, they can get fresher perspectives on the Scriptures and the Masses can become more engaging," he said.
Catering To The Young
Kate Lorenz, who is 19, she she too has tuned out the priest. “Sometimes I’d sit there and be thinking, 'Wow, what is he talking about?' He’d be using these big words and I’m like, I’m only 16.”
Lorenz is now a sophomore at Troy University in Alabama. For most of her teen years, she attended St. Patrick of Merna Catholic Church in Bloomington. She said religion is “huge” for her, but she often skips church when she’s away at school. When she’s back home, she no longer goes to the Catholic parish her family attends, but Eastview Christian Church, a mega-church that caters to the young.
Sermons include videos displayed on a wide screen. Worship music sounds more like pop rock and heavy metal. The pastor sits on a stool on a stage and preaches from notes on an iPad.
“It would be crazy right now not to have big screens and a lot of video-driven content for a student ministry or the right kind of music that’s high quality," said Eastview's senior pastor, Mike Baker.
The church has about 5,500 regular members. Baker estimates about a third of them are under 30.
“I think a lot of people miss ministry to teenagers because they keep doing the same things they did in seventies, eighties or nineties, so there (has to be) this constant attention to what does teen culture look like,” he said.
The church has close to 30 people working on youth minister. Baker was also a youth minister before becoming senior pastor.
On a tour of his church, he explains why he eschews a traditional pulpit. " I’ve got this crazy contraption I call my iPulpit, where my iPad fits exactly in … We want it to be community and very conversational," he said.
At one service earlier this year, Baker invited congregation members to text him questions about faith during his sermon.
The “come as you are” tone of Eastview services appeals to Lorenz.
"Just come, sit down, praise the Lord with us," Lorenz said. "It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe in as long as you are developing a relationship with God. That’s just big with me. You know, like the rock band in the beginning singing along and having the pastor explain the message in a way college kids would understand it.”
Eastview has two worship spaces. Both are large auditorium-type rooms. One of the worship areas has high round tables and chairs like those you might find in a café or club, placed around a balcony.
Baker said he wants the young adult worship space to feel like Chicago’s famous music club, House of Blues. A significant portion of Eastview members, he said, are ex-Catholics.
“If you’re a priest in the Catholic Church, you’re going to have to be comfortable with not liking some of the methods and ways of doing ministry in order to get across the message," Baker said.
Father Powell of Epiphany parish said he is hard-pressed to compete with Eastview’s snappier liturgies.
The Catholic Mass, he noted, is bound by 2,000 years of tradition. It’s essentially the same anywhere in the world. Churches like Eastview, he adds, can innovate more easily, and take risks.
“It’s like a mini Vatican … They can be quick to adjust to the realities on the battlefield … We are not as fleet of foot as they are, but many priests and parishes in diocese of Peoria are trying to say, 'How do we turn the corner? How do we learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters?'" Powell said.
The number of registered parishioners at Epiphany has declined by about a third in the last 14 years, from some 3,000 in 2003 to about 2,000 today. It’s a pattern repeated at other Catholic churches throughout the Peoria diocese, and even at many mainline Protestant churches. Powell said he is trying to respond with a more personal approach to pastoring.
“Part of the antidote to Millennials or anyone wandering away is a great effort by adults to engage the kids, get to know them and befriend them," Powell said.
"Show that hey, let’s just sit down and chat without and presuppositions or conditions, without any judgment and let’s just engage with one another. As one cardinal in Europe said, you have got to start with people in a familial setting. Start at the dining room table. Don’t start in the bedroom.”
Why They Leave
Many Catholic young adults depart from many church teachings. So called Millennials, born around 2000, have only known legalized abortion. They attend school with openly gay and transgender students. They grew up with same sex marriage as the law of the land.
What they seem to want is not pat answers but a personal relationship with God, and a sense of the sacred day to day. Elyse Shoenig is an incoming senior at University High School in Normal.
“Sometimes I wish the answers they would give would allow us more room to grow in our faith instead of such a narrow answer that almost discourages us from asking in the first place," she said.
Shoenig was raised a Catholic, but often attends Eastview. What is she hoping to find there?
“It’s hard to make God into a real person, to humanize that type of idea about God," she said. "I guess finding out all the ways God is present in our everyday lives is what I'd like to learn from church.”
Pope Francis’ young adult survey asks a variety of questions. Do you have a positive self-image? A positive outlook on life? How much confidence do you have in government, your school, the Catholic Church? How much do you use social media?
Shoenig paused a one question in particular.
“The one that stood out to me the most is who is Jesus to you. On the survey there were a lot of options you could click on, but the one that stood out to most was friend, because I like to consider Jesus as my friend," she said.
When young adults do receive an authentic experience of faith, they are apt to remember it for a long time.
Lauren Dubravec, 17, a high school senior, recalls something a priest told her one day when she went to confession. It was a story about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now a Catholic saint.
“She used to look at other people as what does the Jesus, the Christ in that person need form her, and she always works to provide that for them. That kind of changed my perspective on what it means to be a Catholic or Christian, because I am Christian first. That was a kind of game changer for me," Dubravec said.
Dubravec describes herself as a feminist, and says it doesn’t bother her that women can’t be priests, because they hold other leadership roles parishes.
“Women can’t be priests, but if look at church boards and who is teaching religion classes and socializing children in the Catholic faith, a lot of people are women," she said.
She sees signs of hope in the papacy of Pope Francis that the church is moving away from politically charged social issues and focusing more on messages of mercy, forgiveness and inclusiveness.
"I feel the Catholic church in a lot of ways is evolving to be more based on what I would call the basics of Christianity versus focusing on little rules, and I want to be around in the Catholic Church to see that when it’s fully evolved and we’re more inclusive of all types of people," Dubravec said.
Still, the church has been through a rough patch recently. A key advisor to Pope Francis, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, was forced out of his Vatican post amid accusations he moved around abusive priests, and that he himself is an abuser.
In a move that drew condemnation from LGBT groups nationwide, the bishop of Springfield, Illinois, declared married gay people cannot receive communion in his diocese and cannot serve in parish ministries.
Powell said pronouncements like that risk giving parishioners the sense their church lacks compassion.
“I deal with people living and dying and in confession—we have confessions every day—just the messiness of life. I can’t imagine being in a position of judging everyone who approaches me at communion." he said.
Powell has a message for the teens and young adults who’ve lost interest in the Catholic church: Give it another chance. Joseph Dubravec, the teen who sometimes dozes off during Mass, says he’s willing to do that.
“I’ll probably keep some sort of Christian faith at the very the least, and probably for most of my life I doubt I’ll ever stop practicing the Catholic faith," he said.
High school senior Elyse Schoenig has a message for Church leaders.
“Older people in the church complain about our generation, and complain about the way we are …but our generation should be looked at in a positive way because we have so much more potential than people make us out to have," she said.
One thing seems certain. Pope Francis is likely to get a variety of views through his online survey of teens and young adults. What changes he makes after receiving that information remains to be seen.
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