"We don't have a belief issue, we have a belonging issue"

Bob McCarty has been in professional ministry since 1973, serving in parish, school, diocesan and national settings. He holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and theology from St. Joseph’s University, a master’s degree in religious education from LaSalle University, and doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana. He is adjunct faculty at The Catholic University of America and the University of Dallas.

He serves as the project coordinator for St. Mary’s Press’ research project, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” In this interview with Catholic Herald magazine, he discusses the results of the study and their impact on parishes and Catholic schools.

What was most surprising and new to you from the study results?

First, we don’t have a belief issue, we have a belonging issue. That’s a significant statement, because it shifts our approach to pastoral ministry with the young church. The starting point becomes belonging, not believing. It’s affective, not cognitive. That’s going to be hard for some people to hear, because there are some voices that will say the real issue is our young people don’t know enough about the faith, and if they knew more, they would want to be Catholic and be disciples of Jesus.

I maintain that until they feel they are welcomed and they belong, they don’t want to hear about Jesus. It’s a different approach, but you get to the same place. I’m not saying belief is not important, but I am saying in a post-modern secular world, belonging is the starting point.

Second, there is no single reason why many young people raised as Catholics no longer identify with the church. There is no one profile that adequately describes those who have left the church. Rather, there seem to be myriad reasons and paths that lead young people to disaffiliate from the Catholic Church.

When I address audiences, they say please tell us the three things we need to do and we will do them. There are no three things. That’s the problem. We need to listen to what the young people are telling us. When we ask them why they leave, we hear a spectrum of reasons.

We have an adaptive or a systemic problem. We don’t have a youth issue; we have a faith community challenge. The challenge is how does the faith community literally pass on the faith to the next generation? It’s not about young people themselves. They are a barometer of what is going on in the wider culture. If you think young people are the problem, then we try to solve young people – but that’s the wrong problem. They are a symptom, a mirror of a larger challenge.

Third, we asked young people, at what age did you stop identifying as Catholic? Our sample was young adults who walked away. It’s important to phrase it right because the median age is 13. What that says to me is we have young people sitting in our pews, in our Catholic schools and in our youth ministry programs, who have already checked out. Sometimes in the interviews with them, their parents don’t even know that. That was stunning and a little scary.

You encourage teachers, youth ministers and parishioners to stay in relationship with young people to help them stay connected to the church. Are parishioners willing to do this?

I really think so, but we need to adjust our ministry “maps.” I am concerned that some people in church ministry have narrow images of leadership. In this climate of church, we need some new images for pastoral leadership. If leaders think their job is to be the “doer” of all ministry for the people, then it turns the people into sheep – consumers of ministry. That model of leadership is outmoded, outdated and not going to be successful. If our parishes takes seriously the challenge to connect with our young people, the role of pastoral leaders is to mobilize the entire faith community on behalf of our young people. Pastoral leaders empower and animate the faith community.

When I ask people to identify someone who has walked away from the church, almost everyone can. Everyone knows a family member, neighbor, friend or student in our parish or school who is no longer connected to the church. That recognition makes disaffiliation a community problem and a community challenge. Then we need to identify what the faith community can do, how we can respond.

As a result of the study and your own decades of experience in youth ministry, what approach do you recommend with young people?

What we need to do is expand our thinking about what youth ministry looks like. Youth ministry has to be more intentional about supporting the role of parents in passing on faith at home. Youth ministry needs to be increasingly intergenerational. We need to move beyond just age-segmented ministry on a continual basis and create opportunities for young people to form relationships with faith-filled, caring adults. The challenge is to engage young people in the faith community and not create a separate faith community.

Another aspect comes from Pope Francis, who uses the language of accompaniment. What would it mean for us as a faith community if we committed to walk with our young people on their faith journey? Where we don’t determine the destination, but we do walk with them. That takes a degree of humility and probably patience and perseverance.

I’m convinced that if we approach this with the mindset of recruitment or bring them back, they will see that from a mile way and will know that is not sincere. That is as opposed to accompaniment, which means we walk with them. But if we become the kind of community that is willing to walk with our youth and young adults on their spiritual journey, then we become the kind of community they want to be a part of. I’m convinced that it would energize the parish. They would go from being spectators in the church to participants.

What if the first objective was, we want to know every kid by name. My experience is – and this is true for adults – if you don’t know their name, it’s easier to walk away. Can you create opportunities to listen to their story? There’s a subtlety here. There’s a difference between listening to understand and listening to respond. Can you suspend judgment and listen to their words and their concerns? That is part of accompaniment.

At the end of the study, you pose initial questions for pastoral ministry and to assist pastoral teams. Can parishes and schools use these as a starting point?

We were hesitant to provide definitive solutions, because each ministry setting, parish and school is different. Our response will look different in different settings.

One of the fundamental questions we need to consider is: Can we go deeper, quicker? My own grandson, who is 11, asked me: Why did God create cancer? Kids at earlier and earlier ages are asking profound questions about life, faith, suffering, meaning, relationships. If we still feed them pabulum in our programs, we will be irrelevant. We must create the safe spaces and opportunities to go deeper and quicker with our young people.

I have found that young people are experience rich and language poor, which means they are rich in the experiences of life and rich in the experiences of God, but often they don’t have the language to talk about those experiences. So the role of the pastoral minister, catechist or teacher is to help our kids find a language to reflect on and talk about their concerns, their hopes and their fears, as well as their experience of a loving God who is always active and present in their lives. And can we be the supportive community that listens to their stories and connects their stories to the stories of the faith community? Truly, that would be a gift to our young people.

Learn More

The full report, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” by St. Mary’s Press, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, is available at www.catholicresearch.smp.org.

(Photo: Bob McCarty visited the Diocese of Sacramento for a symposium for some 250 laity, clergy and religious and to speak at Ministry Days 2019.)

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