From a Millennial to the Church: How to Win Us Back

By Alex Jones

The U.S. Catholic Church is dying.

There were 426,309 Catholic weddings in 1970. In 2018 there were 143,082. Priestly ordinations have fallen by over 35%. Mass attendance has been cut in half.

It’s worst among millennials; they are the least Catholic of any other generation. One out of every three young adults is religiously unaffiliated. The same ratio for 65+ is one in ten.

One study, called “Going Going Gone,” tried to figure out why, but they found there’s no one answer. Some leave because they were hurt by the awful failings of the institution. Some reject a God who could permit evil. Some oppose the Church’s stance on social issues. Some simply drift away into an increasingly secular culture.

I was one of the unaffiliated, the former Catholics. I was the millennial who turned atheist. And I came back. Ever since, we’ve been working on Hallow and trying to understand how we can help others come back to their faith. Our team has spent countless hours talking with young and old, religious and atheist, spiritual and religious, about where they are and what they need. The biggest thing we’ve learned:

Religion is down. Spirituality is not.

The percent of people who consider themselves religious has fallen 17% since 2007. But this has not been swallowed up by atheism and materialism. A new segment has emerged: “Spiritual but not Religious.” Of the 11 point drop in Religious, 8 of those have been replaced by Spiritual.

This was me. Lost. Stressed. New to a career. No idea what I believed. For some reason, though, deeply interested in spirituality. Avoiding institutional religion, I turned, instead, to mindfulness. The practice of meditation that has swept across the U.S. with the rise of Headspace and Calm offered a seemingly secular answer to spirituality.

But this answer always felt like it fell short, stopping just at the edge of true spirituality. Teaching me to sit in silence, but never inviting God. And so, I started asking: is there a best of both worlds? Is there a way to find stillness and God? What I found – Lectio Divina, Ignatian spirituality, contemplative prayer, the spirituality of the Church – changed my life. They finally led me to invite God into the silence.

Remember those numbers about mass, weddings, and ordinations? Well there’s one number that hasn’t dropped: prayer. In 1980, 81% of Catholics prayed each week. In 2018: 81%. The thing is, we often don’t know how to pray. In our user research, the number one thing people said they struggled with most when it comes to prayer was not that they were too busy, bored, or disagreed with Church teachings. It was because praying was too hard. We don’t know how to keep our minds from racing.

This is the need. And what a perfect need for the Church to fill as an institution that’s been teaching people to pray for 2,000 years.

Over half of our users had never heard of Lectio Divina, the Examen, Contemplative Prayer, Imaginative prayer, or any number of different prayer practices. Why isn’t this what we lead with? Instead of focusing on why the Church is losing people or why people are no longer interested in religion, why don’t we focus on what people are still interested in? Why don’t we lead with our spirituality? Why don’t we lead with teaching people first to talk, and more importantly, to listen to God? If we honestly believe what we say we do, isn’t God the best evangelizer?

SOURCES: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate; Pew Research Center