The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. Half of young Americans (50% exactly) who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today. Four out of five Catholics who left the Church left before age 23.
Today, millions of parents grieve their fallen-away children and describe their situation as "helpless" and "hopeless." They feel helpless because their children tune them out or ignore them whenever they bring up religious topics, and they feel hopeless because they think it's impossible their children would ever come back. These parents are desperate to dosomething—they just don’t know what to do.
That's why Catholic evangelist Brandon Vogt spent several months researching the problem, talking with experts and those who have left and returned, all to determine what really works to draw young people back. The result is a collection of resources which pull together the best tips, tools, and strategies.
RETURN is a collection of resources to help parents draw their children back to the Church. It emerged from my own experience working with countless parents and young people over the years, and is packed with proven, practical advice. The resources include:
- RETURN Video Course - 16 professionally-filmed video lessons with over 220 minutes of HD content. This reveals a complete game plan for drawing your child back.
- RETURN paperback book - Companion guide to the Video Course which builds on its content and features a Foreword by Bishop Robert Barron.
- RETURN Master Series - Video interviews with 10 Catholic leaders who are experts at helping people come back to the Church, including Dr. Scott Hahn, Jennifer Fulwiler, Fr. Michael Schmitz, and many more.
- RETURN Seed Gifts - The 12 most effective DVDs, books, and CDs to give your fallen-away child, including Bishop Barron’s CATHOLICISM series, booklets from Catholic Answers, and books by Peter Kreeft, Matthew Kelly, and more.
- RETURN Private Community - An exclusive, online community where parents can join hundreds of others to find encouragement and support as they draw their children back.
You’ve written books on the new media, Catholic social teaching, and evangelization. Why this topic?
It emerged from two places. First was my experience, over the last several years, speaking at Catholic events around the country. Each event typically closes with a Q&A session and, inevitably, the most common question I hear is some version of, “My son/daughter has left the faith and I’m devastated. What should I do?” I’ve heard this hundreds of times, and my other Catholic speaker friends confirm the same thing; it’s the most deeply-felt problem among Catholic adults.
Then there was the release of the latest Pew Religious Landscape survey. Every seven years, the Pew Research Center surveys over 30,000 American adults to check the religious pulse of our country. The 2014 survey data was published in May 2015, and although the results were dire for most Christian traditions, they were especially disheartening for Catholics. Three statistics stood out:
- 50% of young people raised in the Church no longer identify as Catholic today
- 79% who leave the Church leave before age 23
- 6.45 people leave the Catholic Church for everyone that joins
Think about what that means. Over the last 20-30 years, half of the babies you’ve seen baptized, half of the children you’ve seen confirmed, and half of the couples you’ve seen married in the Church are gone—they’re no longer Catholic. Worse, for every person who enters the front door of your parish, 6-7 people are leaving through the back.
This is an epidemic. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. That’s why Bishop Robert Barron says, “The most significant challenge facing the Catholic Church today is the attrition of our own people.”
We haven’t done nearly enough to resolve this problem. We have lots of books and programs on keeping our kids Catholic or raising good Catholic children—and obviously these are needed—but we don’t have much for parents after their children have already drifted away. That’s why I created RETURN.
What sets RETURN apart from other resources designed to help people come back to the Church?
Three main things. First, it was written specifically for parents and grandparents. There are many resources devoted to helping people, in general, come back to the Church. They contain broad tips which can be applied to friends, co-workers, or even people you interact with online. However, as we all know, the parent/child relationship is so distinct from other relationships. There are things a parent can say or do that will have a much bigger impact on their child than on a friend or coworker, and on the other hand, there are things parents shouldnot say or do to their child, simply because of their relationship. I thought it was time that parents and grandparents had a resource specifically designed for them, one that took into account the delicate, unique bond they have with their child.
A second distinction is that RETURN is multi-faceted. It’s not just a book. It also includes a 16-part video series (professionally filmed in HD), the “Master Series” collection of expert interviews, the “Seed Gift” package of DVDs, books, and CDs, and the RETURN Private Community. It pulls together the best advice from the best minds in the Church, and presents it in many different formats.
Finally, RETURN is deeply practical. Other resources offer helpful background, stories, and theory. But while RETURNcontains some of that, it’s really aimed at the parent who says, “I appreciate that but what I really want is specific, practical advice. Give me the proven tips and strategies I need to win my child back to the Church. I want stuff that works.”
What are some of the big reasons why young people drift away from the Church?
It’s easy to assume that young people leave because they're self-centered and lazy. But in general, this isn’t the case. A growing number of surveys from dioceses like the Diocese of Springfield and the Diocese of Trenton, along with massive national surveys from the Pew Research Center, have identified some of the actual reasons people leave.
The most common one is that people just drift away unintentionally, over time. Depending on the survey, roughly 7 in 10 former Catholics say they “just gradually drifted away from the religion” or they just “lost interest.” In other words, nothing really pushed them away. The problem was nothing anchored them to the Church. And we know the strongest anchor is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, something they never experienced.
The second most common reason people drift away is because their “spiritual needs were not met.” The majority of these people end up in an Evangelical or non-denominational community. These people are, in general, deeply interested in God and spiritual things. They pray and take the Bible seriously. But for whatever reason, they were never fulfilled in the Catholic Church and see it as spiritually impotent.
Other reasons people give for leaving include no longer agreeing with the Church’s teachings (particular those on marriage, sexual morality, and the male-only priesthood) and “dissatisfaction with the atmosphere,” which many describe as “stuffy,” “boring,” “too ritualistic,” or “too formal.”
The good news is that all of these problems can be overcome. In fact, millions of people who once felt this way about the Catholic Church have switched their views. And if they can, any young person can.
What are some big myths about fallen-away Catholics?
Probably the biggest one I hear from parents, priests, and Church leaders is, “Oh, they’ll come back to the Church eventually once they get married or have kids. Let's just be patient.” That may have been true in decades past—though even that is controversial—but studies have affirmed, again and again, that it’s no longer true today.
One reason is that young people are delaying marriage and childbearing longer than ever before. In 1960 the median age for first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women; it’s now 29 and 27, respectively. Those 6-7 extra years away from the Church make it much harder to return.
Second, fewer and fewer young people are getting married in the Church or, when they have kids, are having their children baptized. The sacraments won’t draw people back if they're totally bypassed.
Overall, the “wait-and-see strategy” is just a losing game. Let me pose a thought experiment: what would the CEO of a Fortune 500 company say if he learned that 75% of his customers just stopped buying the company’s products? Would he say, “Oh, no big deal. Let’s just sit and wait for them to come back. They'll probably come back one day, right?”
No! He’d do everything in his power to track down the former customers, reconnect with them, answer their objections, and re-propose his products in new ways.
We parents, priests, and Church leaders should have the same reaction. In light of the millions of young people who have left the Church, we can’t respond by saying, “Let's just wait for them to come back.” We need to say, “Let’s do everything possible to help them return!”
For many parents, the problem is not that their fallen-away children hate the Church. The problem is that they just don’t care. How should a parent approach this if their child is utterly ambivalent?
That’s a really great question. In general, your main task will be to convince him that the Big Questions of life matter, that it’s worth seeking answers about God, morals, and meaning. He needs to see what the convert C.S. Lewis came to realize, that “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Similarly, when it comes to the person at the center of Christianity, Lewis notes that “Jesus produced mainly three effects: hatred, terror, adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.”
Here's one simple way to spark interest in the Big Questions: send your child a good article or video, either via email or Facebook, along with a comment like, “Curious what you think about this…” or “Have you thought about this before? What do you think?” Grab an article from StrangeNotions.com about the existence of God, faith and science, or the Resurrection of Jesus. Or send him a link to a Bishop Barron YouTube video on the biblical undertones of Bob Dylan’s lyrics or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever you choose, don’t make it seem like you’re trying to press your faith on him. Instead, you want to come across as genuinely interested in his own reaction (which you are). Formulating his opinion necessitates reflecting on the Big Questions. That's a simple way to get the momentum going.
Can you share a few practical tips that parents should keep in mind when trying to open discussions about faith?
Sure! After talking with hundreds of parents and young people, I’ve noticed several patterns—some good, some bad—that we can learn from. I share several in the RETURN Video Course, but let me highlight two do’s and two don’ts.
First, the do’s. Two things to always keep in mind: ask questions and stay positive. Questions are largely neutral, or at least seem that way, and don’t sound “preachy.” When you ask a question, you aren’t actually stating your own view. Many times, you’re helping your child see that his beliefs are not as firmly supported as he might think, causing him to reassess why he’s drifted away from the Church. Some of my favorite questions include:
- “What pushed or pulled you away from the Church?”
- “What’s the one thing that would cause you to come back to the Church?”
- “What do you think is the best reason to be Catholic and why doesn't it compel you?”
You also need to stay positive. Don’t focus on all the negative things your child is doing; he’ll just tune you out. A better approach is to affirm the positive. If your child doesn’t attend Mass because he thinks it’s boring and irrelevant, affirm his desire not to be a hypocrite—that’s a good thing. Once you’ve affirmed something positive, he’ll be much more open to hearing what you have to say. In every objection to the Church, even the strongest criticism, you can find some seed of virtue to praise. (For more practical guidance on this strategy, read the excellent book by Austen Ivereigh and Kathryn Jean Lopez titled, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice.)
Next, the don’ts. The biggest mistake I see parents make is trying to force their fallen-away child to Mass. Their only goal is to get their child’s body into a pew each Sunday morning. In their mind, f they do that, they’ve succeeded; if they don't, they've failed. That's the mark of success. Now, this stems from good intentions. Most parents know Jesus is present at Mass in a special way, so they want to do everything possible to get their children to show up. The problem is that if someone comes to Mass unwilling and unprepared, it will likely have no effect on him—and it sometimes makes things worse! Children often resent being forced or manipulated to attend Mass. So next time you’re tempted to push your child to go, even when you know he’s deeply resistant, pull back a bit. Don’t force him, and don’t reiterate that skipping Mass is a mortal sin—that’s true, but mostly unhelpful at this stage. You must plant other seeds first so that he’ll actually desire to attend Mass. The Mass should be the last piece of the puzzle.
The second thing not to do is criticize his lifestyle—at least at first. Beginning with moral commandments is often a non-starter for young people. If the first thing your child hears is “stop doing that” or “change your life” or “break off that relationship,” he will quickly tune you out. You’ll never have a chance to make a more persuasive case for his return to God and his Church. This doesn’t mean you should just watch silently and passively as your child makes bad decisions. Instead, it means your first approach should be marked by gentleness and patience, not criticism.
What are “seed gifts” and why are they so powerful?
In RETURN, I talk about the extraordinary power of “seed gifts.” These are DVDs, books, or CDs that you plant in your child’s life, as seeds of truth and faith, in order to spark their return to the Church.
People who return to the Church often point to a DVD, book, or CD that played a pivotal role. One mother says, “My son was given a copy of Matthew Kelly’s book Rediscover Catholicism on the way out of church last Christmas. He stopped going to church regularly about ten years ago. We were away on vacation and I was amazed to see him reading it the next day. I was even more surprised the following week when he suggested we all go to church and then to brunch… You don’t know how happy it makes a mother to see her son return to church.”
The great part about “seed gifts” is that they do almost all of the work for you. If you feel inadequate to answer your child’s questions or objections, handing him a DVD, book, or CD can be a lot less intimidating than having to sit down and explain things yourself.
One of the most exciting parts of the RETURN project is that I was able to work with groups like Word on Fire, Catholic Answers, and Dynamic Catholic to compile the 12 best “Seed Gifts” for parents, in one package, at a massively discounted price. Any parent who purchase the RETURN Complete Game Plan will receive all 12 gifts including Bishop Barron’sCATHOLICISM DVD series, booklets from Catholic Answers, and books by Peter Kreeft, Matthew Kelly, and Fulton Sheen, and some top-notch CDs. Giving just one of these to your child will really help.
What are some of the big objections young people have to returning to the Church?
In RETURN I share over 20 of the most common objections along with specifically how to respond to each one. I split the objections into three categories: personal, moral, and theological. Here are some examples.
First, a personal one: “Mass is just boring and irrelevant.” How many parents have heard this one? Probably most. A bad response is, “I don’t care if you think Mass is boring; you’re going anyway! Now get in the car!” Forcing your child to Mass when he has no desire to go can do more harm than good. A better solution? The one proposed by G.K. Chesterton: “The Mass is very long and tiresome unless one loves God.” Don’t start with the Mass; start with God. Help your child know and love God as the source of lasting joy, and he’ll gradually be drawn to the Mass. In RETURN, I share several ways to do this.
Next, a common moral objection: “I could never be Catholic since the Church hates gay and lesbian people.” A few years ago, a national survey revealed that the most common perception of present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual.” This means that, for many young people, the first thing they think of when considering the Church is not what it's for, but what it's against. But is that true? Is the Church anti-homosexual? In reality, the Catholic Church doesn’t hate anyone nor is itanti- anyone, much less those with same-sex attraction. In fact, the Catechism explicitly says such people must be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity.” It’s true the Church objects to all sexual activity outside of sacramental marriage—including all homosexual activity—but, as Pope Francis has emphasized, “mercy” is the first word spoken to people with same-sex inclinations. The Church isn’t against them; it’s for them, and for their holiness. It defends their life and dignity with vigor.
Finally, here’s a popular theological objection: “Faith and science are at odds, and I choose science.” A recent Pew survey found that one-third of former-Catholics agree that “science proves religion to be superstition.” Similarly, around a quarter of young adults believe that “Christianity is anti-science.” These views have gained traction thanks in no small part to the work of the so-called New Atheists. If a child holds this view, parents should reply with three points. First, science can’t directly settle the God question since God is immaterial and thus beyond the reach of science. Second, being a scientist doesn’t require being an atheist. Historically, many of the greatest scientists have been committed Catholics including Roger Bacon (credited with discovering the “scientific method” and a Franciscan friar), Gregor Mendel (the founder of the modern science of genetics and an Augustinian monk), and Fr. Georges Lemaître (father of the “Big Bang theory” and a Catholic priest). If faith and science are at odds, nobody told these geniuses. Finally, modern science seems to support, rather than undermine, belief in God. As Fr. Robert Spitzer notes, “There is more evidence from physics for a beginning of the universe than ever before.” A beginning to the universe supports the biblical account of creation, rather than the common atheist view that the universe was uncreated and infinite, existing forever in the past. So not only are science and faith not at odds, they are compatible and complementary.
What would you say to a parent who thinks their child is just too far away, that it's hopeless and there’s no way he’ll return to the Church?
“Hopeless” is not a word in God’s vocabulary. As long as your child still has breath, there is always hope. God loves your child even more than you do. As much as you yearn for your child to come home, God desires his return infinitely more and is continually working to make that happen, even when things appear dire.
Just look at St. Augustine. By all accounts, his situation was beyond hopeless. He was a wild teenager who partied, roamed the streets, and stole food. He took a mistress, moved in with her, and got her pregnant. He didn’t want anything to do with Christianity. He openly mocked and denounced his mother’s faith.
But then what happened? Monica prayed fervently for him for years, and her prayers were answered through the pivotal figure of Ambrose, who stepped in and began meeting with Augustine. Ambrose helped Augustine become open to the possibility of God, and eventually Augustine asked to be baptized. He’s now remembered not only as one of the greatest saints in history, but one of the key figures in Western civilization.
If God could turn this pagan, egotistical playboy into a great saint, why can't he help your child return? As Padre Pio said, “Pray, hope, and don't worry.”