Young Christians and the Surprising Appeal of Catholicism (Part 1 of 2)
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Candles. Incense. Weezer.
These aren’t the images you associate with the Roman Catholic Church, yet nevertheless the church has recently seen a marked increase in the involvement of young adults. Susan Gibbs is the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington. She states that “one of the things we just started tracking is the number of young adults becoming Catholic…an area where we’re seeing a lot of climb.”
Even other lay leaders have noticed this trend. One church member noticed a recent “growth in the activities, in the interests, of the young adult population.”
But this growth often means that some young Protestants are making the conversion to Roman Catholicism, a decision that often leaves their parents and church leaders scratching their heads as to why their teenage or college-age sons and daughters are leaving their youth groups and entering the cathedrals.
Changing attitudes toward church
Recent years have seen dramatic shifts in attitudes among evangelical Protestants, changes that transcend denominational lines and strike at the core of American attitudes towards church.
According to research from the Barna group, 75% of those in church believe that “God is motivating people to stay connected with Him, but in different ways and through different types of experiences than in the past.” 64% claim to be “completely open to carrying out and pursuing your faith in an environment or structure that differs from that of a typical church,” and another 45% admit to being “willing to try an new church.”
This research demonstrates a dramatic sense of disconnectedness between themselves and the church. Young people especially are skeptical of institutional Christianity, perceiving a disconnect between their parents’ stated values and daily practice. Thus, they feel compelled to find an experience with God they can call their own.
For many, this means finding a spiritual experience outside the walls of a traditional church – at least, the church they were used to growing up. This is why there has been a recent explosion of “house churches” and home Bible studies, comprised of people seeking an experience of God away from the traditions of their parents.
But others seek a more meaningful experience not outside the walls of their church, but go further in to experience God through the pith and pageantry of “high church.” Naturally, this leads them through the doors of the Roman Catholic Church.
Some may still be wondering, “What’s the appeal? Why would my son/daughter leave the trendy atmosphere of the church youth group – with its Christian rock concerts and ski trips – for the candles and rosaries of tradition?” This bewilderment is often compounded by the fact that Protestants are more accustomed to Catholics converting to their side rather than the other way around.
I suggest that there are several reasons the Catholic faith is found to be appealing.
Beauty: Architecture is communicative. While guys like Hybels were designing buildings that more closely resembled shopping malls than churches, most Catholic structures retained a more traditional feel, complete with stained glass windows and religious iconography. When commenting on the appeal of beauty within Catholicism, one commentator observes: “The initial point is always that they see the beauty and fullness of the liturgy and the mystery which is so much present and expressed in this liturgy. They are attracted by this because it is something they haven’t found so far.” Beauty instills its audience with a sense of transcendence, a quality often lacking in the utilitarian architecture and décor of contemporary evangelical churches.
Mystery: The candles and icons often convey a sense of mystery: of being part of a larger spiritual experience that cannot be fully articulated. This alone is enough to captivate the contemporary penchant for “spirituality.” Evangelical sermons often resemble self-help seminars on the “8 keys to a better marriage” or “3 secrets for better finances.” Dissatisfied with this dogmatic pragmatism are drawn to the beauty and mystery of Catholic doctrine. Still others are drawn to the intellectual development of Catholic doctrine, perceiving a depth to the various creeds and confessions they had not experienced in their previous youth group experiences.
Community: Unlike the fragmentation so typical of evangelical denominationalism, the Catholic Church is united – both within itself as well as with the various saints of history. Young people find within its walls a greater sense of connectedness. Additionally, the various icons and images create a greater sense of intimacy. While evangelicals typically stress a “personal relationship with God,” Catholics offer a much more tangible relationship to God and his church. This is the appeal of Mary, often conceived of as kinder and more accepting than her Son, Jesus. One writer observes that Mary “also loves us the way a mother who holds a new born child in her arms loves that child. Any religious heritage with such a story is well nigh irresistible to its members.” I suspect that many young people who have traditionally felt “out of place” in their home church find a new sense of purpose and acceptance within the walls of Roman Catholicism.
Conservative values: Finally, in a culture void of absolute moral certainty, many young adults hunger for a strong moral compass. The Vatican’s strong conservative stance offers a safe environment where church members feel not only a strong connection to God, but confidence in the shared values of a community.
Losing my religion
I strongly suspect that the appetite for high church experience has been exaggerated in recent years. I also believe that there are many factors that separate young converts from the true experience. Among these are syncretism and deconstructionism.
Syncretism is the tendency to absorb the beliefs and values of a variety of faith systems into your own. In the present case, it is possible for young people absorbing the symbols and select beliefs of Catholicism with other systems. The rosary can coexist with the lotus – rivaling faiths can be merged together allowing the convert to mix and match according to their personal preference.
Deconstuctionism is a philosophical term, referring to the tendency of the individual to intellectually dismantle a faith system, and to re-appropriate that tradition for their own. This means that young converts may appreciate the icons and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, yet their meaning is redefined by the individual, based on what “they mean to me.”
In tomorrow’s post, we will evaluate the inherent danger of young people uncritically adopting the Catholic faith. What may initially appear as innocent spiritual experimentation may ultimately prove detrimental to the spiritual development of young adults.
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.