Young Christians and the Surprising Appeal of Catholicism (Part 2 of 2)

20 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

dropcap]I[/dropcap]n yesterday’s post, we examined the reasons young people are increasingly willing to convert to the Catholic Church despite having been brought up in a Protestant tradition.  Today we will look at why this might not be a case of simple spiritual experimentation, but may prove a detriment to the spiritual development of growing Christians.

Potential danger

A recent Barna study exposed some crucial gaps between faith and practice, suggesting that Catholics – even more than Protestants – are guilty of accommodation.  When compared to non-Catholics, Catholics were significantly less likely to describe their faith as their “highest priority in life.”   This lack of commitment manifests itself through a list of other behaviors.  Barna writes:

“…the typical Catholic person donated about 17% less money to churches; was 38% less likely than the average American to read the Bible; 67% less likely to attend a Sunday school class; 20% less likely to share their faith in Christ with someone who had different beliefs; 24% less likely to say their religious faith has greatly transformed their life; and were 36% less likely to have an ‘active faith,’ (reading the Bible, praying and attending a church service during the prior week).”

The study also found that

“Catholics were significantly less likely to believe that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches and only half as likely to maintain that they have a responsibility to share their faith with others. They were more likely than the norm to say that Satan is not real; to believe that eternal salvation is earned; and to contend that Jesus Christ sinned while on earth.”

While as many as one in four Catholics are “born again” (that is, trusting in Christ for salvation), they are ultimately less likely to be born again than non-Catholics.

Young adults who initially approach this faith system with enthusiasm may be in danger of having it dampened by the religiosity of the church.

I am not suggesting that Roman Catholics are not Christians, nor do I suggest that high church culture invariably leads to these types of negative consequences.  It is worth mentioning that I write this from a distinctly evangelical perspective, and those who read my blog regularly know that I have great respect for reformed theological tradition, notably Calvin and Luther.  That said, it is not my intention to condemn the Catholic Church, though there are many doctrines with which I am in marked disagreement.

Speaking more generally, what I have often found is this: Protestants typically meet Jesus and only later do they navigate the doctrines of the church.  Catholics are given doctrine up front, and only a few find Jesus amidst the milieu of tradition and ritual.  The danger is that these doctrines often do more to obscure, rather than reveal, the saving grace of God – a danger well attested by the pages of history.

Changing approaches

It’s worth noting that none of the reasons that the Roman Catholic Church appeals to young people are absent from evangelical Protestantism, albeit manifested in different ways.  I have been a strong advocate of a “holistic” gospel: one that embraces the reconciliation of man and God as well as man and neighbor.

It is also a gospel that Redemptively embraces art and community as powerful tools for spiritual development – the software, in a sense, that empowers our hardware for the work of the ministry.

Therefore, rather than manufacturing programs designed to “keep them in,” I suggest that churches can do well in nurturing the spiritual needs of young adults through three key elements:

Multi-sensory worship: This includes not only music, but the visual arts and participatory worship.  As much as I find myself at odds with their theology, the emerging church has made admirable strides in the creative department and the advocacy of multi-sensory worship experiences.

Emphasis on community: Small group ministry can become a powerful way of fostering relationships within the body, which in turn anchor people within the church community.  Relationships developed across generational lines can help solidify Christian values and the way they are manifested in daily practice.  These communities can also become the epicenters for service both within the walls of the church, as well as incarnating God’s love in the surrounding community.

Strong doctrine: Despite the ostensible “spirituality” of prevailing culture, sound, unwavering doctrine is the most cited reason why the unchurched attend a particular church (see Thom Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched).  This doctrinal emphasis can reinforce the faith of those within the church and be a powerful tool for reaching those outside.  When accompanied by an emphasis on daily practice, the perceived disconnect between belief and lifestyle can be bridged through the soul-stirring richness of Christian history.

I would add that all three of the above categories are fully embodied in the Lord’s Table, where the elements themselves are taken and consumed (multi-sensory worship), uniting its participants (emphasis on community) in the reflecting on the New Covenant purchase through Christ’s blood (strong doctrine).


Since the Day of Pentecost, there have been those who have wandered away from God’s grace.  My fear is that young people, seeking to immerse themselves in the ostensible religiosity of the Catholic Church, will lose their focus on God’s gospel of grace in the process.

There will, of course, be a day when we shall see Him as He is, and on that day our doctrinal distinctives shall be exposed for either truth or error.  But until that day we must hold fast to the gospel we have been given, a gospel most accurately expressed within the walls of evangelical Protestant churches.  My hope and prayer is that the present generation – and all generations – would fall in love with the Savior in a way that makes Him vividly manifest in their lives and communities.

20 November 2009

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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