Why the Catholic Church Has Failed to Reach Young People

If Catholics want to truly engage with young people, we need to be bold, direct and truthful.

Heinrich Hofmann (1824–1911), “Christ and the Rich Young Man”
Heinrich Hofmann (1824–1911), “Christ and the Rich Young Man” (photo: Public Domain)

When I was a young boy, a priest came to our parish. It was his first assignment, fresh out of the seminary as a newly ordained priest. This man was young, energetic and on fire for the faith.

Up until this point in my life, I had never experienced my Catholic faith as something to get excited about. Sure, my mom took us to Mass every day and we prayed the family Rosary every night, but as a 10-year-old boy, that was more akin to torture than enjoyment. This all changed when Fr. Meyer came to my parish.

Within a short time of being our associate pastor, Fr. Meyer started a biweekly praise and worship event in our parish. This event was specifically for high-schoolers. You weren’t allowed to come if you were too young or too old. Every other Wednesday, Fr. Meyer would hold exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour while the high-schoolers sang praise and worship songs. Father would give a short talk in the middle and then afterward, all the kids would hang out and socialize in the church gathering area.

(I was allowed to go because my older sister did all the music and my dad ran all the audio, so I helped him out and was allowed to be included.)

It didn’t take long at all before there were several hundred high-school boys and girls showing up every other Wednesday for Fr. Meyer’s praise and worship. These high-schoolers started developing a real love for Jesus and they caught on fire with love for their faith and for living their faith out loud. They started forming groups at their high schools and began living their faith much more deeply than before. Some of them are now priests.

The point of all of this is that there were a couple of very specific things that Fr. Meyer did that were so attractive to these young people.

The first thing he did was to tell the truth. In no uncertain terms, Fr. Meyer taught these high-schoolers what was true about the Catholic faith and their own lives. He told them about the lies of the world. He wasn’t afraid to bring up the tough topics, like porn and masturbation.

The second thing he did was to set the direction that he was going and invite others to come along for the journey. But what Fr. Meyer made very clear was that he was going, whether anyone followed him or not. Fr. Meyer showed these young people that following Jesus was something he couldn’t stop doing, and if they wanted the same joy and zest for life that he had, they needed to do the same.

If the Catholic Church hopes to engage young people and bring them into the faith, they will need to accept two things. First, young people want the truth. Second, young people demand that your actions speak louder than your words.


Catholics are Lousy at Engaging Young People

In, the last 50 or 60 years or so, the Catholic Church has done a poor job of engaging with and attracting young people.

There are two main reasons for this failure. The first is a fear of “pushing young people away.” This loosely translates to “I don’t want to offend anyone.”

The second reason for failure is an inability to communicate to young people in the place where they are spending the vast majority of their time and attention. Namely, digital media.


Reason #1: Catholics Fear “Pushing People Away”

Catholic outreach to young people has focused almost entirely on being “ecumenical” and “relevant.” What it hasn’t focused on is being Catholic.

If the Catholic Church hopes to attract and engage young people, it needs to start telling the truth.

Yes, the truth is offensive. In some cases, it’s very offensive. This is at the heart of the Church’s failure with young people. Through the fear of giving offense, the Church has feared to tell the truth.

Again, I repeat, the truth is offensive. It is offensive to anyone who desires to live life on their own terms. It is offensive to anyone who wants to be their own God, or deny that God exists at all. It is offensive to homosexuals who want to normalize sodomy and teach it to children. It is offensive to feminists who want to remove men from society. It is offensive to teenagers who like masturbating, looking at porn and fornicating. It is offensive to “women’s rights activists” who demand the “right” to murder their children. It is offensive to Protestants who want God to be whoever they decide he is. It is offensive to everything that secular society stands for.

Telling the truth is hard. It’s also the only thing that young people care about. They are desperate for it. They are desperate for someone to explain to them why their hedonistic lifestyle makes them want to kill themselves. They are desperate for someone to show them what real love looks like. They are desperate for someone to teach them their place in this world. They are desperate for a lens to look through, one that makes things clearer instead of darkening their vision. The bottom line is that the Catholic Church represents everything that young people are literally dying to know about. And we’re too scared to tell them because we don’t want to “offend” them.


Time To Take Off the Kid Gloves

If young people don’t hear the truth from the Catholic Church, then they will seek a “truth substitute” somewhere else. Without the Church’s guidance to measure against, they will fall for Satan’s lies.

Those within the Catholic Church who wish to attract and engage young people in the Faith must embrace a radical commitment to truth. I’m going to be very specific. Here are the things that young people need to hear about.

  • How pornography, masturbation and fornication are hurting them.
  • How to stop looking at pornography and masturbating.
  • How to have a healthy relationship with members of the opposite sex.
  • Who God is and why he love us.
  • How to understand God’s mercy.
  • How to understand the differences between men and women.
  • The importance of families.
  • How to prepare for a healthy marriage.
  • Why homosexuality is wrong.
  • How to find meaning in their lives.
  • How to pray.
  • How to find God’s will.
  • How to discern and follow their vocation.

These topics are everything to young people. They matter intensely. In fact, they’re all that matter, in many cases. Young people are under a constant barrage of lies. They need the Catholic Church in order to see the light and understand their place in the world.

The constant question of how to engage young people is very simply answered: Tell the truth. Not half of the truth. Not a softened version of the truth. Tell the whole, hard, offensive truth.

St. Paul says in his letter to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” Clearly, St. Paul believed that young people were capable of understanding and living the Catholic lifestyle that Christ ask of us. When we treat young people like they can’t handle the truth, we fail them.


Reason #2: Catholic Don’t Understand Social Media

This reason is more practical than the first reason, but no less important for being so. Telling the truth is necessary, but without the proper formatting, it just gets lost in the ether and no one even hears about it.

Starting with social media, Catholics need to understand the language that young people are speaking. Each social media platform has its own syntax, grammar and vocabulary. Engaging content on Facebook is different from Instagram. The rules for growing subscribers on YouTube don’t apply to Snapchat.

The reality is that the large majority of young people spend the large majority of their time on social media. They are on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and others, for pretty much all of their free time and then some. If Catholics want to engage young people, they will have to go where the attention is.


Putting It All Together

The two things that the Church needs to do to attract and engage young people are to tell the truth and communicate it in the language of the modern young person.

This means creating content that cuts right to the heart of the problems that young people are facing. The Catholic Church needs to embrace its tradition of running counter to the culture no matter the cost. The fact of the matter is that if Catholics continue to pursue being “likable” to young people, they will never be anything more than another voice in all the noise.

If Catholics want to truly engage with young people, we need to be bold, direct and truthful.

John Welch, who writes from Indianapolis, is the co-host of Catholic Late Night and co-founder of Overt TV, a YouTube channel for young Catholics.

We Are Losing Young Catholics

Our culture has rapidly fallen into that “age of infidelity” that Saint John Henry Newman predicted, and too many Catholic institutions have been complicit in the slide from faith and tradition.