A recent poll has confirmed what most youth ministry workers are already losing sleep over: young people across the globe tend to be less religious than their elders.
What they may not know is the widest rift in religious practice between those age groups is among Canadians.
The Pew Research Centre (in a June 13 study) found in 46 out of 106 countries surveyed, adults aged 18-39 were less likely than those aged 40 or older to say religion is important to them, particularly so in Canada.
“It’s alarming,” said Erwin Fung, a youth ministry coordinator for the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
An increase in “religious nones,” or people who don’t identify with any religion, is a rising trend that makes running Catholic youth programs here particularly challenging, he said.
“We need to help young adults find a community and a way for them to celebrate their faith,” so they don’t abandon it after high school and don’t stop to reconsider until they hit a mid-life crisis, Fung said. “We hear all the time that people find their faith when they’re at the lowest. Let’s not wait for that to happen.”
Countries close to Canada in terms of the age gap and religious practice were Denmark, South Korea, Australia, Norway, Sweden, and Germany. The United States came in 13th on the list.
It’s believed to be an ongoing trend. In 2017, the Angus Reid Institute found 60 per cent of today’s Canadians believe the religious practice of their grandchildren will be weaker than their own. (Nine per cent believed it would be stronger, and 17 per cent said it would stay the same).
But Fung, who has been overseeing youth ministry in the Lower Mainland for five years, said an increase in “religious nones” is only one of many trials his fellow ministry workers face.
“Five years ago, a handful of youth might have Facebook or be tied into a form of social media,” he said, “now, I would say 99 per cent of youth have a social media account and are accessing it on a regular basis.”
Instead of increasing meaningful communication, said Fung, online interactions have served to cut down time spent meeting other people face-to-face.“People are feeling lonely, depressed, or discouraged because they don’t live up to someone else’s Instagram profile.”
That leads to higher mental health issues and social isolation, Fung said, and too few teens who would benefit from community gatherings are showing up to youth events. He’s seen participation rates at youth ministry gatherings decrease over the years.
“We have a lot of youth ministry leaders who are discouraged by that.”
One of them is Alicia Chichak. Serving at St. Basil’s Parish in Edmonton, she said youth ministry leaders “are very prone to experiencing fatigue.”
Chichak and about 145 other youth ministry leaders met in Vancouver to discuss new ways to reach teens at the biennial Canadian Catholic Youth Ministers’ Conference June 1-3.
“Eighty per cent of youth drop all affiliation with the Church, especially while experiencing transitions in their lives,” Chichak said. “Youth today do not want proof that God exists, but instead want to know why they should care about God at all.”
It’s sobering news, but she said keynote speaker Chris Stefanick encouraged her to “create an environment of mentorship and belonging” for young people in her parish.
“Our world is in desperate poverty of love, and we as a Catholic community must respond.”
The conference, hosted this year by the Archdiocese of Vancouver in partnership with the community of St. Mark’s College, welcomed youth workers from across the country.
Rosana Ruis, a youth ministry worker for nine years and member of Precious Blood Parish in Surrey, also attended.
“In ministry work sometimes we get so focused on the issues in our particular parish, but the coming together of all these wonderful people truly opened my eyes to the reality of the issues of the bigger church.”
She said she felt encouraged to realize that whatever goes on in her parish, God has a plan for its young adults.
Meanwhile, Fung is embarking on a year-long project to study the effectiveness of youth programs offered at the Archdiocese of Vancouver. That will culminate in an internal report that he hopes will serve to revitalize an oft-discouraged ministry.
“Does what we offer actually have an impact?”
About 21,000 Grade 7s have participated in Spirit Day, a pre-confirmation event, since 2005.
“Has that made a difference?” asks Fung. “Or would we still lose young people if we didn’t have it? Are they still being engaged in their faith? Should we be redirecting our priorities, attention, and energies to something else to address the issues of young people leaving the faith?”
Fung is excited for the Synod on Youth and Vocational Discernment, to be held in Rome Oct. 3-28, and hopes any resulting documents will also support his efforts.
“We’ve tried to go away from a youth group model,” and “gone back to basics, making sure our focus is on accompanying young people. How do we journey with them and make sure they feel supported in their faith, and not alone?”
One way he hopes to help is Searching in the Spirit, an annual camp coming this August.