Catholic teen church attendance remains steady

By 
  • July 13, 2009
{mosimage}The overall picture of teens today is surprisingly positive — teens today are drinking less, smoking less and less inclined to bully each other than teens in the past 20 years — but when it comes to religion, the statistics might seem a little more puzzling, says Reginald Bibby , a sociologist from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta . A growing number of teens are less likely to identify themselves as religious, he said, but the percentage of teens attending weekly hasn’t changed.

“The thing that is concerning is the middle has dropped out,” he told The Catholic Register, referring to the group of teens who would have formerly said they weren’t sure if they believed in God, but attended church occasionally. “It’s as though Canadians just aren’t as ambivalent. It’s either yes or no and the pattern is very much the same in adults.”

Bibby’s latest statistics on teens are captured in his book, The Emerging Millennials, How Canada’s Newest Generation is Responding to Change and Choice. The results come from an extensive survey of 5,500 teens nationwide.

There is good news in all of this for Catholics, Bibby said, because despite the apparent dichotomy in belief, church attendance outside of Quebec has not changed drastically in two decades. Even in Quebec, where weekly church attendance of teens is down to five per cent, compared to the highest attendance of 34 per cent in Manitoba, the future is still promising.

“Almost 40 per cent say they are open to greater involvement (in the church) if they can find it is worthwhile,” Bibby said. “The real interesting thing is whether or not the church can respond to address latent demands these people have.”

And those who attend church on a regular basis are more involved and inclined to take part than preceding generations, he added.

“The Catholics are well positioned to have an impact on religion in Canada,” Bibby said.

Because Catholics make up such a large slice of the religious pie in Canada, Bibby included a short analysis at the end of each chapter in The Emerging Millennials written by Catholic columnist Fr. Ron Rolheiser.

In a chapter on what teens value most, it seems that some thing are simply immemorial.

“For teens in Canada, it would seem, friendship is religion, the sacred centre to which everything else needs to genuflect...For them, friendship is more important than achievement, money, good looks, popularity or a comfortable life,” Rolheiser summarized.

Christian Elia, a PhD in education and the director of the Office of Catholic Youth for the archdiocese of Toronto, said it is very common to see teenagers making sacrifices for one another, supporting each other emotionally, spiritually, talking about boyfriend/girlfriend or problems at home. For this reason, he said, the church needs to pay attention to those who are struggling to find their own group of friends, and be aware of the anguish it causes them — especially if they don’t feel they have friends in the church.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time, a strong sense of religiousness in friendship is true so we have to teach them it’s a very strong gift, but in many cases that’s not sufficient,” Elia said. “That really, to go all the way to understand the entire human experience as Catholics we believe it must be rooted in Christ.”

“The main thing is identity — it’s amplified in teens — and they’ll find it somewhere... we hope they’ll find it in the church,” Elia said.

In a follow-up report called Restless Gods and Restless Youth, Bibby said religious beliefs in teens are simply a mirror of the religiousness of adults, because these are the people they learn from.

Elia stressed that because of this, parents should start modelling the behaviours they would like to see in their kids, including joyful prayer and going to Mass, which many parents seem to drop once their teens have received the sacrament of Confirmation.

“Lead by example and still keep it that it’s an expectation for them to go.”

Elia said the most important thing for adults and parents is to “simply be there” for their teens, which is often easier said than done. He said teens who have fallen away from the church are not necessarily irreligious; they are simply tuning into liberal secular humanism ideals, they want to help others, they want to make a difference, but they don’t understand why or how to root their actions in religious belief.

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