Negative encounters with Christians can turn off young 'nones' — perhaps permanently
Jun 19, 2019
Editor's note: This is the second in a five-part column series written by Sacred Heart Major Seminary and Catholic Biblical School of Michigan researcher Tamra Hull Fromm about the impact and choices of young adult “nones” — those who profess no religious faith — in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Additional columns will be published on a weekly basis.
In my last article, I introduced my doctoral research, which included interviews of 24 unbaptized young adults in the Archdiocese Detroit. These individuals either previously participated or were currently participating in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). By examining the religious backgrounds of these young adults, my study confirmed that many parents fail to pass down the faith to their children, either out of ignorance or a deliberate decision to allow their children to choose their own religion.
So, if we are concerned about the decreasing number of young people in our pews and if parents are not passing down the faith, then how do we get ‘unchurched’ young adults to discover the Catholic Church? In this second article of a five-part series, I will explore and discuss the importance of the initial encounter and some of the experiences of the young adults I interviewed.
First, it is important to define what I mean when I use the term “encounter.” We often use this term colloquially in the sense of when one individual meets another, perhaps unexpectedly. Over the past 25 years, papal teaching has linked the language of the phenomenon of a personal “encounter” with Jesus as a critical component of evangelization. For St. John Paul II, this “encounter” is the starting point of evangelization, while Benedict XVI claims that evangelization is dependent upon it.
There are certainly plenty of examples of this “encounter” within Scripture. We read of physical meetings or “encounters” with Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, the tax collector Zacchaeus, Jesus’ disciples on their walk to Emmaus, and the apostle Paul. (1) In each case, Jesus actively seeks out the individual and reveals his identity either gradually or suddenly, depending on the recipient’s capacity to receive the revelation. In some situations, he uses a method of questioning that prompts the listener to go deeper into questioning his or her own understanding of who he or she is. The encounter appears to ignite a chain reaction within the one who is found, first on the subjective level and later becoming a force that spreads outward to others.
Msgr. Luigi Guissani, an Italian priest who worked with young people in the second half of the 20th century, argues that the encounter must present something that is new, true, fresh and of value to the individual. One must be “provoked or helped by something different from ourselves, by something objective” (2) Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron similarly describes the encounter, in his pastoral letter Unleash the Gospel (UTG), as “... sometimes cataclysmic, sometimes gradual” and sometimes accompanied by “feeling overwhelmed.” (3) Clearly, the encounter involves something unexpected, even “out of the box,” which spurs the imagination and desire to begin or continue the quest.
In the case of a young adult who has grown up in a household where faith is not practiced or encouraged, he or she may never cross the parish threshold. Thus, instead of an encounter with Christ occurring through the sacraments, a priest, or reading or hearing Scripture, all of which are commonly associated with the parish environment, the locus of the initial encounter may be rapidly shifting away from the parish to the secular environment.
Further, the Catechism of the Catholic Church connects the human encounter with Jesus via other humans as well as physical objects; these are explicitly defined as the sacraments (with an emphasis on the Eucharist), the priest, prayer, the poor, and Scripture. However, many of these points of contact presume that the individual is already actively practicing the faith. In the case of a young adult who has grown up in a household where faith is not practiced or encouraged, he or she may never cross the parish threshold. Thus, instead of an encounter with Christ occurring through the sacraments, a priest, or reading or hearing Scripture, all of which are commonly associated with the parish environment, the locus of the initial encounter may be rapidly shifting away from the parish to the secular environment. This may mean that the initial encounter with Christ for the ‘unchurched’ may depend more on the human-to-human interaction.
The data from my interviews confirm that many of the 24 unbaptized young adults did not experience this kind of positive initial “encounter” in a parish setting. Only 12 (or 50 percent) indicated they had attended a church prior to entering the RCIA. This should obviously raise the question about the other 50 percent. But before I explore how we reach those young adults in the secular environment, let’s look at the experiences of the 12 who did attend a church or parish in terms of what can be gleaned.
Specifically, five mentioned attending a church (either Catholic, a specific Protestant denomination, or nondenominational) only for a wedding and/or funeral. Three specifically cited attending church for Christmas and Easter only. Seven young adults mentioned they had taken part in some type of para-church or church-related small group (for example, a Bible study or after-school church gathering). Based upon these encounters, many of the young adults expressed positive feelings toward these groups. In fact, small groups seemed to provide a greater sense of community than the Sunday service. This may suggest that intentional opportunities to cultivate friendships, conversation and a sense of belonging are more effective in terms of initial evangelization.
‘Close encounters of the wrong kind’
However, not all young adults from my research expressed positive encounters with Catholics or Christians in general. Broadly, negative encounters could be categorized as rejection of questions, rejection by perception, and rejection by prejudice. In each case, the unchurched young adult leaves with a poor impression of the Catholic Church and/or Christianity and an opportunity to meet Christ is stifled. Using the analogy of the parable of the sower, (4) the “seed” that is sown early on the path (which represents the spiritual journey) gets snatched away because it remains unnourished.
The seed may represent a lingering curiosity about Christianity and Catholicism, a desire which was experienced by many of the young adults I interviewed. A lack of knowledge prompted them to feel “left out.” However, in a culture that is becoming increasingly indifferent and even hostile to religion, young adults may be hesitant to bring up questions. Religious curiosity might not be explicitly expressed and thus become latent in the young adult. Questions might “fly under the radar” or might become submerged under the pressing demands of life decisions (e.g., university, job or career searches and development, establishment of marriage and family) that are encountered in young adulthood.
We might ask ourselves why the young adult simply does not head to the local parish or church or seek out a priest to find answers. I suggest that, for someone who is unbaptized or has never attended a church, the so-called “barriers to entry” can be quite high. Lack of knowledge often engenders fear, which might be particularly heightened in a liturgical setting where the words and actions are unfamiliar.
At this juncture, we might ask ourselves why the young adult simply does not head to the local parish or church or seek out a priest to find answers. I suggest that, for someone who is unbaptized or has never attended a church, the so-called “barriers to entry” can be quite high. Lack of knowledge often engenders fear, which might be particularly heightened in a liturgical setting where the words and actions are unfamiliar. The presence of a friend or family member or even a welcoming parishioner can often reduce this trepidation.
Sadly, Melissa’s request to learn more about the Catholic faith was met with refusal. As she describes, “I had friends that were Catholic and I asked to go to Mass with them. They told me no.” This single negative experience seems to “push her away” from God for some time.
Three young adults experienced negative encounters with Christianity or with those identified as Christians. The primary feelings expressed are fear of being judged or not being welcomed by the community. The underlying anxiety might be that the individual is not “good enough” or “doesn’t fit in” with the communal norm.
For example, Carrie had a negative experience based upon religious images that she perceived as judgmental or condemning:
“I was volunteering one summer in college in Oklahoma and I stayed in a church building and there were religious pictures and crosses and Jesus. It honestly made me feel uncomfortable. I felt like I was not good enough and I was being watched. Like all these eyes were on me. Like there was something wrong with me. Just the pictures of like Jesus and the angels and everything. I didn't even know what they were for or what they represented but I just felt uncomfortable. ‘Cause honestly I had never been around it and had never been taught anything about it.”
Hence, while religious or sacred art and images can sometimes have a positive role in evangelization, in Carrie’s case, they can also evoke emotions of disapproval. She feels rejected because of her perceptions or preconceptions of religion and God.
It is important to recognize that the meaning of art or images according to the spectator is not neutral but filtered through one’s experiences. In her case, Carrie had already negatively associated religion with coercion, as the result of an encounter with Jehovah's Witnesses during her pre-teen years.
“I babysat kids when I was 12 or 13. And the people ... I think they were Jehovah's Witnesses ... were at the door. They came to the door when the parents of the two babies that I was watching weren't home and they asked if they could come inside. And I said, 'No, this isn't my house, the parents aren't here’. They pushed open the door and came inside without my permission and attempted to make me born again or something. They laid their hands on my head, put my head back, saying all these things. I just felt like everything that I saw based on religion, not in the movies but in the real world, was extremely overwhelming and pressuring and I didn't understand it. People were trying to push things or explain things that I didn't have answers to.”
At the time of the incident, Carrie did not feel knowledgeable enough to confront or respond to those she encountered. However, I suggest her presuppositions and connection of Christianity with judgement and coercion will need to be reversed and even healed before she can become open to a kerygmatic message.
For Leisa, who grew up homeless for a time during her childhood, religious persons are perceived negatively because of an encounter with a “Christian” customer who mistreated those with whom she identifies.
“I worked at Tim Horton's and there was always this Christian group that would come in, for like two hours. They would have a big family, friends and so forth. They were rude. One guy, I won't forget him, he was so judgmental. We have a lot of homeless people in Chesterfield, but our Tim Horton's is 24-hours, so of course, they would come. So, when they would come, the look in his eyes was just hate and it wasn't anything. And I just assumed he was a Christian and an [expletive]. Like how you can look at ... and not even just a normal person. Why would you look at someone who has less than you and push them off? It bothered me. It bothered me my whole life.
I have that kind of empathy for other people who have nothing. Like being a homeless kid, like being a homeless child ... looking in on this world, they're just good people and they don't see you. They don't want to see you, ‘cause they don't have to see you, because like what I can do for them? I'm just a homeless kid. So they don't do for me. And then growing up and maybe that's why I have a lot of anger toward a lot of people. ‘Cause I just thought they're all [expletive]. You were [expletive] to be when I was homeless and now that I'm clothed you want to be nice to me. It bothered me, it really bothered me. I just associated Christians with being [expletive] because of this group of people.”
If Leisa’s story makes us uncomfortable, I suggest it should, especially in relation to evangelization. Often, we are unaware of how closely others are observing us in circumstances outside of the parish walls. How we bear the name of Christ through our behavior speaks very loudly to others about who Christ is and his core message. Is it any surprise that young adults who experience this unjoyful encounter are turned off by Christianity?
Negative encounters with Christianity can also result from the first impression or perception of not feeling welcomed or being judged during a church visit. Megan describes her visit to a couple Protestant churches:
“I went there in high school. I just didn't like the atmosphere ... Like I didn't really know the people. They weren't really welcoming. I also did that ... Baptist? I sat through a couple services there. Again, but it just didn't feel at home.”
Similarly, Katherine relates negative encounters in Catholic parishes.
“I've been to other Catholic churches ... I felt like some other Catholic churches were, like [the] parishioners, maybe a just a little more judgmental than the parishioners at St. _____.”
As Pope Francis chided, a church should be a “field hospital,” not a country club that is insulated and turned in on itself. Archbishop Vigneron writes of the importance of “unusually gracious hospitality” and wisely challenges parishes to “extend a warm welcome to everyone who walks through the door.” (5) For young adults, this aspect of evangelization might be the most critical, as many feel they need to belong before they can believe.
In some ways, Megan feels highly invisible while Katherine feels highly visible. Regardless, both leave the encounter with the parish community feeling unwanted or undesirable. Once again, this kind of experience should bother us. As Pope Francis chided, a church should be a “field hospital,” not a country club that is insulated and turned in on itself. Archbishop Vigneron writes of the importance of “unusually gracious hospitality” and wisely challenges parishes to “extend a warm welcome to everyone who walks through the door.” (5) For young adults, this aspect of evangelization might be the most critical, as many feel they need to belong before they can believe.
So, what can we take away from these accounts? First, Catholics might need to be more receptive and open to questions (even the uncomfortable ones!) that young adults have about the faith. This does not mean that one must be a theologian or an apologist. Simply acknowledging the questions and being willing to seek the answers or direct the individual to resources might be enough at this early stage. And please, when someone asks to go to Mass with you, this is a no-brainer! God is practically handing you the sickle for the harvest. Second, be aware of how your life speaks outside of the parish. As it has been said, you might be the only Jesus some people will see. Finally, when you see a new face at Mass, introduce yourself ... regardless of whether he or she is dressed up, has tattoos, or even smells a little sheepish. Your welcome will leave a lasting impression.
In the next article, I will explore from my study the impact of a positive encounter with a Catholic witness who serves as a catalyst for the young adults in their spiritual journeys. Because of the encouragement, lifestyle and authenticity of the witness, he or she acts even as an antidote for the negative perceptions and presuppositions of Christianity which I have discussed above.
Tamra Hull Fromm is director of discipleship and an instructor with the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan and has taught at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
- Cf. Jn 4:4-26; Lk 19:1-10; Lk 24:13-35; Acts 9:3-9.
- Luigi Giussani, The Journey to Truth is an Experience(Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2006), p. 105.
- Marker 2.1, Unleash the Gospel(UTG).
- Cf. Mt13:1-23, Mk 4:1-20,and Lk8:4-15.
- Marker 8.3, UTG.