As most everything on this Catholic Research website either suggests or states, a growing number of young adults (and not a few older adults, too) have decided to disaffiliate from the Catholic Church. For a variety of reasons, the majority of them thoughtful and heartfelt, these people have joined the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. Other Christian churches and spiritual traditions can claim the same experience of attrition.
Why? A qualitative study undertaken by Saint Mary’s Press, in collaboration with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), suggests several key reasons, among them “negative experiences associated with faith and religious practice,” “uncertain faith and lack of engagement with a faith community,” or “active resistance to or rejection of the Church” and its perceived teachings. (Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics, 2017)
So that, in a sense, is the negative understanding of disaffiliation. The flip side of this conversation, however, the positive side if you will, is to consider what good things these folks are looking for. Dr. Bob McCarty, one of the principal authors of Going, Going, Gone, suggests in a recent podcast interview that one source of insight into that question is offered by Dr. Leonard Sweet. A scholar of U.S. culture, theologian, best-selling author, and semiotician (specialist in the study of meaning), Sweet proposes that what young adults are looking for is an E.P.I.C. model of doing church. The acronym for Sweet’s postmodern community of faith stands for Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven, and Connected.
Experiential: Today’s young adults are seeking an experience, not a lecture. They want a guide who can provide or lead them to an environment or experience that is meaningful, not a lecture and a box of rules.
Participatory: Young adults want a voice in what they do, what they experience, how they interact in the world. They are not so much “anti-establishment” as pro-participation. They want a role to play, a place at the table.
Image-driven: Young people have grown up in an image-rich environment, and they desire experiences that are image-based, often metaphorical. Not coincidentally, Jesus spoke in story and metaphor to convey his meanings.
Connected: Young adults today are constantly connected and seeking connection, both through technology and social media. They want experiences that encourage connection and community.
The institutional Catholic Church and its representatives can step up and provide what they believe is an E.P.I.C. church experience for young adults. But in the spirit of this website and our goals here, I would suggest that recommendations for an E.P.I.C. church experience and how we can better understand, experience, shape, and share the postmodern church ought to come from young adults themselves.
Please share this blog post—through social media or however else you can—with the young adults in your circle and ask them to respond with their suggestions and insights. They can post responses directly to this site in the comments section below. We hope to hear from as wide a circle as possible what a meaningful, effective postmodern Catholic Church should look, sound, and feel like to better meet the needs and aspirations of young adults today.
Jerry Ruff, Senior Editor and Writer
Saint Mary’s Press Research