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Leading your child back to the Church Print
Guest column

Word on Fire
Brandon Vogt

If your son or daughter has drifted away from the Church, you're not alone. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people.

Half of young Americans who were raised Catholic (50 percent exactly) no longer identify as Catholic today. Roughly eight-in-10 (79 percent) who shed their faith leave before age 23.

Why are they leaving?

Some drift away as teenagers while searching for their own identity. Some have been hurt by people in the Church. Others slide into lifestyles that conflict with Church teaching. Many go off to college, connect with non-Christians or skeptical professors, and slowly lose their faith.

Some move into the world, start a family, and get swept up in work, hobbies, and family life, losing their faith in the shuffle.

There are lots of stories but most of them share the same outcome: young people leaving the Church.

Of course, we're all desperate to draw them back. But that desperation can sometimes lead us to pursue the right goal with the wrong methods.

If you want to draw your child back, let's look at three strategies you should NOT use. (To be clear, when I say "child " in this article, I'm primarily referring to young adults, not adolescents.)

1. Force him to Mass.

Here's a crucial and maybe surprising tip: stop forcing your child to attend Mass.

Counterintuitive? Sure. But if you want to make lasting progress with your child, attending Mass should be the last piece of the puzzle, not the first. It's the final destination, the fruit and consequence of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not the cause of it.

You have to lay down other building blocks first in order for the Mass to benefit your child's soul. A priest recently observed to me, "If someone comes to Mass, unwilling and unprepared, he's in great danger of spiritual sickness.

"As long as our agenda is simply to get people to Mass -- if that's all we're trying to do, without any intermediary steps -- we're likely making them sicker, from a spiritual perspective."

That idea may seem discomforting, but it goes back to St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians. The people of Corinth suffered physical pains as a result of not celebrating the Mass with proper reverence.

If we come to Mass unprepared, unfocused, or unwilling to participate, then we could suffer serious spiritual effects. Instead of uniting us to God, the Mass could distance that relationship.

So next time you're tempted to push or goad your child to attend Mass, pull back a bit. Plant other seeds first.

2. Criticize his lifestyle.

Abraham Piper, who drifted away from church as a teenager, has good advice for parents of children who make bad moral decisions: don't leadwith moral disapproval. "If he's struggling to believe in Jesus, there is little significance in his admitting that it's wrong to get wasted, for instance."

Pope Francis has spoken out often against such a "moral commandments" approach. In his first big interview as pope, he explained how introducing someone to Jesus Christ before getting to the moral requirements that flow from that encounter is the best strategy:

"The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you . . . . Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.

"We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant.

"It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow . . . The proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing."

But let's be frank: this isn't easy. It will involve biting your tongue many times when you feel the urge to rebuke your child, knowing that will likely drive him farther away.

Yet as Bert Ghezzi pithily affirms, "The scar tissue will be worth it!"

3. Nag him.

Many parents nag, badger, and hound their children -- even far into their adult lives. These strategies almost never work and, in fact, they usually have the opposite effect.

So commit right now to putting away questions like, "Why are you doing this to us?" or "When are you going to stop being so lazy and come back to church?"

St. John Paul II, summed up a better, alternative strategy. He said simply, "The Church proposes; she imposes nothing." Parents who successfully draw their children back respectfully invite them through warm conversation and unconditional love.

Don't complain about your child's deficiencies; invite him to something better. Propose, but don't impose.

If you want more tips like these -- be sure to sign up for my free four-part video series on helping your child return to the Church.

You can find the videos at:

Brandon Vogt is a best-selling author, blogger, and speaker. He is the content director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He's the founder of ClaritasU, an online community for Catholics who want to get clear about their faith.

Brandon Vogt is a best-selling author, blogger, and speaker. He is the content director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He's the founder of ClaritasU, an online community for Catholics who want to get clear about their faith.