All too often, the Church tries to reach out to youth with attempts to be relevant. But these attempts almost always come off as out of touch, desperate pandering.
Watch Brian Holdsworth’s video about keeping youth in the Church.
Every now and then the Church will refocus its attention on young people with a special emphasis on the question of how do we keep young people interested in their faith.
And the all too common answer that keeps coming back is that we have to make it relevant to young people. We have to speak the language of popular culture and express our faith in ways that young people will immediately recognize and identify with.
And as we speak, the Vatican is hosting something called a Synod on Young People and they seem to be drawing a lot from this kind of popular wisdom that pandering to the youth is the way to go. But from everything I’ve seen the whole thing just comes across as old people trying to fit in with young people and it’s been an occasion for a lot of cringe.
So I want to consider this question of how the Church can respond to this challenge without sacrificing its own identity or integrity along the way because the thing about pandering is that people know when they’re being pandered to.
It’s not the kind of thing that inspires respect or admiration. Instead, it’s the kind of thing that provokes a fairly cynical reaction at least that’s how I respond when people try to put on a façade of relatability.
If the Church wants young people to listen to the message of Jesus which is what it has been charged with the care of and dissemination of, by Jesus, then it’s really undermining its own efforts by using tactics that provoke people to look down on the messenger. That’s what pandering does.
And this is what the Church has been doing for the last 50 years or so in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. People have taken that council as a license to vandalize all of our outward expressions of the faith like art, architecture, music, and liturgy in the hopes of making it more culturally relevant and accessible.
And the result has been that the Church is less relevant than ever. I can’t emphasize that point any more. That experiment has failed catastrophically. Nobody who is well marinated in popular culture walks into a typical Catholic mass and is struck by a sense of how relevant and cool it is.
But let’s say you could make the Church cool and relevant. Maybe we just haven’t tried hard enough and we need to double down on the experiment. What would we have accomplished? The message of Jesus is come and follow me. Why would anyone do that if there’s nothing unique about us if we’re just exactly like the outside world?
The way we present the message of Jesus needs to be like nothing of this world, because it’s not of this world. It’s from the world to come. It should have an otherworldly and transcendent quality to it.
That’s why the Church has always made this distinction between the sacred and profane. The sacred has always delineated that which is set apart for the very unique experience of encountering God through worship. It literally means “set apart”.
I think we instinctively know that the moments we set aside to come to God should be different from the ordinariness of every day life, even cultural life. They should inspire us to something more. Those experiences should transcend the material world.
But if we try to make our faith look exactly like the profane world then we will signal to the curious that God isn’t here so don’t waste your time looking for him here.
So if pandering to relevance isn’t the way to attract and retain youth members of the Church then what is?
Well, I think we need to be ourselves. Present authentic Catholicism as it actually is. Don’t water it down and don’t try to make is something that it’s not.
Next, we have to re-embrace a distinction between the sacred and the profane.
Uniqueness is actually a really attractive quality. That’s why old European landmarks like Catholic cathedrals attract tourists from around the world.
If we claim to have the fullness of truth, which is God, we should act like it. We should offer a worship experience that is like no other because God is so utterly transcendent. It should be an experience that is set apart from all other experiences in this world and it used to be that.
Lastly, we need to tell them what is true. If you just affirm people where they are and in what they’re doing, then again, they have no reason to take an interest in following you – which is to say, they will have no reason to come to Church.
Standing firm in doctrine and in truth is the only thing that will actually attract people who love what is true. If we compromise truth in the name of attracting people than we’ve undermined our own mission.
Compromising the truth of Christ’s message in the hopes of attracting people to Christ’s message is an exercise in futility because it’s self-contradictory.