Enviably, I recently canvassed a room full of young people, my students, about church attendance.
The occasion was an all-school Mass earlier that day. A non-Catholic student broached the question of worship style, repeating the decades-old platitudes about young people abandoning the faith because of boring music and dull liturgy (for the record, the singing at this Mass was supported by electric guitar and bass). It took the 21 high-school students in the room about five minutes to demolish these assumptions utterly. At best, they concluded, popular music would make the Mass more tolerable if they were forced to go. It would not, however, make them into churchgoers.
This jives with my own experience. I know many faithful Catholics who are sincerely attached to contemporary or charismatic worship, for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes that music and style were for them a new lens through which they could see through to the Gospel past negative experiences in the past that were associated with other styles of worship.
Sometimes it was simply the environment in which they had first worshipped God in spirit and in truth after their conversion, their “earliest love songs,” as Michele Chronister so ably put it in her recent post, “The Grace of Those 1980s Hymns”.
But in all my conversations, including this one, I have not met any Catholic attached to contemporary worship whose attendance at Mass depends upon the presence of a drum set; rather, they are present faithfully at Mass because Our Lord is also present. Musical style is a preference or, at most, a sentimental attachment with deep personal meaning to them, but never a sine qua non.
Rather, what emerged in our conversation as a class was a much deeper crisis among young people, a crisis that is much more difficult to address than worship style; it is a crisis of faith. In some ways, it is attractive to think that the reason the Church is hemorrhaging millennials is because millennials do not like sacred music, vestments, and incense, and can only stand rock concerts and raves [demonstrably false in a significant number of cases, but that is beyond the scope of this article]. Music and worship style are something we can easily control and adjust; if that were the problem, we could solve it instantaneously by papal fiat. What we cannot control, and can only dispel with great difficulty, is the climate of unbelief to which young people are exposed and subjected by forces beyond our control.
The picture of the unbelieving high-schooler that my students imparted to me was that of a creature overwhelmed by data. A single Google search will yield more “refutations” of Catholic truth than you could consider and refute in a single lifetime. The orthodoxies of ten thousand world religions, and all of their sacred texts, and all of the finest works of their greatest mystics, sages, and theologians, may be summoned with a few keystrokes. Again, more than anyone could undertake to read, let alone consider, in a lifetime. And what of their heresies and schisms, equally well-articulated?
So, sanely, young people defer their judgment in particular matters to experts: scientists and their parents.
From the scientists, and from the technology on which they read and listen to what they have to say, they learn that a materialist, reductionist methodology has domesticated the laws of nature and made them into man’s servants. They learn that supernatural explanations for many natural phenomena have been overturned, and they are told to expect more of the same in the near future. They are used to unbelieving scientists speaking with bold confidence in the public sphere about the death of religion and the triumph of rationality, and they are conditioned to believe that the system of thought these scientists espouse provides them with as many motives of credibility as there are pieces of technology that they use every day.
On the other hand, from their parents, who are (and rightly so, according to the Church’s mind) viewed by their children as the expert teachers of religion and morality, too many of my students appeared to have learned complete indifferentism. I was actually shocked at how often my students claimed that their parents had encouraged them to “make their own decision” in matters of faith, teaching them about religions, but making no particularly strong case for any one of them. This, when contrasted with the confidence of the materialist Gospel’s zealous evangelists, has presented them with a fairly obvious choice: one of these people really thinks there are reasons to accept his religious beliefs, and one does not. Who is to be believed? And what of the apparently sincere parents of deep faith who are unable to articulate not merely apologetics, but the kerygma of the Gospel?
In Genesis, God does not grant Abraham a son by Sarah until he has attained faith and demonstrated complete trust in God, for He wishes to raise up spiritual descendants to Abraham, not just sons of the flesh. Any spiritual children that we are to beget must also inherit from us faith, not simple enthusiasm.
Faith is more than attraction, than entertainment, although nothing is more desirable to the one who possesses faith than worship.
Faith is more than apologetics can ever demonstrate, since it does not merely imply that the claims of Christ are credible, but that belief in Christ is compelling.
Faith, we are told, comes by hearing.
In a religiously pluralistic climate, it is easy for unbelief to articulate itself in singular contrast to every other viewpoint, just as it was once for monotheism. The materialists provide a way out of the whole confusing mess, a confusing mess inhabited largely by the half-convinced, and very many millennials find that quite attractive.
If we cannot articulate the foundations of faith, the singular uniqueness of the Gospel in contrast so many other claims and religious traditions, how can we ever hope to be heard?
If I claimed that I knew how, I would obviously be selling snake oil.