As the smoke clears

Meredith Flynn —  March 14, 2013

TravelCOMMENTARY | Meredith Flynn

One member of our reporting team describes working for a newspaper when Pope John Paul II was gravely ill in 2004. “My editor called it ‘Pope Watch.’ We knew the world’s eyes were trained on the Vatican, and pope news would exceed in importance anything else we’d put in the paper.”

For the past few weeks, Catholics and non-Catholics alike were back on Pope Watch. From Pope Benedict’s surprise retirement announcement, to yesterday’s announcement that Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would assume the post, media outlets have provided extensive coverage of the search for a new leader. Software manufacturers even jumped on cultural wave, creating smart phone apps to help people more closely follow the conclave’s progress.

As the world watched for a puff of white smoke from the Vatican chimney, Southern Baptists also had occasion to consider more closely relationship to the Roman Catholic church. We are deeply divided on key doctrines, but have compatible positions on marriage and family issues and the sanctity of human life. And we share the struggle of protecting the children in our care. The Catholic church’s very public failures have forced us to ask: Are our churches doing enough to secure children’s safety?

We face many of the same challenges. A new study by Barna Research shows that is especially true when it comes to young people in the church.

Barna surveyed young Catholics (age 18-29) with a variety of faith journeys – some still attend a Catholic church, while others admit to dropping out. In fact, 56% of those surveyed say they stopped going to church at some point after attending regularly. Previous Barna research found the dropout rate among Protestants is 61%. A majority, 65%, of young Catholics also admit to being less active in church than they were at age 15, compared to 58% of Protestants.

The numbers point to a common story that seems to transcend denomination or religion: Many young people are leaving the church. Barna’s research also gives clues as to why. Of young Catholics surveyed, 60% say the church’s teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date, and 57% say mass feels like a “boring obligation.”

Protestant church leaders – including Southern Baptists – also can attest to the tension between youth and experience, between progress and tradition. There’s anecdotal evidence aplenty that suggests denominational leadership isn’t skewing younger as a rule.

Most people of faith want to leave a legacy of belief in God – they want to pass on what is most important to them. As we seek to do so, it’s increasingly apparent that it will take more than smoke and mirrors to show younger generations the truths in the Bible, and to convince them of the value of cooperation. It will require the utmost authenticity, and we’ll have to give young people space to wrestle with issues that come naturally to older believers. It’s essential, and it’s what they’re watching for.

Meredith Flynn

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Meredith is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper.