Median age for leaving the church is 13

At a symposium prior to the Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference, researchers from St. Mary’s Press discussed findings from their study “Going, Going, Gone: the Dynamics of Catholic Disaffiliation”

Youth and young adult ministers look on during a Nov. 29 conference on young adult disaffiliation from the Catholic Church. (Photo by Nicholas Wolfram Smith/Catholic San Francisco)

To find Catholics who have left the church, start looking at the faces in the pews, according to a recent report. A 2018 study on young adults leaving the Catholic Church found people stopped identifying as Catholics at a median age of 13 years old, long before they ceased attending a parish. The report adds to the picture of a church that more people are leaving and that fewer ever want to return to.

At a Nov. 29 symposium prior to the start of the Santa Clara Faith Formation Conference, researchers from St. Mary’s Press discussed the findings from their study. Titled “Going, Going, Gone: the Dynamics of Catholic Disaffiliation,” the report presented an in-depth look at stories of the men and women who left Catholicism.

Robert J. McCarty, one of the study authors, told the audience that about a third of respondents left over church teaching, most often that on same-sex marriage and homosexuality.

“Young people see dealing with the gay community as an issue of social justice and human dignity, not an issue of sexuality,” he said.

Study participants also said they stopped identifying as Catholics because of a disbelief in religion, or a personal or familial change in their religious denomination.

About half of those who left Catholicism joined another religion, while 35 percent became “nones,” unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition. Less than a fifth of respondents became atheists or agnostics.

According to St. Mary’s Press research, many of the respondents who stopped identifying as Catholics tended to have weak signs of attachment to the church. More than half of respondents said when they identified as Catholic they attended Mass a few times a year or less. Two-thirds of them had made their first Communion, but only a third had received confirmation. Nearly 60 percent had never been involved in any religious education or youth ministry.

Although their work focused on young adults aged 15-25, McCarty said disaffiliation from the church is not a problem of youth ministry but a systemic crisis in handing on the faith. According to Pew Research Center, a little over a third of the adults born between 1981 and 1996 do not identify with any religion tradition. Around 13 percent of U.S. adults are former Catholics.

Part of the story of disaffiliation is the decline of social trust in all institutions. The young age of disaffiliation suggests families play an important role in choosing to leave Catholicism, McCarty said, but he also pointed to the experience of community at churches.

“Our faith community enables us to encounter Jesus: If the community doesn’t do that, it’s easier for us to walk away,” he said.

Amanda George, coordinator of youth and young adult ministries for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told Catholic San Francisco that the study showed “the way youth ministry has been done is not working.” Youth are looking for different ways to be spiritual, she said, and the current ministry paradigm can stifle opportunities to create deep friendships that can guide people in their faith.

“Ministry really happens in regular moments, not in the structured environment of youth ministry,” she said.

George said the church needs to be bold in addressing the challenge of youth ministry, since inaction means “we won’t have anything left.”

George cautioned against downplaying the church’s worldview in order to open up avenues for dialogue.

“It’s good to know what others are saying, and listen generously, but it’s also important to remember that sin is real, the devil is out there trying to get souls, and we have to stay close to the sacraments to fight our spiritual battles,” she said.

Full story at Catholic San Francisco.


  1. Catholicism is a dogmatic religion. If people don’t like the dogmas, nothing we can do besides explain them. But some like Fr. James Martin give the impression that the church is going to change some of its dogmas. That’s irresponsible. Fact is that public and Catholic schools [sic] and the entertainment media have done a superb job forming students in secularism than families and parishes have done forming kids in Catholic faith. I agree that youth ministry has been a deplorable failure for the past thirty years. LifeTeen is largely to blame. You can’t give kids in middle and high school a “fun” and “light” version of the faith and then when they are adults expect them to have adult faith.

    • I know about LifeTeen. They use it at many parishes. Very popular around this diocese. It comes prepackaged with scripts, cringey skits, videos, handouts, talking points, teaching talks, witness talks, music and minute by minute plans for every meeting so that youth ministers who don’t know anything about the faith or spirituality or holiness can run a program by just following the provided scripts. It’s youth ministry in a box. It’s quite an industry and business. They also have leadership seminars to get youth ministers all excited and dependent upon the LifeTeen resources so they buy more materials. But the results show it’s all a waste because kids are leaving the faith. We don’t allow our kids to go to LifeTeen.

      • Donald P. Jeanne says

        I lead young-adult ministry for about10 years and one thing I noticed was that ones understanding of theology must continue as you get older. Otherwise what happens is that you’re a young adult and you realize that The Faith, is nothing but stories for children and then you dump The Faith all totogether.

        I teach children now and I often tell them answers that they can understand at their age. But even if they remember what I teach them now, as teens, they will feel like The Faith is children’s stories. Because their understanding and knowledge is stuck at the 4th grade.

        2. Also the clergy have totally ignored alpolegetics for decades. Why do you expect people to stay when they are given NO reasons to stay?

        I remember a…

  2. People stay because of the Eucharist. Kids need to be taught that the Eucharist is Jesus. They need to be driven to visit Him for at least a half hour a week. Teach them to just say Hi to Him and He will do the rest.
    The family needs to pray the Rosary. (Even if it’s only one decade)
    The family and the child need to do biblical prayer. Pray the readings from the Sunday Mass. Teach them the Bible. Let them pick up and read. Bible roulette.
    People leave because they don’t really understand what the Catholic Church is. It is not a community. It is a communion. Which means when they “leave” they just distend the limbs of Jesus like on the Cross.

    • No, it’s quite clear from the evidence, surveys and interviews in the study that people leave because they reject what the Catholic church teaches on matters of sex primarily and about God versus science in general. They have a facile understanding of those things they are rejecting, but they quite clearly understand the church opposes fornication and gay marriage but they don’t want to be in a church that teaches those are sinful. It’s not that they don’t know, they know and reject. The Church’s hypocrisy doesn’t help.

  3. median age of 13, long before they ceased attending a parish. What is the median age when they ceased attending a parish? Why attend a parish if one does not identify as Catholic?

    • They check out mentally at 13 but are dragged to Mass by their parents, so technically they still attend a parish on the outside, maybe even get confirmed, but they mentally reject the faith on the inside. They probably stop going to a parish when they move out of mom and dad’s home.

  4. Learn how to prevent kids from leaving the church. Expert educators who lived a case study.

  5. Is this the “Many are called, but few are chosen (left)” moment?

  6. I did NOT leave the church at 13 because it was inculcated in me that this was the place to encounter Jesus, to find ever lasting life, to experience the beauty and mystery of liturgy, that missing Mass is a mortal sin, that God loved me in spite of some nuns who were unloving, because I participated as an altar server, because my parents worshiped every Sunday, because the doctrines and morals were taught as true and I found a joy in obedience and forgiveness when I failed. Do 13 year olds in 2018 find awe and mystery in worship, firm doctrine and morals, the love of God in the church, redemption from sin, parents who pray, worship, and value the faith?


      No, they don’t. That’s one reason why they leave. Another is the bad example of parents whose practice of their faith is a sham. The young are not easily conned either by priests or parents: they watch what you do, not just listen to what you say. “Anti-catechesis” abounded in the last 40 years. Now we suffer its results.

  7. How can the faithless hand on the faith? There’s your whole problem right there.

  8. Your Fellow Catholic says

    I just keep saying. We may not know with absolute certainty why the Church is diminishing in number, but we can surely make some good guesses. Keep making people who love one another the enemy, and people, especially kids, will see right through it. May God bless them!

    • “People who love one another.” What a euphemism. I suppose the obese are just people who love food. Drunks are people who love liquor. As St. Augustine taught, my weight is my love: either your love elevates you or debases you. Merely being love isn’t enough to decide whether the love is good. If youth were taught more St. Augustine and other classics of Catholic spirituality and theology, maybe the church would have a chance at keeping them.

    • Steve Seitz says

      I think you already know this but I’m writing just to clarify: the Church doesn’t consider homosexual persons to be enemies. Our enemy is Lucifer and his demonic cohort. Homosexuals that engage in gay activity are not enemies but are either weak or have been deceived by the Prince of Lies.

      • Your Fellow Catholic says

        Steve, I know that the Church doesn’t consider homosexual persons to be enemies. Saint John Paul said that homosexuals are in the bosom of the Church. This is often my point here on CCD. But you wouldn’t know that from the attitude of many many conservative Catholics.

        • Steve Seitz says

          That’s what I thought.

          I haven’t noticed much animosity among conservative Catholics, in general, but I have noticed it among some posters on this website. I think this is partly due to some people not trusting you (rightly or wrongly). In some other cases, their animosity seethes through their posts and is a sin against charity.

        • Catholics are supposed to love everybody but not sexually. Every Catholic goes through phases as you learn how to love, how God wants you to love in every aspect of your life. Selfishness, sinfulness, and poor thinking occur along the way. God bless you and lead you and all whom you love to sanctity.

  9. So, does this mean that the church is wasting money on youth ministry?

    • Yes. We need to confirm at a much younger age. Kids are dealing with issues we never would at their age ,and they don’t have the gift of the Holy Spirit to help them. Problem is that would threaten confirmation coordinaters and youth ministry jobs.

      • The Holy Spirit is given at Baptism.

        • So then what is confirmation for? Read your catechism.

          • Okay:
            1265 Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte “a new creature,” an adopted son of God, who has become a “partaker of the divine nature,” member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.

            1303 Confirmation brings an increase and deepening of baptismal grace:
            – it increases the gifts of the Holy Spirit in us;

            I repeat: the HS is given at baptism. The gifts of the HS are strengthened in Confirmation. Before you tell others to read the catechism, make sure you know your stuff.

          • Clever how you completely skipped this paragraph. This is what is commonly referred to as the gift the Holy Spirit. I never said the Holy Spirit isn’t given in the sacrament of baptism. You can’t split God in 3. I asked you what the sacrament of Confirmation was for? ‘i do know my stuff” Go and read your catechism so you will too.

            1302 It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

          • Confirmation is the “laying on of hands” after baptism in the bible. The eastern churches administer the two sacraments together. I dont know why the latin right separated them.

      • Well over 50% of high school kids who get confirmed immediately stop going to Mass and participating in parish youth programs. Within another couple years about 85% total have stopped practicing the faith. The sacrament isn’t magic. By your logic, earlier confirmation would stop the exodus? The Holy Spirit doesn’t work like that. Looking at the alarming rate of post-confirmation ditching of the faith, something has been a big failure.

      • KATHERINE Hicks says

        Thats why my bishop in springfield Illinois diocese has changed the age of confirmation to before first communion beginning this year

    • And what about the parents? It doesn’t look like the parents are doing their job by teaching and setting an example for their kids!!

    • Not necessarily; 13 is the age when youth ministry begins. Most check out before they even consider going to youth ministry.

      • Does youth ministry do anything to check them back in, or does lame youth ministry confirm their decision to check out? I think the latter.

  10. Steve Seitz says

    Wait! It’s a good report but you have to “dig into the weeds” to get the truth.

    The median age of people leaving the Church is age 13 with 23% leaving before the age of 9 (roughly the age of reason). 5% left before the age of 5. If you look at their other data, it becomes evident that those that left had parents that attended Mass no more than about once per month. In other words, this report is largely about unfaithful parents.

    How do we respond? Well, I was a spiritually “at risk” youth. What got me through the rough spots of bad catechesis and puberty was a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This was the bridge that helped save my faith.

    Catechesis of the very young needs to place an emphasis on this.

  11. “Robert J. McCarty, one of the study authors, told the audience that about a third of respondents left over church teaching, most often that on same-sex marriage and homosexuality.” Our Lord lost many followers also when He taught it was necessary to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood in Chapter 6 of the Holy Gospel according to St. John. Truth is truth, no matter how hard it is for some to hear.

  12. Children who don’t experience the faith at home will not continue it on their own. Schools used to support traditional families, but now they teach that everything is acceptable. So in the old days if the family life was a wreck then at least Christian values were taught at school. I haven’t yet mentioned music, tv, websites or video games. It takes a strong Christian family to stand against the culture.

  13. Many priestly and religious vocations today, are coming from large, homeschooling, devout, traditional Catholic families!

  14. I have yet to hear one courageous and wise bishop sound the alarm about this and implement a plan to stop the bleeding in his diocese. Bishop Barron doesn’t count. His Word on Fire business makes good money complaining about the problem of people leaving but he doesn’t do much to solve the problem where he lives in his own diocese. So nobody has a solution? WHere are the saints who will stop the bleeding of youth from the church?

    • The saints who will stop the bleeding will only come from the laity. Its the parents who need to be evangelized, most 13 year olds still follow the example of their parents and until we are able to bear true witness to the gen x and millennial crowd on a one on one basis not much will change. Not to mention the fact that most people today because of convenience have no need for God. Mass media and canned youth ministries may draw interest but its only in the communion of people, who is the body of Christ, that hearts will be converted, beginning in the home the domestic church. The marriage/homo/organized religion distractions are merely head games intended to confuse and distract from the real matter of faith; the softening of our hearts…

    • Like the Muslims who are converting because of visions and dreams of Jesus, it is not totally dependent on human power. We need to pray for all those who do not have access to the Truth and for those who hear the Truth but have it drowned out by the voice of the world, the flesh and the devil.

    • Steve Seitz says

      If you read my message of Dec. 5 at 8:00 pm, you’ll see my partial solution.

  15. Most sweet Jesus, Redeemer of the human race, look down upon us, humbly prostrate before Thine altar.
    We are Thine and Thine we wish to be; but to be more surely united with Thee, behold each one of us freely consecrates himself today to Thy Most Sacred Heart.
    Many, indeed, have never known Thee; many, too, despising Thy precepts, have rejected Thee.
    Have mercy on them all, most merciful Jesus, and draw them to Thy Sacred Heart.

  16. Be Thou King, O Lord, not only of the faithful who have never forsaken Thee, but also of the prodigal children who have abandoned Thee, grant that they may quickly return to their Father’s house, lest they die of wretchedness and hunger.
    Be Thou King of those who are deceived by erroneous opinions, or whom discord keeps aloof and call them back to the harbour of truth and unity of faith, so that soon there may be but one flock and one shepherd.

  17. Be Thou King of all those who even now sit in the shadow of idolatry or Islam, and refuse not Thou to bring them into the light of Thy kingdom. Look, finally, with eyes of pity upon the children of that race, which was for so long a time Thy chosen people; and let Thy Blood, which was once invoked upon them in vengeance, now descend upon them also in a cleansing flood of redemption and eternal life.
    Grant, O Lord, to Thy Church, assurance of freedom and immunity from harm; give peace and order to all nations, and make the earth resound from pole to pole with one cry: Praise to the Divine Heart that wrought our salvation: to it be glory and honour forever.

  18. William Robert says

    Satan is happy…he is very happy indeed! So are the communists who have always wanted to destroy the family and the Faith.

  19. Why would any young person want to be a member of a church that is so blatantly corrupt and unholy? The young may be fearful for their own safety in a church that has failed to protect them from aggressive child abusers. The Catholic Church has a lot of cleaning out to do! Perhaps, the Pope is right and the Lord wants a poorer and less ostentatious Church. Let the purification begin.

  20. “Lex orandi … Lex credendi”
    As one prays … so does one believe.
    If one prays poorly, his/her belief will undoubtedly suffer.
    This exodus from the True Church is a bad fruit of the liturgical “reform”.
    Our shepherds need to restore True Worship.
    Let us pray that there will someday be at least one regular Traditional Latin Mass offered at every Roman Catholic parish throughout the world.

  21. Mr. Bill: some of the priests celebrating the TLM (prior to Vatican II) were some of the cruelest “monsters” in the abuse crisis. The TLM is not the answer.

  22. Donald Link says

    It would be of some benefit if Bishops and Pastors would make a sacrificial effort to keep open Catholic schools with reasonable tuition costs. One day a week catechism, nine months a years with few in attendance is not substitute. The diocese of Wichita seems to do a pretty good job. Others might learn from them.

  23. I think it’s important to note that there is not any one lynchpin reason why kids give up the faith. For me when I was 13 or so (around 1986) it just didn’t make sense that God was silent when other faiths continued for thousands of years. For other people it’s a moral issue, and for some they are just drawn more to different beliefs. Again, there is no one item that causes young adults to leave Catholicism.

  24. We need free or near free afterschool clubs that focus on teaching the faith. The daily activity would help make kids feel they belong to the Church.
    It would be great to revive Catholic education, but that would take thinking outside the box like a cyber school and very few professional teachers (like when nuns taught) to make them free or nearly free. This must be done for all twelve years because secular humanism is taught daily at public schools and sex education there will never talk about God’s commandments.
    It would be very wise to start teaching sex is a privilege for a Sacramental Marriage again. That hasn’t been taught for fifty years now in our churches.

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COMMENTS POLICY: Comments are limited to 750 characters and will be truncated at 750. Comments should not contain offensive or libelous language. Please strive to be civil. All comments are subject to approval by our moderator and to editing as the moderator deems appropriate. Inclusion of your email address is optional.