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The Ultimate Exit Interview PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 03 January 2011 08:31

Over at America, William J. Bryan, wrote a thought-provoking piece about doing "Exit Interviews" for departing Catholics.  Then Inside Catholic's Margaret Cabaniss picked up the discussion.

Bryan proposed a few basic questions:

He proposes a few questions that could be included:

  • Why have you stopped attending Sunday Mass regularly?
  • Are there any changes your parish might make that would prompt you to return?
  • Are there any doctrinal issues that trouble you?
  • Does your pastor or anyone on the parish staff know you by name?
  • Are you in a mixed-religion marriage?
  • Do your children go to church?
  • Did you ever really consider yourself to be a member of a parish community?

I think the idea of asking questions is brilliant and that the suggested questions would provide a lot of important information.  But these questions don't address the heart of the matter.  We go over all these in great detail in Making Disciples but I'm in a hurry so I'll just work from memory.

Notice that none of the suggested questions mentions God. And that's the 800 lb gorrilla in the room.  If we don't address this one, we will miss the heart of the matter.  The Pew Forum, in their 2008 and 2009 surveys did ask alot of God questions and discovered that huge numbers of Americans don't believe in a personal God including nearly 30 % of Catholic of all generations.

A careful crunching of the Pew data shows that for anyone younger than a Builder (66 and under), Mass attendance goes up and down in direction relationship with the percentage of Catholics in a given generation that are certain you can have a personal relationship with God. Because the vast majority of people, 66 and under in this country, are post-modern in their worldview and they only engage in religious behavior that they find personally meaningful. These people aren't motivated by duty anymore, and the younger you are, the more cultural pressure you feel to not attend church.   So you have to have a strong personal motivation. Why bother going to Mass if there isn't a personal God with whom you can have a relationship?

Pew found that the percentage of Catholics who are certain one can have a personal relationship with God drops with every generation. Only 40% of Millennial Catholics (the eldest of which has just turned 30) are certain that you can have a personal relationship with God.  So it's no surprise that only 34% of Millennial Catholics said they attended Mass regularly.  And when you correct for the well known tendency for people to tell surveyors what they think they want to hear, you find yourself down in CARA territory (CARA's methodology does correct for that distortion) with 17% of Millennials and 15% of Gen Xers Catholic at Mass weekly.

And the Pew studies also found that surprising numbers of people who consider themselves to be "atheists", "agnostics" or "unaffiliated" still often believe in God, still pray, still are registered members of our congregations, still attend services occasionally, and sometimes are even involved in congregational activities. So our concern can't just be with those who leave but also with the large numbers of Catholics floating in and out of our pews who may not even believe in God and the majority who are not yet intentional disciples.

Secondly, it is really important to know that there are "two basic tracks". Here the quick numbers:  Of all Americans raised Catholic, 32% have dropped the identity altogether.  Of that number, 15% have become Protestants, 14% have become "nothing" and 3% have joined a non-Christian faith.

The Pew studies found that there are significant differences in motivation between those who become Protestant and those who jettison all religious affiliation. Catholics who leave to become Protestant tend to do so out of conscious spiritual hunger that hasn't been satisfied - they want "more".   For instance, 81% of Hispanic Catholics who leave to become Protestant state that they wanted a "more direct, personal relationship with God."

Catholics who leave to become a "none" are more likely to have ceased to believe in specific Church teachings or in God altogether.

Catholics on these two tracks are also on different time lines:  those who will eventually become Protestant leave a bit later and spend some time out searching and considering their options before choosing a Protestant faith.  While the majority of those who leave to become "nothing" are gone by 18; 79% of Catholics-become-nothing are gone by age 23.

And the Pew studies also pointed out that there is period of a few years before people leave when their faith is becoming progressively weaker.  Because most people don't just wake up one morning and decide they want to be a Baptist. Most people make the journey in two or more stages.  The time to be having these conversations is before people leave.

At the Institute we are proposing a somewhat different approach.

1)  First of all, let's have a real conversation, not an interview.  The truth is we don't know why Tom or Hayley or Jose left the church or are struggling with the idea of faith at all. The assumptions of those of us who are deeply invested in the Catholic faith as to why people leave are often absurdly wrong.  (For instance, the Pew studies found that the sex scandal and personal crisis like divorce were actually not major reasons why people leave.) Their journey is peculiar to them and their way back to God is sometimes just as unexpected.  (I met a woman in LA recently whose spiritual turning point was being electrocuted!) We cannot know what the real issues are for this person until we are willing to invite their confidence and really listen.

And let's focus the conversation about people's lived relationship with God to this point in their life.  Let's learn to recognize and respond helpfully to the needs of people who are not yet disciples so that they are able to continue the journey to following Christ in the midst of his Church.  And let's give lots of Catholics at all levels this evangelical awareness and set of skills

That's why I had to write this in such a hurry.  I'm packing for my first trip of the new year right now to fly to LA where Barbara Elliott and I will be teaching 500 Catholics how to have these very conversations with their friends, family whether or not they have darkened the door of a church in years.

Christ did not just send his Church to lapsed Catholics but to all people in all the world.  Because the primary mission of the Church isn't institutional survival.  The end for which the Church exists is for the ultimate salvation and happiness of every human being on the planet.


 

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