This is Part 1 of a series of articles in which we are going to discuss how to reach our youth and bring them back to church, or keep them from leaving in the first place. This is so incredibly important, especially in today’s day and age. In fact, statistics reveal that four out of five teens will leave their faith before the end of college. Our kids are being bombarded on every side by the culture. Therefore, it is imperative that we learn how to reach them effectively and engage them before they leave.
In this series, we are going to give you fundamental and necessary principles that you need to know whether you are a parent or whether you are a leader of the church, a director of religious education, a youth minister, a priest, a pastor, or what not. These video tips will work, and these principles are effective.
I have been working with youth for over two decades, and I have had the fortunate blessing of being able to bring back so many youth to Christ. I’ve spoken to and ministered to many thousands. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of conversations, deep discussions, and debates, where teens challenge me with their questions and doubts. For this reason, I know their doubts, their questions, their struggles.
I have been doing this a very long time and with a track record of positive results. People regularly tell me that, “If I had known this 50 years ago, I would never have left the church.” Or, “If someone had explained this the way you just did, I would still be attending church.” Teens have admitted many times: “Your explanations make a lot of sense. I wish I knew this earlier.”
Thus, the principles we will be discussing in this series will not only retain and reach more youth but they will bring many back to the church and to God.
Some of these principles are (but are not limited to):
- We need to answer their questions. Many teens have great questions, deep questions, struggles in the faith, and they don’t receive good answers. And if they don’t, they’re going to walk away forever and that’s a fact.
- We need to teach them how to pray. Not just how to say prayers, but how to pray deeply. How to connect with the heart of our Father in heaven, how to overcome distractions and obstacles in prayer, obstacles in the spiritual life and more.
- We need to pass on the faith, and we need to be good witnesses and examples and this starts in the family.
In this first article, we are talking about the first principle. We need to give good answers to kids and their questions. Growing up, I asked a lot of questions: “How do we know that God exists? Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” I literally had somebody tell me: “God is answering your prayers,” and here is how the conversation went:
Me: No, he’s not answering my prayers. I’ve prayed it many times.
Answer: Well, you just have to keep praying.
Me: I do keep praying!
Answer: God’s listening and God’s working.
Me: No, he’s not working!!
Answer: Don’t question God. He’s working whether you believe it or not.
And I walked away upset and dissatisfied. They got all mad at me because I was just literally trying to understand why my prayers weren’t being answered. So many times my honest inquiries were met with: “Bryan, you just have to have more faith. You just have to believe more. God is a mystery.” And while God is a mystery, these are not sufficient satisfactory answers.
Today, kids are more skeptical than ever and more cynical than ever, and if you do not give them good logical, deductive answers that make sense, they’re going to walk away and the chances are they’re not going to come back. So it’s imperative that we don’t just say: “Oh well God’s a mystery.”
Parents, I’m beseeching you, religious Ed teachers and leaders, I’m Beseeching you, don’t tell children that, because it will confirm in their mind what they already think and what they’re already starting to doubt: That religion doesn’t make sense. That the bible is not true. They wonder how do we know God’s out there? Is religion just an old fairytale? That’s what they’re being told by many of their peers and by science teachers. And so, when they don’t get good answers to their questions from us, they start to think that maybe there is some truth to their doubts.
“Just have faith” is not a good answer. That’s what they’re made fun of for. If we just tell them to have faith, they’re going to walk away. They’re going to roll their eyes and say: “I knew you didn’t have an answer. I knew religion doesn’t make sense. It’s not for me.” So many people walk away because they don’t receive good answers.
I went into a CCD class once and it was my very first day. I was teaching seventh grade. You will not believe this, but the very first day, while I’m waiting outside the classroom and the kids are all lined up and started to walk in, a kid stops in front of me. He looks me in the eyes, a seventh grader, and he says: “I hope you’re happy with yourself. This was my sleeping time and you’re cutting into it. This is the last place I want to be.” What do you tell a kid speaking to you in such a way? Then the very next girl comes up to me, she’s like: “Yeah, I agree with him. I just want to be at home texting my friends and I have to be here, I do not want to be here.” The third kid comes up to me and says: “This was my video game time. I love playing video games and now I have to learn about God.” And every one of them had something to say to me. They did not want to be here. It was the least most important thing in their life.
I stood outside the classroom thinking none of these kids are even on the playing field. They don’t even want to play. What do I do? So, I stayed out there for few minutes and I let them just think in silence, and then I busted through the door and I yelled out in a loud voice: “You guys are gullible.” And they looked at me and said: “What?” I said: “You’re all gullible. You actually believe that God is real. You religious people, you actually believe that there’s an invisible man in the sky that you call God. With all the science we have today, you guys still believe in God?”
Needless to say, this alternate technique and method that I use sometimes works, if you know how to defend your faith well and explain it well like I do.
And all of a sudden, the kids were really quiet and all of them were focused on me. “Is this guy serious?” So, I said: “Why am I even here teaching you guys? God is not real. Can anybody in this classroom prove to me that God is real? Go. Because I don’t believe that.” Very meekly one kid raised his hands and said: “The Bible?” I said: “Really, you actually believe the Bible? Some people probably just made that up a long time ago just to scare people. How do you know the Bible’s true?” And he’s like: “I don’t know.” And he shrugged back down. Someone else raised their hand and said: “How else would we get here if it wasn’t for God?” And I said let me think: “The Big Bang theory, strength theory, bouncing universe, multiverses, a lot of scientific theories that can postulate life’s existence without the existence of your God.”
One by one, they started giving objections and trying to answer the questions. And I would shoot them down one by one. And after like five minutes of this, finally one kid raises his hand and says: “Mr. Mercier, how do we know God exists?” And I said, good, good question, let me tell you. And we have the best class for the rest of the year because they were open. And by the end of the year, my kids were buying rosaries for themselves. The kid who told me I was cutting in on his sleeping time was so happy that his mom bought him a bible, just as I had recommended that all of them need to be reading the bible. They all had rosaries, most of them had bibles. They were praying every day, or mostly every day. These kids were transformed by the end of the year because I spent the rest of the year answering their questions, answering their doubts, making sense of the puzzle. That was all just pieces in their mind, and I helped them put it together in a way that would make sense.
And the more we answer kids’ questions, the more we make it real and help it to be understandable, relatable, and practical, the far more likely kids are going to think that this makes sense. They are going to stick around and want to go deeper. They would want to know this God that you speak of even more. And if they have left the church, chances are, and I’ve experienced this many times, they’re going to come home.
I’ve had countless discussions with atheists, and with people who have left the Catholic Church who said: “If I had heard this a long time ago, I never would’ve left the church.” Other atheists have said: “You know what? Because of our conversations, Bryan, I believe in God now, and he’s real in my life, and I want to let you know that.”
I speak at conferences, confirmation retreats, youth group retreats, colleges and universities, you name it. And I get into so many good discussions, but after this one particular youth retreat at a Catholic school in New Jersey, seven girls came up to me, after the retreat and said: “Can we talk to you?” And we sat down in a circle in the church, and I said: “Sure.” All of them started crying, bawling their eyes out. One was asking why her grandmother had to die. One was asking why her father was dying and why he was in the hospital. Why would God let that happen? He’s a godly man. He loves God. He’s not one of these people who doesn’t live for God, so why would God treat him that way? Others had a dog dying. I mean, a lot of these were emotional issues but they are real issues that they are struggling with in their life. And if they don’t get real good answers at this crossroad, this pinnacle time in their life, they’re going to walk away. They’re either going to slip slowly into cynicism and agnosticism, or they’re just going to fall away cold turkey into atheism, or becoming just a lukewarm Catholic. So, after this talk, that lasted 20 minutes where I gave them real solid answers, it was still hard to struggle with these emotional issues, but it made sense to them and it gave them the bedrock faith that they needed to hold on to through challenging times, to know that not everything in this world is going to be good or is going to have an easy answer. We’re not going to understand everything, but we can understand God enough and we can understand his love. I went on through all of these things and it made sense to them and it kept them there.
You have to realize, it is so important that many kids do not air their doubts very often, their objections, their concerns, their struggles, their questions, etc. So, if we don’t deal with them when they come up, they may never come up again. This starts surfacing around sixth grade, seventh grade, and eighth grade. These are really the crossroads of life for most kids. And if you do not get them there, which I think are the crucial years, it’s going to be very difficult to rope them in later on. And there’s a good chance they’re going to walk away. And especially if you haven’t taught them how to pray or you don’t model God’s presence in your own life.
You might drop them off at religious education, but then you go off and go shopping. What are you telling your kids? If you’re saying, it’s important for you, but it’s not important for me, and I’m the adult and I know better and I know everything. Because that’s what kids think of adults, that they know everything. What are we saying to them? We are saying that it is simply not important. We need to not only give them good answers, but model it in our own life. So, this might start by parents.
If you don’t know the answers to the questions, you might start by just reading a book here or there. Maybe, if I could make a recommendation, get a book for your teens or youth called: Did Jesus have a last name? And it is 200 questions that teenagers ask about their faith. There’s another one called: Did Adam and Eve have Belly Buttons? Both of these are excellent resources for teaching your kids the faith, letting them read about it on their own and getting the answers to their questions. It’s also an excellent resource for you to learn your faith especially when your kids come up and ask you questions like what’s the Trinity?
Here is a what a third grader asked a religious education teacher, and I was the director of religious education at the time, so she called me in to answer the question. He came up to me and he said: “How can Jesus be God and the son of God?” How do you answer that, in a way that’s meant for a third grader? And of course, I made my best crack at it, and it made sense to him. But these are the kind of questions that kids ask.
We want to be prepared. If we want to equip our teens, we need to be equipped ourselves. We need to actually be able to challenge them in a good way, as they challenge us, and give them good answers. This means reading these books ourselves, it means watching our YouTube videos here on Catholic Truth, reading articles on our website , or listening to our podcast, or tuning into our TikTok or Instagram or tuning them into them.
In fact, we have kids as young as six years old watching our YouTube or watching our Instagram stories, and they’re learning along with their parents. We have kids that are 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15, who are writing comments on our walls and thanking us for teaching them their faith, saying that they’ve learned more in just a short amount of time, than they’ve learned in their entire life, thanking us for teaching them and helping it to make sense in their lives.
This is why we exist. This is the ministry that God has given us. This is also why we do Confirmation retreats, parish missions, we do conferences. We speak at colleges and give retreats to college university students because we love ministering to our youth and we love, at that crossroad of life, to steer them toward God. We love to help them to have a personal encounter with God, and to come to know, love and live their Catholic faith. We love to help them live spirituality in a way that will transform their lives and help them to become on fire for it.
It’s also why I wrote my book: Why do You Believe In God? This literally is from having hundreds and hundreds of conversations with teens and hearing the same objections over and over again: “How do we know the Bible is real? How do we know Jesus is God? If God is loving, why does he send people to hell? If God is real, then how do we know he created the universe? What about aliens? Maybe they could have created the universe. How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers? What about suffering? Why would God let good people suffer? What about the crusades? What about the inquisition? What about the bad things, the bad priests.” I mean, these are really good questions. And again, it’s like a puzzle. It’s just a big mess. But once you answer questions, you start to put these puzzle pieces in place, and you have this Aha moment, this spiritual awakening, where if you get enough questions answered, a teen or an adult will say: “That makes sense. I get it. I can see the whole picture.” That’s when religion becomes interesting. That’s when our faith becomes exciting, that’s when we become set on fire, and we can’t wait to learn more and more, just because it makes sense.
So, this is the first principle that I wanted to address in this article, and this is the very short version. If you would like us to come to your parish and give seminars on how to reach the youth, we would be happy to. But in this first article, we just want to say that it is so important to know the faith yourself and to answer kids’ questions, really to take time, even if it’s a sacrifice, to answer the questions that are deep on their hearts.
That’s why we spend so much time on Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms, actually answering questions one by one. We have team members on here, answering everyone’s questions because we think it’s that important, and every week, here at Catholic Truth, we have people coming back to the Catholic Church or coming into the Catholic Church, or saying they were going to leave the Catholic Church if it wasn’t for our work.
We had this one young adult girl who said that she was on her way out because she was convinced that the Catholic Church was wrong. And out of the blue, she found our YouTube channel and watched the video, which made sense to her. And she said she went, and binge watched every video we had, and now not only is she Catholic, but she’s on fire for her faith. She goes to mass, she goes to confession. She prays every day, and she’s living the faith more than ever. This is the power of giving knowledge to people and helping it make sense in their lives and helping them to make it their own.
We should never tell kids to just to believe. Kids’ questioning is a good thing because they’re making it their own. They’re not just blindly believing as they’ve been told to believe, but they’re trying to make sense of it. And if we can help them make sense of it and make it their own, they will not leave the church as easily. They will not be led as stray as easily.
And if we can teach them apologetics, how to defend their faith, that is a horse of a different color, and so absolutely necessary in this culture. Our kids will not be picked off if they know how to explain and defend their faith. I have had teenage kids, read this book up to five times. Sometimes they read it in a night because it gives them answers to the questions, not only for them, but helps them to be able to explain it to their friends and to the people who ask them questions and try to steer them away from their faith.
We need a bedrock faith, and for that we need good answers. We need knowledge. We need apologetics. Teaching kids not only what the faith is, but how to explain it to others. And if they can do that, I guarantee you, they’re not only not going to leave the church, but they’re going to come back to the church if they’re away, and they’re also going to help other people to come back to the church as well. And we are going to start to stem the tide of our teens wandering away.
It’s not a surprise in our church that teens are walking away. Most parishes don’t have youth groups. We need to engage them through videos, podcasts, social media, books, and answering their good questions. Do this and you will retain teens and help them to know their faith and make it their own. One of our core pillars here at Catholic Truth is reaching our young people. So, please share this with parents, religious education teachers, youth ministers, and anyone who may benefit from it.