During the Christmas season, we are confronted more than at other times of the year with the sad reality of friends and family who have fallen away from the Church.
A new resource was released this year to help the faithful to re-evangelize our loved ones, and specifically to help parents reach out to their children who are no longer practicing the faith.
It is designed by Brandon Vogt, who despite his young age, has already offered to the Church a host of tools for spreading the Gospel.
He told ZENIT about this new resource, called Return.
Q: In a nutshell, what is RETURN?
Vogt: RETURN is a collection of resources to help parents draw their children back to the Church. It emerged from my own experience working with countless parents and young people over the years, and is packed with proven, practical advice. The resources include:
RETURN Video Course – 16 professionally-filmed video lessons with over 220 minutes of HD content. This reveals a complete game plan for drawing your child back.
RETURN paperback book – Companion guide to the Video Course which builds on its content and features a Foreword by Bishop Robert Barron.
RETURN Master Series – Video interviews with 10 Catholic leaders who are experts at helping people come back to the Church, including Dr. Scott Hahn, Jennifer Fulwiler, Fr. Michael Schmitz, and many more.
RETURN Seed Gifts – The 12 most effective DVDs, books, and CDs to give your fallen-away child, including Bishop Barron’s CATHOLICISM series, booklets from Catholic Answers, and books by Peter Kreeft, Matthew Kelly, and more.
RETURN Private Community – An exclusive, online community where parents can join hundreds of others to find encouragement and support as they draw their children back.
Q: You’ve written books on the new media, Catholic social teaching, and evangelization. Why this topic?
Vogt: It emerged from two places. First was my experience, over the last several years, speaking at Catholic events around the country. Each event typically closes with a Q&A session and, inevitably, the most common question I hear is some version of, “My son/daughter has left the faith and I’m devastated. What should I do?” I’ve heard this hundreds of times, and my other Catholic speaker friends confirm the same thing; it’s the most deeply-felt problem among Catholic adults.
Then there was the release of the latest Pew Religious Landscape survey. Every seven years, the Pew Research Center surveys over 30,000 American adults to check the religious pulse of our country. The 2014 survey data was published in May 2015, and although the results were dire for most Christian traditions, they were especially disheartening for Catholics. Three statistics stood out:
50% of young people raised in the Church no longer identify as Catholic today
79% who leave the Church leave before age 23
6.45 people leave the Catholic Church for everyone that joins
Think about what that means. Over the last 20-30 years, half of the babies you’ve seen baptized, half of the children you’ve seen confirmed, and half of the couples you’ve seen married in the Church are gone — they’re no longer Catholic. Worse, for every person who enters the front door of your parish, 6-7 people are leaving through the back.
This is an epidemic. The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people. That’s why Bishop Robert Barron says, “The most significant challenge facing the Catholic Church today is the attrition of our own people.”
We haven’t done nearly enough to resolve this problem. We have lots of books and programs on keeping our kids Catholic or raising good Catholic children — and obviously these are needed — but we don’t have much for parents after their children have already drifted away. That’s why I created RETURN.
Q: What sets RETURN apart from other resources designed to help people come back to the Church?
Vogt: Three main things. First, it was written specifically for parents and grandparents. There are many resources devoted to helping people, in general, come back to the Church. They contain broad tips which can be applied to friends, co-workers, or even people you interact with online. However, as we all know, the parent/child relationship is so distinct from other relationships. There are things a parent can say or do that will have a much bigger impact on their child than on a friend or coworker, and on the other hand, there are things parents should not say or do to their child, simply because of their relationship. I thought it was time that parents and grandparents had a resource specifically designed for them, one that took into account the delicate, unique bond they have with their child.
A second distinction is that RETURN is multi-faceted. It’s not just a book. It also includes a 16-part video series (professionally filmed in HD), the “Master Series” collection of expert interviews, the “Seed Gift” package of DVDs, books, and CDs, and the RETURN Private Community. It pulls together the best advice from the best minds in the Church, and presents it in many different formats.
Finally, RETURN is deeply practical. Other resources offer helpful background, stories, and theory. But while RETURN contains some of that, it’s really aimed at the parent who says, “I appreciate that but what I really want is specific, practical advice. Give me the proven tips and strategies I need to win my child back to the Church. I want stuff that works.”
Q: What are some of the big reasons why young people drift away from the Church?
Vogt: It’s easy to assume that young people leave because they’re self-centered and lazy. But in general, this isn’t the case. A growing number of surveys from individual dioceses like the Diocese of Springfield, alongside massive nationwide surveys like that of the Pew Research Center, have identified some of the real reasons people leave.
The most common one is that people drift away unintentionally, over time. Depending on the survey, roughly 7 in 10 former Catholics say they “just gradually drifted away from the religion” or they just “lost interest.” In other words, nothing really pushed them away. The problem was nothing anchored them to the Church. And we know the strongest anchor is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ — they never experienced that.
The second most common reason people drift away is because their “spiritual needs were not met.” The majority of these people end up in an Evangelical or non-denominational community. These people have a deep interest in God and spiritual things. They pray and take the Bible seriously. But for whatever reason, they experienced the Catholic Church as spiritually impotent.
Other reasons people give for leaving include no longer agreeing with the Church’s teachings (particularly those on marriage, sexual morality, and the male-only priesthood) and dissatisfaction with the atmosphere, which many describe as “stuffy”, “boring”, “too ritualistic”, or “too formal.”
The good news is that all of these problems can be overcome. In fact, millions of people who once felt this way about the Catholic Church have switched their view. If they can do that, any young person can.
Q: What are some big myths about fallen-away Catholics?
Vogt: Probably the biggest one I hear from parents, priests, and Church leaders is, “Oh, they’ll come back to the Church eventually once they get married or have kids.” That may have been true in decades past, but studies affirm again and again that it’s no longer true today.
One reason is that young people are delaying marriage and childbearing longer than ever before. In 1960 the median age for first marriage was 23 for men and 20 for women; it’s now 29 and 27, respectively. Those 6-7 extra years away from the Church make it far harder to return.
Second, fewer and fewer young people are getting married in the Church or, when they have kids, getting their children baptized. The sacraments won’t draw people back if people totally bypass them.
But let me post a thought experiment: what would the CEO of a Fortune 500 company say if he learned 75% of his customers just stopped buying the company’s products? Would he say, “Oh, no big deal. Let’s just sit and wait for them to come back!”
No! He’d do everything in his power to track down the former customers, reconnect with them, answer their objections, and re-propose his products in new ways.
We parents, priests, and Church leaders should have the same reaction. In light of the millions of young people who have left the Church, we can’t respond by saying, “Just wait for them to come back.” We need to say, “Let’s do everything possible to help them return.”
Q: For many parents, the problem is not that their fallen-away children hate the Church. The problem is that they just don’t care. How can a parent approach this topic if the child is utterly ambivalent?
Vogt: That’s a really great question. In general, your main task will be to convince him that the Big Questions of life matter, that it’s worth seeking answers about God, morals, and meaning. He needs to see what the convert C.S. Lewis came to realize, that “Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Similarly, when it comes to the person at the center of Christianity, Lewis notes that “Jesus produced mainly three effects: hatred, terror, adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.”
Let me recommend one simple way to spark interest in the Big Questions. Send your child a good article or video, either via email or Facebook, along with a comment like, “Curious what you think about this…” or “Have you thought about this before? What do you think?” You might grab an article from StrangeNotions.com about the existence of God, faith and science, or the Resurrection of Jesus. Or send him a link to a Bishop Barron YouTube video on the biblical undertones of Bob Dylan’s lyrics or the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever you choose, don’t make it seem like you’re trying to press your faith on him. Instead, you want to come across as genuinely interested in his own opinions (which you are). The longer he formulates his opinion, the more he’ll reflect on the Big Questions.
Question: Can you share a few simple, practical tips that parents should keep in mind?
Vogt: Sure! After talking with hundreds of parents and young people, I’ve noticed several patterns — some good, some bad — that we can learn from. I share several in the RETURN Video Course, but let me highlight two do’s and two don’ts.
First, the do’s. Two things to always keep in mind: ask questions and stay positive. Questions are largely neutral, or at least seem that way, and don’t sound “preachy.” When you ask a question, you aren’t actually stating your own view. Many times, you’re helping your child see that his beliefs are not as firmly supported as he might think, causing him to reassess why he’s drifted away from the Church. Some of my favorite questions include:
“What pushed or pulled you away from the Church?”
“What’s the one thing that would cause you to come back to the Church?”
“What do you think is the best reason to be Catholic and why don’t you find it persuasive?”
You also need to stay positive. Don’t focus on all the negative things your child is doing; he’ll just tune you out. A better approach is to affirm the positive. If your child doesn’t attend Mass because he thinks it’s boring and irrelevant, affirm his desire not to be a hypocrite — that’s a good thing. Once you’ve affirmed something positive, he’ll be much more open to hearing what you have to say. In every objection to the Church, even the strongest criticism, you can find some seed of virtue to praise.
Next, the don’ts. The biggest mistake I see parents make is trying to force their fallen-away child to Mass. Their only goal is to get their child’s body into a pew each Sunday morning. If they can do that, they’ve succeeded. This stems from good intentions. Most parents know Jesus is present at Mass in a special way, so they want to do everything possible to get their children to show up. The problem is that if someone comes to Mass unwilling and unprepared, it will likely have no effect on him — and it sometimes makes things worse! Children often resent being forced or manipulated to attend Mass. So next time you’re tempted to push your child to Mass, even when you know he’s deeply resistant, pull back a bit. Don’t force him, and don’t reiterate that skipping Mass is a mortal sin — that’s true, but mostly unhelpful at this stage. You must plant other seeds first so that he’ll actually desire to attend Mass. The Mass should be the last piece of the puzzle.
The second thing not to do is criticize his lifestyle — at least at first. Beginning with moral commandments is often a non-starter for young people. If the first thing your child hears is “stop doing that” or “change your life” or “break off that relationship,” he will quickly tune you out. You’ll never have a chance to make a more persuasive case for his return to God in his Church. This doesn’t mean you should just watch silently and passively as your child makes bad decisions. Instead, it means your first approach should be marked by gentleness and patience, not criticism.
Q: What are “Seed Gifts” and why are they so powerful?
Vogt: In RETURN, I talk about the extraordinary power of “Seed Gifts.” These are DVDs, books, or CDs that you plant in your child’s life, as seeds of truth and faith, in order to spark their return to the Church.
I’ve heard stories from so many people who point to a DVD, book, or CD that led them back to the faith. One mother says, “My son was given a copy of Matthew Kelly’s book Rediscover Catholicism on the way out of church last Christmas. He stopped going to church regularly about ten years ago. We were away on vacation and I was amazed to see him reading it the next day. I was even more surprised the following week when he suggested we all go to church and then to brunch… You don’t know how happy it makes a mother to see her son return to church.”
The great part is that they do almost all of the work for you. If you feel inadequate to answer your child’s questions or objections, handing him a DVD, book, or CD can be a lot less intimidating than having to sit down and explain things yourself.
One of the most exciting parts of the RETURN project is that I was able to work with groups like Word on Fire, Catholic Answers, and Dynamic Catholic to compile the 12 best “Seed Gifts” for parents, in one package, at a massively discounted price. Any parent who purchases the RETURN Complete Game Plan will receive all 12 gifts including Bishop Barron’s CATHOLICISM DVD series, booklets from Catholic Answers, and books by Peter Kreeft, Matthew Kelly, and more.
Q: What would you say to a parent who thinks their child is just too far away, that there’s simply no way he’ll return to the Church, that it’s hopeless?
Vogt: Hopelessness is not a word in God’s vocabulary. As long as your child still has breath, there is always hope. Remember, God loves your child even more than you do. As much as you yearn for your child to comes home, God desires his return infinitely more and is continually working to make that happen, even when things appear dire.
Just look at St. Augustine. By all accounts, his situation was beyond hopeless. He was a wild teenager who partied, roamed the streets, and stole food. He took a mistress, moved in with her, and got her pregnant. He didn’t want anything to do with Christianity. He openly mocked his mother’s faith.
But then what happened? Monica prayed fervently for him for years, and her prayers were answered through the pivotal figure of Ambrose, who stepped in and began meeting with Augustine. Ambrose helped Augustine become open to the possibility of God, and eventually Augustine asked to be baptized. He’s now remembered not only as one of the greatest saints in history, but one of the key figures in Western civilization.
God never gives up on his children and neither should you. If he could take a wild child like Augustine and turn him into a saint, what can't he do for your child?
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