10 reasons not to go to Mass

(and one really good reason why you should)

OUR FIRST TWO KIDS, a twin boy and girl, began their college education this fall, and their younger brother will do so next year. This has caused my wife and me to think about why young adults should go to Mass, even after they leave the weekly supervision and cajoling of their parents. First, here are some previously used reasons that I don’t think will fly with them or others of their generation:

1. Go to Mass because we do or because we said so.
This worked somewhat when they were younger and living under our roof. There is no reason to think it will work now. In fact, it’s time they make the decision for themselves about religion and spirituality—just as they are making other important decisions about their lives and just as we had to make this decision for ourselves way back when we were their age.

2. Go to Mass because the church says so or because you might go to hell if you don’t.
The church doesn’t have a lot of credibility with our kids right now. Some of that is self-inflicted by the church itself, and some of it is because the church is getting hammered in the values department by both the secular culture and the religious right and left. Most young adults aren’t going to go to Mass because a pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, sister, brother, or layperson tells them they should. They just don’t believe in a God who would send them to hell for eternity because they skip a Sunday or two (or even 50) every year.

3. Go to Mass because God wants you to.
There is a lot of evidence to support this reason, including the Second Commandment and the teaching of Jesus. Unfortunately it suffers from the same conundrum that a lot of religious imperatives do: Who knows the mind of God? This is a circular argument to our kids. In order to buy that they should go to Mass because the Bible says so, they have to believe the Bible in the first place. Not only that, they have to believe the Bible pretty literally, which leads to lots of other questions.

4. Go to Mass because the community needs you.
I actually try this one a lot, and it is not bad from my 58-year-old perspective. It is clear that the church needs all of us to attend Mass as often as possible because that is what makes our communal efforts viable and successful. While this reason to attend Mass seems compelling to me, it is not to my kids. They view the church as “our” institution right now—and will continue to do so until they make it their own—and they feel very little responsibility for sustaining, building, or even continuing it. Perhaps they will in the future, but as a starting place, it is a no-go.

5. Go to Mass because you need a community.
At least this reason focuses on the needs of our young adults rather than on our needs. As mature adults, we recognize the need for community in our lives, and the Catholic Church and its Mass is one of the main communities we cherish. For my kids, however, this is not so true. While they may feel a need for various communities, they are not so sure that church is one of them. They’ve got their family, they’ve got their friends, they’ve got their sports teams, they’ve got the Internet, and now they’ve got their new college communities. Why do they need a local parish—especially if it is not the one they grew up in—as another community?

6. Go to Mass because you like the music or the homilies or the worship space.
This may work with some young adults, but not mine. Not that our parish doesn’t have good music and homilies and worship space, but in and of itself these are not good enough reasons for them to get out of bed on Sunday. And who knows what they are going to encounter in their new surroundings? I hope that whenever and wherever my kids go to Mass they have a good experience. But as a reason to go to Mass, it is pretty thin. In other words, the lack of good liturgies is a good reason not to go to Mass more than it is a reason to go to Mass.

7. Go to Mass because it makes you feel good or holy or peaceful.
But what if it makes you feel bored or anxious or resentful? If we are going to argue with our young people that they should go to Mass because of how it makes them feel, then we run the risk of having them throw that reason right back in our face. Sometimes Mass does make us feel good. But it is an old, familiar, formulaic liturgy that often does not lend itself to warm, fuzzy feelings, especially for young adults. Sometimes we have to work at getting something out of Mass, and if we don’t admit this, our kids will see right through this rationale for Mass attendance.

8. Go to Mass as a refuge from the world.
Certainly at times in their lives—when they or their loved ones are ill or depressed or dying or going through some awful crisis—our children will need a refuge from the world, and we hope that the church will be there for them. But to identify the Mass as a refuge from the world is to ruin it for all the other times in our lives when things are going well and we are fully engaged in the world. Young adults generally are not looking for a refuge from the world. For the most part, they love the world; they can’t get enough of it. It’s religion they are trying to avoid!

9. Go to Mass because you’ll need a place to get married or help raising your own children.
They’ll figure this out when they reach that place in their lives and not before. It’s actually a terrible reason to get them to go to Mass now because marriage and raising children is the last thing on most of their minds (and most parents would like to keep it that way for a while longer). The idea of long-term self-interest is almost an oxymoron for most young adults, and maybe it should be. They are looking for a good reason to go to Mass now, not five or 10 years from now.

10. Go to Mass because you’ll be sorry if you don’t.
If this is the best reason we can come up with to get our young adults to go to Mass we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Now for my one compelling reason for young adults to go to Mass. This is the one that I am trying with my three college-age children, and I’ll let you know in four or five years how it works.

I am pointing out to my children that what they are searching for is a guiding principle, what I call a “mission worthy of their lives.”

I tell them that the church has such a mission to send them on, the very mission on which Jesus of Nazareth sent forth the original disciples. That mission is to make this world a better place, a place more like the way God would have things. I then tell them that they need two things in order to accept and carry out this mission. They need a community of believers to send them forth on the mission, and they need that same community to go forth with them to help accomplish it. That community could be the church, specifically the local arm of the church that we Catholics call the parish. And that community should be already committed to this mission. We already have a liturgy to celebrate and promote it. That liturgy is called “the Mass,” which can be loosely translated as “the sending forth.”

Test this reasoning with some young adults you know. In fact, test it with yourself. Are you interested in a mission worthy of your life? Is making the world a better place such a worthy mission? Are you willing to be sent forth on that mission each time you go to Mass? Do you need a community to send you forth, to go with you, and to be there when you return? If so, then you too have another reason to go to Mass on a regular basis.

Gregory F. Augustine Pierce is the author of The Sending Forth: Spirituality for Catholics in the World of Work, to be published next spring by Ave Maria Press. This article appeared in the October 2006 (Volume 71, Number 10; pages 22-23) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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