In recent decades, there has been an unprecedented breakdown in both family and church. This has been reflected in the way many parishes approach “Youth Ministry.” Pure “Youth Ministry” is a symptom of unhealthy families. Why? Youth programs are trying to make young people Christians, but few ask why so many are not well-formed Christians to start with. The problem is most programs see youth in isolation from their family. Thus, programs are limited in their effectiveness.
At a national youth conference, one Minister Director mentioned how he hired several people to lead several youth groups. “Aren’t there any parents that could lead them?” I asked. “No,” he answered. We moved on, but I said, “Wait!” (Awkward pause) “Can we back up? You don’t have any adults in your parish capable of leading a small group of youth, to teach and share their faith? Did any of those young people you “ministered to” grow up and stick around?” “No,” he answered. “But, I mean… I have a masters in theology and my staff went to [insert famously vibrant Catholic college].”
After pages of objective data and anecdotal evidence, Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers comes to the following conclusion after asking what happened to Catholic kids:
“Religiously, American teens look like their parents. It’s not that parents are struggling to live out vibrant Catholic lives but find teenagers religiously apathetic and resistant. Rather, the relative religious laxity of Catholic teenagers reflects the relative religious laxity of their parents.”
So if we want to fix this problem why focus so much on “just” youth? Pope Francis recently said, “It’s time for fathers and mothers to return from their exile – they have exiled themselves from forming and educating their children – and slowly reassume their educative role.” I’m with the Pope. It’s time for a paradigm shift. Our youth need many things, but they need parents (especially dads) more than they need professionals. Church ministers cannot swoop in like over-zealous social workers and usurp the role of parents. The attitude cannot be, “Come volunteer and help us with our program to reach your kids.” The world of youth ministry needs to shift its thinking to “How can we equip and serve YOU in YOUR duty to pass on the Faith as fathers and mothers? How can we recognize, respect and assists families in their primary role as educators and assist and augment them in that role?
Parents – Step in! Yeah, kids say they need space from parents and how they need peer this and that. Step in anyway. This is your realm, your responsibility, your call. Let your kids go to pizza parties, but don’t leave their education in the hands of “youth ministry”.
With this in mind, Jason Carter, the new Director of Family and Youth Ministry at St. Monica, proposes a vision for Family and Youth Ministry at St. Monica:
Many parishes struggle with a disconnect between the “youth group” and everyone else. It may not be a struggle so much with “youth group” as much as with a narrow vision. Family and Youth Ministry cannot be narrow – only focusing on the families and youth who come through the doors of the Church. It must be broad, reaching out to those who have no desire at this point in their lives to come to St. Monica.
As a Church we must go out together and bring Christ to the world, to the places that aren’t “churchy.” We need to be a presence in our community and without formally preaching, preaching with our actions. We live in a world that longs for the love of Jesus Christ, yet most people just do not know Christ or haven’t been presented the Gospel message in a dynamic and loving way. The first time my family came to Mass at Saint Monica’s, no one knew who we were, yet we felt welcomed and loved, That spirit of welcoming is a tremendous blessing. Believe me, not every parish has this. Let’s use this “Charism” as a basis for being missionaries to our community. If we as a parish can go out with that welcoming spirit in the midst of our community, we will grow.
Family and Youth Ministry is also not a one-man job. Authentic ministry is about relationships because humans are relational. Relationships/Community point to Jesus Christ and His relationship to the Church. The Eucharist is the center of our Church because it is a relationship of Communion. In community we encounter Christ but our relationship with Jesus cannot stop at this encounter. From that encounter we need to go deeper. This “depth” is achieved in opportunities for youth and their families to be fed spiritually and to receive catechesis intellectually. Additionally we need opportunities for “discipleship” – a cycle of parishioners intentionally going out, seeking the lost “at the fringes” of Tredyffrin/Easttown Berwyn and turning the lost into becoming intentional missionaries themselves.
We will have formal youth group at Saint Monica’s but it may look different than what many are expecting. New students will be the norm – not the exception. Active students will be challenged to go out and live what we are preaching. They will be challenged to share Christ with their own particular youth community. Our youth will be fully active in the life of the parish not set apart from the rest of St. Monica.
There are three key components to this vision of Family and Youth Ministry:
- A broad approach to Family/Youth extending beyond the walls of our Church.
- Presence at Community Events, School Sports etc…
- Simple, personal invitations to Church/On-Campus Events.
- Doors wide open where all feel welcome.
- Fostering an environment where people feel that they belong.
- Opportunities for “Encounter” (Dynamic Liturgies, Prayer Services, Retreats).
- Presentation of the Gospel Message.
- Initial Catechesis (Primarily the component of Religious Ed, Youth Ministry, Adult Faith Formation).
- For those where a religious “encounter” has already taken place (Conversions experience, Kairos Retreat).
- A challenging program for those who desire a deeper, personal relationship with Christ.
- Further/Deeper Catechesis (Again, a component of Religious Ed, Youth Ministry, Adult Faith Formation but will include discipleship small groups, spiritual direction, active roles in parish ministries)
Because every person is different, these components may look different and/or may not be sequential from person to person. The world is messy, people are in turn messy, thus making ministry messy.