Youth ministry is a unique challenge for the Church, and by challenge, I mean opportunity.
A decade ago, I started to dabble in youth ministry, but I have spent the last 7 years working with great people in the Church to develop a program that can form young Evangelical Catholics. An understandably lofty goal, but one that I believe that will bear much fruit in the Church.
When we speak about the role and importance of youth ministry, it’s a conversation that expands far beyond catechesis. There are some good arguments as to why we have experienced so many issues and poor performance in our catechetical approach in America. Most of it can be summed up in two points. One, parents are the primary teacher and catechist for their children. Two, poorly equipped parents have not be able to lead and support their children’s catechesis. We can acknowledge that these are broadly painted strokes, and there are plenty of exceptions. Even still, this is a common problem we see in the Church today.
We have the huge challenge of losing many of our teens by the time they graduate college (Pew Research). As Sherry Weddell explained in Forming Intentional Disciples, we used to think this would get resolved when young people got married and came back to the Church for their families. Sadly, this hasn’t been the case, and many of those that leave don’t plan on returning.
The Current Situation
I experienced the youth ministry that many people are familiar with today – one focused on games, fun, and hand motions to music. It was always behind the Protestant’s trendiness, and it never really was as cool as it tried to be. Interestingly, youth ministry in the Catholic Church hasn’t changed much in many parishes today. Even with all of its flaws, it accomplished its mission to introduce me to Jesus on a personal level. Even though I grew up in a faithful Catholic home, I actually developed a personal relationship with Jesus. It was all just habit and ritual to me before then.
Unfortunately, many parishes have narrowed down youth ministry to the minimum of trying to get teens to show up for the programs and checking off boxes to get sacraments. While these goals are important, it’s a remarkably low bar set for teens that have so much expected out of them on every other level.
There are many programs that have been challenging this over the past generation to distil the goal even purer: to foster a personal encounter with Jesus. Since the beginning, the Church has known this process called Kerygma, the journey to personally encounter the living God. This is truly the core of the Gospel and the noblest mission of any ministry. Since Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, many communities have been slowly converting to this focus of the past few decades. This fills me with hope.
We must not think that in catechesis the kerygma gives way to a supposedly more “solid” formation. Nothing is more solid, profound, secure, meaningful and wisdom-filled than that initial proclamation. All Christian formation consists of entering more deeply into the kerygma, which is reflected in and constantly illumines, the work of catechesis, thereby enabling us to understand more fully the significance of every subject which the latter treats.
– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (165)
Looking at the current situation, we still have to come back to an important question. If youth ministries have been refocusing on this central mission, why have so many still leaving the Church after going away from home?
The Way Forward
The best way forward is to increase our focus on the Kerygma for the whole family so that our parishes can minister on an all-encompassing formation. This provides the most fertile ground for the faith to take root. Parents truly make the best support, but can also be the most dangerous towards fragile faith.
While we have a long road ahead in transitioning to a holistic family formation, we are still faced with the current situation in urgent need of transformation. While we cannot undo what has lacked in the family, we can form young Catholics to reach a higher level than we did at their age.
We can’t settle for a minimum that holds back the incredible power of the Gospel in their lives. The Church is more than a club that wants more members, we are here to introduce them to the lover of their souls that desires to be united ever more to all of us. We have an obligation to center our catechesis on the Kerygma. There is truly no other option for youth ministry.
Any attempts to make it only about the intellectual or the emotional fails as an authentic witness to Our Lord Jesus Christ. Any person can memorize information and regurgitate it on command, but effective catechesis requires creating and building a truly personal relationship with Jesus. Until that happens, lessons are just information, but this transformative encounter allows it to be internalized and applied to every aspect of their lives.
“Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of these are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”
In order to reach intentional discipleship, their formation should be centered around the Eucharist (and sacraments), study of Sacred Scripture, articulating their testimony, developing a regular prayer life, studying the lives of the saints, and then learning about the Truth in the Tradition of the Church. At first, some of the elements can sound somewhat Protestant, but all of these elements are all very Catholic and part of the Tradition of the Church.Yong people can tell when we feed them a counterfeit and have no interest in it. We need to be honest about the struggles of the Christian life and encouraging the effectiveness of a sacramental life.
Forming Teens into Evangelical Catholics
Teenagers have an unrivaled combination of energy, enthusiasm, and desire of discovering their purpose and worth. Many times, this leads to issues and getting into trouble. What if our parishes channeled this energy for the sake of the Gospel?
The Church has long split up the process of the Kerygma into Catechesis/Didache (First proclamation), Metanoia (Conversion), followed by Mystagogia (deepening of the faith). While today’s Church has been re-focusing more on Kerygma, mystagogia has not been kept much in the combination. I believe this is part of what is lacking to help this conversion truly stick past the spiritual high of the encounter with Jesus.
Pope Francis address this in Evangelii Gaudium, and refreshes our memories as to how we can better communicate the Gospel to our generation. Mystagogia was designed to develop new Catholics after their Easter entrance into the Church, but we have to look at cradle Catholics in the same way when they are forming a relationship with Jesus for the first time.
Another aspect of catechesis which has developed in recent decades is mystagogic initiation. This basically has to do with two things: a progressive experience of formation involving the entire community and a renewed appreciation of the liturgical signs of Christian initiation. Many manuals and programmes have not yet taken sufficiently into account the need for a mystagogical renewal, one which would assume very different forms based on each educational community’s discernment.
– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (166)
In this process, we walk together as a community in love with the Lord, and we collectively nurture delicate and young relationships with Jesus. I have seen so many teens that have met and fallen in Love with Jesus, but have then been quickly disillusioned by the challenges they were ill-equipped to handle or unsure as to how to develop a deeper relationship past the initiation.
By focusing deeply in this part of the relationship, we strengthen their relationship with the Lord and with the community. This teaches young Catholics the importance of these connections throughout the rest of their lives. Walking with teens instead of teaching down to them empowers them to see living witnesses of the faith, and it gives the opportunity to challenge them to drop their own nets for the sake of the Gospel.
Sometimes when Christians of any age have begun this new relationship with Lord, it ushers in a new energy for the Gospel, and it can be interpreted as ready to be a leader in the faith. For most Christians, this energy is a byproduct of the amazing transformation of the heart, but it does not necessarily mean they have passed through the thresholds of conversion needed to be an effective evangelist.
The formation process of authentic discipleship cannot be skipped before commissioning young messengers of the faith. To do so could be dangerous for the ones sent and the receivers. Although, sending out can begin with small steps and realistic intentions that can be developed over time.
Today more than ever we need men and women who, on the basis of their experience of accompanying others, are familiar with processes which call for prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit, so that they can protect the sheep from wolves who would scatter the flock.
– Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (171)
Yes, young people can be very fickle and unpredictable, but we cannot underestimate what the Lord is capable of doing in and through the lives of our youth. I can personally testify to the awesome ways in which I have seen teenagers fall passionately in love with the Lord and go forth to multiply the faith in the lives of those around them. The faith becomes more than a set of requirements, the faith becomes a central part of their lives too good to keep from the world that deeply hungers for the peace of God.
Giving young Christians this complete ownership of the faith changes the narrative of catechesis to a true formation as followers of the Lord and intentional disciples. We know that not all will be open to the call, but we have to at least carry out our own mission to proclaim the living Gospel to those entrusted to us. We take a far greater risk in withholding this important mission from their lives.
“Let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.”
1 Timothy 4:12