JUST PICTURE, for a few moments, a parish where youth want to be at
church; not just on Sunday, but also during the week! Where young
people know, understand and accept the Church's teachings and are
proud to be Catholic. Imagine how uplifting it'd be to have adults
'turned on' to Christ along with the parish's teens; people of all
ages sharing a love for God and His people; a parish attracting new
faces and growing in every possible way...remembering, "...for nothing
is impossible with God." (Lk. 1:37)!
Nationwide, there are a wide variety of efforts in youth ministry.
The need for youth ministry is real: we know from experience that
teens are facing tremendous challenges today. As people of God, we
are called by Jesus' Gospel to share faith and pass it on to the next
Without criticizing anyone, we can objectively observe
that many youth and religious ed programs fail to pass on the Faith;
yet teens will (or should) become the supporters of the Church. We
should consider what has worked in the U.S., and how to avoid others'
errors. This essay is designed to create a desire to establish the most successful
youth ministry possible for your parish and area.
As you know, the best way to insure the success of a desired result
is to first begin by identifying the goal and then planning and preparing
an approach that will work to achieve that goal. Your parish
is no doubt aware of this, because as a parish, you are wanting to put this principle to work.
You have identified the goal (to have youth ministry), planned
and prepared for it (knowing it takes some money, you prepared through
grants and fund raising) and now are in the process of bringing your
dream to fruition. Your achievement should be a source of joy and
for your church!
Ideally, all parties benefit if there is an agreement as to what
type of youth program is proposed and implemented. In fact, the only
way any program is likely to succeed is if with consensus and a shared
vision for the youth program. So your next question is, what type
of youth program?
The Gospel's Call and Our Response
In Matthew 28:20, Jesus called upon His followers to share the Good
News with the world; that sharing clearly must start within our own
families and the parish community! Jesus' example was not just one
of teaching, but of touching every aspect of people's lives. Clearly
prayer, and the graces found in the sacraments are the foundation
of any successful program: "Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain
do the laborers build."
(Ps. 127:1). We should incorporate Jesus'
example, recognizing that successful youth program needs to touch
individuals: spiritually, socially and physically (through positive
activities), intellectually and emotionally. So a youth program should
involve the whole person, and be balanced so that one part doesn't
The ideal of a 'holistic' approach is really just the beginning.
To be successful, experience has shown that holistic youth ministry
must involve many people who are willing to share their time and talents.
Jesus didn't call a few, Christ called the many! Too often, what
happens in youth ministry is that only a handful try to 'do it all.'
As a result, those people rapidly burn out and quit. In the long
run, that approach often sends a poor signal to our young people who
are watching to see if we practice what we preach. If we are sincere
in our desire to follow the Gospel, many should feel called to share
their time. How this is done can be discussed in detail.
To create a holistic program and reduce the likelihood of a start-
and-stop cycle in Catholic Youth Ministry (CYM), we need to bring
in as many adults and parents as possible, who can each share a few
hours a week or a month on a consistent basis. It needs to be time
that is scheduled and planned for, so that the teens will see that
it is important; and this will also provide a consistent program that
is more likely to succeed. Getting teen leaders will follow.
Ideally, CYM should be a joy for the adults involved! People are
more likely to share their time and talents if the experience is a
positive. Sometimes, that means preparing parents and adults through
videos, discussions, workshops and training. But it should also mean
that volunteer's talents and interests should be matched with the
various needs of holistic youth ministry. Youth ministry should uplift
and enrich all who participate: adults as well as teens! (See Heb
10:23-25; 1 Cor. 12:14-31). CYM can be fun too!
Living The Gospel Ideal
Acts 2:42 gives us a glimpse of what life was like in the early New
Testament 'parish' shortly after Jesus' Resurrection and Ascension:
(the people) devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles
and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread
liturgy) and to the prayers."
This verse gives a glimpse of a complete
(holistic) approach to life, and along with other passages of Scripture,
gives us clues as to why people were attracted to the Catholic faith
in spite of its counter-cultural message.
Today, we face similar
challenges as the early Christians did: a secular society, which often
practiced immoral behavior. Why did people risk social condemnation
and even death to join the early Church? Because the life of the
first Christians was so appealing, so filled with hope and joy, it
made those risks seem worth taking! We will see amazing fruits as
a parish and as a Church when those same examples are applied today.
We all know that drugs, sex, alcohol, smoking and gangs are but some
of the challenges that face youth today. Young people want a sense
of family and belonging; when it isn't supplied in a positive home
and parish atmosphere, they will seek it elsewhere. Teens want to
experience love, not just hear about it. If they don't experience
fun, positive and loving attention at home or in a parish youth program,
they are more likely to seek it through the secular examples of premarital
sexuality and often questionable friendships. We can go down the list
of the good things that the Church offers: the Mass, reconciliation,
education, programs and activities; but if these aren't positively
shared, taught and experienced, the void in peoples lives will be
dealt with somehow.
Often those voids are filled (actually, they
are numbed) with 'entertainment', drugs, alcohol or other abuses and
addictions. Perhaps we should write a book: "It Takes a Parish to
Raise a Healthy Family",
because it really does! When we look back,
this has always been true since the dawn of Christianity.
In the 1950's, public schools taught basic religious values, allowed
prayer and Bible reading. The entertainment industry produced wholesome
movies and shows. People lived in neighborhoods where people often
shared the same faith and the church or parish was the center of social
life. Back then, CCD or religious ed classes were just the icing
on the cake; an added glue to values that were already being experienced
in a broad way by that era's generation. Today, we know that schools,
entertainment, social and family life have changed; often contradicting the image of life Jesus' disciples are called to follow.
We can't wait for legislation that may never pass. We must act as
the early Christians did! As a parish and as a Church, we should
provide as much as possible that "total" life experience needed to
share our values: to learn, develop and grow as Catholic Christians.
Here is an outline of key points on how this can and should be done:
Share a vision of Total Youth Ministry with adults.
Call people to share time and talent in areas they are comfortable
with, or which can be developed. Only with a number of adults involved
can a truly holistic program become a reality and a success.
Attract youth as peer leaders, for their input and example. Teens
need to be a part of the process!
Faith is both 'taught' and 'caught,' so we should both live and teach
our Catholic faith in the parish!
We know from studies that youth are relationship oriented and seek
fun social activities. They also have questions about the Catholic
faith in general, as well as about God, evil in the world and other
issues. Such issues should be answered directly and honestly in a
way that makes sense to teens. Teens want to 'do' rather then just
'be there' (and be 'bored'), so it is wise to involve teens as much
as possible in the Mass and parish life in general. A 'total' program
can yield total success!
In one program, we promoted the following formula in the bulletins and announcements: "The Finest Food, Folks, Faith and Fun possible!"
We had teen newsletters, e-mail and phone lists. Wednesday night was Youth Night, and there was fun activities (pool, foosball, ping-pong, board games) and up-beat faith-filled music. The teens were coming and began to bring their friends too! Teens could put postive Catholic or Biblical slogans up, and we had leadership meetings that got the teens involved. When issues came up, they were more willing to talk to a parent or youth leader, since they were forming bonds with adults.
On Sunday's, we'd have not only classes between Masses (one of which was the 'Family' Mass - teens encouraged to participate as lector, cantor, ushers, etc.), but occassional 'debates' on topics, with teens leading the charge, and allowed to ask questions. We talked about sin, teen smoking, a wide variety of topical issues. We'd close with a reading from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and explain why the Church took the position that it did. By getting teens involved, they wanted to come, and were learning their faith in the process.
How does one make this happen? First, a commitment must be made to
Total Youth Ministry and who will lead it. Set aside the space, and a budget to make it happen. Plan to recruit the parents and adults who will be needed, because numbers are essential. So I would urge you to consider this approach, because properly implemented, it will work for your parish!
All ministry should be about people, not personalities. Minor differences
of opinions which arise, since many lives are touched, should be respectfully
and privately worked out, in order to focus on the goal: serving the
Body of Christ, the people of God. We call this "youth ministry,"
but really it is serving people for love of God! Once the commitment
is made, planning, recruiting and implementation begins.
The rewards of total CYM are many! People will "Catch the Spirit"
and get more involved. Collections and attendance will grow. Many
will experience faith as it should be for the first time. It can happen
rapidly, as it did for the early Church. May the Lord bless and guide