Saturday, 10 November 2012
Considering Youth Ministry
It always disappoints me to hear the youth described as the Church of tomorrow when they are the Church of today as well as tomorrow. Sadly, despite all the work that goes into ministering to the youth, we seem unable to stem the tide of lapsation, which seems to be a problem across the denominations. I recently came across the Mars Hill Church website where I found the following:
“DOES THIS CHURCH HAVE A YOUTH MINISTRY?” I hear this question all the time... What’s really being asked is “Does this church gather all its teenagers on Wednesday nights, have monthly lock-ins, go on summer mission trips to Mexico, and have attractional, flashy, and really expensive winter and summer retreats?” The answer is a gentle, but emphatic, “no.” Not anymore. Why? Statistically, it isn’t working [and] Discipleship as seen in Scripture is minimal.
The term “working” might be a little nebulous, but youth pastors know those stats. We know that somewhere between 60–80% of teens who are active in churches stop going altogether in their twenties. Yet many churches still cling to this model created decades ago, hoping they will be the exception.
These ministries eat up huge chunks of the budget, their pastors are under immense pressure, and at times, their satisfaction in Jesus varies with the number of teenagers that show up on a given Wednesday night. I know because I’ve been there.
The core of the difficulty is that attractions of the world are powerful and distracting many young people from the Lord, especially those youth whose judgements are subjective and informed by relativism. The above quote indicates that another reason we are not holding on to the youth is the way we minister to them.
Speaking of the Catholic situation, literally thousands of youngsters have been ministered to by youth ministry teams and schools, led by dedicated folk who give generously of their time and energy, but these thousands are not coming to Mass and are not taking up a Catholic lifestyle. The majority will enjoy the drama, music and recreation in the immediate; a few may ask to be involved in the ministry team or engage in school-based faith activities, but the vast majority make no lifestyle change. We must then, ask where the vast majority of those thousands are, and what direction we need to take to bring youth to the Eucharist and a solid Catholic lifestyle. As a friend of mine recently remarked, “The success of a programme or mission is not whether it was enjoyed and made an immediate impact -more often than not a merely emotional impact- but whether it brings young people to the Mass and to sound Catholic practice” -a very perceptive remark. Remarkably, a youth minister once told a meeting I was at that “attending Mass is not the criteria to use to judge whether a young person is practicing or has found Christ” -a very strange remark given that Christ is fully and substantially Present only in the Eucharist, which is thus “the fount and apex of the entire Christian life” according to Lumen Gentium #11 of Vatican II.
Who can pretend to have the answer to the loss of young people from the Lord’s House and His Sacred, Sacrificial Banquet we call Holy Mass? Certainly not me, but I would like to suggest five elements that could be usefully included in youth ministry, especially youth camps. Since I see these elements as parts of a whole, I am not enumerating them in any order of importance.
First, prayer experiences with extemporary prayer and scripture texts. Why? Because this could help them to develop personal prayer lives; to move from ‘saying prayers’ to prayer.
Second, we could utilise paraliturgies with their drama, mime, pop-style music etc.. Why? because these can engage and speak to the youth, and have the ability to show practical application of Church teaching to life situations.
Third, we should ensure solemn celebrations of Mass as called for by Vatican II, that is, with retention of Latin (Sacrosanctum Concilium #36) and prime place given to chant (ibid, #116). Why? because the sacred nature of Holy Mass be both displayed and experienced: Mass is unique even among the Sacraments, and needs to be celebrated, understood and experienced as unique, rather than as a setting for drama and dance -sanctuaries are elevated to show we are journeying to heaven, not to act as a stage. Solemn celebrations of Holy Mass, when not conflated with elements from paraliturgies, will widen the liturgical and spiritual experience of the youth, helping them to experience the transcendent nature of the liturgy and the Majestic ‘otherness’ of God.
Fourth, we must make provision for solid catechesis based on the Catechism. Why? Because the Faith is not simply experiential; it is based on revealed Truth. Sadly, the current educational method, i.e., “The Church says (...) Do you agree? Give your reasons” does not facilitate respect for the Revealed Faith: it surrenders it to subjectivism and fuels relativism.
Fifth, we would do well to include spiritual conferences based on the writings of the great masters of the spiritual life, such as Therese of Lisieux; Francis de Sales etc. Why? Because Most of today’s popular writers, popular speakers (and bloggers!) will be forgotten in fifty years time; the spiritual masters will not.
I respectfully suggest that we cannot expect young people to value the Mass and its uniqueness when it is practically a paraliturgy with a homily and Holy Communion all-but tacked on; nor can we expect them to adhere to Revelation when their education is one of “What do you think?” We sincerely aimed at building happy, mature Christians by such liturgies and educational methods, but what we have produced is Catholics who subject Revealed Faith to relativist assessment, expect Mass to be akin to entertainment, and who lapse without informed and considered thought. No matter how much youth ministry is enjoyed in the immediate, it is the after-effects that count.