My Experience in Youth Ministry
Youth Ministry: “A Waste of Time!”
“Working with youth? That’s a waste of time!” Such was my initial thought when asked to teach a high school Confirmation class as part of my seminary formation. Young people are lazy, apathetic and completely disinterested in religion. It was with this mindset that I began teaching 14-17 year old adolescents at Annunciation Parish in Denver.
My suspicions were only confirmed when, a half-hour into my very first class, a young woman yawned, blinked the sleep out of her eyes, and asked quite pointedly: “When is this class gonna be over? This is boring.” Whatever my approach had been, it was not working! I began to do some research, reading books on Millenials and looking at programs of youth ministry that seemed to be effective. The more I read, the more I learned and I began to put this learning into practice in my class. I stopped reading from a Confirmation text book and threw out the list of required prayers and doctrine for memorization. Instead, I began to talk about real-life experiences that the young people struggled with on a daily basis and I used these to reconnect to the truths of the Catholic faith. Something amazing started to happen – the youth began to wake up!
Hopelessness and Hunger
That first year teaching Confirmation taught me a lot about young people and a lot about myself. The following year I began working with the parish youth group. At the time, there was a small contingent of about eight faithful teenagers who were there every Friday, but they were more of a social club than a community of faith. I became intentional about building relationships with these young people. I got to know them and their families and the more our friendship grew, the more they began to open their hearts and talk about what was going on deep inside. I was shocked by what I learned. The majority of these youth were growing up in broken and wounded families; they were attending public schools which derided and challenged their faith. Many of the young people, already at age 16, were viewing pornography, were sexually active, had contemplated suicide, had experimented with drugs and cutting, or were experiencing severe anxiety and depression. Underneath their cool exterior and nonchalant “I-don’t-care” attitude, there was a deep sense of pain and hopelessness. They were living a life without meaning or purpose and nothing really seemed to matter. But why?
During his first visit to the United States, before being elected Pope, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (later John Paul II) delivered an address during the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia and he spoke these powerful and prophetic words:
“We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think that the wide circle of the American Society, or the whole wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, between the gospel and the anti-gospel, between Christ and the Antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it must be a trial which the Church must take up, and face courageously.”
Young people today, Catholic adolescents and young adults, are growing up amid, “the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced.” They are growing up in a Post-Christian culture in which the Judeo-Christian ethic is no longer a given, in which the truths of the Gospel are not merely rejected, but ridiculed and persecuted. They are growing up in an age of moral relativism, nihilistic materialism, and aggressive individualism. No wonder so many young people have no sense of hope or purpose!
At the same time, I sensed in the youth I worked with an incredible hunger for something more. Many of these young people were thirsting for meaning, truth, beauty and love. In short, they were thirsting for holiness. They just didn’t know it!
So I began to change things up. I stood out in front of the Church every Sunday after the Masses. I began to greet young people and invite them to at least try coming to the youth group. I discovered that youth want to be invited and welcomed! After all, wasn’t this the approach of Jesus in the Gospels? He went out and called people by name and invited them to “Come and see.” Slowly the youth group began to grow. Within a year we had doubled in number and by our second year we had tripled. What had started with eight people had now grown to 40! But why were they coming?
I learned very quickly that what works with most parish groups or communities does not work with young people. They don’t want to listen to long lessons or spend an hour praying the Rosary. If you don’t hold their attention, they’re gone. They want to have fun; they want to make friends, but they also want to understand their life and why the Catholic faith is relevant to their experience. And they want to be challenged! So I began to challenge them. I challenged the to spend an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament and to go to confession. We started hosting praise nights and I was shocked at the results. 40 youth were on their knees praying before the Blessed Sacrament, singing their hearts out, many of them weeping. They came in long lines to go to confession and seek consolation and guidance. These praise nights became a monthly occurrence for our youth group.
As so many youth became committed to discipleship and grew up in our youth ministry program, there came a need for a separate young adult group. What became blatantly clear to me was that youth and young adults want to be involved, they want to have a place in the Church, but they want a place that they can call their own. They want a community of peers; and, that is what we worked so hard to build. The young adult group eventually grew to the point where we needed two separate “disciple groups” to accommodate them.
The Numbers are Frightening
Currently there are about 40-45 youth who attend our youth group every Friday and participate in the life of the parish. There are also 25 young adults in our “disciple groups” who meet every Saturday and are actively involved in the life of the community. But this is not the norm! As a priest, I have the opportunity to celebrate Mass at various parishes throughout the Archdiocese on Sundays. More often than not, as I gaze out from the sanctuary, is a congregation of aging Catholics. In many parishes it is rare to find any substantial number of youth, young adults or even young families that are present for the celebration of the Mass. The church-going faithful are aging and the youth of America are not filling in the empty ranks. What is the cause of such a large-scale loss of faith among today’s Catholic youth?
Catholic sociologist Christian Smith wondered the same thing. He conducted a massive empirical study on the crisis of faith among young Catholics over the last three decades. His results were published in the book, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church. Smith conducted interviews with thousands of Catholic adolescents ages 13-16. He then interviewed those same individuals ten years later between the ages of 23-26. The results were alarming. Within that time frame, 85% of the youth who had identified as Catholic and had been actively involved in their faith as adolescents no longer identified as Catholic or had any concrete involvement with Church practice at age 23-26 – 85%! Effectively, this meant that 8.5 out of every 10 students in a Confirmation class would eventually leave the Catholic Church or simply cease practicing. These numbers reflected my own experience in parish ministry. But Smith wanted to know more. He wanted to know what was different about the 15% who remained Catholic; so, he set about to discover the common variables. He concluded that the 15% of adolescents who remained Catholics as young adults had three key factors in common:
- First, they had traditional Catholic parents who were actively involved in the life of the Church.
- Second, they were privy to a variety of religious experiences (mission trips, service projects, various types of prayer, etc.).
- The third, and according to Smith, strongest factor in young people’s remaining Catholic, was involvement in a weekly youth group throughout the period of adolescence.
As a youth minister, I had no control over the first factor, but I could certainly do something about numbers 2 and 3. We intentionally tried to create a youth ministry program that provided youth with a wide spectrum of Catholic life. We began attending the annual Steubenville of the Rockies Youth Conference in Denver. We took the youth on retreats into the beauty of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. We created service experiences to the poor, aged and homeless in Denver. We started an annual mission trip to a Native American reservation just outside of Gallup, NM. to work alongside Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. We raised funds to go on pilgrimages to Catholic shrines in Europe. We taught them how to pray the Rosary; we conducted Bible studies; we practiced Lectio Divina and meditation; we challenged and empowered them to become leaders among their peers. And it worked! I have had the incredible joy of accompanying these young people on their journey and watching their faith flower and grow strong!
Why Youth Ministry is a Must!
Smith goes on to say that only 24% of Catholic teens are involved in any “religious youth group” which is lower than any other religious group except Jews. (Smith’s book was based on the largest survey of teen religiosity in the US.) Randy Raus of Life Teen has stated that only 5% of teens who are not involved in anything in their church as teens remain weekly attendees as adults. Read those together: fewer than 20% of current Catholic teens can be expected at Mass every week as adults.
In fact, Matthew Kelly has stated on numerous occasions that of the 1 million confirmed each year in the USA, 85% will stop practicing their faith within 7 years. Are we really ready to face Mass attendance barely above the single digits?
My reluctant involvement in beginning to work in youth ministry has become a passion. I know from much experience that young people are eager and anxious to respond to the call of holiness. But someone has to walk with them. Unfortunately, many priests that I know think of youth ministry as a cute waste of time, a ministry on the periphery that we can try to squeeze in as long as it does not conflict with more traditional and established ministries. But the reality is frighteningly clear! We are losing entire generations of young Catholics. If we do not become intentional about working with youth, our parishes are going to be empty! This is not a dire prediction; this is what is already beginning to happen.
Catholic blogger, Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, LC, of Project Youth Ministry, sums up well the current crisis:
“These aren’t just stats; it’s personal. As a teen I almost became a Protestant. My logic was: if it gets them excited about Jesus, it’s likely true. At my parish, almost nobody between 12 and 25 seemed excited about their faith. I went to a rather large lower-middle class suburban parish and I don’t remember anything offered from when you finished confirmation in 6th or 7th grade till marriage prep. The Church needs to do something! Teens and young adults are leaving in droves.”
Pope Paul VI first termed a phrase later taken up by St. John Paul II and successive Popes: “The New Evangelization.” In explaining the nature and significance of this term St. John Paul II stated:
“I sense that the moment has come to commit all the Church’s energies to a new evangelization… No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples… The new evangelization calls for a clearly conceived, serious and well organized effort to evangelize culture in such a way that the Gospel is proclaimed in the language and in the culture of its hearers.”
This impetus for a New Evangelization to all peoples must find a focused and effective means of evangelizing and accompany youth and youth adults on their journey of faith. If the Church, its priests, its religious and its laity are not serious and intentional about committing time, resources and manpower to this cause, we are going to continue losing waves of young Catholics to the secularism of our current culture.
So, in the final analysis, does youth ministry really matter? It better!