The Problem with Youth Ministry

The Problem with Youth Ministry

Bad Catholic has a thoughtful post, The Problem with Youth Ministry that echoes many of my own misgivings and makes some points I hadn’t thought of before.

Youth ministry as a primary catechetical and evangelical tool only exists as a necessity if the family has failed. Of course, this makes youth ministry necessary, in that families do fail, all the time. Catholics are largely uncatechized. Parents have the voice of authority but lack an understanding of the event which they are bound to communicate in that same, strong voice. Families miss the time of authority-faith relation and only begin catechesis when their’s is the work of convincing, and convincing teenagers. And more than this lack of catechesis, there is a lack of parents being authority figures at all, whether through absence or vice. Again, the system of youth ministry deserves applause for seeking to fill this gap. But this clearly establishes youth ministry as an emergency measure, not a norm.

If our modern youth ministry is truly Catholic, it will work towards its own demise. It must not become “the way in which children are catechized,” or “the way kids encounter the Gospel,” for the Gospel is given through authority, and while a fantastic youth minister, through the power of God, can certainly establish a relationship of authority-faith between himself and those he ministers to, this relationship is not inherent to him. On the other hand, so inherent is the authoritative catechetical role in the parent that the Catechism refers to the family as Ecclesia domestica – the domestic Church — a microcosm of Mother Church, the single manifestation of divine authority in the world today. My worry is that youth ministry — if it does not soon see itself as filling the gap left by the failure of the family — will become a self-perpetuating system, establishing itself as the modus operandi of each and every parish, to the point that the domestic Church is all but obliterated because parents can “just send their kids to The Edge and LifeTeen,” and do not need to exercise their beautiful, humbling, evangelical authority.

True youth ministry will work to establish points of authority, to help build families who — because they live in that natural relation of love which makes the communication of the Gospel possible — do not need modern youth ministry. The Gospel is news, and news requires authority. If youth ministry wishes to preach and spread the Gospel, it will work to continuously reduce the need for hired convincing, to instead build up in number and strength those two institutions which exist in their very nature as sources of authority — the family and the apostolic priesthood.

I posted this on Facebook and an interesting discussion ensued.

One friend said, “It is a point of frustration for me that youth ministry is often CCD with more snacks and games. I strongly believe it should be far more social and service oriented – not “this is what we believe” but “this is how we live it.”

Yes, I really like that vision. It makes me think of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and how he inspired his fellow youth. The organizations he belonged to were not catechetical but were social and service oriented. And yet I am sure they were formational.

I think the problem is precisely that youth ministry is being wielded as a bandaid to fix the hemorrhage caused by the failure of families to be true domestic churches. But neither an hour a week of CCD nor the best youth ministry program out there can truly substitute for the formation that is proper to the family. I wonder if we might not be better off having organizations that are more clearly labeled as service organizations and others that are clearly social and others that are clearly catechetical. Separate out all those functions rather than have one youth group that does it all badly.

Of course the question is then how do we give parents the tools they need to help their children and themselves? Or to put it another way, how do we form the parents as disciples so that they can become bearers if the Gospel to their children? This is why I really liked Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, by the way, sorry to keep harping on it, but she argues that the parish should be focused on forming adults into disciples instead of focused on catechizing children. If adults are called to live out their discipleship and formed to live it, that will serve the children well. But the assumption that forming children will somehow trickle up to draw in their parents has been a failure.

My idealized vision for parish faith formation would be having several different weekly times when people could meet for formational activities—maybe one weeknight and one weekend night and one lunch time, maybe after Mass on Sunday. There would be separate activities for kids and childcare for the infants and toddlers. A meal would be a part of it so that, rather than creating scheduling complications, it would relieve busy mothers of one meal to cook. And it would include opportunities for confession and for adoration. Kind of a one stop shopping. It would take a lot of resources and organization, but if you did it in place of both CCD and a separate youth ministry program, all the resources that are going toward those could be harnessed.

I thought he made a very interesting point about authority too:

The problem with youth ministry — and I speak of the American model of a hired youth minister who is paid to hold classes, lead retreats and otherwise proclaim the Gospels — is that there is no necessary relationship of authority between the ministered and the ministered-to. The fundamental relation necessary for the communication of the Good News does not necessarily exist.

When a person does not or cannot speak with authority, and thereby communicate a piece of news, they must convince their listeners of the veracity of the event. Had my relationship with my father consisted in anything but authority and faith, I would have demanded empirical evidence, proof, a second opinion — in short, I would have demanded convincing. This is the good work of youth ministry, that in its catechesis and evangelical efforts, it seeks to convince those who will not or cannot believe in faith, in order that they might grow in faith.

But this is also why youth ministry is particularly susceptible to the temptation of gimmickery, a word which should exist. When convincing is the name of the game, we often go about it in the way we are taught by our capitalistic culture — find what your “market” likes and sell it to them. We are tempted to piggyback the faith onto already-liked objects — like pop music, t-shirts, and hashtags — and thereby close the gap left by our lack of authority by disguising the faith as an already accepted authority — the authority of the culture.



Update:: Here’s a link to another article I found last night, a thoughtful response at Word on Fire: The Necessity of Youth Ministry

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  • When I was in high school, our youth ministry was simply socializing with other Catholic youths. We went bowling and had pizza or watch a movie and had popcorn or something. I love the service idea for a youth ministry. My girls are still young, but I think their AHG troop currently serves a purpose similar to this at the moment. They do community service, socialize with other young Catholic girls, learn a bit of catechesis and strive to build character. They are young enough I hadn’t thought about youth ministry, but I do love that idea and think we might have found one avenue that serves the purpose well for the moment.

  • After a decade of teaching Confirmation class – which frankly seems marginally useful – my wistful ideal of youth ministry goes something like this. Every family with a teen has to come up with and offer one activity to the parish. The activity can be anything healthy – a trip to a performance, to a soup kitchen, to a sports game, to the March for Life. There must be room for up to ten teens. There can be a charge to cover the expense, or there can be a fundraising event associated with the activity. The activity must start with a prayer and end with a prayer, even if it’s just a “Hail Mary” at each end.

    That’s it. There are so many families with teens, with such a variety of gifts and interests, that there would be a variety of offerings and some of them would be appealing and convenient enough.

    And if you’re wondering what the goal would be – well, it would be to provide opportunities for Catholic youth to spend time together. Period. So they know they’re not alone.