Enough surfing and drifting. Time to commit and write some posts here.
I've hesitated so far because, as you might imagine, being with 25,000 or so teens, even at the periphery, is sort of an overwhelming experience. We were, as you know, at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Atlanta, a gathering that is held every two years (alternating with a leaders-only conference. Next year in Vegas.). It's a very big deal. I was there, not to speak, but to push my wares in the OSV booth. Everyone went along..for Joseph, just another "book show" at which he is getting to be a pro.
A bit of background: ministry to Catholic youth is something I think about a lot. I have been involved, off and on, in catechesis to this group for twenty years now, having taught high school theology for nine of those years, been a DRE with responsibility for youth ministry for four, written four books explicitly for teens and one for young adults and older teens, not to speak of, at this point, parented three Catholic teens myself. So...I have been watching, doing and thinking for a long time.
And I think we still don't get it. And, up front, I don't think the evangelicals get it either, completely.
Do remember, though, that the sense that a unique angle on dealing with youth is not anything new in Catholicism. You read about your pre-Vatican II Church...there's plenty of youth ministry there. Most of it outside the Catholic school was social and spiritual, rather than catechetical, since there wasn't much catechesis for the post-8th grader outside of Catholic schools, period. But it was there - CYO, etc. etc. Those of you who were there can talk about it better than I.
In short, my questions about the current state of youth ministry can be reduced to one: I am not convinced that most current (read, for the past two decades) trends in Catholic youth ministry have the net effect of rooting young people in a faith that will take them through to mature Catholic faith. It is all very much about pandering to the Teen Moment, and frankly, the Teen Moment passes pretty quickly - usually by the end of the first semester of college. And, ironically, some of the most solid teens, faith-wise, are extremely skeptical of the Teen Moment from the get-go, and are turned off by it. This is not about music, activities, etc...it's about something deeper. In fact, it's not about what's there, but about what's missing. Which is, in short, an explicit connection to the bigger, wider deeper Church that is 2000 years old, wise, rich and is the Body of Christ, for them, right now.