Late last week, the NYTimes ran an article featuring the research (which many question) of Ron Luce, who suggests that only 4% of youth involved in evangelical youth ministry will "stay" Christian. Christianity Today links the piece, provides commentary and links to other commentary:
Luce's "data" is his much quoted claim that only 4 percent of teenagers will be "Bible-believing Christians" (or, in his ads, "evangelical believers") as adults. The Times rightly calls the claim, first promoted by Barna Research, "highly suspect" and notes that it has been questioned by Group magazine and others. Among them, Christian Smith, whose landmark book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers won a Christianity Todaybook award this year.
"A lot of the goals [of the new evangelical youth campaign] I'm very supportive of," Smith said, "but it just kills me that it's framed in such apocalyptic terms that couldn't possibly hold up under half a second of scrutiny. It's just self-defeating."
We wish we could hear the reaction to the article at the National Youth Workers Convention in Austin this week. But some bloggers involved in youth ministry are criticizing Luce as a fearmonger. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington isn't so sure and has his own critiques of contemporary youth ministry.
Whatever the numbers, the fact that people are concerned should serve as a caution to those among Catholics harboring evangelical-envy.
We discuss youth ministry often here, of course, and many of us have concluded that something is amiss. But what? Is it that the Catholic Church on the diocesan and parish level doesn't put enough resources into youth ministry? Is it that the resources that are available are misdirected into the wrong kind of activities? We don't do enough "for youth," but does what we do actually have any kind of long term effect?
That's the questions evangelicals, even those who don't buy the 4% figure are asking too - and it's good to listen to their conversations because for years, the "answer" to the youth ministry problem in the Catholic Church has been, in large part, to imitate the Protestant model: emotionally-oriented "experiences" imitative of pop culture styles, light on the catechesis.
The tensions within youth ministry are real and difficult. The essential one on the parish and diocesan level is this:
Our young people are poorly catechized. But if we center our youth programs on catechesis, they won't come. In order to get them to come we have to attract them with fun and fellowship, and maybe squeeze something substantive in there. The best we can do is to give them an experience that will teach them that Church is a good place, a caring place, and a place where they want to be.
(Incidentally, this is also the fallback position of many in parish religious education leadership as well, voiced in many a diocesan meeting I've been to. We know that there is only so much that can be taught in one hour a week to children of parents who hardly ever bring them to Mass, living in an aggressively secular culture. So...the best we can do is give them a positive experience of this place called Church. You may scoff, and yes, parish religious ed could do more - but the situation of these families is not fabricated. Truly - what can you teach in that circumstance? That's why my fallback position, more and more is that catechisis has to be a parish-wide orientation. After all - how did catechesis happen for the 1900 years before hardly anyone went to Catholic schools and religious ed? Family, culture, rich and diverse and powerful church life. Hard to rethink this in a completely new situation.)
Anyway - youth ministry does need more attention, and while many youth programs have been great and produced good fruit, the evangelical experience is a caution. As is this email from a reader:
Witnessed at a diocesan sponsored middle school youth rally:
At the opening prayer, without starting or ending with the sign of the Cross, we prayed the Our Father and were directed to hold hands.
After we were assembled into small discussion groups the keynote speaker (spoke for an hour-and-a-half - too long!) asked us to name two or three people in our lives who are good examples of faith. He said, "I don't believe faith can be taught. It must be caught."
The music leader was a nun but they never called her "Sister", but just used her first and last name. She was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and Teva's. (I told the kids in my group when they registered to go, even though it was a day-long event, that they couldn't wear shorts because there would be Mass at the end.)
Other than the Mass, there was very little speech throughout the day that would have even indicated it was a Catholic youth rally. It was 90% entertainment and 10% Christian life experience stories.
I felt sorry for the young priest who was detectably bothered with the amount of talking going on during the Mass. Another chaperone told me she had never seen so many people chewing gum as they were about to receive Communion!
I had to go into the crowd of kids at Communion time and tell several groups to stop talking and prepare to receive the Eucharist. They looked at me like I was from Mars. The entire rally was held in a school gym, Mass included, so the kids did not have chairs and it was sort of mass chaos. Why they didn't move to the nearby church for Mass was unknown. I kept thinking about how I would do it differently if it were my event to organize.
How about you? What would your format be if you had a captive audience of pre-teens to evangelize to for 6 hours?
A 90-minute keynote? For anyone - especially middle-schoolers? Yikes.
I don't have time to say all the things I've said before on this. I don't have an answer for "The Program," but really a suggestion for a (groan) "The Paradigm."
1. Do hard thinking about what "youth ministry" is - in the evangelical world it seems to have evolved into the idea that what is needed is an alternative culture - to mimic, as much as possible, what we think teens find attractive in secular culture, re-create it with a Christian theme, and keep them, therefore safe from the ill effects of the secular culture. So because teens tend to prioritize emotion and social relationships, our ministry will do this. Because teens like...whatever they like - certain music styles, skateboarding, working out, thinking about boys...we will throw up alternatives to every one of those things so they will not have to go to the secular world to get those needs and desires fulfilled.
Is this what youth ministry should be?
Is this the way we think about "adult ministry?" Perhaps, sometimes, yes. More likely..no.
Evangelicals are questioning whether this works. Catholics should too - the question is - does it last? My answer would be, normally no, and for two reasons:
1) Teens grow up and get past those stages and needs.
2) The broader church experience does not function that way. What do you do when you have gotten into church because of Youth Masses and Programs especially designed for you and you get out in their St. Ethlebert's parish USA and find out that you're not going to be catered to, that Mass is not, in fact, designed with your preferences in mind....where does that leave you?
3) In the Catholic context - it's disconnected from who we are and what we should be about. The frantic panic to "serve the youth" reverses the Gospel. It is not the Church's job to "attract" anyone - it is the Church's job to be the Body of Christ and bring the Good News to a suffering world, and that means the members of that Body should be formed with that in mind.
4) In my mind these days, the ideal "youth program" in a parish is one in which "youth" are simply part of the parish, part of the Body, called to serve like everyone else - and given that opportunity, and encouraged to do so. Who are taught, first of all that their worship of the Lord and their prayers for the suffering and needy matter. Who are taught that Christ is present for them, here, now, to nourish, to reconcile, to forgive. Who are taught that the center of their daily life should be, as Paul says, to "pray without ceasing" - that they, just like any adult in the parish, are in the company of Christ every minute of every day, and can grow to see every encounter, every choice they make in that light.
When is the last time you heard a priest, in a homily, actually explicitly include young people from teens to college students - in the examples he offers in his homilies, or even recognize their presence? Ever?
That they are welcome to serve in every parish ministry that is appropriate, and if there is a dearth of such ministries...let's get going and figure out what we can do. How can young people get involved, in serving the shut-ins, in raising money for the missions, in teaching the young, providing music for liturgies? There are limitations, of course, some related to age and maturity, and some related to privacy concerns.
They are welcome and invited to participate in religious education. Bible study? Talks on apologetics? Reading group? If it's not during the school day...why not?
No, we won't have masses of kids. But do you know what we will have? The kids who are serious about faith that are seriously turned off by experiences described by my reader above. Again, that tension, which is constant and real in youth ministry, and with which I totally sympathize.
The problems with youth ministry are many, but I'd say that the answers, in the Catholic context, seem to lie in 1) more vigorous, serious liturgical and spiritual life in the parish, period, which young people are seen as an integral part, not as a special interest group 2) Assuming that young people are called, not to be served and catered to, but to serve.
I have also come to question - seriously question - the disconnect I see between the contemporary ethos of youth ministry and the historical understanding of what a Christian disciple is. A few weeks ago, the Revolve Tour came to Fort Wayne, Revolve being that magazine-like New Testament for girls we talked about a couple of years ago, in which the text is designed to look like Seventeen and is peppered with tidbits about dating, make-up and so on. I looked at the website and really had to wonder - what does this have to do with Priscilla and Junia, Perpetua and Felicity, with Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of the Child Jesus, Jane de Chantal, Mother Theodore Guerin, Dorothy Day...what?
Well, of course Revolve isn't Catholic, so what would you expect? But when I consider these women, and how they vigorously entered into deep friendship with Christ and what this friendship called them to, I really was left, despite my desire to be charitable and think, "Well...at least they've got girls thinking about Jesus and trying to live that out in the world..." ...not thinking that. And instead thinking...
...granted, the vast majority of young women will not enter convents or religious life or the life of the missionary. But it is still not unfair or unrealistic to make the contrast because what the witness of these saints represent is the fulfillment of an ideal, and ideal of serving the poor of this world, immersing themselves in some way in that, but while keeping their eyes fixed on Christ in a radical way. Christians through the centuries who had families and lived in the world knew that in some way, in some little way, this was their ideal too - the examples and witness of these women, while somehow beyond us, were also somehow not, and they represent, I think, a more profound and authentic connection to the call of Jesus in the Gospel than does, "It's cool and fun to be Christian." Because you know, it's not supposed to be fun and cool. Or maybe I missed that day. I don't know.
There are positive outcomes to youth "events" - the Steubenville events, for example, seem to have a more substantive feel to them and produce good fruit. And youth activities do have a place, and have every since the CYO was invented all those years ago. But the paradigm is flawed, as we have somehow convinced Catholic youth that the best they can do is look to the Church for entertainment and community....
This is not to critique the many fine people struggling in youth ministry, because I'm pretty certain that most of them would echo my questions. The answer, though, is not in their programs and should not be seen as resting totally on their shoulders. It is a problem of the Church - what are we here for? What is our presence in the world all about? Why do our parishes exist and why do we want people to come there?