Second, the purpose of youth ministry is to ENABLE, not to entertain. It seems to me that much of youth ministry these days seeks to entertain; and yet, too much of their lives are already consumed by pursuing pleasure and gratification. Various synonyms for entertainment are telling: “beguile,” “distract,” “gratify,” “divert” and “indulge.” We do not want to beguile or fool our young people, but to have them encounter the truth. The last thing we want is any additional distraction when they need to be focused on the Lord. While there is a certain satisfaction with being in right relationship with God, this is a far cry from seeking pleasure for its own sake or selfishly losing ourselves in a contrived stupor, spiritual or otherwise. We need to work with our natural longing for purpose and meaning. It is here that we can share the compass setting toward Christ and the kingdom. We were made for God; nothing should divert us from this primary orientation.
Rather than wasting our time and resources on replicating worldly distractions; we should enable or equip or empower our young people with the power and promise of the Gospel. How do we translate these noble sentiments to the youth if we are not authentic and on fire? The youth minister or catechist is not properly an entertainer. Even if he or she is popular or a cult figure, what happens when he is no longer around? Some teachers try very hard to be hip. They will try to entice children with rewards for good behavior and for doing well on lessons. These teachers are also very quick to reprimand when students fail to respond to favors. Many teachers desire to be liked, a few would be satisfied with being feared, and yet the best ones imitate the posture of John the Baptizer, decreasing so that Christ might increase. We want to be successful, but it is by far more important that we be faithful. The true religious mentor witnesses the faith in word and action. He or she shares the faith in the hope that it will be contagious. We are all sinners needing God’s mercy. The ancient cry of the Church is echoed, “Repent and believe!” Youth may or may not like us; more importantly, they should be transformed ever more and more into the likeness of Christ. The good teacher wants his charges to know God’s grace and salvation. The devil could recite from memory the entire catechism— but he would spurn the love that God had for him. We want our charges to know the Lord and fall ever deeper in love with him. If we forget this part of the process, then we have missed the whole point. We seek to make the ground fertile for a saving encounter. God makes the offer; we hope that our youth will accept it. While only the Lord can save us; family, catechists and pastors have a part to play. God would have us be his instruments.
I recall a religion teacher many years ago who was considered dull and “not with it” by many of his fellow teachers. They thought for sure that he would be ineffective and would quickly quit. Instead of being wary of their own shortcomings, they gossiped about him. Later I took delight in their general shock when they noticed his pupils always talking about him in a positive light. Some of the youth saw their attitude and instead of joining in their critique or wanting him replaced, actually defended him. One child even said, “Those teachers always talk down about us, too; but he speaks to us as if every one of us matters.” Yes, he told corny jokes and spoke in a monotone voice, but the young people also recognized that he was authentic. He cared about them and did not pretend to be something he was not. When a couple of the boys were caught parodying his manner or style, he joined the laughter of their classmates. He knew how he was but what was important was sharing the saving faith. The kids began each class by reading about the important saints of the day or week. They took turns leading the class in prayer. They came to appreciate that they were also called to a relationship with Christ and to a holiness of life.
Youth ministry should not fall upon the shoulders of one or two volunteers. Rather, whole parishes with their pastors, catechists, families, and volunteers should engage the youth and others with the saving kerygma. Parishioners are urged to pass out our RCIA flyers for adults who might want to become Catholic or for Catholics missing sacraments. Parishioners are reminded of their need to catechize their children and to share this need with family and friends. I have heard people say that they do not want to nag others about their religious faith and responsibilities. Certainly, while we do not want to turn people off to religious faith, I suspect that a person who escapes hell and enjoys the bliss of heaven will be very thankful for a little well-meaning and needed nagging. We are all to proclaim the Good News. A failure to share the Gospel is a failure to love. If Jesus and the Church matter to us, then why would we not want to invite others to have what we have? Unlike other possessions, one can only hold on to a saving faith by giving it away to others.
Instead of always talking down to youth, we need to welcome and prepare them for full membership in our faith communities. We should not make Christianity easy or excuse opportunities for witness or service. Rather, we must make serious demands for discipleship. Yes, this would include activities and ministries like serving at the altar, reading from the pulpit, welcoming people at the church door, helping out at soup kitchens, volunteering to assist with the Special Olympics, tutoring kids who need help with their school work, cleaning up local streets, shopping for the elderly or doing other chores, visiting nursing homes, etc. It means shining with the LIGHT OF CHRIST in all the many ordinary things of life at home, at play, at school, at work and at church.
Is a reevaluation in order? Are we really thinking with the mind of Christ when it comes to expectations for our youth? While knowledge plays a part, passing tests and good behavior are not immediately reflective of one’s spiritual status. How do Jesus and the teachings of faith inform the daily life and preoccupations of our youth? When kids can neither name the commandments nor the beatitudes then how can they live them out? If they have trouble understanding that Jesus is a divine person who becomes a human being to save us, then what exactly makes them a Christian? A believer (over the age of reason) must know who the Lord is and what he does for us. Jesus suffers and dies that we might be forgiven, healed and have a share in his life. We cannot save ourselves. Everything we have is gift and Jesus is the greatest gratuity of all. Are our youth in regular prayerful communication with him? Have we helped them in knowing how to pray and how to discern God’s will in their lives? Are we where we should be in the spiritual life?
Our Lord wants us on fire with the faith. The Scriptures do not recommend any form of nominal Christianity. We read in Revelation 3:15-16:
“I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Fanaticism is only really wrong when it violates charity. One cannot be too Christian or overly converted. And yet, adults and youth alike temper their Christianity as something that can be departmentalized or restrained by secular good manners. Christianity, at its very heart, is intolerant to sin, hypocrisy and error. We would not know this from the many ways that faith is compromised or hidden today. It is as if we are ashamed to be Christians. Young people face this temptation all the time, particularly in contemporary language, music, dance, clothing and relationships. It is easier or convenient to forget one’s Christianity when it gets in the way or calls for witness. We treat the faith like a hat that can be removed or exchanged; instead, it should be like the skin that goes with us wherever we go.
Our ministry with youth should be as fire seeking to ignite a candle. This fire is not an empty emotionalism or a pretense at youthfulness. We do not seek to be buddies with them but sentinels to the great lover of souls. The fire illumines Christ and communicates that we should encounter Christ. There is urgency to the Gospel that Jesus constantly referenced and which is pertinent to the work we do. We will only have the children for a short while. We must make the best of the time and resources we have. We need to help them to know and to love the Lord. We must give them the tools to proclaim the Gospel and witness to the faith. The faith is only real when it is being spread. When we keep it to ourselves, it begins to die— no, more than this— we begin to die.
We often catechize the youth to parrot back the right words regarding faith; more importantly, we want them to embrace the faith in an evangelistic manner. Our youth will face far more tensions and opposition than previous generations. They must be enabled to defend the faith with an apologetics based upon a spirit of ecumenism that never compromises the truth. Each according to his or her vocation, we are a priestly people and recipients of the great commission:
“Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21).
I was privileged to see something of this fire in college teens that walked down the east coast as Crusaders for Life. They well understood that the Gospel of Life means that every child is a reflection of the Christ Child. All life is sacred and there is no pro-abortion Christianity. Abortion attacks the very heart of the faith, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. One cannot rightly say AMEN to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament while we deny the one made in his image within the womb. Sponsored by the American Life League, they were young and dedicated to this truth— so much so that they were attacked by angry politicians as fanatics and avoided by certain embarrassed churchmen who preferred to play things safe. But Christianity is not a safe religion. Jesus defended the dignity of women, called the children to him, ate with tax collectors and sinners, etc. He healed bodies and forgave souls their sins. He did “good” and that got him betrayed, libeled, scourged and crucified. We must prepare our children as Saint John Paul beseeched us. He told the youth at one of the World Youth Days that he saw blood and martyrdom in their future. In other words, he echoed Jesus who said that any who would come after him must take up his cross and follow. All this is a testimony to the quality of faith, not simply as a mental deliberation or as a verbal expression, but as a profound obedience to Christ and the mandate of love. We are beckoned to be signs of contradiction, loving our enemies and forgiving those who hurt us.
We need to pray with and for our youth. I have recommended in the past that youth compose their own prayers— writing them down and then delivering them. There is a tendency in certain programs for clergy or catechists or youth ministers to do all the praying. This is a mistake. While we need to study the mechanics of liturgy and the ABC’s of faith; inroads must be made for the Holy Spirit to touch our children. The Word of God should be made pertinent to their lives. God’s saving intervention is not locked in past history. Rather, the story of redemption needs to intersect all our personal stories. God is present. God is active. God loves us. When a person is touched by God, he or she will never be the same again. This is all so much deeper than worrying about youth group attendance or frustration that youth are not where we want them spiritually. The pertinent concern must be, instead, where they are now and how God can reach them. We must accept the youth we are given, good, bad and indifferent, and concentrate upon how we can facilitate an awakening to God’s presence and love. Nothing and no one benefits from imagining how different things might be if we only had different or better kids.
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