According to James Emery White in his book Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, the culture of Generation Z is one of unfettered access to information, radical autonomy mixed with virtual connectedness, and statistically less religious identity (p. 49). Unfortunately, this is the first generation that has without exception been terribly affected by relativism in all of its ugly forms. We are not just fighting DeLubac’s four horsemen of atheism, nor are we merely confronting strict scientism in the post-Christian era, but we are also dealing with the dire consequences of moral relativism and selfishness that justifies any sin according to the individual’s perception of good and evil (The Drama of Atheist Humanism, Henri DeLubac).
Frankly friends, this is a battle for the soul of our children that I do not take lightly, and one that I know comes with a tremendous amount of heartache and frustration. The light of Christ does shine in the darkness of our youth culture, but you have to really strain to see it. When you see that light, it will remind you of why you volunteered to teach youth in the first place: transformation in Christ is the most exhilarating and faith-confirming experience a Christian can be a part of! It is faith-confirming. As St. Irenaeus said: “The glory of God is man fully alive!”
What follows are five practical issues of youth ministry with tips for those who work with the youth, especially those involved in high school and middle school ministry. While most of this is practical, I’ll finish with a tip that is both practical and spiritual. As our Lord said to us 365 times in Sacred Scripture: “Be not afraid!”
Scripture is Your Friend
Growing up in the Bible Belt—and some would say the belt-buckle of the Bible Belt—the accusation that we do not read the Bible has always been a thorn in our side as Catholics. We just cannot outwork our Protestant brothers and sisters when it comes to knowing the Bible!
What we have seen in recent years in the Catholic world is a proliferation of efforts, both academic and mission-driven, to refocus the literature and formation of the Church around the reading of Sacred Scripture. Remember, the Bible is ours! What putting a premium on Scripture in youth ministry practically looks like is the following:
- Always incorporate Sacred Scripture into your formation with the youth, no matter the setting. It could be a Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, or simply a short time of Lectio Divina, but always bring Sacred Scripture into the fore of your efforts with the students.
- Use the Catechism for your frame of reference: The footnotes abound with Scripture references, and when you are teaching doctrine the students want to know where the teaching comes from in Scripture. You don’t have to be a scripture scholar to help them with this. Simply use the most useful tool the Church has published in 500 years, and apply it to the content you are presenting.
- Focus on the big picture! Knowing essential stories, specifically around the Covenants, and understanding the big picture of Sacred Scripture is vital in helping your students to grasp that they too can read the Bible without fear of being ignorant. You are not forming scripture scholars (yet!), but you are forming disciples.
Don’t Be Cool, Be Yourself
One of the great faults of adults, no matter their age, when working with the youth is making the absurd effort to be relevant. Please Stop! You will soon find out just how brutally honest kids can be. They are not looking for “cool” role models, but rather, they are looking for genuine disciples.
Pope St. Paul VI said in his post-synodal exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witness than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (41). In other words, what the young people are looking for are people of heroic virtue who are trying to be saints in the world, despite their failings and limitations. Young people will respect your honesty and see you as a person of integrity if you are not putting on airs. Trust me, they can see through the smokescreen.
Now, this does not mean you should not try to understand youth culture, and to be aware of popular trends and other elements of youth culture really are a constitutive part of being a genuine disciple-maker. But make sure you are not making the effort to transform yourself into a teenager again. It won’t help.
Here’s three practical tips for staying authentic:
- Read up on this culture. Here’s a list of books I recommend:
- Meet Generation Z by James Emery White
- iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up by Jean Twinge
- The Art of Forming Young Disciples by Everett Fritz
- To Light a Fire on the Earth by Robert Barron
- Be available, but don’t be too present. In other words, it is okay if you are friends on social media platforms, but don’t follow and comment on everything. You do not have to scan Instagram every day in order to be connected to your kids. A comment or “share” here and there is fine, but do not be their primary “cheerleader”-this will often alienate them from you.
- You are you, and they need to know a little more than just the basics. Sharing, appropriately and within reason about your personal journey of faith, how you have handled difficult situations, and the life of prayer are all up for conversation, but remember, your stories should point not to the cult of yourself, but rather, to the transforming grace of Christ.
Building Community is Essential
Whether you are with two million kids at World Youth Day or with a group of four-to-five kids in your parish hall or at your home, it is vital that you build common experiences together. Social psychologists and youth ministers the world over often cite this as one of the interesting facets of Generation Z: that despite their somewhat shallow virtual reality based culture in social media, experience continues to be the thing that truly changes them.
Shared experiences, as all of us could agree, are some of the most memorable things from our developmental years. Whether it was on a sports team, in a band or choir, or simply playing with a group of friends in your neighborhood, your memories are more vivid when you encounter those people again later in life, and there is a trust that is almost immediate. Our kids are thirsting for this trust and connection.
In the midst of so many activities that fail to build real bonds, youth ministry offers a counter-cultural experience where no one has a cookie-cutter approach but offers the integral human experiences that help to form character and knowledge that will shape our future as the People of God. Here are three practical tips for structuring your youth formation:
- Do ice-breakers. My teen class does them just about every week. Sometimes you’ll need more time for content, and after the first five-to-six weeks, you’ll find that the students naturally have a sense of connectivity that doesn’t require ice-breakers constantly. Don’t give up though, especially as new kids may join throughout the year. Periodic-fun-and factual games, things that help them to know each other and their faith better, are of primary importance.
- Make sure you do some socials. Do a social at least once a month, and do a few a month during summer. This is not just fun for the sake of fun, but it has a formative effect that cannot be overestimated. Physical activity, as well as some prayer, is basic. Teenagers have energy, they tend to not want to just sit around all the time, and some of them have never been on a team, so I would put a premium on team games/sports, team-building exercises (fun but formative), and social gatherings like going out to eat or seeing a movie together. These are just a few suggestions. And limit movies to one a semester or so.
- Participate in retreats and conferences. You should do this at least once a year with your students. Take advantage of what the diocese offers, regional events like Stuebenville Lone Star, and occasionally, looking into national or international events like World Youth Day or the March for Life in Washington, D.C. (regionally, Dallas and Austin also have great events around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade in January). Also, with this generation, mission trips are becoming popular as it meets the needs of Instagram culture and the desire to help others.
A great tragedy of the last forty years has been the shallow level of catechesis we offer our students. This is not a chastisement of our great volunteers of the past and present, but simply a recognition that the formula hasn’t worked as well as we had hoped, as Bishop Joseph Strickland highlights in his Constitution on Teaching (14).
Rather than elevating the conversation, we have often abdicated the truth, beauty, and goodness of our Church’s Teachings in favor of soft, what I will call “pastel,” catechetical models that often leave our students with a shallow understanding of truth that does not stand up to the intellectual rigor and moral depravity of modern society.
This two-fold effect is seen in the almost 80 percent of Christian students who abandon the faith in their twenties and the decreasing number of marriages in the Church in the past 15 years. Rather than a St. Francis who preached Christ crucified and the need for conversion and repentance, we have advocated the statue with birds on his shoulder who just smiles and says, “You are fine just the way you are.”
St. Peter reminds his listeners that “we must give a reason for our hope” (1 Pet 3:15), and the work of youth ministry, while trying to avoid a strict classroom model, must be a place where our youth can encounter the truth of Christ in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
In order to do this, here are a few final tips to form yourself as a youth minister:
- Know your Apologetics! Read great Catholic resources, like the St. Philip Institute website and its Catholic East Texas magazine, Catholic Answers, Word on Fire, and other trustworthy on-line sources to help you be up-do-date on the primary apologetic topics. Also, go “old school” and keep reading books. We live in the golden age of literacy and Catholic authors are producing excellent material to assist us in the work of making life-long disciples.
- Don’t try to be “the” expert, but rather a jack of all trades. In other words, know your limitations, but don’t settle for ignorance. If you struggle with a subject, bring in your pastor or another well informed lay-person to talk to the students about a topic, but that does not excuse you from learning yourself. Teaching something you are not comfortable with will make you a better disciple, which in turn will make you a more believable teacher.
- Elevate the Conversation. Remember, you can control the direction of conversation by asking questions that lead the students to think critically. Don’t settle for one-word answers and shallow responses. They want to be taught, they want to be able to defend themselves, and you can be a vital part of helping them to realize they have the ability to do this thing called being a disciple.
Prayer is the Heart
I know, it seems like I am punting my fifth practical tip here, but really, nothing could be farther from the truth! Prayer is so important! In all my efforts as a priest and in my life as a volunteer for the Church prior to ordination, nothing rings more true than the words of one of my priests from my own youth: you must be before the Lord in the Eucharist! Friends, prayer is the glue. It is the gas. It is the source of life in any healthy ministry.
If you are not a person of prayer, take a step back and get that down first. Work with your pastor, or work with a spiritual director, and become a person of consistent prayer. If you are already somewhere along the way in a life of prayer, take up a few extra practices of prayer to benefit your ministry: extra penitential practices (mortification), more time in Adoration, and maybe a little sacrificial giving to benefit your parish. Your ministry literally depends upon it.
Finally, recognize your smallness and place your efforts in the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady and the Sacred Heart of Her Son. St. John Bosco, pray for us!