I never liked Peter Pan. Even as a little boy, I thought that a kid who refused to grow up had something wrong with him. I very much wanted to grow up and be an adult, even though the adults around seemed in no hurry to see that process come to fruition (“You’re too young to know/do/ask that!”) except when it suited them (“You’re too old for that! When are you going to grow up?”).
Yet in light of what I’ve seen in “youth ministry” events in my 25 years as a religious, and when I think of my teen years in the 70s, I wonder if we want our own young people to grow up to become mature Catholics. Not just Catholics who have reached the age of majority and still go to Sunday Mass but actually mature Catholics – faithful witnesses to the Gospel and fruitful disciples of Christ.
Based on my experience (and I’m certain readers can point to hundreds of examples of excellent youth ministry programs), I’d have to say that the strategy of many involved in parish youth ministry runs something like this: “Who knows what to do with kids these days? We’ve got to do something to keep them going to Mass (in the hopes that then they are less likely to get arrested or get pregnant) but Mass and the sacraments, and all that, they’re not … well … they’re not very entertaining … And you’re just not going to attract kids these days if you can’t entertain them! And kids have a lot of energy! So you need to entertain them in a way that allows them to get excited and jump and yell. They love t-shirts – so make sure that they get t-shirts! And pizza! They love pizza! But don’t get too ‘churchy’! They won’t like that. And don’t let anyone over 30 near them! The kids know people that old are boring and aren’t relevant. People over 30 don’t understand the kids’ phones or their music …” etc., etc.
That’s step one of the parish youth ministry strategy that I’ve seen in action. Step two might go like this: “Okay. Yes, last week all those kids were confirmed by the bishop and this week none of them returned to Sunday school or Mass, but we did our best … and besides, you can’t force them. … But it’s okay because in college there’s really exciting youth ministry and they’ll go on service trips and maybe that will keep them from taking drugs and getting pregnant. …” etc., etc.
Step three of this youth ministry strategy: “Well, ok, the kids stopped going to Mass in college, but that’s all right because that’s a time for exploring, discovering and rebelling. But after college they’ll get married in the Church (we hope – maybe we can get Grandma to threaten to disinherit them otherwise) and then, we probably won’t see them after the wedding until they have kids and they want to get the kids baptized. And then we can start the youth ministry process all over again …” (except that if young people are getting married at all, it’s less likely they’ll marry in the Church and even less likely their kids, if any, will be baptized.)
Do I exaggerate? Only slightly. Let me prove it: About ten years ago I saw an advertisement for a parish event: “AN EVENING OF ADORATION AND EXTREME PRAISE!” The featured person (Speaker? Performer? Evangelist?) of the event was a (white) “Christian rapper” whose web site described his lyrics as “ghettolicious.” (Whatever “ghettolicious” meant, I did find that at least one of his CDs was labeled for “explicit lyrics.”) Curiosity got the better of me, so I drove to the large, upper middle-class, suburban parish to see how this event would “make it real” for the teens of the parish.
In the foyer of the parish church that night was a cluster of parents standing at tables hawking wares, including CDs of the Christian rapper and t-shirts that declared: “JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY.” I wanted to cry for those poor parents. They were clearly well-intentioned, uncomfortable and desperate. I doubt they knew what the shirt meant or liked the music they were selling (perhaps recalling George Will referring to rap music as “pathetic verbal slouching”); they seemed embarrassed to see me, another adult, observing what they were doing. They looked at me pleadingly as if to say, “I don’t understand this either, but at least my kid is in church right now and that means he’s not having sex!”
In the church itself, I found a little rock band in the sanctuary, complete with a small movie screen so the kids could follow the lyrics. The songs were of the genre of church music that I call “Jesus-is-my-girlfriend.” You’ve heard the lyrics before: “Oh, oh, Jesus, ooh-ooh-ooh, what would I do, without you-hoo-hoo…”
Is this the best we can do? This is our “A-Game”? Offering wealthy suburban white kids a faux presentation of the worst of ghetto culture, sprinkled with trinkets and Christian trimming? Do we really believe that from this strategy will emerge a generation of Catholic heroes and saints, ready to defend the Faith and defeat the Culture of Death? Do we really think that offering them entertainment with a patina of Christianity, with standards set by their fellow adolescents is the most effective way to disciple young people into Catholic maturity? Apparently, very many (well intentioned) people think so.
Unfortunately, the strategy, in place since I was in my teens back in the 70s, is not working. By every publicly available measure, the practice of the Faith among young Catholics seems to be in a death spiral. The youth ministry strategy I’ve seen seems to be based on Matthew 13:5 (the seed sprang up “at once”, in other words, “Look! The kids are excited! We’ve succeeded!”) but forget Matthew 13:6 (the seed sprung up because of lack of soil, and withered in the sun “for lack of roots”).
What’s the alternative? Some say that we must restore the family as the proper place of religious formation. Agreed – but, as the ongoing Synod indicates, many Catholic families are a mess right now. Very many young people will simply have no one to speak to them of Christ at all if not for those who inhabit the “youth ministry” apparatus. We can serve Christ better by a better ministry to our youth.
We can follow the principle of the classic Jesuit missionaries: “Enter through their door, but lead them through yours.” In other words, learn the local culture/language/customs to get through the front door, then lead them through the doors of the Church into mature discipleship. The youth ministry strategy today that enters through the door of adolescents too often just stays there. We need to take the next step and draw our young people into the fullness of Catholic discipleship, including the entirety of Catholic morality, worship, art and music (yes, Catholic music).
Young people want to “belong” (that’s why there’s always so much talk about “community”). The biggest community available to them is the universal Church founded by Christ. At the same time, young people want to be “different” (the important psychological milestone of individuation). What can be more “different” than standing in the Culture of Life against the Culture of Death?
Let’s have a candid conversation about finding alternatives to a 40-year old strategy that is failing our young people (and, by implication, their future children and grandchildren). Let’s talk about re-centering our young people on Christ (and not on their emotions), within the context of the Church-the-Body-of-Christ (rather than a transient “community” of their peers).
I knew an army captain who commanded a tank platoon in West Germany in the 70s. His unit was deployed within sight of massive Soviet tank columns. The motto of his unit was: “Our job is to fight outnumbered and win.” For people who want to hand the Faith to the next generation, that should be our motto too. We won’t win by pandering to young people and poorly imitating popular culture. We can win by preparing them for Catholic maturity. (Assuming we are spiritually mature ourselves, but that’s another topic for another time.)
When I write next, I will pose this question: “What would you say to the Synod on the Family?” Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J.
is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.