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.