By Heidi Busse
Passing on the faith to the next generation is one of the central challenges of the Catholic Church and, for many priests, a deep labor of love. Most parishes today are filled with good intention about religious education -- we understand the great need for faith development among our youth, and yet we continue to offer lackluster programs to an ever-dwindling number of kids.
Experts point to various reasons for shrinking Catholic formation programs -- changing culture, shifting priorities, a general disconnect from the local parish as a community. Still, kids today are not all that different from generations past. While it is true that the information age has radically changed how we process information and communicate with one another, young people are still searching for some deeper meaning in their day-to-day lives, some sense of their own self-worth.
In my experience, young people are hungry to learn about the faith of their parents and grandparents -- traditional prayers and sacramentals can be a grounding force for many Catholic kids adrift in a world of marketing slogans and commercialization.
The problem is not so much what our faith teaches, it is how we are teaching the faith. Most parishes are using 19th-century pedagogical practices to try and teach kids who have been deeply shaped by the 21st century world. Sitting in a classroom (usually on a Wednesday night after a full-day of sitting in classroom at school) and listening to an adult lecture may not be the most engaging model for today's young people to learn and embrace their Catholic faith.
While I am not advocating for a wholesale shift away from the classroom model of catechesis, I have found that doing the same thing year after year and expecting a different result is simply unrealistic.
In his recent book, Post-Modern Pilgrims, Leonard Sweet defines postmodern culture as an EPIC culture: Experiential, Participatory, Image-driven and Connected. While Sweet's delineations may not apply to every young person, they certainly suggest an overall shift in the way kids learn and absorb information. Using Sweet's model of the postmodern EPIC culture, I offer some ideas to help you, along with your DRE, breathe new life into your parish's faith formation program.
While older generations put a great deal of emphasis on cognition and reason, younger people approach life more as an experience. In Sweet's words, ''post-moderns literally feel their way through life.'' In our faith formation programs, we have found that kids are looking for an experience of their faith, rather than simply learning about the Catholic religion. Of course the central, unifying experience of the Catholic faith is liturgy. Incorporating Mass into faith formation programming, even once or twice a year (Ash Wednesday?) is a great way to catechize to kids. Other ideas where we have found success:
Offer and teach experiential prayer. Whether you offer more modern experiential prayer forms such as Taize or meditation (what is ancient is new again) or teach traditional Catholic prayer forms such as saying the Rosary and Lectio Divina, incorporating experiential prayer into faith formation programs is a great way to help kids develop spiritual practices and early spiritual discipline.
Remember that the atmosphere is part of the experience and surprisingly important to kids. Light a few candles, dim the lights; create a sacred space and the kids will respond with (relative) reverence.
The sound of silence. We instruct our catechists to allow three to five minutes of absolute silence into their classroom each week. Some kids fall asleep, wiggle or whisper. Sure, it is not perfect, but this is an exercise in teaching young people how to settle their body and mind and to open themselves to the presence of God.
Kids tell us that their days are filled with such noise -- from the iPod to the Internet to the television -- that this is some of the only absolute silence they experience during the week. St. Isaac the Syrian's words still resonate, ''Love silence diligently, for in it your soul will find life.'' What a blessing to pass the gift of silence on to the next generation.
Many young people learn best through participation and activity. Sweet notes that ''postmodern youth tend to like to explore hands on, before they can integrate an experience.'' Most faith formation programs have traditionally relied too heavily on passive, cognitive learning styles with few opportunities for student participation. Below are some ideas to get your kids involved in their own faith development:
A joyful spirit of service. Whether it is raking leaves, serving meals or singing carols, integrating service opportunities within your faith formation program helps kids participate in the mission of Christ. As pastor, if you are able to participate, all the better. While today's kids might not show it or say it, priests are still a model of Christian values and behavior for young people. If you are with them serving the poor or cheering up residents in an elderly facility, the kids will notice.
Cultivate charisma. Borrowing from our Protestant brothers' and sisters' model of youth ministry is a great way to get kids excited about their Catholic faith. For middle school programs, begin each night with a large group gathering. Pray, sing songs, encourage participation in ritual. Breaking into small groups and playing ''ice-breaker'' games gets kids moving and active. We have found they are more attentive in a classroom lecture and discussion setting if we've encouraged their participation in the program from the start.
It is also important to find someone to direct and coordinate your parish's religious education programs who not only has the knowledge and good practice of the faith, but also has a certain charisma, energy and attitude. Because of our marketing-saturated culture, today's young people are wary of anyone trying to sell them something -- even an idea. If they are welcomed by someone they believe authentically values kids and youth, they will take the risks necessary to jump in and participate in their own spiritual growth.
If you've ever read a middle school student's text message to a friend, you understand that today's kids are not overly concerned about language. In fact, Sweet argues that postmodern young people are not word based at all, ''We are a print-saturated, word-based Church in the midst of visual technologies that are creating a whole new visual culture.''
Catholic sociologist Jim Davidson agrees. He believes that the Church today (and thus, religious education programming) is in need of a shift from the ''exegesis of words'' to the ''exegesis of images.'' Below I offer some ways that your religious education program might become more image focused:
Embrace technology. From Facebook to Myspace and everything in between, postmodern kids live comfortably with technology. There are many ways to integrate and encourage technology usage in your faith formation programs. As pastor, bringing technology to the fore at the parish council level and in the budgeting process is a good first step to moving your parish into the information age.
Updating your parish website is key. Many religious education curriculums have interactive websites for kids and youth to research and participate in games and activities related to what they are learning in the classroom. Introducing older kids to some good Catholic websites such as USCCB or the Vatican's website is also helpful. After all, even Pope Benedict XVI is on YouTube!
News you can use. Kids today are well informed about current events. Borrowing images from the news media can help shape an overall theme for your faith formation programs and place current events in a Catholic context. For example, last year's theme at our parish was ''Our Changing Global Community.'' It offers contemporary imagery that most kids can understand, yet it is a broad enough theme to allow the pillars of the Catechism to be taught in a universal way.
Share images of the news in a classroom or large group setting and talk about them from a Catholic point of view. Incorporating some current affairs in your homily will also reinforce the idea that faith is lived and Christ is present in the reality of our everyday lives.
I have found that most young people want a deeply personal and a communal experience. Leonard Sweet points out that ''youth yearn for connectedness, but not with family or heritage so much as a community of choice.'' Below are some ways to help your faith-formation programs and events become a community of choice for the kids in your parish:
Your presence is a present. It may seem nearly impossible to squeeze one more parish function into your overstuffed schedule, but your presence on Wednesday nights is essential. If your faith-formation program has a large-group element (and it should), work with your DRE to speak to the kids during this time about the central teachings of the Church.
We have found that our ''Grill the Pastor'' nights are well attended and fun with kids really getting in the spirit of asking questions and trying to stump their priest.
You can also welcome kids and parents at the door, talk with kids at break, visit classrooms or offer a blessing as kids journey home. These are all ways to reassure your parish's religious ed kids that they are valued and loved by God and their community.
(Mentioning faith-formation families in your homily once in a while and/or including them in the prayers of the faithful at Mass are other ways to reinforce the message that these programs are just as vital to the parish as the Catholic school.)
We come to share our story. More than ever before, kids are searching for authentic community and connection. Oftentimes faith-formation programs bring together kids from different schools, different parts of town and different social strata. Finding ways to allow students to get to know one another and share their own experiences of school, sports, music and modern culture will lead to deeper connections and an openness to talking about morals and values.
If your catechists cannot spare classroom time for socializing, get kids into a parish-sponsored chat room on the Web or offer social gatherings for kids outside the structure of the program. Young people thrive when they feel accepted and connected.
While no faith-formation program is perfect, we do not have to settle for the status quo. By updating our pedagogical practices and using elements of the postmodern culture, it is possible to get kids excited about and engaged in their Catholic faith. You might even see some smiling faces on Wednesday nights. Wouldn't that be something? TP
Heidi Busse is the director of faith formation at the Church of St. Edward in Bloomington, Minn., and a contributing writer and editor for Our Sunday Visitor. She is the editor of Take Out: Family Faith on the Go, a mini-magazine to engage families more actively in the faith.
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