Parishes that want to have teens actively engaged in youth ministry need to make it worth their while, according to leaders of successful youth ministry programs.
That doesn’t mean throwing a party for them every time — although dinner or snacks can help bring kids who might not come otherwise. It means giving them something of real value to do.
Jim Chesnes, who has been in youth ministry for more than three decades, started a program 20 years ago in which young people who have been confirmed serve as mentors to students just coming into the confirmation preparation program.
The mentors not only attend classes with the young people in formation, they plan some of the segments. They also work to get to know the students they are mentoring, said Chesnes, who does confirmation preparation and youth and young adult ministry at St. Paul of the Cross in North Palm Beach, Florida.
During their second year, confirmation students are told that they will be invited to the leadership program.
New student leaders start in September to prepare for the confirmation classes, and a large proportion of the newly confirmed young people choose to participate.
“It’s a part of our parish,” Chesnes said. “I’ve been thrilled by the number of kids who choose to participate.”
At Holy Spirit Parish in Fountain Valley, California, youth minister Catherine Ord asks her youth group members — juniors and seniors in high school who have generally been confirmed at the end of their sophomore year — to help with formation activities for the seventh- and eighth-graders she works with. They also do a variety of service projects both within and outside the parish, and members can sign up to work on particular projects during a defined time frame instead of committing to attend weekly or monthly meetings without advance notice of what will happen there.
“With juniors in high school, it is really hard,” she said. “This time of the year, they have band camp, they have AP classes and tests. I’d rather they be there part of the time than make more demands and not be there at all. When they are there, they are active and engaged. The juniors and seniors, they are there because they want to be there.”
When Ord took her position seven years ago, there were about a half-dozen juniors and seniors active in youth ministry. Now there are more than 50, doing everything from designing and creating posters for the junior high formation program to helping with parish fundraisers. “The last three years, they planned a dance,” she said. “Sometimes they make videos for the parish website.”
Chesnes and Ord have the right idea, said Kevin Driscoll, coordinator for the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Diocese of Gary, Indiana. Youth ministry must help teens experience God in their lives, not just teach about God, and it must respect the demands that school and other activities place on their time.
“The one thing we are battling more than ever is that teens don’t have time to participate in youth ministry programs — it’s simply their busy schedules,” Driscoll said. “We have to develop a team of mentors who are willing to journey with our young people and walk that road with them.”
That means focusing more on doing than sitting and learning.
“Most of our traditional Catholic formation has been classroom-based. It’s been about learning about God, not experiencing God,” Driscoll said. “When our teenagers start to see how God works, they see the meaning of Christ played out in 2014.”
Teens often get excited about the high points of youth programs — trips to national events such as the National Catholic Youth Conference or service trips, for example, would be among the “mountaintop experiences” — but that can’t be all there is, Driscoll said.
“Large events, big events, ‘wow’ moments, have been proven to have a positive impact on a teenager’s faith life,” he said. “There still need to be adult leaders who journey with teenagers, encourage them and help bridge the gap between church and school. When they walk back down the mountain, there has to be someone waiting there to help them connect their faith to their everyday life.”
Making that connection is key for teens, who live in a secularized world where many, if not most, of their classmates do not share their faith, Driscoll said.
“The most detrimental thing to a teen’s faith is when they don’t make the connection to their everyday life,” he said. “It’s more important than ever for teens to recognize the power of evangelization. It doesn’t mean being a weird Bible thumper. It means representing your faith well by a joyous appreciation of Christ’s love.”
From youth to adult
Driscoll said he sees positive signs among today’s teenagers, but also omens that should cause leaders to make sure young people are properly catechized.
“I see an openness to religion that wasn’t there 20 years ago,” he said. However, “this is a generation that is so über-tolerant of the other that they might not necessarily see the differences between denominations. It scares priests, bishops and youth leaders, because we need young people to stand up for the truth of Catholicism.”
One way to keep young people involved through youth ministry and beyond is to encourage involvement as music ministers, readers, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and roles in other parish ministries.
While the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass at St. Paul of the Cross is not labelled as a “youth Mass,” Chesnes said, most of the lay liturgical roles are filled by young people, and it has become popular among young families.
“We want [young people] to have positions of leadership. It’s easier to translate their ministries wherever they go. My goal was always not to have a strong youth group, but to have young people who will be strong in their faith 20 years from now. Confirmation isn’t graduation; youth ministry is the stepping stone to adult participation in the Church.”
Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.
Related reading: Teen voices