I’ve always liked the phrase “contrary to popular belief”. It gets your attention. It challenges your knowledge. What follows it can leave you feeling sheepish at your own ignorance or quite edified in your own intelligence.
For instance, contrary to popular belief…
Cleopatra was not Egyptian.
Ping Pong is not the name of the game.
Bats are not blind.
Noah did not take only two of every animal onto the ark.
The Wright brothers did not invent the first airplane.
West Virginia is not west of Virginia.
Moses climbed Mt. Sinai many times (seven to be exact).
Now, right now many of you are thinking, “Okay, great Mark. Thanks for the useless knowledge and for wasting the last 30 seconds of my life.”
Stick with me, here.
Traveling the globe doing ministry these past 15+ years, I’ve noticed a lot of – we’ll call them “trends” – in conversations with youth ministers. While some of what follows is bound to strike a chord (and probably a nerve) with some of you reading it, remember our primary goal: holiness. If our desire is to grow in holiness and improve the quality of the ministries we offer, we must constantly evaluate where we need to die to ourselves, our short-sightedness and our pride.
It’s impossible to put together one comprehensive list of popular mistruths and distorted perspectives in youth ministry circles, but I think there are some that are prevalent enough to mention. Generally speaking, I’ve found these to be true over the years. So here goes.
Contrary to popular belief in youth ministry:
Big numbers don’t mean you’re doing good youth ministry.
Some parishes draw big groups strictly because of parish demographics, others because of the younger ministry programs feeding it. Still others pull numbers because there are no other viable or relevant ministries in neighboring parishes. Now, don’t get me wrong. Numbers can reveal things – like how you are doing in outreach, the quality of programming and if your evangelization efforts are effective. Strictly speaking, though, numbers tell you about bodies…not necessarily souls.
High school teens don’t just want to be entertained.
Teens care about truth and living a moral life. They get enough entertainment – and it’s higher-budget and higher quality than a rural or suburban parish can compete with. If the Gospel bores a teen, that’s not God’s fault – it’s ours. How we communicate the truth — in its revelatory fullness — with passion and joy, refusing to water it down…that engages a young soul for the long haul.
Middle school teens are capable of amazing depth.
Never sell middle-schoolers short. They might resemble sugared-up pinballs bouncing off the walls of the parish hall, but they can be still; they can pray! Never write them off as spiritually immature or shallow. They need to be engaged differently…but they do need to be engaged.
Diocesan Directors are not your enemy.
These men and women are expected to serve the Bishop, every parish (with varying needs and existing support structures) and every youth minister and catechist in the diocese with little or no staff, budget or support. No, they’re not perfect, but neither are you. Offering to pray with them and asking how you can help will quickly change your perspective…and, often, your appreciation.
Core Teams need discipline, but not a disciplinarian.
There’s usually at least one Core Member at every parish who believes it’s his role to be “the enforcer”. He’s the one who feels the need to be the disciplinarian of the group, ready to “lay the smack-down” on any teen that even remotely steps out of line. Part mall cop, part warden, these guys demand that the teens learn respect…without ever offering respect to the teens, first.
Youth ministry can work on a small budget.
You don’t need a lot of money to do solid youth ministry; you need humble, prayerful hearts and a unified vision. The more people working toward a common goal, the more support will come. God doesn’t set you up to fail. He will pick up the tab. He pays for what He orders. Pray before you pay and God will reveal where to spend your money…or who to ask for more.
Parents should never be viewed as a problem.
Read the Catechism #2223. If they are failing as primary catechists, then help them; don’t blame them. Trade in the lamentations for affirmations (of how challenging it is to raise holy teens in this culture)…and invitations (of how they can get more involved in what you are doing).
Just because a parish music group can make a CD doesn’t mean they should.
The digital age has made it really easy to cut a CD, but having Garage Band doesn’t keep some music groups from sounding like a garage band (sorry if that sounded harsh but the point needs to be made). Often when the music ministry at a parish records their own CD, the line between prayer and performance can quickly blur. I’m not saying it should never happen, but if it’s something the Lord wills, He’ll make it happen. We can’t lose sight of the ministry aspect of the music. The group should be made up of souls who want to serve God invisibly…not (American) Idol-ically.
Fewer Core Members can be a good thing.
Better to have a few dedicated souls than several warm bodies. Nothing causes interior division faster than when the minority sees themselves doing a majority of the work. If 30% of your Core does 90% of the work, do the math and challenge the rest to step up…or invite them to step down.
Bishops are smarter than people give them credit for.
I love sharing a meal with Bishops – you really get to know the guy beneath the mitre. These are some of the funniest, holiest and smartest men I’ve met; and while I don’t always agree with what some of them say or do, not even our first Bishops were perfect (Mt. 26:45-56). Still, there is a grace that comes with that Apostolic office. Pray for your Bishop. Encourage your teens to pray for him. Trust in the Lord’s providence and the Church’s wisdom. God honors prayerful hearts…and obedient ones.
You’re not as bad at youth ministry as you fear (and you might not be as good as you think).
The enemy wants you to feel ineffective, unsupported, overstressed and underpaid. While you might be any or all of these things at different times, you cannot let that spirit of fear dictate your ministry efforts. If you take in all the positive evaluations, you have to read all the bad ones too, so don’t read ‘em…it will leave you more time to read Scripture.
A parish cannot afford to go without youth ministry.
Many people believe that parishes are dying for lack of young priests. A wider perspective reveals that parishes are dying, literally, because the young families are abandoning their cradle Catholic roots for nondenominational “fruit”. If we want God’s priests to hear His call, we have to have opportunities (youth ministry) for them to do so. Youth ministry is not an expense – it’s an investment. A parish that cuts this byline from its budget is draping the pall over itself…some might even say that to do so is “a-pall-ing.”
And finally, no, I don’t think I have all the answers. I have fallen into the trap on just about every one of these.
Contrary to popular belief…the one given the microphone or the blog is usually the one who doesn’t have all the answers but is open to asking the difficult questions.
Thank you for what you do for the Kingdom of God, which, contrary to popular (secular) belief, does exist on earth and is seen in His Church.