I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on how much Youth Ministry has evolved in the past several years. I know some of you reading this have been in ministry far longer than I, while many of you are relatively newer to the ranks. I began as a Core Member in 1991. Suffice to say, the Catholic Youth Ministry landscape has changed dramatically since then.
So at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I thought I’d take some of you on a trip back in youth ministry time. Jump in the DeLorean and let’s get to it.
“Back in my day…” (Imagine the old man voice)
The closest thing we had to iMovie video editing was a boom box hooked up to stacked VCRs as my nimble fingers clicked Play/Record and Pause several hundred times in one sitting.
Our song lyrics PowerPoint was called an overhead projector and the bulb inside got hotter than the sun.
Parish websites were called a bulletin and the closest thing we had to cool graphics or visual hip-ness was clip art. Sadly, twenty years later this still hasn’t changed in many Catholic parishes.
There was email but it was sent to one “blanket” parish email address, it was only sent from the diocesan office and no one knew how to access it or read it.
The only “social networking” capabilities a parish had were the money-counting, gossip queens who justified all slander (around their Monday morning, count-counting cauldron) with the phrase, “We should pray for them.”
There were few accessible, truly Catholic Bible Studies available to us and certainly none that were teen-friendly. If you wanted to help your teens go deeper in Scripture you had to find a Protestant study and “Catholicize” it (which usually meant replacing a dozen “David” references with more allusions to Mary and replacing a lot of “I”s with “we”s – generally speaking).
The parish had a leash on me but we called it a “pager” (it was a gentler euphemism). I had no cell phone at that time. The closest thing we had to texting was figuring out how to spell words on a pager using only the telephone’s numeric keypad.
There were only a few solid Christian worship artists that made teens want to sing. There were plenty that made teens want to cry.
There were almost no good, modern Christian movies – there were only a handful of movies pure enough to show on long bus rides (The Princess Bride, The Sandlot and Three Amigos were standard Youth Ministry issue).
I didn’t have Life Support or a website of resources. Nope, I had a file cabinet filled with unfinished Life Night outlines, half-written teachings and phone-tree lists from back when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. I certainly didn’t have a 1-800 number to call and ask people for help. When I was stressed or didn’t know what to do next, I dialed 867-5309 and wished I were back in elementary school again.
We didn’t have Steubenville youth rallies where I lived or Catholic Summer Camps. Nope. We had a Youth Minister who invited us to join him at daily Mass, who hung out with us after and taught us to pray the rosary. And that was enough.
Youth ministry has changed. So what?
Yes, times have changed. Teens have changed. The world and the modern technological culture have changed. The Church has changed in the eyes of many. God has not changed (Hebrews 13:8). The goal of youth ministry has not changed – and cannot change. Read 1 Peter 1:9.
I guess the point that I’m making – and that continues to hit me during prayer – is that while we need to continue to try new things in how we share the gospel of Jesus Christ with His young Church, it’s easy to get swept away by it all. I see parish Youth Ministers and Core Members spending countless hours on creating parish websites and videos and podcasts and music and others media formats that yield little fruit or lasting reward for most of the teens they are called to catechize. Sure, the “at-the-parish-constantly, die-hard” teens get into them but countless dozens of pre-evangelized or un-evangelized souls do not.
And while, yes, technology can be a useful evangelistic and even formative tool with this screen-based generation, it can also be one of the greatest distractions of time and energy – a distraction that insures no true depth of relationship with our young people. It’s not that any of the newer efforts are bad, only that if a solid relational ministry foundation is not set, these newer, and might I suggest “colder” efforts to evangelize (safely from behind computer screens) fail to bear fruit because they lack true roots (Mark 4:6).
The Gospel has not changed. Teens still need Christ.
Teens need Christ. They need Christ’s presence in Word and Sacrament as well as in you and your Core Team. My parish Life Teen program was one of the first in the country. We didn’t have anything technologically elaborate. We began with few teens and no budget.
All we had was Jesus – in the Eucharist, in His Word, in His Priesthood, in the Sacraments and in one another…and that was all we needed.
Make physical presence and relational ministry the cornerstone of your Youth Ministries; value soul-to-soul ministry above all else. Create safe and effective ways to interact with one another more regularly. Pray together. Serve together. Eat together. Have real conversations. Make eye contact a priority. Get invited out to teens’ homes and get to know their families. Invite parents along on the journey. Become a regular fixture on the campuses (if you’re allowed) or at school sporting events and general school assemblies, again. Put a majority of your time into building and forming solid and holy relationships with the teens and Core.
If you do that – and do it well – all of the other facets that make up “21st century Youth Ministry” will bless your efforts without diverting your energies.
Thank you for taking this trip back in time with me. I’m now closing my laptop and heading to have coffee with some teens. How about you?