There is a tendency among Catholics who are frustrated with the poor quality of catechesis in the last few decades to look back on “better times in the Church” and say that we need to go back to methods that we used and the traditions that were emphasized back in the days when seminaries were full, youth were disciplined and children knew their catechism. The problem with this logic is that there has been an enormous cultural revolution since these days in the Church. In particular, “youth culture” has exploded in Western Civilization. Youth culture is a world that is entirely different from the world that the rest of us live in and it requires an entirely different approach to evangelization.
Picture yourself stranded on an island and you encounter a tribe of savage people that have never heard the Gospel before. You call your parish priest (somehow you get cell phone reception on the deserted island) and ask him to give you some advice on how to evangelize the tribe. He tells you to teach them the Baltimore Catechism and to pray some prayers with them in Latin. What is going to happen when you try to evangelize the tribe? You will likely end up with a spear in your butt. Why? If you don’t know a thing about the tribal culture, how can you expect to teach them to follow Catholic culture?
Rather than adapting their culture into our Catholic culture, we try to force our culture into theirs. Now, replace “savage tribal people” with “teenagers” and you see the challenges we face in youth ministry. If you want to be effective when evangelizing teens, it is essential that you don’t force Catholicism into their culture. You must learn and inculturize their culture into Catholicism. We must learn the ways of youth culture and adapt our methods in order to effectively evangelize it. A few things about youth culture to consider:
1. Youth culture is a creation of the modern world.
Teenagers have not always existed as we know them today. Prior to the modern world, there was not a separate developmental period known as “adolescence.” Children entered the workforce at a young age and therefore, became “adults” at a quicker pace. As the world became more complex, youth required more and more education. Children began waiting longer and longer to enter the workforce and a new stage of development arose to describe this time period in between childhood and adulthood. As the 1950s and 60s rolled around, a culture evolved out of adolescent development and “youth culture” was born. This new culture is only 50-60 years old. Therefore, youth culture is missionary territory – it is a culture that has never heard the Gospel.
2. Youth culture is constantly changing.
The adolescent stage of development is a short period of life (5-10 years) and it is one in which a person declares their independence from their childhood. Because of this, each new generation of adolescents seeks not only to declare its independence from its parents, but also to seek independence from the previous generation of teenagers. Open up a yearbook from 1999 and you will laugh at the hairstyles, clothes and pop culture of that generation. There is a new generation of youth every 5 years, and that generation is always looking to be independent from the previous generation. Because of this, youth culture is constantly changing.
3. Youth culture exports itself.
Youth culture is America’s #1 export business. Around the world, the American cultural aspects that other countries have adapted into their culture are all youth driven – jeans and clothing, pop music, burgers, style of hair, etc. Furthermore, the larger culture values adolescence as the peak of human existence. Children strive to be more like teenagers in the way they dress and interact. We see this everyday when we see an 8-year-old girl in makeup and a mini-skirt, or a pair of 12-year-olds that have been dating for two years. Adults are also trying to reclaim their adolescence. We see this in uncommitted relationships, 45-year-old women in mini-skirts and the obsession in our culture with trying to look more youthful. Youth culture is changing our world to make it more like itself.
What does this mean?
Pope John Paul II has called for a New Evangelization of the modern world. There is enormous potential to bring about a new evangelization if we can learn to effectively evangelize our youth. If the youth culture would become more Christ centered, the potential to export the Gospel is enormous. We must start by studying and learning the ways of this culture. Only then, will we have hope in converting this savage tribe… er… I mean…teenagers.
Editor’s Note: Next Friday Everett explains the history of youth culture.