"An army of youth flying the standards of truth, / We're fighting for Christ, the…
A call for more effective youth ministry
Recently, the Holy Father released his apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit, which is the fruit of his reflections from the recent synod focused on youth and young adults. In Chapter 7, the Holy Father states: “Young people frequently fail to find in our usual programs a response to their concerns, their needs, their problems and issues” (No. 202). As he shares his thoughts regarding youth ministry, he encourages us to build around two important realities.
First, the entire community has to be involved.
The entire faith community must be engaged in ministry with youth. The Church must become more welcoming. Stop and think about it. Does the average parishioner acknowledge the presence of young people at Church? Do we introduce ourselves and tell them we are glad they are here? When our parish is looking for volunteers to help with the youth programs, is there a flood of volunteers? Young people desperately need a place to belong. In order for them to find a home in our current parish structures, we need to find ways to journey with them. Our involvement or lack of involvement communicates to our young people whether their concerns, interests and activities are important to us and whether we want to accompany them along their faith journey.
As the faith community journeys with young people, Pope Francis suggests there should be two important actions in our ministry to them: outreach and growth. By outreach, the Holy Father points to the crucial need to attract young people to a personal encounter with Christ. He urges us to approach young people “with the grammar of love, not by being preached at” (No. 211). The proclamation of the basic Gospel message and the opportunity to encounter the one whom the Gospel is about must come first. In chapter four of the document, Pope Francis summarizes the kerygma in three simple truths: God loves you, Christ saves you, and he is alive. The Holy Father encourages us to not overlook the power of this simple message and to find creative ways to incarnate it in the language of the young.
The second action of communal ministry to youth that the Holy Father identifies is growth. He points out that we often think of growth as growth in understanding. With this approach, we tend to focus our formational ministry for youth around doctrinal and moral issues. While not rejecting the need for this type of formation, Pope Francis puts the emphasis on relational growth. How can we help young people develop and deepen their understanding of “God loves you; Christ saves you; he is alive.” “Youth ministry should always include occasions for renewing and deepening our personal experience of the love of God and the living Christ,” he writes (No. 214). When we err on the side of too much moral and doctrinal formation before an individual has an encounter with the living God, the Christian life can seem oppressive. Someone has no place to put the laws of love if they haven’t had an experience of the person of love. Help someone encounter the God who loves them and walks with them, and suddenly those more “difficult” teachings begin to make sense and fit into their understanding of life and their journey of faith.
The Holy Father is very fond of quoting the Scripture passage about the weeds and the wheat (Mt 13:24-30). He suggests we focus on fostering growth rather than solving problems. When our approach is focused on “fixing” youth (pulling out the weeds), we risk damaging the newness of their faith. Instead, we should focus on creating good environments for growth, helping youth get water from a vibrant prayer life, and fertilizer (grace) from the sacramental life of the Church. This growth orientation involves being OK with the messiness of a young person’s life. Rather than looking at the mess, help them see the signs of growth. Much of the growth the Holy Father envisions will come from fraternal love, community life and service. Never before have so many young people experienced being lonely and anxious. Helping young people to form and live Christian community well, will, in and of itself, bring much healing and growth.
Second, young people must take on a greater role.
The second important reality the Holy Father invites us to focus on is giving young people a greater role in our youth ministry, allowing their ingenuity and youthful idealism to take more of the center stage. Pope Francis knows that many times the most successful agents of ministry to youth are other youth. The principle of “like serving like” has been proven most successful in many of the youth movements and associations that have arisen in the past 30 years.
Someone doesn’t need to be a professional or have a theological degree to be effective in ministry with youth. Oftentimes, the young can better reach another young person who might never respond to the efforts of an older adult. There is a real beauty and fruitfulness in helping young people get out there on mission. They believe the world needs changing and they want to try to make a difference.
In my personal experience working with young people, I’ve come to see that “mission motivates.” As a young person is engaged in serving others and trying to bring the love of Christ to others, their sense of purpose grows, their experience of having a place in the Church grows, and their desire to learn more about their faith grows. Give them support, give them some training, give them real responsibility, and get out of the way.
The Holy Father exhibits great confidence in the young and their ability to make a profound impact on the Church. “Through the holiness of the young, the Church can renew her spiritual ardour and her apostolic vigour. The balm of holiness generated by the good lives of so many young people can heal the wounds of the Church and of the world, bringing us back to that fullness of love to which we have always been called: young saints inspire us to return to our first love” (No. 50). Can we join him in having this type of confidence in our youth? I have seen them in my work with NET Ministries. I invite you, too, to look around for the young saints in our midst.
Mark Berchem is founder and president of NET Ministries, Inc.