We all want to live our life by guarantees. What if I told you that if you’re able to get teens to have three simple factors, there’s an 80% chance the weekly mass attendees as adults? In Christian Smith’s Young Catholic America, he actually pointed out what these three factors are. 80% may not seem high but for comparison, the following combos don’t even produce 50%:
• High parental importance of faith, high teen importance of Faith, and teen frequently reads Scripture
• High teen importance of faith, teen attends Sunday School, and teen has many adults he can talk to about the faith
• High parental importance of faith, high teen importance of religious faith, attends Sunday School, and teen has many religious experiences
In this blog post I want to examine these three factors, then talk about how youth ministry, or better said the church’s ministry to teens, can achieve these three factors.
Christian Smith is a leading sociologist on the sociology of religion: he did a study of over 2000 young adults in their teen years on the religiosity and then followed up with them while they were in their 20s. As far as I know, there aren’t many comparable studies. When he followed up with the Catholics, the results are so amazing he compiled them into a separate book. One interesting thing is that if Catholics go to mass their 20s statistically speaking they will probably go to mass until they die but if they don’t go to mass their 20s the chances that they come back in the 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s is actually rather slim. At the end of the book, he talks about how different combination of factors can come together to ensure that Catholic teens are active Catholics (for him, this basically means attending mass weekly, although I would hope that a truly active Catholic would do more). There are only seven possible paths that lead to more than 50% of the teens remaining active Catholics as adults – and some of these require 4 or 5 factors to come together. Of the seven paths one stands out for two reasons: it produces an 80% success rate at having active Catholic adults and all three of the factors are things that we can create the environment where there almost definitely going to happen.
The first factor is a teen attends Sunday school. We have to remember that Christian Smith is a sociologist of religion goes beyond the Catholic Church – as most Catholics don’t have “Sunday school” but rather either CCD and/or some form of youth ministry. The point is that teens have to attend something weekly which teaches them that they both their head and their heart in a systematic way. Mass is the practice of the things, and although it catechetical, it cannot be the primary means of catechesis.
The second factor is teen had many religious experiences. We can never create a religious experience but if we provide a wide plethora of retreats, adoration, service to the poor, evangelization opportunities, and other spiritual opportunities the probability that a teen will have a subjective religious experience is very high. I’ve done a lot of weekend retreats for teens and I would say that there are very few who go on multiple retreats and have not had a religious experience – probably the majority have it the first time they go.
The last factor is: teen has many adults in religious congregation to turn to for help and support. In simple terms this means that teens can talk adults other than their parents about their faith. Many times this will be a young adult, other times it will be an older volunteer (someone else’s parent). The point is that we need to cultivate those relationships between teens and adults so that the teens will feel like they have at least a few of those adults who they can talk to. In fact, in Sticky Faith they recommend that we attempt to put five adults in every teen’s life with whom they can develop such a relationship.
It is surprising that the experiences that most affect teens, are those which we adults can foster if we are intentional yet which are not often seen in Catholic parishes. These three experiences are really what underlies the buzzword: “comprehensive youth ministry.” First, we have the group or the community where they come together on a regular basis to learn their faith. Second, we have the prayer and service which really brings teens out of themselves to have those experiences. Third, we have the intergenerational aspect which changes it from what Frank Mercadante calls youth ministry 1.0 (the early version of the youth group) to youth ministry 3.0 which really integrates the youth ministry into the entire ministry of the church.
But, on the other hand, these things are tough. It’s easy to brush off having a weekly and stimulating time for you that the parish outside of Sunday mass. It’s much easier just to try to get them to attend mass weekly. Yet, that doesn’t produce the same results. Likewise, we can be satisfied with their head and not reach the heart, or assume that real prayer is too much for them – this second assumption is particularly deadly. Finally, the parents and other young adults can try to put everything on the paid youth minister or the few graduates from the parish’s youth ministry who stick around; yet, not every one of the teens will connect to youth minister nor is have time to reach every single teen in the parish – he needs not just a few volunteers but a cluster of volunteers. My hope is that many parishes will adopt some kind of ministry to teens that reason these three ways; otherwise, the chances from stronger and more vigorous church in the next generation are slim.
EDIT (November 13): Several people in the comments here and on social media have commented that I vastly underplay the role of parents. First of all, if you were to take each factor isolated on it’s own, parents would be the #1 factor whether teens stay Catholic. However, somehow when done in combination this came out #1 – this blog post was meant to elaborate on this. I’ve written several times about the importance of parents such as a blog called Superhero Parents a few months back.