Having been involved in both youth and young adult ministry, I’ve had a lot of time and opportunity to observe the “young adult problem” in the Church, from multiple angles. For many reasons, young adults get lost in the shuffle, particularly so if they are not in the demographic that college campus ministry programs typically serve.
Most of the time, solutions focus on creating parish young adult groups, theology on tap events, and social “mixers.” All of these are worthy ideas and projects, but I would like to argue that the real solution starts earlier – while they are still in our high school youth groups. After having observed, and run, many youth ministry projects, I think that all of us, myself included, have missed a key piece in the spiritual formation of our youth.
Teenagers live in the moment. This is normal to their stage of development. But I think we as youth ministers have a tendency to live in the moment as well. It’s easy to become so absorbed in their current crises, and reaching them there, that we can forget to have a vision for the future. We get so wrapped up in meeting them where they are that we forget to think about where we want to take them.
I believe this is why so many young adults, even those who were active in their youth ministry, later become disengaged and even alienated from the church. Or, if they stay active, they often have an immature and experience-dependent faith. Thus you will find some young adults even in their late 20s and mid-thirties who still (exclusively) attend the Lifeteen Mass, prefer going to their campus ministry for worship rather than involving themselves in a parish, or are uncomfortable joining a prayer-group or bible study that is not specifically geared toward young adults.
So, what can we do to help our teens grow to be active, faith-filled young adults?
BROADER exposure to the Parish Community
As youth ministers, we need to be the bridge, and advocate for our teens’ active participation in parish life. This is not easy sometimes; not only because our teens might be disinclined to venture outside the youth group, but because the parish community itself might not value or welcome them. However, it’s vitally important. While youth group is a great “home base,” we need to facilitate their participation in other events, such as the Parish Lenten Mission, for example. Set aside times in your ministry’s calendar to attend these instead of regular youth group activities. Your youth will gradually become more comfortable outside their peer environment; your parish will become more aware of their presence, and you can take advantage of the already-existing programming and cut down on some planning time. Win-win-win!
SERVICE and RESPONSIBILITY
Mission trips are great. But, they are yet another structured activity that doesn’t necessarily prepare youth to take the initiative after high school. Try to get them involved in local service as well, whether in the parish (as a lector, for example, and not just at the youth Mass), or in the wider community (volunteering at the nursing home or food bank etc). These don’t have to be yet another thing you must organize. You can simply provide the information on options for service, and support/encourage the teens to make the first contact. (This could perhaps be an initiative for summers where they have more free time).
Help them take responsibility for their group as well. In the first youth ministry where I volunteered, the priest who served as the youth minister had one of his teens on the parish council. She acted as liaison between the group and the council. If the parish as a whole had a complaint about the youth group, or a need the youth group could fill, she brought that to her peers for discussion and they came up with constructive solutions together. Vice-versa – if the youth group had a concern or need, she brought that to the attention of the rest of the council. Experiences like this build the skills needed for successful Church involvement later in life.
DIVERSIFY YOUR CORE TEAM
The advantage to having a young, hip core team is that you create a safe space where teens find it easier to explore and make their faith their own, apart from their parents. This is critically important. However, it is also important to mix that experience up a bit – otherwise you run the risk of your teens being unable to envision what a life-long faith journey looks like (particularly if they already lack that example at home).
Try to make your core team a mix of younger and older. Yes, keep the recent college graduates and young professionals. But also look among the retired people in your parish, or the middle-aged who don’t have teens in the group. Again, keep in mind not only where your teens are, but where they are going. They need to see role models from all stages of life.
IT DOESN’T ALWAYS HAVE TO BE “EPIC”
Youth Ministry (and young adult ministry) focus a lot on engaging the emotions, and creating an experience. Again, these are important and not to be dismissed. Adolescence is a very emotional time of life, and if you don’t engage these aspects, you’ll lose your audience. However, once again, keep in mind not simply where they are, but where they are going. The faith journey is not a sprint, but a marathon. While an experiential encounter with Christ is foundational, they need to shore up that foundation with more tools. Make sure that you provide talks and teaching about walking through the ups and downs of life, praying through the dry times, keeping on when the going gets rough. While you want to inspire them by lifting them out of their daily routine (taking them to youth conferences, trips, etc.), don’t forget to help them find God in the daily part too.
Yes, it’s important to teach them to shoot high for sainthood. To see on-fire speakers who show them what truly amazing things are possible if we give our lives to God. But it’s also important to remind them that, for most people, fame and sainthood don’t go together. Most of the saints in heaven are people we don’t even know, but nonetheless achieved great holiness and made a lasting difference in the world. So yes, let them have exposure to the rock stars in youth ministry, if that will help them see the dynamism of a life of faith. But make sure they also see the retired priest in your diocese, who quietly fills in where he is needed, always has time to listen, and has learned to maintain his peace despite the chaos that comes and goes in the Church. Make sure they get to know the couple with the handicapped child, who aren’t seen around the parish much, but lead a beautiful life of dedication. Introduce them to the widow who quietly refills the candles in the church; and makes use of her new state in life to find more time to pray.
They might not appreciate these examples in the moment. But later, when they are away from home, struggling to find ways to “feed the fire,” these are the roots that will save their faith. Because in the back of their mind, they will know it doesn’t always have to be epic. Sometimes God is pleased with us just putting one foot in front of the other.