Have you ever tried to understand Mormon theology? It’s really complex and kind of wild, and in the end I doubt it is logically coherent. However, Mormons are growing fast. In Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, Mormon teens scored higher than almost every group in almost every statistic of religiosity. What’s their secret? I think its community (or at least that’s a large part of it).
A friend of mine remarked that he was greeted by several times as many people in one week visiting an Evangelical Church than in months in his new parish. Catholic parishes have often adopted impersonal suburbia that surrounds them rather than transform it by forming a community.
For hundreds of years parishes were natural communities: a small fishing village in India or a plantation in Peru make a community in a way that a North American suburb simply doesn’t. The people are often related, they work together, they entertain themselves together, and they pray together. So often the first three are lacking in modern parishes so people end up praying in the same place but not together. Modern cities tend to be impersonal: you can ride beside someone on the train every day yet never speak a word to them; you can walk past anyone and not even raise an eyebrow; or you can buy your groceries without saying anything beyond “Debit.”
The Church is a community! The Church needs to bring community back into impersonal society.
In Sustainable Youth Ministry, Mark Davies points out that the most important factor for having a teen come back to youth ministry is they feel welcome or they are friends with others in the group. (He even notes kids will accept a mediocre program if they’re welcome and with friends. I don’t think we can accept mediocrity because we want them to experience Christ, not just show up.) What is this but community? Sure we want to go beyond this to have them experience Christ in prayer and in service; but let’s start with having them at least feel welcomed into a Christian community.
Mr. Davies points out how some youth groups would have select teams who would welcome newcomers, lead them to the sign-in table, show them around, get their e-mail or phone number, and contact them at least once in the next week. These groups would often meet beforehand to strategize. He takes this serious. Most of us can’t implement that next week but couldn’t we tell our leaders to at least greet new teens, get their names and e-mail and send them a message that week inviting them back. I know I have delegated this to parents rather than teens before. Newcomers need to feel welcome; we need accompany them from where they are if we want to lead them to Christ.
My experience is that their needs to be community among the teens already involved. At some point (often high school) parents don’t force their kids to go anymore. When this happens I’ve seen groups collapse and others thrive based on whether they’ve formed community.
I think that such things could dramatically increase the success of any youth group. Community also provides positive peer pressure that can lead the middle-of-the-road teens towards good better than a hundred activities with strangers.
Do you have any ideas for building community in Catholic youth groups?