Recently, someone I respect a great deal approached me with a few questions about Youth Ministry and teens in today’s culture. He expressed a feeling of urgency to address the growing problem (just look at the stats) of people, especially young people, leaving the Church, etc. He was looking for answers and solutions. Below are my responses to some of his questions.
In response to his opening statement about the current trends/statistics and the felt need for an urgent action:
Yes, that statistics are rather harrowing. When we talk about young people and the faith we have to remember that the gift of faith is really something the Church has been asked to pass on. Jesus Christ came in the flesh, died in the flesh, and rose from the dead in the flesh, and then entrusts his Body with the task of proclaiming this saving message – the Good News of the Gospel. But tradition always dies when it is forgotten, undervalued, or un-lived. The youth we see today are largely a product of the faith passed on to them by their parents – whether that is faith in Christ, faith in the “American dream,” the sexual revolution, or what have you. The family may be ravaged, but it cannot be replaced. The situation is dire and the secular culture is relentless in its liberal agenda. Perhaps the saddest part of it all is the secularization within the Church herself. This is the real travesty.
The ache that you feel in your heart has only one answer – Jesus Christ. There is no ploy, no program, no strategy, no human word, structure, or novel idea powerful enough to break through the sin of selfishness and self-messianism that we experience today. The ache is a sign, and the sign’s trajectory must lead us always to Christ, and Him crucified…a experience we have been privileged to participate in.
In response to a question on how to address a young person who has no current relationship with God, or no interest in having one (i.e. the “hard-hearted”):
Typically teens don’t come to Youth Group if they are not interested. Nowadays more and more parents, and rightly so, give their teens the option to go to Youth Ministry or not. Very few are forced. In those occasions, however, unconditional, disinterested (in pushing my beliefs), love is the only thing powerful enough to break through. This only makes sense. That’s exactly what Christ did – He is not a good idea, a political power, phantasm, or abstract philosophy. He came to us as a person seeking relationship, seeking only to encounter man where sinful man was. In other words, he went into the muck of life in order to penetrate our hard hearts. These young people who have hard hearts need a real love, a human love that is willing and capable of entering into their pain with them. This real relationship, this sense of belonging, this witness to the love of Christ is truly powerful enough to overcome hard hearts only because He uses us in this way. More often than not, this experience is (at least initially) relegated to the place of prayer, and that vicarious suffering for the other that happens in the silence of our hearts. On the practical level, we hope that all teens, whether they know and love God or not, find in Youth Ministry a place where they belong and are loved. Pope Francis just spoke about this, in fact.
Responding to why so many young people have no relationship with God:
I think I addressed this above for the most part. The breakdown of the family and the pervasive secular culture are tremendous forces. Couple these with the dictatorship of relativism and a purely rationalistic, materialistic worldview and you have now created the perfect environment for atheism. But, I’m never content to pass the buck here, and I truly am tired of hearing people blame the culture. Chaput once said that the world is the way it is because Catholics are not living their faith. In other words, Christ entrusted us with an incredible mission – to proclaim the Gospel! I believe that the Gospel message, that the Person of Christ, is still relevant (even in a post-modern society). And, more than merely being relevant, I believe the Gospel has the power to totally transform lives (i.e. conversion), because He has transformed mine and countless others – Now! He is happening to me right now! But most young people have never heard the Gospel proclaimed in a captivating way, they have never been swept up into the story, their story, by witnesses bold enough to proclaim the whole of the Gospel and that CHALLENGE that it is.
And, with all of that said, I would argue that there is a remnant of young, faithful Catholics who are living the Gospel call and who are zealous to help souls. The Lord has always worked His salvation through the remnant. It is here and there is reason to hope. This is the fruit of the New Evangelization.
Now for a closing remark:
In the end, I would say that there is no mechanism that guarantees faith. The Catholic faith is not a religion of the book, it is not a moral code, or a superb strategy. The Catholic faith is a religion of the Word, the Word made flesh, who proposes himself to human freedom fullyaware of the possibilities – to be accepted or rejected. This is the Christ we must profess, the same Christ who has provoked the hearts of man for ages, and who ultimately demands an answer because He came in the flesh and declared Himself to be God. He is the answer. He has to be.