youth ministry in an adult church

I once heard youth ministry colourfully described as a ‘bandaid on a bleeding artery’. While those committed to the evangelisation and support of youth might resist such a diagnosis it nevertheless points to the fact that outreach to young people cannot be thought of apart from the health of the adult Church.

wydIt strikes me that if the adult Church is haemorrhaging – because of poor preaching and liturgy, a thin sense of belonging or a lack of support for instance – then there is little prospect that young members will be sustained in their faith as they mature. Young people graduate from the parochial youth group or youth movement much faster than we think. This leads us to consider what we are offering young people in our communities over the long term, for the flourishing and growth of their faith. All you need do is look at your adult Church for a sense of what’s coming.

There are other good reasons why nurturing the faith of adult Catholics is critical, even essential, to meaningful youth ministry in our parishes.

Adult Catholics witness to younger Catholics what a mature faith looks like. If we want to raise the standard of discipleship in the Church then adults who are prayerful, steeped in Scripture, theologically literate, articulate and committed to justice must become the new norm. Only then will the faith of young people naturally aspire to more than intergenerational conformism.

Naturally, we want young people in our communities for their vibrancy and energy as well as the tangible hope they bring for a Church we hold precious. However, we need to acknowledge that young people will not be attracted to parishes or communities that show no energy or dynamism in themselves.

prayerGiven the above, there is an argument for a renewed emphasis on adult catechesis in the local community, in addition to the traditional role of children’s and youth ministry in parish life. In my experience there is too little focus on adult formation in our parishes (apart from what is assumed to be taking place when homilies are preached or in the sign value of the sacraments).

In a well researched book on faith formation, Jane Regan argues that the strongest rationale for a focus on adult catechesis, as a necessary complementary to a focus on youth, is the mission of evangelisation:

It is the link between evangelisation and catechesis that provides the clearest mandate and the most convincing rationale for focusing on adults. Adults need to be continually formed in their faith so that they are able to fulfil their responsibilities in the mission of the church (Regan, Toward an Adult Church, p.24)

Of course, the responsibilities of adults include the evangelisation of youth. Without their catechesis, the formation of adults in faith, they are not likely to connect what takes place in liturgy with mission, the connection between faith practices and their life remains obscure, and so the connection between discipleship and evangelisation will be lost. In short, adult disciples need catechesis to be evangelisers, which includes being effective witnesses to the young people in their parish community and everyday lives.

So if you are involved in youth ministry, adults need to become an integral part of the overall vision of your parish if your ministry is not to be merely a temporary ‘moment’ in a longer story of unrealised potential.

If we want youth ministry to make a lasting difference we cannot afford to take our eyes off the adult members of our community which they will one day become.

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10 thoughts on “youth ministry in an adult church

  1. After 20 years in youth ministry I am more certain than ever that the local church should be the centre of our attention. If we create vibrant local churches then people of all ages will be drawn to them and grow in their faith. Many local churches with a “youth mass” on Sunday nights attract people of all ages because of their vibrant celebration of the faith. Gathering youth and young adults in pubs, diocesan buildings, at special events and in cathedrals only teaches them to avoid their local parish. We need to encourage youth and young adults to serve and minister with the adults in their local church. Mark Oestreicher in his book Youth Ministry 3.0 states that young people are no longer looking for separate youth environments but are seeking equality in an intergenerational community of faith.

    It will be interesting to see how some “die hard” youth ministers respond to your article. Personally I agree with your thought that young people are draw to communities where the adults are growing as well.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Mark. I agree with you and consider parishes the primary experience and concept of communion for the majority of Catholics. While the movement toward non-parish sites has been a trend of the last decade, and not without fruit, the reference point remains the stable, ecclesial, eucharistic community of the parish. The parish remains the basic ecclesial unit of our Church; no one worships in a “Diocese”. My concern is that there are few pathways of growth which young people can witness in the adult members of their parish. If they are to be disciples over the course of their life, young people need to see what an adult discipleship looks like and in a form that extends beyond ministry in the Church to encompass everyday adult mission in the world, a mission informed my prayer, study and practices of faith. It could encourage a more intergenerational approach to youth ministry, something few parishes have been good at in my experience.

      • Dear Daniel and Mark
        This conversation is dear to my heart. I, as an “elder”, being a Grannie, believe also that we can do more in our parishes to connect the wisdom of the elders with the enthusiasm and energy of the youngers, when the opportunity and the right occasions present.
        Peace and Blessings
        Anne Lanyon

      • Hi Anne,

        Yes, creating the opportunities seems to be key and building community relations around activities of justice may be one possibility. These can help connect faith and life and bring people into communion around common concerns. Great to hear from you

  2. Daniel,
    I value your comments challenging the catechesis of our church, our parishes and even more so our catholic schools where the opportunity to nurture creatpr given instinctive faith is lost.
    As a senior and catechists I find parents love to participate in their childrens RE classes and preparation for sacraments.
    We are suffering almost two generations of now adults whose catechesis post 1970 to 1990 was not only inadequate but often erroneous and deliberately so, a decision that doctrine was too much. The social teaching was also immature.
    I think myself fortunate that in the 1940-50s I received very good doctrinal and social teaching and the need to memorise it for life use. Much of this came back as a synthesis of doctrine and social teaching in the early 1990s.
    As a catechist today we find ourselves in the position of needing to provide catechesis for not only the children but for parents as well.
    As in Jesus’ day some will absorb this teaching recognising what was lacking and others will set up a hue and cry against it.
    I take heart in the fact that many still take their children to films based on works of CS Lewis and JR Tolkein. Sadly they are unable to relate to the apologetics.
    I am happy to be fortunate in a parish priest who loves God, loves the Scriptures, the Church and all of God’s creation.
    I also use the Youth Ministry websites for information to impart to Confirmation candidates who are becoming initiated Christians and disciples of Christ.

    • Hi Mary, thank you for sharing the depth of your experience and naming some of the challenges that face us. It was encouraging to hear the eagerness of some parents to be involved in catechesis in their children’s school. My hope is that kind of involvement would be expanded, to the point where all adults in our parishes and communities understood themselves as participants in a ‘school’ of learning and discipleship.

      As for parents’ involvement in the sacramental preparation of their children, I suspect the degree of engagement of these parents/families can vary. I would support the continuing focus on the opportunity for adult catechesis that the sacraments provide but suggest that the imagination of adult formation in the parish needs to be broader than that. Some have noted, Archbishop Fisichella in particular, that the emphasis on the Catechism, for instance, that the Year of Faith has brought can encourage learning and reflection on the meaning of faith beyond sacramental preparation.

      It seems odd that while ministry to the young has been (generally) recognised as a mainstay of parish life, comparable ministries for adult faith formation are rare or almost non-existent, perhaps due to the ‘lost generations’ you refer to (few parishioners or presenters able to facilitate such learning at a parochial level). There is Alpha, CAFE and some small Scripture groups but these can be infrequent. Adult learning, including reflection on the Catholic Social Teaching which you mentioned, is sadly not at all ‘mainstream’.

      The upshot is that if a Catholic is biblically literate, been exposed to the riches of the schools of spirituality and theology, expresses their faith in works of justice, through regular prayer and endeavours of evangelisation, they can be considered ‘exceptional’ rather than the norm. By raising the standard of what an adult faith looks like in our parishes, I think we can provide more effective witness and be more supportive of younger generations seeking the experience and wisdom of a mature faith.

      You are fortunate to have many good things happening in your own parish and in your ministry as a catechist. Thank you for contributing to the conversation

  3. Thank you for articulating so poignantly the necessities of our times. I myself believe that formation is an ongoing process. In my work, I hope to bridge the faith formation of the young across the threshold of young adulthood into maturity. Your voice is inspiring, there is a lot I can learn from you. Regards, Geralyn (Mission & Identity Promotion, FCJ Australia)

    • Hi Geralyn, thanks for your kind comments and you no doubt have a lot of teach us in working with the young at FCJ! The more I read and learn, the more I’m convinced that mission and identity are integral to one another, which makes roles such as yours so important. An exclusive emphasis on identity can shade the purpose for which our communities and ministries exist (mission) and an exclusive emphasis on mission can reduce faith to pragmatic humanism or an ethic without being grounded in the Gospel (which offers us our identity in Jesus). If young people can integrate the two, a personal and socially committed faith can come to life. Best wishes with your ministry, Daniel

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