I loved spraying pesticides – I even had a license for the heavy stuff. What, you think single species lawns come naturally? But now, after a few years of experience in what some would call “sustainable” or “organic” farming, I’ve learned that those controls actually make more work. Learning to see plants as part of an ecosystem – an entire environment – has helped me to learn to work with nature and not against it.

For example. I used to spray clover out of lawns, because clover is a weed and I was growing lawns of grass, not clover. But now I plant and nourish the clover in my grass pasture, because not only is clover a source of food for my milk cows, but it also takes nitrogen out of the air and puts it into the soil. Before I had to apply more fertilizer because I had killed the thing that produced fertility naturally. It may have been good for my business to keep up all this spraying and fertilizing, but its actually better for the grass itself to consider it and grow it within its natural design.

What does this all have to do with Catholic ministry? Well, like pastures and weeds we have a nature created by God. And we can boil the needs of a healthy man down to two main things: family and Church. God made the family at creation and made the Church at the re-creation through Christ. One we inherit at birth and the other we inherit at our second birth (baptism).

What has happened in recent decades, however, is the unprecedented breakdown in both of those institutions, family and Church. And I want to point out the findings of Mary Eberstadt in her book How the West Really Lost God to perhaps shift your thoughts on which of those two things decline first, or rather, which decline has a great effect on the other’s decline.

Most of us think it goes like this: stupid, lame, and lethargic teaching hurts faith – bad preaching, wonky catechesis, etc.. Without faith, then, families begin to loosen at the seams and decline. Families suffer when faith suffers.

Eberstadt looks at the evidence and finds that the opposite is true. While poor catechesis and soft morality do perpetuate the problem, it is the decline in the family that usually precedes the decline in faith. No, it’s not an “either/or” issue, but we at least need to understand that the health of the family and the health of faith are inseperable. Like a DNA strand, “family and faith are the invisible double helix of societ – two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another” (Eberstadt).

Family life itself predisposes us and even prepares us for a life of faith. As St. John Paul famously said, the family is the “school of love”. Loving fathers reveal the face of the Father; tender mothers teach us the value of mercy; siblings teach us fraternal love; and all of the pains and trials teach us of sin and redemption. And the most important factor is the father. The stronger his faith the stronger the chance that the rest of the family will be lifelong disciples.  So, faith suffers when families suffer.

Youth ministry is a symptom of unhealthy families. Why? Because most youth ministry programs are targeting young people for initial evangelization – often they’re trying to convince them that God is real, sent His Son, and loves them. In short, they’re trying to make them life-long Christians. But the problem arises when most youth ministry programs see young people in isolation from their family. They are not considering the whole ecosystem, and by doing that they are limiting their effectiveness. I Googled “Catholic youth ministry mission statement”, and here’s one from the top:

“The purpose of the Youth Ministry Program is to create an environment which leads high school teenagers into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and His Church. This is the command of Jesus to his first disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” Everything we do at St. [Example] Life Teen is directed toward the evangelization of our young people, leading them to know and love Christ and His Church!”

That’s a big burden for that ministry to carry. From evangelization to sending them out to evangelize? – it’s the entire Christian formation placed upon one team. But they do mention “create an environment”. I looked further and they propose they do that in a few ways: the Eucharist, teaching the Catholic Faith, etc. One point at the end it even says this: “through an experience of being loved and accepted.” Do you see? All of the things typical youth ministry offers are merely parts of healthy family and parish life. My point is not to criticize these efforts or try to shut them down, but we must expand our view of youth ministry. In the entire first search page of that search I saw no websites that seemed to me to place outreach to young people within the context of family life (and it included the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry), but all of them seemed to presume the great need to reach young people with the Gospel itself.   Its clear they are detecting a problem and their noble goal is to help solve it.

Youth ministry itself is a symptom of the sickness, it wants to evangelize our kids because our kids need evangelizing. While maybe relieving some pain, it cannot heal the sickness because it’s treating a symptom (apostatizing youth), not healing the real problem which is the sad state of family life. People complain about youth groups being a bunch of fun and pizza. You know what? That’s all youth ministry should be – faithful young Christians being social, engaging in basic fellowship with peers, scouting for spouses even! It should not alone carry the burden to evangelize, catechize, and send out disciples of Christ in to the world. I remember the interview committee from my first youth ministry job – they were all parents. Later I learned that they were almost all parents of young people on the verge of leaving the Faith.

Their answer to that problem was to hire a young man who could relate to them, bring them back home, and basically save their soul. No pressure!   But honestly, I thought that my education, training, and zeal would be enough. And yes, I was taught by mentors early on that it was not my work, but the Lord’s, and the soul of the apostolate was prayer. I wanted to reach those young people. I really did have a heart for them. But it took a while to learn that if I really loved young people and wanted to reach them, I had to reach their parents.  I learned they were disinclined to receive faith precisely because they were from a Christian family that was not a Christian witness. It was easier to reach kids with parents completely away from religion or opposed to it than to reach Catholic kids. I learned that when I tried to reach out and got an answer like: “I’m Catholic. I go to Catholic school. I’m don’t need to go to X event,” what it really meant was: “We check boxes in our family but deep down its clear this stuff is not top priority for our life – Grandma’s kinda pushy. Also, I think I know the faith but really I know a flimsy works-based Pelagianism, I’m generally morally relativistic, and I couldn’t define words like redemption or atonement, but don’t worry I’m like a good person and stuff and if heaven’s real we’ll kick it there together. Hell? Nah, no fear of that. However, just so you know, I’m pretty much bound to leave the Church when I get to college. But hey, maybe I’ll be back to get a Sacrament or something if I get a girl pregnant. I’ll look you up then!”

The YM Industrial Complex

As the war-based industry of the military during World War II gave way to what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial-complex”, a military-based system of power, we have to be careful that Youth Ministry does not become an autonomous body that creates systems that perpetuate and grow its existence when it might not even be needed or not dealing with the real problems.   Let me give you an example.

I was once at a meeting with youth ministry leaders from around the country, along with some parish leaders with big and growing youth programs. We had just finished discussing the mantra that the family is the primary catechist, yada yada, and then moved on to describe our hip new discipleship based small groups, which is the language that is newer than the tired explanations of “relational ministry”. One Youth Director mentioned how he had hired more people to help lead these groups. He was up to four staff members.

“Aren’t their any parents that could lead them?” I asked.

“No,” he answered.

We moved on, but I was sitting there astounded. I felt like I was part of a machine plowing through human nature with the best of intentions. Why are we pretending that we believe parents really matter? We may say they are the primary educators, but we really believe that we are. If they did matter to us, we’d be talking parents.

“Wait!” (I actually hit the desk where I was sitting.) “Can we back up? You don’t have any adults in your parish capable of leading a small group of youth, that can teach them the faith they are commanded by God to teach them?” This was a famously old youth ministry program, stretching decades, setting standards for the whole country. “Did none of those young people grow up and stick around?”

“No,” he answered. “I mean… I have a masters in theology and my staff went to [insert famously vibrant Catholic college].”

This guy worked at one of the biggest parishes around. I continued to press that fact. He was telling me that in a Catholic parish of thousands of families not one adult could lead a discussion on the Catholic Faith. But I realized then this analogy of the military-industrial-complex. This thing called youth ministry, invented to focus on declining faith of young people, has grown to focus so much on youth that it doesn’t consider them in the context of the family. Often its only the youth ministry at a parish that has its own website and mission statement (every other ministry is just on the plain old parish site) – that’s just one sign among many that its too isolated from family and parish life. Oh, and all those Sunday night meetings? If there was one time and day that young people should be with their family, its then. But when you see your program as the primary means of evangelization and formation, you happily take that timeslot. It’s self-perpetuating without question. We’re spraying the clover and applying fertilizer, forgetting the natural context and environment of human life itself.   Our programs are more expensive, require more staff, but if we really look hard at the numbers, they’re not that effective.

We like to look at big youth conferences and gatherings and think we’re doing big things. And let me be clear: they are good. But the big shows of youth ministry efforts can mislead us into thinking that “youth ministry” is an effective answer to the problem of poorly formed young people. If you’re interested in the evidence, and you think these conferences are signs of a growing youth movement, I suggest Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Smith opens a special chapter on Catholics (and we get a chapter not for our good track record, but horrible) with a note about showy signs of youth ministry:

 “What I observed at this conference might suggest that Catholic teenagers in the United States are doing quite well religiously, that Catholic youth are generally committed, enthusiastic, and serious about their faith and Church. But such a conclusion would be mistaken.” (Emphasis added)

And after pages and pages of objective data and anecdotal evidence Smith comes to this conclusion after asking what happened to Catholic kids:

“Most American teens turn out religiously to look a lot like their parents – not always, but very often… It does not appear to be the case that most U.S. Catholic parents of teenagers are struggling to live out vibrant lives of Catholic faith and yet find teenagers to be religiously apathetic and resistant. Rather, it appears that the relative religious laxity of most U.S. Catholic teenagers significantly reflects the relative religious laxity of their parents.”

In other words, youth are not the problem. Parents are the problem. So if we want to fix a problem why are we focusing so much on youth?

One problem we have, however, is that many young adults in youth ministry simply don’t trust their parent’s generation to pass on the Faith. Why? Because they had a conversion late in life through someone else, and they often harbor an understandable and justifiable anger towards their parents and parish for not giving them the Gospel younger, which would have saved them from heartache and sin. I feel this way. Thanks for the extra purgatory folks!   But the answer is not to throw out human nature and family life – don’t throw grandpa out with the bathwater. In this situation we need healing and the rebuilding of trust. I don’t have an easy answer, but I hope bringing it up helps.

There is no command in the Bible to have a youth ministry program. Every mention of “reaching young people” is directed to families, especially fathers.   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a great point that the very calling to covenant is rooted in parental dynamics:

“All [of the developments of monogamy and family life] led to the home and the family becoming the central setting of the life of faith. In the only verse in the Hebrew Bible to explain why God chose Abraham, God says: ‘I have known him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just’ (Gen. 18:19). Abraham was chosen … simply to be a parent. In one of the most famous lines in Judaism, which we say every day and night, Moses commanded, ‘You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house or when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up’ (Deut. 6:7, 11:19). Marriage and the family are where faith finds its home and where the Divine Presence lives in the love between husband and wife, parent and child.”

The most influential person in a young persons life is their father. And for boys that extends especially to the father figures around them – coaches, mentors, etc. Why then is there no interaction between the world of youth ministry and men’s ministry? If those people out there that have an amazing ability to approach and talk to young people taught men to talk to and approach young people, what an effect they would have! I do think part of the problem is those in youth ministry want men to be involved in what they’re doing, they don’t want to hand over the challenge to the men themselves. The attitude is, “Come volunteer and help us with our program to reach your kids.” I think we’ll have a revolution when the world of youth ministry shifts it’s thinking: “How can we equip and serve you in your duty to pass on the Faith as fathers? It’s your job, not mine.” In Fraternus we’ve had a huge success in going into men’s groups and simply explaining their vocation to be life-giving fathers, to pass on the faith. Our attitude is: “Here’s how we can help, but it’s your job. We’re leaving now…”

Imagine if the clergy or well-formed staff at a parish sat down weekly and challenged every father in the parish to greater prayer and devotion, and gave them the tools to be better husbands, fathers and teachers.   That “program” would be cheap, simple, and resoundingly effective.

To my youth ministry colleagues: It’s time for a paradigm shift. We have to conduct our apostolic efforts in a way that recognizes, respects, and assists families in their primary role as educators. I don’t think this always means to stop having programs, though sometimes it might, but I mean that persons must be viewed and understood as members of a family, and the roles that pertain to membership in that family must be respected. Mothers and fathers have responsibility to teach their children the faith. If you rightly see that they are failing at that job, your job is to help them succeed! Do not swoop in like an over-zealous social worker and usurp the role of parents, but assist and augment them in that role. You owe this to the parents in justice. You will get less praise for your efforts and programming (because hopefully they’ll get credit for doing what they are called to do), but your apostolate will be more fruitful. Why? Because you may be equipped for ministry by training and education, but they are by vocation. The best use of your training and educating is to teach others to teach. The judgment parents face for forming their children well is grave, assisting them will help them face that day. And if we’ve done our jobs well, they’ll face that judgment with an army of young disciples as a witness to their faithfulness.

10 10 2016
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  • Larry Bud

    Graduates of "famously vibrant Catholic college" seem to be infesting many parishes and the Catholic media. Their attitude always seems to be "we know better" and as a result it's impossible for "the rest of us" to have any role except to do what they tell us.

  • Thomist

    I started to attend a parish with NO ministries as we know of today. We just went to mass, prayed, feasted in the parish hall and started spending Lesuire time with other people/families in different ways. I was pleasantly surprised how effective it was for cultivating catholic culture and retaining youth. And it was a nice not being asked to join a ministry every Sunday because I was a red blooded male in the pew.

    So well written mr Craig. We should have a beer some time or at least a glass of raw cows milk from an overgrown pasture of clover.

  • bduncan2184

    A well-written piece, Craig. I have been reading more articles lately on youth ministry. I wonder why the sudden interest by bloggers? Is something starting to click because of the stats we're seeing about the success (or lack of) with youth ministry?

    Youth ministry certainly serves its purpose, but I believe as you have said within the context of family life. A youth ministry that tries to establish itself without considering the young person as a member of a family may have success for a while, but once that young person goes back home, if the family is not devout – especially the father – the likelihood that the youth will remain steadfast in his/her faith into their college years and beyond is not good. Certainly we cannot discount the benevolence and effectiveness of God's grace working in a young person's life, but we cannot deny as Father Payton said, "a family that prays together, stays together."

  • vincent capuano

    The point of formation/education is to form
    Adults. The objective of Catholic formation is to form Catholic adults. It is more convenient for this end that children be around adults. Youth groups are not as useful for this end as youths belonging to the Holy Name Society or KofC or Women's guild.

  • Michael Newhouse

    Very well said, Mr. Craig.
    We need to stop compartmentalizing parishes into age groups and instead focus on organic, faithful families.

  • donttouchme

    John Paul II was a false teacher. He assaults the dignity of men in everything ever wrote about women and family:

    "74. The same false teachers who try to dim the luster of conjugal faith and purity do not scruple to do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man. Many of them even go further and assert that such a subjection of one party to the other is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal; wherefore, they boldly proclaim the emancipation of women has been or ought to be effected." My emphasis.

    "The author knows that this way of speaking, so profoundly rooted in the customs and religious tradition of the time, is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a "mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ" (cf. Eph 5:21). This is especially true because the husband is called the "head" of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give "himself up for her" (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the "subjection" is not one-sided but mutual."

  • Vilhelmus M.

    Absolutely 100% right on the money. As a fairly recent convert, I can assure you the problem is not just a Catholic problem. It's a complete abdication of parental roles in favor of youth ministers, teachers, coaches, dance instructors . . . you name it. Anyone but the parents and grandparents (who are even more marginalized).

    Thank you for the article. This message needs to be proclaimed over and over and over again. Getting parents to slow down enough to do the heavy lifting is the hard part. Endless activity is the opiate of our age.

    St. Joseph, pray for us.

  • Pat Birnesser

    Is there a program to help teach parents of teens?

  • Seamrog

    Great article and spot on.

    I note the comments that there should be no need for a 'youth minister,' and disagree.

    Pastors have no time to organize fun, clean, chaperoned social events for teenagers, nor should they need to...they should just be able to show up and enjoy some time with the teens of their parish, and watch them enjoying each other. Same applies to service work, outreach, rosary hours, etc. Sadly, that is not the reality, but it is a wonderful goal.

    I often got complaints of teens chewing gum in Mass, talking during Mass, dressing inappropriately during Mass, and the like. As this article correctly points out, it is the parents that need to be evangelized, and educated first.

    How's that for a challenge to a DRE?

  • Samuel Zettel

    Thanks for this great article! I am one of the "lifer" youth ministers that would have been at some of the conferences you mentioned. I have deeply struggled with this issue for many years, especially since becoming a father myself. To me, it's obvious that where families are healthy spiritually there is no need for youth ministry. The simple response seems to be that we should devote our time to family ministry, parenting support and especially men's ministry, so that those men can go home and do their job. A group that is always particularly adamant about this is the homeschooling community (we have publicly-funded Catholic education here.)

    The problem I have - and the reason I'm still doing a job that shouldn't exist - is that most families are in such disarray that I don't know where to even begin. I know fully that unless the faith is modeled and lived at home that I have very little chance of making a lasting impact, and yet I am also aware that we're a full generation late... So I try hard to make sure there are at least a few solid, Catholic dads that come out of this one. There are always a few, though, who have a fighting chance and I try to make sure those parents are supported in their very critical role.

    For the rest, I suppose I am a stand-in "father to the fatherless".

    Any advice?

    You and I should connect! I even live on an organic farm (zettelfamilyfarms.ca).

  • Daniel Miller

    We have begun Family Ministry at our parish where the parents, children, and teens can receive formation at the same time. It's not a fix-all, but through conversations, prayer, support, and formation at age appropriate levels, we want to equip families to go home and be faithful and flourishing together. Thank you for the thoughtful, provocative reflections. It connects dots that have been in front of me in youth ministry for many years. God is good!

    • Larry Bud

      What does your parish do for unmarried adults that don't fit into "family ministry"? Because while the institutional Church talks "marriage and family", parishes seem to have forgotten where families get started... often, at social events that provide opportunities for singles to meet.

      Every parish has single adults in their 20's, 30's, 40's and beyond. I've found that most priests and parish employees get glassy-eyed when I tell them that. As if it's impossible that they got out of "Young Adults" without pairing up. But it's true. What about them?

      • Daniel Miller

        Young adults are a group I wish we did more to serve. I'm a single young adult, so where do I go? We have a local young adult ministry that many parishes support financially so there are 3-4 Theology on Taps every month at various locations and lots of other social events. It's at a wider level than the parish can offer by itself. Ideally, I'd love to see something through the parish more geared at young adults, but for now, this metro-wide young adult ministry is thriving.

      • Larry Bud

        I don't think you understand my point. "Young adult ministry" needs to go away. "Family ministry" needs to go away. All the special-interest groups and cliques that parishes have now, need to go away. Any group that excludes anyone is a bad thing. Let me explain why.

        I guarantee that your parish has an abundant number of singles that "Young Adults" cannot reach. Whether because of age, or having children, or simply being uninterested in "Theology Night".

        I said that your parish has unmarried adults in their 20's, 30's, 40's, and older. I know because I've been all of those. Parish life broke down about 30 years ago, around the time that I left home and moved to a new area. I noticed right away that parishes in my new city had no social events where folks of all ages got together. There was no social network, no way for singles to meet or get introduced.

        As a result the number of new marriages has plummeted to almost zero, and very few young people bother to stay in the Church. (Don't tell me that your Young Adult group is thriving if you need multiple parishes to keep it going.) If trends continue, your services as a youth minister will become unnecessary in a few more years.

        Bring back basic parish social life. It is the only hope.

      • Daniel Miller

        Your passion about the idea of social life in the parish is obvious. I agree. Our parishes need to be places that people of all ages can interact and relate on a basic level. In fact, our American society is in need of this multigenerational interaction as well. However, I disagree that all exclusion is bad. Some exclusion is good. A mom's support group is good because moms can relate on a deeper level. I can't and shouldn't be part of such a group. A male priesthood is good because the priest acts in the person of Christ. A teen group is good because teens have experiences that they need to share with peers. This doesn't mean that participating moms aren't part of families, that priests are distant, or that teens shouldn't have regular, mentoring friendships with adults. We need both types of socialization.

        The reality in our parishes is that we can't currently make the leap to being just a place where people come to interact socially. The step is too big from where we are now to where we ought to be. It has to be more incremental. Among other factors, parishes are struggling because families are struggling. Even for a single person like you and like me, the effect of parents not living their vocation and families not living their faith ripples into the programs we offer. Just look at the comments on this article. Youth ministers exist because of a missed generation in church, and we find ourselves in a tremendous gap trying to catch families back up to where they should be. I believe Family Ministry is the best model for my parish not because it's the ideal (which would be the faith brought home and shared so we can be more of a social place as a church) but because it's the reality of where the families in our parish find themselves. If I can work myself out of a job, I would love to do it, but when there are so many families so distant from church, so distant from God, and so distant from healthy socialization, I'm doing my best to get us back to a place where faithful families flourish so all individuals in the church can flourish.