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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