Sunday, 6 November 2011

Youth 'ministry': is this really where the Church should be spending its scarce dollars?

The Australian Bishops Conference announced last week that it is offering a number of scholarships, valued up to $10,000, for Broken Bay's Catholic Youth Ministry and Campus Ministry Certificate.  And it is apparently sponsoring a national congress on Youth Ministry.

Youth 'ministry'  has certainly been a huge growth industry in most dioceses in recent years.  But is it a sensible investment? Is a professional lay youth ministry worth encouraging?

In my view, the answer is no.

The problem of 'yuf' ministry

One of the premises of the 70s era was that youth needed to be treated differently from everyone else.  And the introduction of pop music into Masses and  fake forms of 'active participation' appeals still to the ageing hippies of a certain generation (albeit not the one they are supposed to be aimed at!), hence the appalling school masses and such like events that continue to turn young people away from the Church in droves.

But while young people do have special needs - such as to help discern their vocation, and learn how to make a difference as a Christian in the workplaces they are entering -  it is not at all evident that many of the programs increasingly being directed at them are particularly effective in keeping young people within the Church and supporting them in their spiritual journey.

Why we should think twice about youth ministry

It seems to me that there are a number of issues around youth ministry and its professionalisation.

Firstly, is it really a good idea to professionalize activity in this area outside the priesthood?

And not unrelated to this, what happens to the 'youth ministers' when they become too old to perform this ministry?

Does the existence of professional or semi-professional youth ministers actually result in more young people believing in and practicing their faith and actively participating in their parishes? 

And even if it does, is it the best way of increasing the direct the engagement of young people in the Church, or are there other ways the money could be better spent?

Finally, do the programs set up for the formation of youth ministers actually give them a solid knowledge of their faith?

The problem of youth 'ministry'

Youth ministry is, as far as I can tell, essentially a protestant concept that the catholic church is copying rather after the fad has largely faded.  In the protestant context, in the absence of priests and religious, it makes some sense.  In the catholic, rather less so in my view.

First, rather encouraging substitutes for the genuine ministerial role of priests, wouldn't we really be better off spending the money on promoting vocations to religious life and the priesthood and give them any necessary education to do the ministering?  Vocations among young people are rising in the dioceses that are actually putting the effort in and promoting orthodoxy, so its not obvious that this is a gap that needs to be filled by lay substitutes.

More importantly, the lay vocation is primarily in the world, not in 'ministry' within the Church, as Blessed Pope John Paul II pointed out in Christi fideles laici.   We should be educating young people to transform the world, not encouraging them to become church bureaucrats.

And what happens to ageing youth ministers? 

Efficiency and effectiveness

The really key issue is whether spending scarce dollars this way is really the most effective way of achieving the desired outcomes. 

There obviously is a need to engage young people, help them discern their vocations, find suitable spouses, equip them to participate as good Christians in their family, working and social life, and help them be active and effective members of their parish.

There is nothing wrong at all with running at least some specific programs to this end.

There are some good programs around now targeting young people, such as Theology in the Pub and so forth.

But has anyone done any actual systematic evaluation of what works best in the long run?

Would we, for example, be better to put the money into cleaning up school RE programs, and putting in place measures to ensure catholic schools actually turn out catholics!

Would we be better off supporting events and programs that will by their nature tend to attract young people, but in a way that keep them integrated into the broader Church community? The annual traditionalist Christus Rex Pilgrimage is a good example of the kind of thing I mean.

Personally, I'd like to see initiatives that actually focus on promoting the lay vocation in the world, helping young people to see how they can contribute, and equipping them to work for the conversion of the world through their family, work and social life. 

The Australian Christian Lobby's public policy internship program is a good example of the kind of thing I think the Church should be doing in a wide variety of professions.

What do youth ministers need to know?

But the biggest problem of all with these kind of courses is just what they teach the aspiring youth ministers! 

If the course was about providing a solid grounding in the Catechism and introductory theology, it might have something going for it.  If it was about giving potential youth workers some genuine educational skills in how to teach young adults, that could be helpful.

But instead, according to the blurb from the Broken Bay Institute, the course is filled with units teaching things like "current findings on Generations Y and Z", "stages of faith", the nature of youth ministry and how best to engage young people.  Is this yet another case of professionalizing something that really doesn't need to be?


Anthony S. Layne said...

Kate, you've articulated a lot of my reservations about professional "youth ministers", many of whom consider it their duty to become professional teenagers rather than address their needs as adults. Trying to "relate" to young people by adopting their slang and adapting their music is simply a riff on the old tactic of "dumbing things down"; kids may not be as sophisticated as adults but they can spot a phony from a mile away. I do like the "Theology in the Pub" format (up here we call it "Theology On Tap"), but that's not quite the same thing, is it? The youth minister, so far as there should be one, ought to be there to help young people through the unsettling period of adolescents by helping their faith mature and helping them find their vocation, whether in the commercial and industrial world as workers and married parents or in the Church as priests and religious. For that, I think the parish priest is better suited than a layperson with a certificate.

In sum, great post! And again, good to see you back!

hughosb said...

Ah, youth ministry. That, and 'creative' liturgy are two of the more persistent bugbears the western Church must face.

Youth ministry in its worst forms (ie gimmick heavy, theology light) seems to me to reuslt from insecurity. That is, if they are not coming to Mass then somehow we might 'lose' them (not that they might be lost to God, for that they usually do not believe). And if youth do not come to us then, egad, may be we are uncool in some way, not normal perhaps. So lets not emphasise the things they might find challenging in case they reject it and head somewhere else.

But really, adolescents reject just about everything at some stage. And they certainly not respect a faith that will not stand up for itself against them. All good teachers know that in the classroom, you are the boss first, and being a friend can come outside the classroom, if at all!

If we preach the faith in a lively and challenging way, then kids might not accept it (while they are still kids) but they certainly will respect it, and remember it for later, when life's lessons have prepared them better to accept it.

So why do we continue to patronise them?

Thanks Kate.

John S said...

It's funny in Brisbane it is clear that the "Catholic youth scene" so to speak that is supported by diocesan funds and just splashes money around on employing youth ministers, and "trendy" youth events that have little to nothing to do with the faith are doing nothing to propagate the faith and a bearing for the most part no fruits.

On the other hand the youth events organised by independently traddies and other orthodox Catholics that are treated with indifference or occasionally hostility by the diocesan bureaucracy are healthy, growing and leading young people to deeper relationship with Christ and his Church.

Maybe if those in control of the youth ministry had taken the time to read the scriptures they wouldn't be finding that they pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into fruitless causes.

"for without me you can do nothing." John 15:5