Summer 2015 Evangelization Exchange – Bayer

Becoming an Inviting Church

This series presents directions to stimulate the thinking of pastoral leaders, helping them focus on the important ministry of inviting. Parishes may, to a greater or lesser extent, greet and welcome. But few parishes consciously invite – and this at a time when participation in church is falling across all the religious spectrum.

Inviting Youth – Part 2

Michael Bayer has long been involved in youth ministry and campus ministry. Presently he directs the campus ministry at the University of Iowa at Iowa City.

Click Here to Read Part One

Some tips for parish-based youth ministry:

  1. Be practical. That is, try to relate everything you do to the real, lived experiences of their week. If you’re going to watch a film about the passion and death of Jesus, make the link with suffering and death as they have experienced it. Have they lost a loved one to illness? Has there been a natural disaster or recent event in the news that caused them to question how a loving God could allow such evil? The liturgical year provides us with a rich treasure of topics that pertain to the lives of every developmental demographic. Teens, in particular, are just becoming aware of injustice. Seasons like Advent and Lent provide an excellent opportunity to discuss materialism, consumerism, and what we, as Christians, owe to those who have less than us.
  2. Invest heavily in your middle school students…and keep them mostly separate from your high-schoolers. Many middle school students are still participating in parish-based religious education or sacramental preparation; capitalize on this time to the best of your ability. But it’s important not to combine middle and high school youth offerings, except on a once-in-a-while basis. Seventh-grade students and high school seniors are at such dramatically different places in their lives that it not only does a disservice to group them together, but it makes it nearly impossible to get buy-in from older teens. And if you’re going to be discussing topics like relationships, drug use, eating disorders, and mental health – to name just a few – you’ll find that 12 year-olds and 18 year-olds are worlds apart.
  3. Create a safe space. When asked, many young adults who no longer identify with a particular denomination report that, in their experience, organized religions are judgmental, unwelcoming, and hypocritical. In their sincere desire to make sure that teens possess well-formed consciences and are prepared to go out and make good decisions, many parish staff and adult volunteers emphasize the Church’s moral teachings. It’s important to foster an atmosphere in which teens feel—first and foremost—loved and accepted. Recruiting the right adult volunteers to assist with cultivating this environment of hospitality is crucial.
  4. Recruit young adult volunteers; limit the amount of time that parents are present. Part of creating a safe space is establishing a place where teens feel comfortable to share their honest feelings without fear of punishment. A teen who is struggling with a body image disturbance, is cutting to relieve anxiety, or has begun engaging in sexual activity with a peer, is far less likely to share any of that if one of the people sitting in the youth room is a friend’s mom. There’s an appropriate way for youth ministers and pastoral staff to handle the disclosure of sensitive information—particular as it pertains to the health of minors—but it’s far less probable that any such information will even be shared in the first place if the core team of adults is made up of people’s parents. Local college students and young professionals are an exceptional pool of volunteers (and it has the added bonus of involving them in the parish as well!) Provide them with some formation as well, too, though, or you risk burning out your volunteers and potentially putting people in difficult pastoral situations, for which they lack adequate preparation.
  5. Think of a youth program as having 3 core components: Spiritual, Social, and Service. Many programs end up only offering one of the aforementioned pieces, and it is difficult to sustain a long-term ministry without all three. Some youth programs offer Eucharistic Adoration and Theology of the Body study groups, but they don’t do any service trips or schedule any social outings like ski trips, cookouts, or movie nights. By contrast, others devolve into a sort of recreation center, in which teens are free to come, hang out and play games, but rarely are they challenging to go deeper in their faith.