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.

Part 8 – Inviting Youth

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.

We’ve all seen the data: 50% of youth who were raised Catholic no longer self-identify with the faith of their Baptism by the age of 25, and if “former Catholics” were a religious denomination, it would be the second largest in the country (Pew Forum). Though such statistics are ubiquitous, they are no less unsettling for their familiarity. Little wonder that many in the Church perceive an existential crisis on the horizon.

And yet, the Church in North America has at its disposal an unprecedented range of tools for inviting youth. Instead of descending into despair over empty pews, we ought to see this moment as one of great excitement and opportunity. The omnipresence of mobile devices allows us to reach teens far beyond the walls of the worship space and confines of a CCD classroom. Instant access to in formation on the internet, coupled with a normalcy of pluralism in public schools, compels young people to ask questions about their faith that previous generations would never have imagined.

Nevertheless, it is this same explosion of new technologies from which the Church can, and must, provide relief. Being in constant communication with friends and family allows teens to feel connected at all times – but it paradoxically contributes to an increasing sense of isolation. Fewer human interactions take place face-to-face, as texting, digital photos, video games, and mobile apps become the predominant form of contact with others.  At the same moment in human history when young people are ceaselessly linked by technology, they have never felt more alone. Nor so potently craving membership in a community.

The Psalmist exclaims, “My soul is thirsting for you!” and it would be just as true that today’s teenagers might say as well that their souls are thirsting for authentic human relationships – the precise sort of relationships that the Church can facilitate through the person of Jesus and the other members of the Body of Christ. With this paradigm in mind, here are some ways that parishes can be intentional about inviting youth to fuller participation in the life of the Church:

  1. Listening. The Gospels tell us very little about Jesus’ life between infancy and adulthood, but undoubtedly it involved a great deal of listening and attentiveness to the community that would become his targeted audience. Without first understanding their daily experiences as fishers, farmers, and first-century Jews, he would not have been able to craft parables and formulate metaphors that would communicate the truths of his teaching. The same is true today. So many pastors, youth ministers, and Church leaders, filled with zeal to share the Gospel, focus exclusively on the content of their message, i.e. what they have to tell teens, rather than on understanding their audience. Listening is essential to effective teaching.
  2. Teaching. Pedagogical styles have evolved dramatically over the past decades, as emerging models of education have emphasized instruction as a dialectic process, rather than a one-way street. Many who work in parishes grew up at a time when classroom education involved a teacher lecturing in front of a room, with students dutifully taking notes. The catechetical process was seen as unidirectional transmission of information from a learned authority figure to a group of passive receptacles. But step into a classroom today, and you will see tablets, smartboards, clickers, and other devices that allow students to participate actively in the learning process, and to be engaged on multiple levels of cognition. We need to keep this in mind as we construct courses of sacramental preparation, youth programs, and other parish-based offerings meant to form young people in the faith.
  3. Involving. It’s one thing to invite teens to participate on a youth retreat; it’s a whole other to recruit leaders to help with the planning process, and to empower the teens as servant leaders among their peers. When the disciples told Jesus that the crowds were hungry and tired, Jesus turned the identified need around on his selected followers, charging THEM with the task of feeding the crowds. Not only will you benefit from the ideas that the youth bring – after all, no one knows the other teens like they do – but you will have inculcated a different level of buy-in among the teens who are tasked with outreach. No number of pulpit pitches or bulletin announcements will ever be as effective at recruitment as a single invitation from one high school student to another.
  4. Forming. Specifically, forming them first as disciples, then as leaders. Building a robust, long-term program of youth formation requires moving past catechetics and into the more challenging work of imbuing teens with the principles necessary to live as an adult follower of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple, mathetes, doesn’t mean student – at least not the way we think of a student, who sits in a classroom, memorizing and regurgitating data-rather, it more nearly means apprentice. In ancient times, a disciple, be it of Socrates, Pythagoras, John the Baptist, or Jesus, did not simply learn about a particular way of life – rather, they adopted it entirely. A teacher’s exhortations (like the Sermon on the Mount) were not meant to be memorized, but to be assimilated. Studying the Gospel is akin to learning a foreign language or playing a sport. You don’t memorize verb charts merely so that you can demonstrate your skills of conjugation at social gatherings; nor do you learn to throw a bounce pass so that you become proficient at that one skill in isolation. Rather, you memorize verb endings so that you can SPEAK a language, and you learn how to throw a bounce pass so that you can PLAY the game of basketball. Similarly, you don’t memorize passages of Scripture so that you can cite them on the spot – but so that you can integrate into your daily routine things like forgiving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you.
  5. Missioning. Once formed, the teens are then missioned out, to spread the Gospel by the way they live their lives. Jesus had about three years with his closest followers, in which to form them in this new Way of living. Think of high school as that concentrated period of formation, just prior to the commissioning outward. Except that, in the case of your teens, God willing, they will attempt to continue their formation throughout their young adult years.

Next month we’ll have part two of Michael Bayer’s look at inviting youth.