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May 2, 2018

Youth Ministry’s Greatest Resource (Is Not What You May Think)

Mark Hart

The parish “youth room” was filled to capacity. The middle schoolers were engaged and joyful. The teens listened to the teaching for the night and then dove into prayer. The Holy Spirit was present and moved hearts. God was moving. 

A teen and I had a conversation about how much he had grown over the past year. The tenor of his voice became more excited with each word as he recounted all God had done in his life. He ended with the high note, “I think I want to become a priest.” God rejoiced.

An email came through from a youth minister sharing how engaged the parents at her parish were and how that passion was transforming the teenagers’ lives as they began living out their faith in bold ways at home. God inspired.

To be clear, these aren’t fictional situations—they are real people in real parishes. So, at this point you may be wondering, “Which programs and resources are they using?” Any sane individual called to ministry (especially youth ministry) reads the above situations and wants them for their own parish. We also know that fruits such as these don’t just happen on their own. They require an intentional effort and solid resources.

So which tools are right for your parish to really lead teenagers to a deep encounter with Christ and his Church?

Over the past ten years, there has been an explosion of incredible resources that passionate individuals within the Church created because they understand that leading young people closer to Christ is vital. We’ve looked at confirmation preparation and asked how it could be a transformation rather than a graduation. We have developed beautiful and impactful programs to tug at the hearts of teenagers. Organizations and movements have poured time and money into developing innovative methods and resources to strike at the core of an increasingly atheistic culture and help youth encounter Jesus and truly become his disciples.

Publishers and ministries release their new resources with great fanfare and expectation. Endorsements pour in, and parishes share success stories. A sense of hope grows within the ministry community, but nobody dares to say what our hearts are hoping: This is it—this is the “silver bullet” that will help propel our ministry and win souls for the Lord. As time passes, however, we are forced to face a challenging truth.

There is no silver bullet in ministry.

Our hope for the silver bullet is born from our passion and desire to serve young people, pass on the faith and lead souls to Christ. To aid in this mission, we constantly look to new resources, systems and methods. When correctly used, these resources become powerful tools to allow catechists and youth ministers to do the critical work of mentoring, relationship building, and disciple-making which is at the heart of our call and mission.

The resources—as amazing as they are—however, are just tools. Young souls will benefit from the tools but only if they know the Carpenter. Too often the temptation is to think the tools are enough; these resources are perceived as the proverbial silver bullet. Instead of using them to supplement our ministry, they become it. We abdicate all our teachings to a video and believe that this alone will move young hearts. “The presenters are well-spoken, young and hip,” we think to ourselves, “The teens will listen to them”. To be honest, we want something as easy as “pushing play,” but the gospel reminds us that true discipleship requires far more than an app or a screen.

At the core of Jesus’ ministry, there were relationships. Jesus explained parables in detail to those closest to him. Disciples didn’t just listen to sermons, they broke bread with the Master. They watched Christ laugh … and cry. The disciples witnessed not only his life of prayer but contemplated and processed the many examples our Lord gave by his healing and actions. Our teaching authority comes from the name in which we teach—Jesus—and we must be faithful to his example and how he ministered so consistently through relationships.

“Young souls will benefit from the tools but only if they know the Carpenter.”

Jesus goes to an outcast woman at a well, breaking cultural norms and meeting her where she was rather than waiting for her to find him (John 4:4-26). God drew near.

Jesus heals the daughter of Jairus, bringing the disciples and her parents to be present as he restored her, demonstrating the companionship that must exist between parents and the Church (Mark 5:40-43). God was present.

Jesus made contact and served those that were untouchable and outcast without fear of getting involved with the mess of their world (Matthew 8:1-3). God reached out.

Ministry, to a certain extent, will always be messy because people are messy. It is easy to use a resource but the danger emerges when a resource supplants the relationship with those we are called to lead and to serve. A workbook should begin a conversation, not supplant it. A video teaching from a polished speaker can break the ice and help guide the class in the right direction, sure, but they cannot replace life experience and personal testimony. These tools have a place, but they cannot become the “end-all, be-all.” We still have to do the  work of disciple-making. Souls still need to be turned, soil still needs to be tilled, more seeds will still need to be sowed and nurtured.

It’s About Building Relationships with the Youth

It is natural to become  overwhelmed by the importance of reaching the youth or underwhelmed by their collectively disengaged response to the programs and resources we provide. That is why we really need to prepare the soil (of the teens’ hearts) through relationship building.

A video series can’t sit with that teen that just found out his parents are getting a divorce and help him understand that God won’t leave or abandon him.

A video teaching won’t walk a teen girl through her pregnancy, help her find support at her local crisis pregnancy center, and ultimately guide her in choosing life and God’s plan for her and her child.

The newest workbook and leader’s guide can’t counsel a young person and contact help when he or she reveals they are contemplating suicide, struggling with pornography, battling an eating disorder or are physically harming themselves.

Those are the messy moments in ministry, and they are the places Christ calls us. We need the resources because they eliminate the time we spend at our desks trying to create something catechetically sound and theologically precise, and put us where we need to be: with youth. We do well to remember the role the resources play, lest the tool be mistaken for the worker. We are the workers in the vineyard, and must always be mindful that as workers we must stay in relationship with the great Carpenter, Jesus Christ, who will ultimately move hearts and be the reason our ministry bears fruit.

Here’s What the Resources Can Do

When we properly contextualize the amazing resources that are available in the Church today, celebrating their diversity and quality, they become tools for all of specific situations. The only way to discern which resource is right for you is an honest assessment of where the young souls in your pews really are, and that is only done through building relationships and understanding the ones we serve. Everyone—especially teens—need to see leaders and catechists as living, breathing embodiments of what a healthy, joyful, well-adjusted Catholic looks like in an increasingly secular modern culture. From the opening prayer to the small group questions, study-goers need more than just a video or workbook, they need the saints-in-training facilitating the study who will walk with them in the week(s) to follow.

As a study author, it’s my job to do the heavy lifting of content creation so your energy is saved for discipling and relationship development. We will continue to dedicate the best time and resources to develop programs in response to the need within our Church and the call of St. John Paul II in Catechesi Tradendae:

the Church is bidden by God and by events—each of them a call from Him—to renew her trust in catechetical activity as a prime aspect of her mission. She is bidden to offer catechesis her best resources in people and energy, without sparing effort, toil or material means, in order to organize it better and to train qualified personnel. (15)

Those words should resonate with us because they reveal why we create the resources—so that we can offer catechesis space to share their gifts and talents. It is the people that matter most in ministry. High quality resources are vital, though, as they free you up to serve and it is only then that the pews and youth rooms fill up, conversions happen, and young people discern vocations: because souls encounter Christ.

Twenty or so years ago, high quality programs did not exist. We live in an exciting time for catechesis, where we no longer head into that youth room empty-handed. Continue to share these resources with your young people, but never forget that the most important “trend” in youth ministry is no trend at all. It is the willingness for adults to keep stepping out of their world and into the teen’s. Youth ministry works not because of great resources but because of humble souls who are willing to use resources the right way.

God bless your efforts!

This article was first published in Ascension’s 2017 Faith Formation catalog.

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