(Editor’s Note: The following letter on re-visioning ministry with youth is provided by Tom East and Don Boucher. It is printed with their permission.)
Have you ever gotten into your car and started driving and then noticed that the seat is too close and the mirrors are all wrong? The way the car was set up by the last driver is just not working. When that happens, you can keep going, while being uncomfortable and knowing that what you’re doing isn’t working, or you can recognize that it’s time to pull off to the side of the road and make adjustments.
You can feel it, can’t you? The landscape for ministry with youths and families is shifting. Some of the practices of ministry with youths that our communities have been doing for years are not working the same as they used to.
Numbers are lower. It’s a struggle to engage teens in many of the things they previously flocked to. We continue to hear the same “excuses:” “I have to work.” “If I miss practice, coach says I can’t play.” “I have too much homework.” “It’s too far away.” “It’s a mandatory rehearsal.” “I can’t spend two days away.” “This is my weekend with my dad/mom and his/her new family.”
We continue to talk about and lament how low a priority faith and church are in the lives of many of our youths, their parents and families. Sometimes, we even have to cancel things (e.g., DCYC 2016, TEC and local programs) because of low or no interest. Confirmation? Despite our tweaking and tinkering to improve our preparation, it still mostly remains the sacrament of exit rather than the completion of Christian Initiation.
All of this — and more — has been going on for a long time, and the situation continues to deteriorate. In their recent research, the Barna Group estimates that 4 in 10 teens who were active in their faith wander away from it in their 20s, and only 3 of 10 teens who grow up with a Christian background remain faithful and connected to church and faith into their 20s. What about parents? We need only look at our parish rolls and compare that list to the “active” families, which dramatically shows us the magnitude of this issue.
This is a “pull to the side of road moment.” We can continue to complain and yet do things in much the same way, which will only slightly delay the eventual irrelevancy of faith and church in most of our people’s lives. OR, we can accept the fact that for the most part what we’re doing and the model of structures associated with this are broken and need fixing. It’s time to transform all our efforts to focus on helping youths and their parents become disciples.
This shift responds to a deep hunger in youth and parents; a hunger for meaning, for belonging, and for purpose. This hunger is satisfied in friendship with Christ — a friendship that leads to belonging and to fruitful sharing of love and care with those in need. Another way to describe this friendship is missionary discipleship. Pope Francis has situated missionary discipleship as a means of being Christ in the world by healing, sharing good news and witnessing to the faith in a way that combines a life of service and faithfulness with the witness of evangelization. Young people are looking for the adventure of their lifetime. As church, we can propose the adventure of being a missionary disciple. Youths and young adults are missionaries when they seek to witness and serve those most in need, including the people closest to them. They are disciples when they strive to know Christ and follow his ways. Our engagement with youths and young adults should help them to encounter Christ, provide for accompaniment, promote belonging in the parish community and lead them to mission.
Questions we can ask as we begin our transformation:
• As we listen to youths and families, what are we hearing about where they are and what they need?
• How are we helping youths to experience encounters with God’s loving presence?
• How are we supporting disciple-building families?
• What are the resources in our parish to help grow young disciples?
• Who are the active disciples in our parish who could mentor youths?
• How are we promoting the practices of discipleship?
• How could we engage youths in active mission?
• How can we re-imagine all that we are doing through the lens of helping disciples grow?
Walking together to honestly and creatively engage the questions will begin to put us on a path to real, adaptive change that will make a difference. To continue down the same path and hope for different results reflects the classic definition of insanity.
And so, the Office of Faith Formation has embarked on a journey of re-assessment and re-visioning. The process has already begun with the launching of The State of Faith Formation in the Diocese of Davenport Study. This journey, with a particular focus on youth ministry, continues on Feb. 16, 2017, as we host the Center for Ministry Development’s workshop Calling Youth to Mission — Equipping Young Disciples. In this workshop, we will explore Pope Francis’ call to missionary discipleship and what it means to transform our ministries to growing young disciples.
This day will serve as a foundation for our ensuing journey of re-assessment and re-visioning, so it is vital that each parish has its key ministry leaders attend (pastor, youth ministry coordinator, DRE, etc.). You can access the workshop flyer on the diocesan webpage (www.davenportdiocese.org).
Challenging times call for bold leadership. The times in which we live call us to renewal and change. We will not find the answers to our challenges by hanging on more tightly to or returning to the past. Alone, this will be a most difficult and frustrating journey. Together, this will be a life-giving and exciting journey. Embarking on this journey is a choice for each pastor, youth ministry coordinator and DRE to consider. So we leave you with this simple question: What choice will you make?
(Tom East is director of the Center for Ministry Development, project coordinator for youth ministry services and coordinator of the certificate program in youth ministry. Don Boucher is the director of faith formation and coordinator of youth and young adult ministry at the Diocese of Davenport.)