When I began my new job as a youth minister last year, I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with youth ministry. I did have the opportunity to teach several summer programs to teens in my previous job, as a librarian, But apart from that, I was flying somewhat blind.
When it came to trying to figure out how best to reach our youths, I thought back to when I was their age (roughly 15 to 20 years ago, my how time flies!) My own grade school and high school years weren’t loads of fun. While growing up and attending Catholic school, I got bullied regularly. My tormentors were classmates who acted like angels on Sunday, but returned to their old devious ways on Monday. And this went on for years.
What made matters worse was that my tormentors were also involved in the youth ministry. So because of this I stayed away from the youth ministry program. Why would I want to subject myself to even more torment?
As a result, I spent my younger years walking away from anything that felt “religious.” In my 13-year-old mind, organized religion was “where the hypocrites hang out.” I’d go to church on Sunday and sit in the same old pew, bored out of my mind. I’d listen to yet another sleep-inducing homily (and yes I actually did nod off a time or two), sing drearily along to the lackluster music, and then finally walk out completely unfazed by the whole experience.
By the grace of God, I rediscovered my Catholic faith near the end of college. My soul was set ablaze from that point on, as I realized that Catholicism and the Church offered so much more than what I had experienced as a teen. Needless to say, I no longer think that way about attending Mass or youth ministry anymore. But the lessons I learned from it have helped to shape my views on how to engage the teens.
When setting up the Fusion youth ministry at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Abbottstown, Pennsylvania, I had several goals in mind.
- Create an atmosphere where teens could meet regularly and could come and feel accepted as they are.
- Have fun.
- Have a place where teens could make friends with other Catholic youths.
- To not just help teens learn about the faith, but to help them experience something extraordinary – to get them excited about their faith.
- To mentor and shape them into disciples, so that once they go out into the larger world, they can do likewise.
Mind you, when I first started out, I had a general vision in mind for how Fusion would go. Along the way, I had numerous mentors and fellow youth ministers who helped guide me and give me advice. In addition, whenever there was a conference or webinar pertaining towards youth ministry, I took it. As time went along and I became more comfortable in this position, I began to realize that Fusion could offer the teens so much more than they were getting out of the ministry.
Learning about the Catholic Faith
Near the beginning of each youth night, we’d have an icebreaker-style game so the teens could have some fun. One of the earliest ones we used was one I made up called Top 5 – a multiple choice trivia game. For weeks, I searched the internet and fact books for topics and trivia to add to the game. I never thought the game would become so popular.
Then one day , it dawned on me that I could use Top 5 as a learning tool. While still having fun, the teens could also be learning about their faith rather than just learning random facts. So now we have a theme each night. For instance, just recently we had a Top 5 Saints Edition, in which our teens could learn more about the saints. That went over so well that I’m already working on a second Saints Edition.
The thing that amazes me the most about our teens is how hungry they are for learning more about, and experiencing a vibrant faith for, Catholicism, the Church, and Christ. Several months back, I got the idea to try having an Adoration Night. Using a mixture of videos from YouTube and discussion time, I was able to explain to the teens the origins of Eucharistic Adoration, the importance of the Eucharist, and what to expect while in Eucharistic Adoration. When the time came to enter into Adoration, the experience of watching those teens deep in prayer and devotion was truly a sight to behold. You could simply feel the Holy Spirit moving through the chapel. So much so that I’d like to have Adoration Night once a month, if possible.
Theology of the Body
Also, shortly after I began my job, I was approached by several parents and teens who had all sorts of questions pertaining to gender identity, chastity, relationships, and so forth. Around the same time, I had recently gotten a teen-oriented video series from Ascension Press called YOU: Life, Love, and the Theology of the Body. Feeling the need to address these issues with our teens, I and the fellow youth ministers at IHM, started setting a summer program into motion. Our pastor is pretty sure this was the first time our church had ever done anything like this for teens.
Our program, which we have called Dynamic YOU, runs 10 weeks long on Sunday evenings, from June to August. The YOU video series is laid out in sessions. Each week focuses on a specific topic, related to Pope St. John Paul II’s phenomenal Theology of the Body.
As time drew nearer, I heard a few naysayers remarking “You’ll never get enough kids to come, it’s the summer.” Ignoring the negativity, I prayed to God that the teens would come. In the last month leading up to Dynamic YOU, I had sign-up sheets out for teens who were interested in attending. As the deadline for registry was reached, I was thrilled to see we had 24 names down. And I was pleased when, on our kick-off night, over 20 teens came out. Since then, they have continued to return.
Maybe the few will become many
One of things some of my fellow youth ministers told me in the beginning is that “it’s not about the numbers, it’s about relationships.” But I only partially agree. In the Acts of the Apostles 4:4, it says: “But many of those who heard the word came to believe and (the) number of men grew to [about] five thousand.” And it also says as much in Acts 5:14 when “yet more than ever, believers in the Lord, great numbers of men and women, were added to them.”
While I understand that we shouldn’t be solely focused on numbers in youth ministry, I think the number of teens attending Fusion events is an indicator that there are many teens out there yearning to live a dynamic faith. And with Fusion, I am hoping I can help them discover that in themselves.