A blog for Catholic men that seeks to encourage virtue, the pursuit of holiness and the art of true masculinity.
December 14, 2023
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Jason Craig, Fraternus Executive Director and editor of S&S, considers the history of youth ministry and our state of immaturity.
In his book The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas E. Bergler claims youth ministry, as a model for youth evangelization and formation, is a modern invention that has not only failed to “reach young people,” but has even altered how the remaining congregants in “regular church” commune with God and each other. While sincere in design, youth ministry “sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith.” If maturing youth is the goal, not only are we failing, according to Bergler, but we’re also perpetuating immaturity in adults.
An overwhelming number of teenagers that are part of youth ministries leave the Church as soon as the hoorah is over. Sociologists like Christian Smith at Notre Dame and a growing body of research are finding that the massive amount of time and money devoted to “reaching youth” has not only not reached them (i.e. kept them in the faith), but some studies indicate that going to youth ministry activities may decrease the likelihood of lifelong faithfulness compared to those that just go to boring ol’ church with their family.
Such data is difficult to digest. The zeal and love of those reaching out to our youth is real, and they maintain some of the most admirable aspirations in the Church — how could we question such sincere and apostolic people? What scrooge doesn’t want to help kids? Many, myself included, credit youth ministry as a critical part of their own formation and faith. How could we question something that worked for us and continues to help countless souls find their faith and belonging in the church? The three founders of Fraternus all met helping with a youth retreat. Lifelong friends and even marriages have come from youth groups.
As the family continues to break down and the Church struggles with modernity, youth groups become more indispensable by providing a sort of familial surrogacy through mentorship. With the continued decline of the family, youth ministry might not be perfect, but it’s something we might really need right now. Without youth ministry many would be lost.
To look at evidence contrary to these sentiments, however, is not to question motives or to dismiss successes. We also don’t have to accept the false dichotomy that asking difficult questions means we must go from doing something to doing nothing — babies and bathwater and all that. But, given the data available, not to mention reexamining some philosophical foundations, we simply must recognize that youth ministry is not working as a model of formation.
Many point out that youth ministry creates a parallel church that fails to recognize and respect the vocation of both church and family, being some sort of middle ground where young people are cordoned off from the adults that are meant to teach them. While there may be some truth to this, if we consider the origins of youth ministry as being a mimicking of secular “youth culture” and not an alternative and younger version of the church experience, we can more readily grasp the problem — and the solution.
Youth ministry is brand new in the history of Christianity. The phrase itself was completely absent from Christian vocabulary until about the 1970’s. Many of the methods we envision that accompany youth ministry started with people like the Protestant Jim Raybburn, who created Young Life in the 40’s, which leaned into the importance of adult relationships through informal and fun gatherings to share the Gospel. This is when the methods of skits, songs, and fun gatherings were created as vehicles for the Gospel. Such organizations carved out a new space, usually for the unchurched — they were not extracurricular things that happened in the church. These “parachurches,” as they were called, gave the initial Gospel message and then introduced young people to a stable church community. They were transient places, not final destinations.
Some see the seeds of Catholic youth ministry in things like CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). But CYO’s were not established as a parallel church experience for the young. They were established to compete with secular and Protestant institutions for the purpose of keeping our kids Catholic in a Protestant country, not reaching non-Catholics. The CYO’s didn’t run parallel to the Church itself but parallel to secular institutions including sports, education, and even political action. Catholic schools remain an example of the “parallel institution” model.
Youth ministry today is something different from Young Life or CYO. It is not a space created for evangelizing those outside the faith, nor is it something running parallel to societal institutions. Very different from something like St. John Bosco evangelizing and teaching orphaned street boys, youth ministry today is catered toward Catholic children in a decent life situation — middle class, baptized, and educated (homeschool included) — not “troubled” cases. It’s the kids down the hall, not the orphans or communists in the bad part of town. By now, the methods of the parachurches (things created for reaching those outside the church) are standard inside the churches.
What rarely gets asked is why were parachurch methods imported into the Church in order to reach our own kids? What changed that this was needed? We might compare it to a soup kitchen as an institution and strategy to meet the needs of the hungry. Why did our own Catholic children become so spiritually hungry as to require a sort of “soup kitchen?”
To understand what happened, we have to back out of the “church lens” and see the bigger picture. We also have to see youth ministry running parallel to something else new to society.
THE INVENTION OF TEENAGERS
Being a teenager is weird. For much of history, few cultures really recognized it as a stage of development considered in isolation from others, but rather saw it as a time of difficult transition from child to adult. Generally, teenagers might have been awkward, but given their physical state they were clearly grouped with adults. We might recall that many believe Our Lady was married to St. Joseph at 14 or 15.
A psychologist named G. Stanley Hall brought the very term and idea of “adolescence” to the fore at the turn of the 21st century. He proposed a moratorium on teenagers assuming the work and responsibility of adults as a way to treat the “storm and stress syndrome,” which is how he described those years when passions and physical abilities boil. Hall was the first president of the American Psychological Association, and is often cited as “discovering” adolescence, when in reality it seems his strategies invented it. This happened when teenagers were, in a sense, removed from the adults but, since they were clearly not exactly children, they were isolated into their own classification.
However, not being grouped with the adults meant that they were able in many ways to continue the way of life they knew for their whole existence, the life of a child — but with more bodily maturity too. This paved the way for teenagers to be removed from the world of adults, and a new class of consuming, non-productive citizens was born…
Before, there was only one “culture,” the adult culture. But “youth culture” became a decidedly different and rebellious contra-culture, fueled by societal angst and the consumer economy. Youth culture became big business. By the 1960’s there was a clear breakdown of generational trust, as the hippies saw an authoritarian enemy in everything from the college dean to the FBI to their own parents. Robert Bly pointed out this was the time when it was perfectly reasonable that Darth Vader was Luke’s father — parents seemed to be secretively leading evil empires. And let’s remember that during the same decade Star Wars came, parents legalized the killing of their own children on the heels of accepting no-fault divorce. The social revolutions were dividing children from their parents and the sexual revolution was dividing parents from their children.
Naturally, the churches were concerned. This is when Protestant churches imported the methods of the parachurch and a new model was adopted. They did their own type of fun, creating Christian alternatives to popular fads and fashions; they wanted to make the faith relevant by presenting it in a “young way.” But as youth ministry chased children down with amusements, they were fighting the worldly culture by mimicking it. As teenagers were becoming heavy consumers, so faith needed to be marketed and made attractive to them. The world would start teen dance clubs, and a local Baptist church would make its own club. By the 90’s churches operated their own camps and skate parks. Worship services became concerts, complete with light shows and smoke machines (not to be confused with candles and incense). Big churches advertised sensational shows that might have ended in an altar call but started with the youth leader swallowing a goldfish to reward high attendance.
Along with a sort of hip re-branding within the emerging youth group, the most significant change was the absence of the broad community of adults. The churches had done what the world did, create a new class and keep them there. As for keeping the kids in their own youth groups separate from adults, this again was just mimicking the same thing that was happening in secular society first. The faith is always relevant because it is true. But the rebranding of Christianity as “relevant” was making it more like youth culture and less like an inherited tradition in which one grows up.
MATURITY AS GOAL
What then does this do to our understanding of youth ministry? Beginning not in style but in substance, we must return to a theology of maturity because that is our theological inheritance — our duty. Humanity was created to grow toward virtue, which is nothing but the maturity of man’s created nature supported by grace. Being a “better Christian” in Sacred Scripture has little to do with what we might call enthusiasm; it is called maturity.
Adolescence is not so much a defining moment because children are growing up, but because the androgynous word “children” is giving way to the distinction of men and women. Or, remembering St. Paul’s words, “putting away childhood” comes by becoming a man or woman, not a teenager for a while and then a man or woman. The difference of men and women, complete with their different formative needs, must be overseen by those suited to it, meaning men and women.
Scripture is clear on this. “Older women must train the younger women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:4, see surrounding verses too). “Treat younger men as brothers,” St. Paul tells the younger bishop Timothy. “Urge the young men to self control… show yourself to be a good example…” (Titus 2:6, 7)
For healthy intergenerational relationships, parents must see that they need each other significantly more than they need youth programs or staff. We need the type of community where mentoring and friendships are established, expected, and tended. And, in the maturity, where the interchange of mentoring – likely known more simply as “community” – is also expected and treasured. In other words, we must make it about being mature men and women, not focusing on the formula for our kids that will out-compete the world. This makes the adult community the focus of formation, even if it is for the sake of the young.
Jason M. Craig is the editor of Those Catholic Men and Sword&Spade magazine, the author of Leaving Boyhood Behind (OSV 2019), and co-founder of Fraternus. He has a Masters in Theology from the Augustine Institute. Craig runs a small Grade A dairy with his family and hosts retreats and workshops through St. Joseph’s Farm. He is known to claim that his family invented bourbon.
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