Let’s ask the same question. Have you noticed anything different about twenty-first-century teens? Although the teens physically resemble adolescents of the past (excluding expansive ink and multiple piercings), do they seem to think and see life differently than those of just a few years ago? When it comes to church activities, does it seem like what was “tried and true” for teens no longer works?
If you are vaguely uneasy about youth ministry, you’re onto something. Something has distinctly changed among twenty-first-century teens. We can’t always name it or articulate it profoundly, but we can feel it.
Over the past thirty years I have been involved in full-time Catholic youth ministry. After a life-altering conversion experience in late high school, I could think of nothing better to invest my life in than sharing the same Jesus who so transformed my life with others. With Catholic youth ministry still in its infancy, I ended up at Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant institution that boasted of a graduate named Billy Graham. Not only did I learn how to correctly pronounce the word “evangelism,” I became passionate about practicing it with anyone who would listen and even with those who wouldn’t. A godly and open-minded pastor who was not put off by my evangelicalese dialect hired me.
As a novice parish youth minister, I cut my ministerial teeth on Gen X teens, those born between the mid-sixties and very early eighties. In many ways, Gen Xers followed The Field of Dreams mandate, “If you build it, they will come.” Over a ten-year period, we developed programs for almost every day of the week. The sweeping menu included a teen outreach center, weight room, monthly retreats, weekly discipleship groups, before-school peer ministry leadership training, large group evangelistic gatherings, outside ministry and service opportunities, travel to large youth conferences, and more.
We built it, and they came! There were years when twice the number of registered parish teens attended our events. Over time, teen involvement swelled to mega youth ministry status with over 500 high schoolers attending our events. Reversing roles, local Protestant pastors bemoaned the fact that their teens were migrating to a Catholic youth ministry. Numbers aside, many teens experienced deep conversion and the desire to follow Jesus as a disciple, going on to serve the church in professional ministerial roles in youth ministry, religious education, and priesthood.
Youth ministry was going so well that I felt compelled by the need of other local Catholic parishes and a sense of personal call to export my “success.” Leaving my parish position, I founded Cultivation Ministries, a not-for-profit youth ministry organization that assisted parishes in developing or revitalizing their parish youth ministries. What began with a single individual and a local Chicago-based effort grew into a ten-person staff and national ministry within several years. Our staff was very busy developing resources, building parish youth ministries, and producing large youth rallies and conferences.
Something happened as we approached the new millennium. Building a dynamic, disciple-making Catholic youth ministry had never been child’s play, but the difficulty factor suddenly seemed to be exponentially multiplied. Young people were not coming simply because we built it. It was easy for us church folk — almost a default chorus line — to blame the ever-expanding school programs, zealous coaches, and complacent parents for a decline in our attendance. But it was only a smoke screen that camouflaged a deeper reality. Beyond stylistic preferences, young people were thinking and seeing life differently. I was beginning to feel like a youth ministry newbie — like the last twenty years meant nothing in this new era.
The following are just a few examples of common changes and shifts in teen perspectives.
From Formal Promotion to Personal Connection
Send out a flyer and Gen X teens were more than likely to make an appearance. For today’s teens, however, conventional promotions (flyers, mailings, announcements, etc.) are almost subconsciously filtered into mental junk mail folders. With a deluge of information, advertising, and more opportunities than time, teens are more distrustful of impersonal invitations. They require a more intimate connection for an invitation to register on their radar screens. Besides, many never actually open their “snail mail.” Furthermore, bulletin and Mass announcements are fairly ineffectual because teens are often MIA for Sunday liturgy or, if present, see the invitations as remote, institutional, formal, and impersonal. In the end, the result is a decline in interest and attendance.
From Inheriting Faith to Choosing Faith
Previous youth generations were more apt to inherit the faith of their families; faith was generally passed down. In the past, we hedged our bets on wayward Catholic youth and young adults eventually returning to the faith of their childhood. While constructing their own faith convictions, values, and beliefs they would often bypass the Church, entertaining alternative life routes. More often than not, however, they returned to the Church in order to raise their children in the same faith tradition of their own childhood. Furthermore, there was a greater sense of institutional loyalty. Ironically, even Catholic parents who rarely attended Mass were fiercely loyal to the Church. They often revealed their claws when one of their cubs ventured into the den of a differing faith tradition.
It’s no longer a sure bet that young adults will return to their church of origin when getting married or raising children. The majority fails to return to any church and those who do go back often choose a different faith tradition.2 Teens are not inheriting their faith as much as they are choosing their faith. In her research of adolescents and church, Carol Lytch concludes, “Passing on faith to the next generation is challenging today in a new way. In fact, ‘passing on the faith’ is no longer the task it used to be. Teens choose faith instead. American society has changed to favor individual choice of a highly personal religion that is less tethered to religious traditions and institutions.”3
Past generations certainly had a choice. It was just limited. You chose church or you chose hell. Most chose church. Today, teens will not commit unless they find and experience meaning. Furthermore, today’s young people are accustomed to choosing between gymnastics or dance, soccer or football, painting or theatre. Conditioned by a culture of choice, they are somewhat impervious to obligatory motivations and past forms of Catholic guilt. Possessing more options than hours, young people are choosing whether to be involved in church, and for reasons beyond family tradition or institutional loyalty. In a Google age, the Church is not the only spigot for the spiritually thirsty. But when today’s teens are attracted to church, “they are attracted because the churches engage them in intense states of self-transcendence uniting emotional and cognitive processes. Churches ‘catch’ them on three hooks: a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competence.”4
From Attractional to Authentic
Gen X teens enthusiastically responded to evangetainment. They were transfixed by emotionally moving drama, humorous talks, and reflective visual media. On the other hand, the emerging generation is impatient with stationary approaches and passive learning. They prefer engagement rather than entertainment. Twenty-first-century teens hunger for a more interactive and participatory experience.
While training novice youth ministers over the years, I would passionately proclaim, “The gospel is the greatest news the world has ever known and we must present it in a great way — with the dignity it deserves.” For late Boomer and Gen X teens that meant slick, cool, and expensive productions that mirrored the quality of the larger culture. The less it reminded you of church (and the typically amateurish and archaic approaches) the more likely you drew a crowd. But the emerging teen population is dubious of the religious professionalism, preferring something more real, authentic, or unplugged. Presenting the gospel with the dignity it deserves means something entirely different to this generation.
My oldest son, Michael, a poster child for the emerging generation, gave me an education on their perspective towards “presenting the gospel with the dignity it deserves.” When he was 18, a friend invited him to his baptism at a nearby evangelical Protestant, seeker-style mega church. Michael was happy to go in support of his friend. A large percentage of this church’s membership was comprised of former Catholics. Knowing a number of my own peers who had left some of the local Catholic parishes for this church, I was curious how Michael would respond.
As he and another friend pulled into the driveway after the baptism, I made a beeline to the car. “So, what did you think?” I immediately asked.
“I hated it,” he quickly interjected. His friend nodded in enthusiastic agreement. I’m not going to lie — I was shocked.
“What do you mean?” I inquired.
“Well, first of all, that place had the best of everything. You should have seen the sound system, projection screens, and comfortable seating. It was clear they took every penny collected and invested back into their own comfort and benefit. It’s a ‘country club’ church. Shouldn’t the church be about the poor? And, you should have seen the pastor. He wore a suit way too expensive for a man of the cloth. He talked more like a television talk show host than a pastor. He was just way too slick for me.”
Astonished with his assessment, I could only mutter, “Huh.” Michael’s story went on — which brings us to another distinctive change in this emerging generation.
From Relationships as Strategies of Influence to Relationships for Relationship Sake
“The baptism was a farce,” he went on. “After each person was dunked on stage, they shared their conversion story. I thought that would be cool. I like to hear people’s faith stories. But they had a different agenda. By the second person, it became clear to me that their stories weren’t so much about them as they were about us! We were invited to ‘get saved’ and be evangelized into their church. They weren’t upfront with us. I felt duped.”
Reading between the lines, Michael was articulating an important distinction for his generation: Relationships should not be used as a strategy for influence.5
For years, relational youth ministry was built on the mantra “earn the right to be heard.”6 Once we demonstrated interest in young people’s lives by being relationally present, and built a sense of trust, they would become open to the gospel message. This approach worked with Boomer and Gen X teens, as they inquired, “Will you accept me for who I am?” However, a nuance in Millennial Generation teens’ query is a complete game-changer. They ask, “Will you accept me for who I am not?” In other words, does the relationship stand on its own or does it exist for a hidden motive? Today’s teens are suspicious and put off by relationships with an agenda. They hunger for relationships for relationship sake.
Today’s youth are a different breed and youth ministry leaders are beginning to question our allegiance and use of older practices. Mark Oestreicher, the former president of Youth Specialties, one of the largest and most influential youth ministry organizations, wrote to thousands of youth ministers stating, “… many of our assumptions and practices in youth ministry are in need of major or minor overhaul.”7 Bob McCarty, the Executive Director for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (N.F.C.Y.M.), describes this moment by saying, “We are navigating new territories with old, outdated maps.”8
Catholic youth ministry stands at a crossroads. As we stand at the intersection, may we be reminded of Jesus’ words, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35). Trying to go back to an earlier era and save the Church as we know it may mean losing a generation that doesn’t relate any longer to our approaches and methodologies. In many ways we are presented with an incredible opportunity to become more real, loving, tolerant, community-oriented, and service-focused. Leonard Sweet poses the rhetorical questions “Will we live the time God has given us? Or will we live a time we would prefer to have?”9
- What is your experience of today’s youth? What differences have you noticed in the way they relate to adults?
- Do you believe today’s teens are choosing their faith, not inheriting it? If true, how does this change how we do church?
- Carol Lytch says we catch youth on the hooks of a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competence. How well does your parish catch young people on these hooks? In what ways can you make improvements?
- How can religious “professionals” become more real, authentic, and unplugged in a totally wired world?
- From your experience, how has relational youth ministry changed with today’s teens?
- What parts of your youth ministry are working? What parts aren’t working? What areas do you see need change?
1. Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society, New York: Harper’s Business, 1993. Page 1.
2. Martinson 2000; Barna 2001; Olson 2003.
3. Carol Lytch, Choosing Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Page 13.
4. Carol Lytch, Choosing Church. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Page 25.
5. In his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, Andrew Root profoundly shifted the youth ministry community from commonly practicing relational ministry as “relationship as a means to a goal” to relationships as the goal.
6. A phrase originally coined by Jim Rayburn, the founder of the para-church youth ministry organization Young Life.
7. A letter sent by Youth Specialties around 2006.
8. Bob would frequently give presentations to youth ministry leaders with this title, describing some of these changes in the cultural landscape.
9. Leonard Sweet, Post-Modern Pilgrims. B & H Publishing Group, Nashville, 2000, page 47.