Discovering the Purpose of Youth Ministry

This excellent article was taken from a magazine called Catholic Asian News. In it, Adrian Khoo explores very insightfully the problems that our youth groups face time and again. He suggests that the only way forward is to look upon our youth as ambassadors in training...

Discovering the Purpose of
Youth Ministry

Babysitters, Entertainers or Ambassadors?
by Adrian Khoo
YOUTH MINISTRY: every­body likes to talk about it, but nobody seems to know quite what to make of it.
Despite the best efforts of dedicated Catholics in parishes nationwide, youth ministry in many parishes can often appear to be an exercise in frustration. In our conversations with youth leaders in parishes across the country, youth group concerns are complex and varied. Among the recent trends:

• The internet and satellite tele­vision have produced the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of the teenager who claims to have no time to come to youth group meetings but can spend hours a day playing the latest networked games at the local internet cafe.

• While the Church views con­firmation as a time of a special out­pouring of die Holy Spirit, youth and their parents have a tendency to view confirmation as a graduation -whereupon their Catholic forma­tion is complete and they (or their children) are no longer obliged to attend Sunday school. A similar thinking exists with participation in youth group activities - as young adults graduate’ from youth group activities, they often graduate out of church life altogether.

• Youth leaders are, more often than not, inadequately formed, poorly equipped with scriptural knowledge, formal people manage­ment skills or principles of Christian leadership. In addition, the turnover rate for youth leaders is high: The average youth leader spends no more than a year in leadership before leaving, often to further his or her studies or career. The result is a perpetual gap in knowledge and experience that creates youth groups that attempt to thrive largely on momentum and enthusiasm alone.

Given the high turnover rate of leaders, a lack of adequate formation and the perpetual struggle to attract new members and retain existing ones, youth groups tend to gravitate towards three models of ministry:

Model #1: The Youth 'Babysitting Model

Underlying thinking:
• The world is a hostile and scary place, full of wrong values and dan­gerous influences
• Youth need to be protected from such influences by mixing with Good Catholics' and participating in 'Healthy' activities under the pro­tective umbrella of the Church
Unstated Goal:
To ride out the turbulent adolescent years!
There is little emphasis on scripture reading or prayer as a means of transforming lives. It is hoped that by spending enough time in church, the youth will be changed by some yet-unknown process of transference of holiness.
If you took away the 'Church' label from the group it is often hard to distinguish the group from secular social concern groups like the Rotaract or Lions clubs.
Unintended Results:
Youth groups structured around this model may develop an 'us against them" fortress mentality. Such groups can become exclusive clubs, having little impact on the society around them.
Few leaders are raised, as parents and youth see youth min­istry as 'just another healthy activi­ty' like piano lessons or joining the boy scouts.
Youth who leave the group to enter adult life are spiritually ill-equipped to face secular realities. They enter a crucial age of deci­sion-making on their choice of vocation, relationships and studies without a mature, tested faith.

Model #2: The ‘Amusement Park' Model

Underlying thinking:

• Youth are not interested in serious bible study or prayer
• A successful youth ministry is one with many members. Entertainment and fellowship is the best way to attract more youth.
Unstated Goal:
To make youth ministry a fun, clean alternative to worldly enter­tainment
There is a strong emphasis on fellowship. Vague concepts like 'togetherness' and 'unity' are often emphasised as the ultimate goals of the group.
The group is activity ori­ented, with a preference towards social/fun activities as a means of occupying free rime and idle minds
Bible reading or prayer is confined to the beginning and/or end of the activity in an attempt to 'Christianise' an essentially secular activity
Unintended Results:
An activity-oriented approach covers up personal emo­tional needs and shortcomings. Members can walk away from an activity temporarily entertained but with unmet fundamental spir­itual and emotional needs
The overemphasis on fel­lowship leads to an excessively strong identification with the youth group. A member of this group will likely identify himself as first belonging to the youth group - belonging to the Church and to Christ comes a distant second and third. Few members make the tran­sition to serve in other areas of min­istry in the church.
In the long run, no youth group can match the sheer diversity and entertainment capability the world can offer: many have run themselves ragged trying. As a result, many parish youth groups are stuck in a tiring, time-consuming popularity contest.
This model tends to have the highest rate of burnout. Minimally trained youth leaders valiantly try to attract as many youth as possible to increasingly elaborate and entertaining events, in the hope that some of the youth will stick around long enough to become 'leaders' (defined as those who are brave enough to join the organising committee of the next event). The defining measure of the success of this model becomes 'how many peo­ple do you have in your group?' and how entertaining the last event was.

Model #3: The Self-run Co-opera­tive Model

Underlying thinking:
• Youth leadership is best developed by empowering youth to lead all aspects of group life Unstated Goal:
A 100% youth min­istry - for youth, by youth
The leadership is comprised almost exclusively of teenage students.
Often, a committee is placed in charge of the group with a nominal coordinator elected to coordinate meetings
Decisions are made by con­sensus with little formal guidance. This is done under the belief that the best decision is the most popular one.
Leadership formation is strictly on the job - they'll learn as they go
Youth spend much of their time in ministry planning for upcoming activities. There usually isn't much time left over for charac­ter development or spiritual forma­tion.
Unintended Results:
Unpopular activities like bible study and prayer get voted down
Like the Babysitting approach, an 'us against them' men­tality can develop. The youth min­istry becomes a youth ghetto: isolat­ed and treated with suspicion by the rest of the church
All three models contain essential ingredients of a successful youth ministry: Young people need a safe environment to grow and mature; they need good friendships and strong community and they need to take ownership and respon­sibility for the ministry. Yet some-

The key to the
revitalisation of parish
youth ministry lies more
in the proper formation
of leaders of great quality
and character
thing is missing: A specific, defined purpose.
But behind the more basic needs lies a higher one -

As part of their desire to be recognized as individuals, young people instinc­tively desire to make an impact on the world they live in. In short, they desire purpose, direction and significance in their lives.

A youth ministry without a compelling purpose places your youth group activities low on the 'to do' list of the average youth. On the other hand, a compelling purpose inspires great amounts of commit­ment even though the conditions may cause a great deal of inconven­ience and sacrifice.
The Holy Father recog­nised this need in his General prayer intentions for September 2001
That the adolescents and young people of the third millennium may discover a profound ideal to give meaning and value to their lives
In the Gospel of John, Jesus answers this need for purpose in a concise, compelling fashion:
"As the Father has sent me, so I send you" (John 20:21)
And send them He did! In his time with the disciples, Jesus placed a clear priority on calling his disciples, teaching and equipping them not just with wisdom, but with the power of the Holy Spirit and finally, sending them forth to be his wit­nesses.
In the second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul echoes this purpose in his ministry of reconcili­ation:
"So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us” (2 Cor 5:20).
It is this call to be an ambassador of Christ in our schools, workplaces, families and in future religious or married vocations, that our fourth model is derived:

Model #4: The Ambassador Training Model
Underlying thinking:
• Short term formation for a long-term mission
This model is based on two critical realities of youth groups:
First, youth groups are a necessarily transitory part of church life. The short-term nature of their time in the youth group profoundly impacts the sense of urgency of the task ahead.
Second, they present an opportunity to impact the lives of the youth in the crucial years when they decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Values, principles and habits are formed in this stage of their lives that can greatly encourage, or inhibit, their journey with God and the nature of their witness to the world.
The success of this model is not measured by the type of activi­ties undertaken or time occupied, but the extent to which lives are transformed.
The group is relationship centered instead of activity oriented. All the time and expense spent in preparing for a function at a foreign embassy - the cocktail parties, din­ner receptions and endless teas - are for one purpose: to build relation­ships.
Similarly, the goal of the group should be to build solid con­sistent relationships with God (through prayer and the sacraments especially the Eucharist) and with their neighbour (through brotherly love and meaningful community life). The overriding consideration in making any decision in a youth group should be "Does this help me love my God or my neighbor more completely and selflessly?"
Note: there is a difference between a relationship centered group and a fellowship oriented one. Groups that emphasise fellow­ships by focusing primarily on building friendships can easily turn into cliques as petty biases and prej­udices arise.
Members are equipped instead of entertained
Exterior activities cannot hide an impoverished interior life. By encouraging members in the gift of prayer and devotion to sacred scrip­ture, the youth group equips them for real life - when the relationships and support network formed in the youth group may no longer exist.
If a measure of the 'success' of a youth group must be taken, then it is probably best taken not when a person is in the group, but when he leaves. Ideally, the young man or woman should leave not just with fond memories of fun activities but with solid principles and spiritual habits that last a life­time.
We believe that the key to the revitalisation of parish youth ministry lies more in the proper formation of leaders of great quali­ty and character than in the metic­ulous planning of the right pro­gram. For the past 5 years in our ministry, we have been working to build these young leaders on 6 core principles: Being sound in the Word, committed to prayer, excel­lent in lifestyle, passionate in love, filled with the Spirit and account­able to one another before Christ. We are very encouraged by the results thus far.

Adrian Khoo has 8 years involve­ment in BEC youth groups, parish youth ministry and as full-time co­ordinator of Lifeline College & Young Adults Ministry, Church of St Francis Xavier, Petalingjaya

CANews April 2002

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