“How does the Catholic Church do youth ministry that works?” When I submitted my application to be the Manager of Ministries to Young People for the Diocese of Auckland, my cover letter was structured around this single question.
What’s clear, generally, is that the Catholic Church doesn’t know the answer.
In New Zealand, Catholics compromise 10.02% percent of the total population, making us the single largest Christian denomination in the country. Yet our youth involvement often lags behind other Christian denominations, especially Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen a steady reduction in the presence of young people at Sunday Mass. One Australian study, concerning whether the children of Mass-goers also went to church, found that while 79 percent of 10-14 yr olds still attended, only 45 percent of those 15yrs+ did so.
A similar 2021 US study found that 52 percent of young Catholics (aged 13-25) reported attending mass once per year or less.
THE DISTURBING TRUTH
This reality should disturb us. Young people are an important part of the Church. They’re often a source of momentum, inviting us to be bolder and go further in living out our faith.
At the simple level of statistics, the participation of those under the age of 30 is essential for there to still be a Church in 30-40 years’ time. The alternative is a future where a lot more Catholic churches converted into cafes and art galleries.
Yet, it often feels like Catholics aren’t mindful of this reality. As someone who works in youth ministry, it can feel like I’m in a burning building, frantically trying to find a fire extinguisher while everyone else is calming occupying the same seat they’ve been sitting in for the past 20 years.
I recently attended a Catholic conference where a parish priest shared with me that he would often lose sleep thinking about the future of the church. I remember thinking “thank God.” Not because we want our clergy losing sleep (they need every hour of shut eye they can get). But because we need people who care enough that they’re losing sleep.
This isn’t business-as-usual. We are not called to quietly maintain a model of ministry that is working. What we’re doing isn’t working and it falls to us to seek a way of doing youth ministry that does. We’re called to be bold, to invest significant resources, to do something different.
The alternative is closed churches and young people who never encounter the transformational love of Jesus Christ.
DOING SOMETHING DIFFERENT
If you’re going to deliver Catholic youth ministry that works, you’ve got to be a pioneer. Young people and their needs are changing rapidly. The tried-and-true methods of Catholic youth ministry are no longer as effective as they were 20, 10 or even 5 years ago.
A lot of the principles remain the same: young people still need the gospel, they still need relationships with mentors, they still need to see faith live lived out in everyday life. But our methods need to change.
Over the past 3 years, I’ve been inspired by Catholic leaders who are willing to try something different:
Everett Fritz was a parish youth minister who, after getting burnt out by the demands of running a large parish youth group every week, asked whether there was a better way.
He decided to pilot a new model of youth ministry, focused around weekly small groups. Using this new model, Fritz’s parish youth ministry grew from 60 teens regularly attending youth group to over 120 teens being discipled in small groups.
The model has been replicated with significant success across other parishes and secondary schools. You can read all about it in Fritz’s book The Art of Forming Young Disciples.
The Archdiocese of Brisbane
The Archdiocese of Brisbane was running the typical Diocesan playbook of trying to support youth ministry across 103 parishes. They struggled with the feeling that their ministry was spread a mile wide, but only going an inch deep.
They decided to try a new model, focused around identifying 5 parish-and-secondary-school communities where they could invest their efforts deeply. Their goal was to establish 5 thriving youth ministries, each attended by 50+ young people, within 5 years. Three years into their work, they’ve successfully launched youth ministries at 3 parishes and they’re on their way to meeting their goal.
Incredible things can happen when we’re bold enough to ask the question, “how can we do Catholic youth ministry that works?”
As youth ministers, we should be fired up by this question. Finding the answers can feel daunting, but the good news is that we aren’t alone. A lot can be learned from Everett Fritz, the team at the Archdiocese of Brisbane, and other pioneers like them.
In our ministry, we shouldn’t operate in isolation. Sharing knowledge is essential. We should share what we’re learning, both with those in our local community and with other ministries outside of it.
If we can do that, we’ll be able to move beyond outdated youth ministry models and do something that actually works.