There is no necessary correlation between the amount of time a person spends in church or being involved in church activities and the quality of his/her personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Parents – I think you should know – that having your child spend more time in church does not necessarily decrease the chances of him/her picking up bad habits you want them to avoid either. Just as it is out there in the world, there is sexual promiscuity, under-aged and unsupervised drinking, as well as toxic relationships that abound in the youth groups and cliques that are active in parishes. Pretending that this is not the case or covering such cases up is hurting, not helping, our efforts in discipling our young people. If we were to do that, then we would be salt that has lost its saltiness. We would be colluding with sin instead of exhorting them to come out into the light.
It has always troubled me that the unspoken presupposition that so many priests and ministry leaders have about youth ministry is that the goal is to see more young people getting involved in church activities instead of helping them to grow in holiness. Yes, HOLINESS! That is not a bad word to be stepped around or whispered only in the chapel. To have our young people grow in holiness is to see them liberated more and more from the sins and hurts that bind them and that make them full of anger, fear, and ambivalence at life. To have our young people grow in holiness is to see them come to life, to see them restored with hope, and become full of passion for life and genuine, life-giving love. To have our young people grow in holiness is to see them fall in love with Jesus Christ and to learn, day by day, to be formed by him more into his likeness. To see them grow in holiness is to see them grow courageous in pursuing virtue and free to love God even in the face of rejection and persecution. And I can assure you that THAT is an incredibly inspiring thing to behold!
How are disciples made? They are apprenticed by more mature disciples. That means that if our youth groups and communities lack mature Christian disciples with deep prayer lives as leaders, the chances of our youth becoming disciples and growing in virtue are practically negligible. In fact, if our youth are meeting often with church friends and are spending more time gossiping than praying, making out rather than making disciples, getting inebriated with alcohol instead of the Holy Spirit, how can we reasonably expect them to become courageous apostles for God’s Kingdom? Yet that is the very thing that Christ calls them to be! “Let no one disregard you because you are young, but be an example to all the believers in the way you speak and behave, and in your love, your faith and your purity.” – 1 Tim 4:12 Young people are just as capable as anyone to become shining witnesses of discipleship. But they don’t become disciples just by helping out in church or hanging out with fellow Catholics who may or may not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Discipleship is intentional and active. It is not something you pick up by accident like lint on the sofa. People become disciples when they are DISCIPLED.
And here’s the thing. Not every able-bodied, sound-minded, willing adult who wants to volunteer is capable of discipling the youth. Not even if they have great natural talents, are resourceful and capable, and have a great rapport with young people. That would be like assuming that any intelligent, capable and willing person would be able to apprentice a young person to be a great violinist or artist. In all other realms of life, we know that we need to seek people with the relevant skills for a particular task. Yet when it comes to discipling our young people, so many of us seem to think that it is unnecessary for leaders and mentors to be mature disciples first. We think “the Holy Spirit will do it” and turn a blind eye to the troubling signs within our own communities that all is not alright. At the same time, we burden our leaders with so much stress churning out event after event, camp after camp, and activity after activity, that they are in no shape themselves to have the spiritual eyes to see what they need to see. So many of our leaders are blind even to their own spiritual needs, how can we expect them to be able to identify the needs of our youth?
My heart goes out to the young people in these communities. Some of them have no clue that they are not in a spiritually and emotionally healthy space. Others are troubled and they feel that something isn’t right, but they feel trapped. If they were to speak out and seek help, they would be seen as betraying their friends. But if they were to remain silent and confused, then they too will sooner or later become lukewarm. Perhaps that is why some choose instead to leave ministry and youth groups. And if they can find another community where they can be better nourished to grow their relationship with Christ, can we not be happy for them?
Like Martha in Luke’s Gospel, we are worried and anxious about so many things when in the end only ONE THING IS NECESSARY. Are we, and are the people we care for, making progress towards true freedom – the freedom that only God can give? Is the activity we are planning, or the task we are planning to delegate to a particular person, going to help him or her be more able to listen to God, to be loved by God, and to be transformed by him? During my own term of full-time ministry in the parish, I have grappled with these questions daily and I have found that many times, I cannot in good conscience say that the answer is ‘Yes.’ I saw so many leaders, both youth and adult, who have been serving faithfully for years and yet they were spiritually lost. Yet because they were leaders, it was assumed that they had their act together. Poor was the pastoral care and spiritual guidance given to them even as they were expected to be supermen and women in churning out “dynamic” events that were hoped to be oversubscribed. So often, in spite of what we claim, our actions show that we want numbers for the sake of numbers.
Every soul matters. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. And the way to love souls is precisely to LOVE them. Not USE them. Not even if it is for ministry! But we cannot know how to love unless we ourselves have been loved. We cannot know how to heal unless we ourselves have been healed. We cannot know how to disciple others until we ourselves have been discipled. It always starts from ourselves.
The measure of success we should be looking for is whether or not a young person continues to know how to deepen and grow his or her relationship with God long after they have left youth ministry. Do they learn to be less dependent on others for their prayer lives? Do they grow in virtue and charity and seek to give their whole lives to God in whatever vocation he calls them to? Do they become more loving to others? Do they grow in desire to live purely? Do they grow in peace, and joy, and inner freedom? Do they grow in their capacity to forgive those who have hurt them? Do they, more and more, begin to spread the fragrance of Christ? If we are clear about the goal, then we will know to be much more flexible with the means. If we are guided by the Holy Spirit, then we will know what each young person needs at different points in their life to grow deeper in relationship with Christ. That may or may not be spending time helping out in church. If we are guided by the Holy Spirit, we will be much more concerned about our own effectiveness as God’s instrument as opposed to how many young people are getting involved in our parishes.
God’s Kingdom is far wider than we can see. The repercussions of our actions echo into Eternity. If we could just take off our blinders and broaden our horizons, we just might become better disciples ourselves, and – eventually – much more effective disciple-makers for God’s Kingdom.