Most American parishes try to have some sort of outreach to their youths. Parishes are involved with LifeTeen, EDGE, or at least a sacramental preparation program. Almost all dioceses in America also try to offer youth rallies or events geared towards their youth. Every diocese has at least one Catholic school.
We know that youth ministry is important in the Catholic world. The popes promulgate such things as World Youth Day. We celebrate that canonization of teenagers and elementary-aged people as saints.
But in America, youth ministry is failing. Fewer and fewer youths are attending these programs or gaining any lasting benefits.
What can be done? In The Art of Forming Young Disciples: Why Youth Ministries Aren’t Working an What to Do About It, Everett Fritz identifies why youths are leaving, what the problems in American Catholic youth ministry are, and then offers a solution.
The goal of youth ministry, as Fritz postulates, is to formulate life-long disciples. His own youth ministry program was seemingly booming. But even though numbers in the program were good, the number of those teens who continued to practice the Faith once in college was low.
Read more: 5 Things I Learned as a Youth Minister
Here are the problems of American Catholic youth ministry as identified by Fritz:
1. The cultural problem
“This describes the cultural problem that teenagers face in the modern world. We expect them to learn to participate in the world of adults, but our culture has largely removed adults from mentoring roles with teenagers. As a result, teens are growing up in a peer-dominated culture. As they grow into adulthood, they have difficulty assimilating into the adult world and into the responsibilities and expectations that come with being an adult,” Fritz writes.
Fritz cites hard-and-fast sacramental prep requirements as something that burdens parents. These programs fail to meet the pastoral needs of teens.
Fritz also cites actively encouraging teens to go to a separate mass from their families (for youth masses) and have separate catechesis for parents and teens as reasons we suffer from division instead of benefiting from integration, understanding, and feeling welcome.
2. The parish youth group problem
The youth group model isn’t working. The youth activities at the parish model isn’t working. The parish religious education (classroom-style) model isn’t working.
Fritz points out that these models aren’t necessarily bad, just inefficient. “I believe that in the next ten years the Catholic Church is going to see the youth-group model of ministry become obsolete,” he writes. “This is not to say that we won’t see parishes utilizing youth groups. Catholic parishes tend to utilize models of ministry long after they’ve been determined to be ineffective. But I believe that the Church is headed for a consensus that the youth-group model of ministry is out of date.”
3. The Catholic school problem
Lack of orthodoxy and loss of Catholic identity are two of the main contributing factors to the decline of Catholic schools. This problem shows up both in enrollment and in forming disciples.
“As a youth minister, I always said I was more interested in what was happening in the hallways at school than in what was happening in the classrooms,” Fritz writes. “A Catholic school can have the best teaching methods, the best Catholic teachers, and the best curriculum, but without a student body focused on living their Faith (because they come from families that reinforce faith), the student subculture in the school will never be truly Catholic.”
But what about the solution to these problems? Fritz offers a twofold solution of small group discipleship and parent-focused youth outreach. Pick up his book The Art of Forming Young Disciples to read more about the issues the Catholic Church in America faces in youth ministry and what we can all do to help form young disciples.