Young people, the Church and the future.
It’s easy to get discouraged about youth ministry when we see the average age of people in some churches today. It can often leave us feeling disillusioned about what the future holds for the Church in Australia.
There are times when I genuinely find myself asking the question “How will we turn this around?” It’s a struggle for me to see this happening, yet on the flip side my personal experience of Church has actually been extremely positive. I’ve been a part of youth groups that are alive and growing, with participants who are engaged and passionate about their faith. I’ve seen how it can be done.
When I was thirteen, I got involved with a local youth group, and connected with them for what I would regard as the most crucial years of my life. My youth group had a great mentoring system, where an older guy would make time to catch up with me every two weeks. It was an incredibly positive experience for me. Most of the time when catching up, we’d drive down to McDonalds, sit there for an hour or two and talk about sport, girls, family, school and faith. He would ask me questions and encourage me, challenge me and quite simply walk a bit of my life along side me. It was a positive friendship that still exists today. There’s plenty of stuff that this person did for me, most notably that he shared his own very strong faith, he challenged me in my faith and that he invested in me. For him, faith was an integral part of his life, and I was drawn to that. In and through that relationship, he taught me some fundamental truths about ministry that have stayed with me ever since: Firstly, we don’t need to apologise for our Catholic faith. Secondly, youth ministry is about getting our hands dirty and meeting young people where they’re at; and then calling them to the positive and enriching life that Christ would have for them.
For the last five years, I worked for an organisation where we would visit secondary schools, and run faith and character development days on topics such as Leadership, Relationships, Self-image, Knowing God and Sexuality. In that time, I learn that while we have a generation of young people who are saturated with anti-Christian messages day in day out, they’re not necessarily happy with what they hear. They’re looking for something more. I never received feedback from students we would work with, saying, “I wish you’d presented something to us that was less challenging.” In fact, it was quite the opposite. Feedback would regularly be, “…why hasn’t anyone told us this before?” Young people today have plenty of negativity around them already, and when we step in to their lives and offer a positive perspective on how life could look for them, it’s like a breath of fresh air. They love it.
So why aren’t young people pouring in to Churches? I think that comes back to us. I feel that many of us in the Church are more often than not our own worst enemy. I think fear cripples us, and believe it or not, I think fear is what inspires the “movie-pizza night mentality” of too many youth and young adults groups today. You see, no one will be up in arms with you if you organise a movie-pizza night, but no-one’s life will be changed by it either. It’s the safe, easy option. And while my historical knowledge isn’t great, I’ve never read about any one who changed history by hosting a heap of pizza-movie nights. Now just to clarify, I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t do social events; they are an important part of any youth ministry; what’s important though, is that they’re not the only events we offer.
As a self confessed Apple fan, I’m always impressed by Apple’s Marketing campaigns. Apple appears to have an underlying assumption, whether they’re marketing the latest iPad, MacBook Pro or iPhone that says: “You want what we have.” One of their latest slogans for the iPhone4 sums this up well:
“If you don’t have an iPhone, well, you don’t have an iPhone.”
It’s brilliant, in that it totally assumes you want an iPhone! The question for us then, is why don’t we assume the same about our faith? If it really is good news, does our attitude to sharing it reflect that? If the Church had a marketing department, they would have all been sacked a long time ago. We do ourselves a terrible injustice at times, by selling ourselves short, and the young people we are talking to. We sit on the sidelines of youth culture, and think we’re being ‘relevant’ by inviting them to something on Facebook. If the Church is to connect with this generation, we will need to get in there, and walk alongside them. We’ll need to meet them where they’re at, and many times, call them out of it. Yes that includes using Facebook and many other forms of media, but it’s so much more than that. Like the mentor I mentioned earlier, it will involve getting our hands dirty, making a heartfelt investment in their lives, and sharing the truth of the Gospel with them.
The good news for us is that the Gospel message hasn’t changed. It’s timeless. However, the way we present that message needs to be constantly evolving. Are we winning the culture war? No. And many would say ‘game over’ for the Church and young people. I disagree. That limited historical knowledge I spoke of earlier, tells me that we’ve been here before. I see signs of a new generation of young people coming through the Church, who are passionate about their faith. And in terms of selling it, well we don’t just have a great product. We have THE product. So let’s sell it like Apple sells an iPhone4. Game on.
Nick Seselja is 27 years old and lives in Canberra. In recent years he has managed the Sydney Youth Mission Team (YMT) and was the Youth Coordinator of St Michael’s Parish Baulkham Hills, from 2008-2010. He is currently the Campus Ministry Coordinator of the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra Campus. He is a worship leader, and is currently completing a Bachelor of Business in Event Management.