I have been working in youth ministry for nearly a decade. Over the course of my years in ministry, I have had countless interactions with people in charge of youth formation in parishes. Without fail, when I get into a conversation with a group of people regarding youth ministry, someone speaks up and begins to talk about their parish’s religious education program and how their catechists are struggling to interact with the teens and their parish is having difficulty getting parents engaged in their program.

I don’t think these people understand what youth ministry is supposed to be.

definitions (as I understand them):

Youth Ministry – the process by which an institution (school, parish, individual or other) seeks to meet the pastoral needs of young people (in the period of adolescence) in the Church.

The Measure of Success – youth ministry should be considered successful not by the number of people participating but rather on whether the ministry is developing young people into life-long disciples of Jesus Christ and His Church.

Parish Religious Education – a model of faith formation implored by the majority of parishes in America. This model seeks to communicate a mandated set of curriculum and Church teachings to young people utilizing volunteer catechists, classrooms and a curriculum set by a parish director or parish leadership. In parishes, it is sometimes referred to as CCD, PSR or sacramental preparation.

Here is the question that I would pose to leaders in the Church – Is religious education working? Can anyone testify to a success story? Youth ministry is about meeting pastoral needs and requires mentoring relationships to be successful. In my experience with the religious education model of ministry, the approach is almost entirely void of relationship. It is because of this that the model isn’t successful. In fact, I can’t think of one instance where I have seen a religious education program have a positive and lasting impact on a teenager.

If the goal of youth ministry is to meet the pastoral needs of teens, then “religious education” may be the worst approach to Catholic Youth Ministry in the 2000 year history of the Catholic Church.

In religious education, parishes require teenagers to sit in a classroom with a volunteer catechist for two hours each week and receive systematic catechesis on Catholicism.  I had a professor in college that once said, “It is a grave sin to bore someone with the Gospel.” If that is the case, there are a lot of catechists that are going to Hell.

Think about this for a second. If you had a room full of youth ministry leaders in the Church today, and they were tasked with developing an approach to meet a teen’s basic pastoral needs, you would never hear the following proposed as a solution:

“I know how we can minister to teens! Let’s stick teens in a classroom, because teenagers LOVE school and want to spend more time there! We will give a volunteer catechist one hour each week to teach them dogmas that are unrelated to their everyday life! The catechist will have little to no formation themselves – in fact, we’ll just take any volunteer that we can get from the pew! And we will give that catechist a poorly written textbook and throw them to the wolves! This is what is going to make our young people into disciples!”

I have never seen a parish that can claim that this model has contributed to the development of even one single young person becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. If anything, religious education is very successful at driving teens away from the Church. Torture is a serious sin – this madness needs to stop. Jesus Christ was very clear on what we are supposed to do to trees that are bearing no fruit. He told us to burn these trees to the ground (Matthew 7:19).
Today, parishes face all kinds of challenges when it comes to making teens into life-long disciples. The models of the past are not working. There are too many flaws and problems with the typical approaches that parishes employ to engage teens. Something different is needed…