If you’ve been involved in Catholic youth ministry for any length of time, you’ve likely heard of the USCCB document Renewing the Vision (RTV) which, for nearly twenty years, has laid out goals and strategies for ‘comprehensive’ youth ministry across North America. This document has been particularly helpful since some of us start in youth ministry with very little formal training and job description that can be as simple as ‘do something for young people.’ This is why youth ministry groups like Canadian Certificate in Youth Ministry Studies, LIFE TEEN (where I received my certificate), and others all made RTV foundational to their training programs.
RTV was first published in 1997 – as a follow up to a similar document written two decades earlier – and was meant to respond to some of the new challenges faced by young people in the late nineties. Recently, a group of Canadian youth ministers published a new document through the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops. You Give them Something to Eat (YGSE) builds upon the foundation of RTV while also updating the goals and elements of youth ministry to the challenges faced by Canadian youth aged 10-19 today. It was written by a group of faculty from the Canadian Certificate program mentioned above to offer "a vision for ministry to, with, and by maturing missionary disciples" (YGSE, vi). While at seventy pages it may seem like a substantial read for a busy youth minister/coordinator, it's laid out like a textbook: a significant portion is made up of reflection questions & blank space for journalling.
The title, You Give them Something to Eat, was taken from Luke 9:12-17, where Jesus famously feeds five thousand people. After a day of teaching, the twelve apostles told Jesus that the crowd needed to be dismissed to find food, and Jesus told them to “give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13). From there meager offering – five loaves and two fish, Jesus fed the crowd with a full basket of leftovers for each of the twelve. In asking them to provide for the needs of the crowd, Jesus invited his disciples “to become his partners in ministry, feeding and attending to the needs of the many people who had gathered” (YGSE, v). There is no question that today, we stand facing a multitude of hungry young people, and that both the Church and those who answer the call to serve in youth ministry – to become the Lord’s partners - have something to offer them.
Practically speaking, YGSE consists of three main parts: first, six contexts (or settings) where youth ministry takes place today; second, four goals that should be kept in mind to build an effective youth ministry; and third, nine elements we need to be mindful of to build an effective youth ministry. In the first of two articles on this document, we’ll look at that first part – six settings or contexts where youth ministry takes place.
Today’s youth face many challenges. These include a changing sense of hope for the future; frustration when they can’t meet quickly reach the standard of living their parents achieved after years of labor; issues with mental health, sexuality, and sexual identity; and a desire to find life-giving role models and authentic witnesses while they apprentice in the Christian life. YGSE writes that:
“In adolescence, it can seem as if everything is changing within and around the young person. Life can begin to seem very complicated: there are choices to be made, confusion can replace certainty, loneliness and alienation can begin to creep in, and young people begin to test their values as they seek a way and a place to belong.” (YGSE, 2)
It is in response to these challenges that ministry begins in and among young people. Wherever they may be, the Church is invited to go to them in a missionary key and make them apprentices in the Christian life.
Ministry to youth takes place in other settings as well. The Church recognizes the importance of the family as a domestic Church and the parents as primary educators of their children. But, like youth, families in the twenty-first century also face many challenges: busyness, poverty, violence, addictions – not to mention that even the best of parents can struggle to pass on their faith. All of these situations conspire to leave young people without a strong foundation of faith in the home, and youth ministry needs to be sensitive to these complex realities.
Schools are a uniquely privileged place for youth ministry as well. In particular, Catholic schools “partner with parents and parishes to become full and active missionary disciples of Jesus Christ” (YGSE, 6). They do so by religious education classes, spiritual formation, pastoral care, service projects, retreats, prayer experiences, peer ministry, and vocational discernment. This grows on into university years, where campus ministry programs help engage the enthusiasm of young adults to serve others and share their faith.
The Parish community is another place that youth ministry takes place. Our parishes ought to be youth-friendly, a space where young people are accepted, welcomed, challenged to grow in their faith, and invited to serve alongside the adults in the community. YGSE writes that “young people want Church teaching presented in a way that is applicable to their lives” along with “depth of content, and opportunities to learn, explore, discuss, live, and take on for themselves the tenets of Catholic faith” (7).
A unique context for ministry today is social media and technology. Never before in human history have young people had the sort of access they do to information, technology, and one another as they do today. This brings with it many benefits such as immediate access to information, and many challenges including cyber bullying and unlimited access to pornography. YGSE points out that “despite the connective potential and power of social media and other technologies, many young people seem to be more socially alienated and lonely than ever before” (8). Those who engage in youth ministry need to walk with young people as they navigate these technologies – and assist them in bringing the Gospel into these new mission fields.
Finally, youth ministry takes place in the wider community of twenty-first century society. This community has grown skeptical of both the message of our faith and the messenger. While the reasons for this skepticism are varied – concerns with the way the Church has dealt with scandal to problem of evil in the world today – the response has not changed. The Church has always asked to “proclaim the Good News with authenticity, fidelity, joy, and relevance” (YGSE, 10) – proclaiming the same Jesus Christ the apostles first shared twenty centuries ago.
YGSE concludes this section by summarizing what it means to answer Jesus’ command to ‘give them something to eat’ – by engaging a twofold task (10):
Coming in You Give them Something to Eat part 2: The Goals & Elements of Youth Ministry.
Mike Landry is a father, husband, geek, speaker, musician, and most days, he serves as Chaplain to Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton. Read more of his writing at www.thirdplaceproject.com.