October 24, 2018

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Where Have All the Children Gone?


I’ve been reflecting a lot on the statistic that 85 percent of folks who leave the Catholic faith do so between the ages of 13 and 23. As a parent, I have a personal stake in this statistic. Out of my 5 children, 1 identifies as Catholic, 1 as non-denominational and 3 as none (no religion). My 3 “nones” (it sounds religious, right?) have said that while my wife and I are very devout, whenever we went to Mass and Catholic events together, it felt like they were spectators to Mom and Dad’s thing. Whatever was happening did not speak to them, nor did they ever have a sense of the Divine. In their search for answers, science has also taken pride of place in their reasoning. While the motivation of the 85 percent is complex, I believe my children are a typical sample of the majority. The current trend in youth ministry has been leading with catechesis, but catechesis is only effective if it is reinforcing an already existing relationship with Christ. We need to work on fostering an encounter with Jesus. Without relationship, we can't relate. My 30-plus years of doing itinerant ministry while teaching high school and middle school have given me the privilege to learn from amazing youth programs in communities across the US and parts of Europe, Canada and Africa. In all these places, I’ve observed a consistent set of best practices that build and anchor the spiritual life of people in the Church.

Welcoming: a personal invitation by youth leaders that implies “come as you are; all are welcome.” Both my believing and non-believing kiddos have taken active interest in positive life programs that encompass the value of welcoming. Most of my own activity as a church volunteer began with someone inviting me and showing they valued what I could bring to the table.

Kinship: an overall culture of sincere love and support that embraces diversity and realness. Members have a safe place that fosters the freedom to take off the proverbial game-face mask, share difficulties and not be judged. Jesus’ model of ministry began with kinship which in turn led to conversion. He told Zacchaeus the tax collector, “I’m having dinner at your place tonight,” and Zacchaeus converted. It must be sincere. Love is not real if it has a hidden agenda. God’s love for us does not change based on our human condition. Likewise, our motivation for kinship must be not be an underlying moral desert or agenda. My middle child, Evelyn, is 20 and an agnostic. One of her fondest memories is attending Camp Anytown, a weeklong diversity awareness program sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice. Anytown uses a program called “Building Bridges.” Its goal is to provide “an environment of safety and trust where participants can develop human relations, conflict resolution, communication, and leadership skills.” It aims to create a safe place where youth can “gain pride in themselves without sacrifice of individual or group identity.” Catherine Carroll’s report on the program in the Nashville Scene noted “it’s rare to find a camper who would call the experience anything less than life-changing.” Why? Because God is love and all who live in love live in God. It’s a universal law. All the successful programs I’ve witnessed over the years foster this kind of kinship.

Empowerment: youth are empowered to bring their gifts to the table on their terms as opposed to the terms the adult world imposes on them. People need the freedom to serve with what they truly are. “The glory of God is humanity fully alive” (Irenaeus, paraphrased). When I do confirmation retreats, I always say to young people, “you are not being confirmed because we, the adults, have this ‘thing' to give you. You are being confirmed because the God of love created you with an abundance of things to give to the world, especially to the Church.”

Relevance: a spiritual atmosphere that meets young people where they are. God is alive. Throughout history, the Creator speaks to humankind in ways that we can understand. For me, that experience was my parish choir singing Andraé Crouch in the late 70’s. It spoke to my core. It’s part of the reason I believe so much in the mission of Spirit and Song. It values the cultural vernacular of the young. Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, puts it like this…

“There are many ties between the message of salvation and human culture. For God… has spoken according to the culture proper to each epoch.

Likewise the Church, living in various circumstances in the course of time, has used the discoveries of different cultures so that in her preaching she might spread and explain the message of Christ to all nations, that she might examine it and more deeply understand it, that she might give it better expression in liturgical celebration and in the varied life of the community of the faithful” (Gaudium et Spes, 58).

We often make the mistake of believing God is absent from popular culture. I’m a fan of the Ignatian principle, “Find God in all things.” Likewise, our job as youth leaders is to help the next generation find the presence and beauty of God in the things that are their own.

Rather than our children accompanying us to “Mom and Dad’s thing,” let us accompany them to “their thing” and stand with them in wonder and awe at the beauty of God that is present. Let us make a joyful noise together in Spirit and in Song.

Greg Walton

Greg Walton

Greg Walton is a dynamic Catholic speaker and musician who integrates the sacred and secular as a means to evangelize youth, young adults and families.

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