In my last post I talked about the problems with how the youth are evangelized. Now I want to offer a few suggestions. How to evangelize to the youth is an important topic and does not have an easy, universal, solution. I do think however that I can offer some general suggestions that would help. It is not that this approach will change each and every person. That will not happen, not in our culture, at least not all at once. These guidelines might be a good start to improving youth’s religious experience.
First of all, the youth need to understand one thing right off the bat, and this needs to be constantly reinforced otherwise teaching religion to people my age or any age for that matter will fail. Catholicism needs to be presented as true. This means that we need to talk of Catholicism as making claims about reality that are either correct or incorrect. From there, we need to be clear on why we should believe the Church’s claims are in fact, correct. The Church has a creed and if we go through it, we should notice the multiple truth claims. For instance, “I believe in one God” or “in the Resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Catholic teachers need to instill in the minds of the youth that these aren’t just emotional niceties, they are claims about the way things actually are. There either is a God or there isn’t. Jesus of Nazareth either was God or he wasn’t. He either established a Church to teach us the truth or He didn’t. Then teachers should not leave it at that, they should guide the youth in their path of reasoning as to why one might believe in Catholicism and also why certain opposing beliefs are illogical. For instance, the youth could be told of the traditional proofs for God’s existence, the historical evidence for Jesus, the miracle claims of the modern world, and so on. We should also explain to the youth why certain positions which are so common are actually not logically sound, for example, cafeteria Catholicism. This way, the youth at least look at Catholicism with the proper lens. Religion is not about what “works for you”, anymore than the laws of physics are true if they “work for you”. Religion is about the deepest most fundamental truths there are. The difference between the sciences of physics and theology is not that one is less true but rather that they approach truth by way of different methods. Still many will reject the truth of the faith, as will people until the end of time, but at least those open to the truth may find it.
Second, knowing the truth is not enough; we have to know why it matters. This is especially true for the youth for two reasons: (1) we are growing up in a culture ever more hostile to religion, so doing it because our parents did it isn’t going to get us through. (2) It follows from (1) that churches are going to offer less and less of a needed community in our culture. Perhaps in the old days people would find lots of friends in Church and participation in the life of the Church is something people did to foster community and friendship if nothing else. Now, the Church is less popular, not a social club at all, and seems only to be a burden. In some cases among some kids participation in it can make you seem odd. The youth will dismiss Catholicism, and reasonably so, if they are not told why it is important to believe and live the faith. Now, why is it important? First, a good life here means ultimately a fulfilled life here. It may mean less immediate pleasure but it is a better more joyous life (think for example of the life of big families verses the life of the culture of death). Second, God is all good, our creator, and worthy of our love. To fail to give God due reverence is a grave injustice, in fact, the gravest injustice possible. Finally, the Church teaches that if we do not live a certain way we will not go to heaven which is our ultimate destiny.
The first and second reasons above matter but might be hard to implant in people’s minds and that is why the third reason is so very crucial. The first reason is important to explain. Examples are probably more powerful than complex explanations. The idea that a good life is a happier life may have some impact in the lives of teens, but in our immediate day to day world I think that it can be a little vague and intangible. The second reason is of course the most noble of all reasons to be religious, but because of this, it takes great grace from God and usually involves a development in the spiritual life. This perfect love of God is something even the holiest of people struggle with and so to introduce that as motivation isn’t going to win many people over right away. You can not love what you do not know, and most teenagers do not yet know God. The third reason however has the most power if explained properly. Here is why:
(1) It is certain: In other words, unlike the first reason above (morality leads to happiness here) we can say with absolute certainty the specific consequences of sin. No one may claim “what about such and such a person who lives an evil life”
(2) Although it may seem distant the potential for it is also immediate: We know we will die and we know we can at any time. Some people are more sensitive to the threat of death than others, but we know that death can come any time. Even if we don’t think about this often, this point could be emphasized in evangelizing to the youth. Most teenagers know of another kid who died from cancer unexpectedly, died from a car accident, so teenagers although we are said to “feel like we will never die”, actually get it. Not going to live forever. In any case pretty easy point to definitively prove this point.
(3) It is extreme: There is nothing that would make a rational person say “hell is worth it” if hell is properly explained
(4) It is all encompassing: what I mean here is that it comes back to the fundamental point of human existence. Rather than being one aspect of life, it embraces all of life. If the doctrine on heaven and hell is taught well, this point can be made clear. Heaven and hell are not just the epilogues of life that God writes as an afterthought. Heaven (after the resurrection of the bodies) is where we were really made to be. That is when life really begins, it is our purpose. Hell on the other hand is the complete absence of this purpose, the ultimate failure of life.
If we’re going to teach the youth how Catholicism is going to help save your soul we of course need to use prudence and teach it in a manner that makes sense and doesn’t come across as a “sinners in the hands of the angry God” type of thing. It shouldn’t seem as though we just want to create a monster to scare people to do good, but rather that there is real theology behind all of this. We should teach that God made us for heaven and this is the ultimate point of life, but some people may fail to get there, and this is the ultimate catastrophe.
My third suggestion for how to renew modern youth evangelization is to engage in real discussions with the kids and answer real questions. For example, if someone asks, why does the Church teach that birth control is a sin, the teacher should be prepared with a good answer. If someone wants to know how they can be Catholic after the abuse crisis, we need to have a good answer ready as well. The teachers of the youth need to know their stuff, otherwise, kids will have unanswered questions and give up.
Fourth, put us in our place. We think we know everything, remind us that we don’t. We think we are smarter than we are. Remind us that there is a 2000 year old Catholic history of writings, teachings, thought, debates, etc. Remind us that the questions we ask now have been asked before. Remind us that this is something people have died for. Sometimes I get the sense that we teenagers are elevated to an extent that we miss any message the teachers wish to give us. If all they do is tell us how great we are, then we will think we are great enough to dismiss the Church. I’m not saying be harsh to people my age, I’m just saying remind us that we don’t know everything and there is something that the Church has to offer that we need. It is also Ok to keep in mind who is the teacher and who is the pupil. Athletic coaches dealing with something as trivial as sports do not approach teenage athletes by saying… now what do you think about maybe doing it this way… how do you feel about playing defense like so… If a basketball coach is older and slower and can no longer run the length of the court they still rely on their experience to tell kids “Look if you want to win the game you are going to play aggressive defense and take only good shots.. or you are going to execute these plays like so.. The ultimate fate of our souls is infinitely more important, and the knowledge of how to save them is infinitely more certain, than any thing a sports coach tells a player. Why all this pussy footing around from clergy and religion teachers when talking about God?
While you are at it replace silly activities with meaningful ones. Literally every retreat I have been on I’ve made some sort of poster. Cut the posters, no one likes them. There are plenty of activities we can do that are more meaningful. Imagine a team of Football players sitting down making posters in preparation for a game.. What the hell makes making posters any better preparation for teens who need to live Catholicism in the culture of death? Is their some record of the early martyrs preparing to meet the death in Nero’s Roman Circus sitting down drawing some nice pretty pictures. Anyway I had to say something about the posters, moving on now…
Maybe introduce us to the beauty of Catholicism. Appreciating the depth of Catholic tradition takes time and it is a cultivated taste. However, we need to be introduced. For example, Catholicism has an answer to life’s most meaningful questions. Catholicism has a rich tradition of theological and philosophical writing. These should not be dismissed. Catholicism also has a long tradition of saints who have done great things for others, this should not be ignored. Some of the world’s greatest artwork and architecture is Catholic, why not show this to us? The youth can also be shown the deep and profound spiritual side of the Church by being introduced to how really unimaginably profound something like the Eucharist is, that God is truly with us every day under the appearance of bread and wine!
Finally, and this is most important, teach the youth to pray. This means both that we need to pray and how to pray. Prayer needs to be emphasized above all else. The reason for this is that conversion is the work of God. If we do not pray, we will not be virtuous. If we are not virtuous, we will not be saved. St. Augustine said “Because we are human we are not strong, because we are not strong, we pray.” This is even more true of the youth. Further, we need to be told how to pray. There are many simple devotions of the Church with promises attached to them. There are many different techniques to prayer. Prayer should be taught, especially in conjunction with the sacraments. If at a young age we have a habit of praying while receiving communion for instance, we will have the best habit we can possibly have. We are told about prayer in a very general and vague way. This has to go, we need to be told that we need to cultivate a prayer life, and we need to be told how. Questions like “why doesn’t God answer every prayer” or “why doesn’t God just give this to us without our prayer” need to be given good answers.
There are my suggestions. Of course, teachers should always remember why evangelize to the youth. The reason is simple, the youth are the future of the Church and both God and the devil are after them. The souls of many in the future are in their hands, both the souls of Catholics and non-Catholics. If we do not believe in the reality of hell and that hell is after our souls, youth ministry will fail.