The people at the service that day were among the most faithful and active of my parishioners. But once inside the parish hall they sit at the same tables, with the same people, and seem not to notice anything else. If they have cake and ice cream in front of them it is even more true. We are our own worst enemies. Perhaps even the enemies of God? Whatever happened to "zeal for Thy house has eaten me up"? Unfortunately, we are too busy eating the cake and the ice cream.
In my years in interviews with churches and in my work as deployment officer, l have heard the same statements over and over: "We want to grow." "We want more young people." To be frank, no, you don't. Most are not willing to pay the cost.
What you want is your regular routine, comfortable worship, and a religion that doesn't demand too much from you. ( I suppose that goes for all of us, actually.) But we seem to expect good things to take place in church without our active participation. In the least, we assume someone else will do it. Over the years, people have complimented me on our youth programs at St. Bart's and admired our youth ministries. They ask how it is done. I could say "We have a parish life center." (We don't.) I could reference our stage and theatre, our basketball court and soccer fields which are kid magnets. (They don't exist.) Having a forty-thousand dollar youth budget has certainly been asset. (Actually, the discretionary fund is in the red.) But the true answer is, you have to be married to my wife. (Try it and I'll shoot you.)
I have seen my wife spend hour after hour making phone calls, organizing events, sending out flyers, assigning food donations, setting up or giving rides .Sometimes over the years we have asked parents to do some of these things and have heard “I called several times and they weren’t at home.” “They said they would be there.” (Did you ask if they needed a ride and said that you would provide it?) “They said they would get back to me.” (Did you get back to them?) My wife, on the other hand, is like the hound of heaven. She calls, she cajoles, she smiles and never gives up. If the child is hesitant, she overcomes their arguments. If the parents are less than responsible, she talks about how much we need their children to attain critical mass. She is more persistent than a Rottweiler and more loving than a dachshund.
I have had priests tell me they want their young people to go to St. Michael's Conference. I give them applications and they set them out on a table. Perhaps an announcement is made. And there it ends. That is not how it is done. That is not how anything is accomplished in ministry. And one must expect that there will be constant resistance, strong resistance, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is spiritual. I am going to use youth ministry as an example, but the principles apply more widely.
Remember how St. Augustine said, "Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet." I suspect many parents, in their secret hearts,pray, "Lord, Make my child a Christian, but not TOO Christian. My mother-in-law already thinks it strange that a Christmas Pageant should take precedence over family celebrations. I don't want to get up to take them to Sunday school EVERY Sunday, especially after driving all over the state for sports tournaments, paying for hotels and restaurants. I can't afford to buy a 5-pound hamburger donation for the weekend retreat after spending several hundreds of dollars on soccer/band/pom-pom camp." Is the church our first priority for our children or somewhere at the bottom?
When l was growing up outside of Philadelphia, in a mostly Catholic area, all my Catholic friends were required to serve at one 6 a.m. mass a week. Now l know priests who have trouble getting their acolytes to show up 15 minutes early. But coaches of high school football teams can demand attendance at 6 a.m. practices nearly every day of the week and parents nod meekly while extolling "discipline" to their offspring, discipline in everything but being disciples. I sometimes fantasize about God entering bedrooms 5 minutes after church starts, carrying a clipboard and blowing a whistle, using a megaphone to announce to the bleary-eyed, "You're off the team!"
The same applies to the importance of Christian knowledge. I don’t mean memorizing the books of the Bible but questions such what is the Trinity? What is Holy Communion? It is called catechesis. When I was a young foolish priest in a small parish I decided that we would show off what the children were learning in Sunday school. You see when they called me they told me the first priority was building up the Sunday school. In six months it went from three to eighteen. So the children would come up and I would ask them these simple questions. There was a clinker. If they didn’t know the answer, I would ask their parents. After all, they were supposedly going over this material with their children. I still remember the look on the Warden’s face when I asked him, “What is the Trinity”?
There is one very simple factor about youth ministry which is frequently forgotten; you have to put up with young people. Babies scream, toddlers toddle and knock over hymnals, elementary school children giggle and teenagers look unhappy and are sometimes disrespectful. But if you want a youth program you need to put up with children. No one has found a successful way to have a youth pageant or junior choir vaporize as soon as they have entertained us and made us feel as if we meet the “needs of youth”.
We also must deal with sin. Sorry about that. I remember one parent hearing about our lessons where we talked about Christian chastity. Do you know the response we got from the parents, “We did it. They will, too.” I really wanted to say, you complain constantly about your husband and your marriage. Perhaps if you had spent more time in conversation and prayer than you did in bed before marriage you might have truly known each other.
Christians fight against the world, the flesh and the devil. Nowhere is this battle seen more clearly than in youth ministry. Parents resist. Young people complain and our own parishioners want worship without babies crying. The leadership of a parish must constantly confront and challenge. They must realize that unless they persistently pursue the education and formation of young people the parish will not grow. But, after the retreat, the teens are ecstatic and they develop a prayer life. The babies and toddlers add life to the service in many ways. Kids in Sunday school often teach their teachers about wonder and devotion. I pray that you find within your midst a hound of heaven and that you have the fortitude to support their ministry.