Youth Ministry in the manner of the early Church fathers

Youth Ministry in the manner of the early Church fathers

The early Church had no youth ministry as we would recognize it today. There were no youth Masses, no special liturgies designed to be “relevant” with music of a type popular among their age group and events designed to mimic the entertainment of the youth of the time. Yet a disproportionate percentage of conversions to Christianity and of martyrs for the faith came from among youth and young adults in the first centuries AD. How could that be?

Mike Aquilina looks at what the early Church fathers had to offer by way of “youth ministry” and how they convinced so many to become Christian:

They made wild promises.

They promised young people great things, like persecution, lower social status, public ridicule, severely limited employment opportunities, frequent fasting, a high risk of jail and torture, and maybe, just maybe, an early, violent death at the hands of their pagan rulers.

The Fathers looked young people in the eye and called them to live purely in the midst of a pornographic culture. They looked at some young men and women and boldly told them they had a calling to virginity. And it worked. Even the pagans noticed how well it worked.

A big difference today is cultural. For the first time in history, we have something called adolescence, a period of time between childhood and adulthood. In the past, when you reached puberty, you were an adult and took on adult responsibilities. My pastor says that as recently as the 1970s in Ireland, he can recall visiting his family’s village and seeing 15-year-olds standing among the older men talking about farming as one of the crowd. But now adolescence begins at 13 and goes to about 30 or later. Have you noticed who’s playing all those video games? Sales data shows that it’s twenty-somethings. And rather than growing up, they must be entertained. Amuse me, they tell us. Convince me, they say.

What made the Church attractive in the third century can make it just as attractive in the twenty-first. In the ancient world and in ours, young people want a challenge. They want to love with their whole being. They’re willing to do things the hard way — if people they respect look them in the eye and make the big demands. These are distinguishing marks of youth. You don’t find too many middle-aged men petitioning the Marines for a long stay at Parris Island. It’s young men who beg for that kind of rigor.

No young man or woman really wants to give his life away cheaply. Tarcisius knew better. So do the kids in our parishes.

That tracks with my philosophy of youth ministry. Treat teens like adults by giving them rules and standards and then hold them accountable. Challenge them and they will respond. They will. They have before.

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  • “But now adolescence begins at 13 and goes to about 30 or later.”

    I laughed at this, but I don’t know why. It’s really not funny…

  • Dom
    I agree wholeheartedly, but Miss Kelly, I still will say that there is a place and a need for things that may seem to be more relevant for teenagers.

    For instance, there are 15 Youth Conferences around the US that will serve 35,000 teens this year (with another 6-8,000 on waiting lists). These are geared toward the youth and would probably bore even shock an adult.

    I absolutely believe in giving them challenges to live up to. I absolutely believe that young men and women want to have a purpose, a mountain to climb, a rigourous faith life. But being youth, they are on a wide continuum. Some will be drawn in because of the teen Masses and may or may not go deeper. SOme willbe drawn in by the social activities-and a relational youth minister will start making connections with that young person to evangelize them. Some will come for the service work. They come for all kinds of reasons.

    I think the central mesage has to be just as Som and Mike Aqualina have put forth, but because of the culture we also need the periphery parts to draw them in. I could never take a 9th grade kid from an average Sunday Mass goin’ family and immediately light this kind of fire. Not because I’m not bold, but because there are often so many wordly obstacles and hoops that I have to jump through to get there. The competition for their time and their minds is fierce. Absolutely fierce.

    But, that’s my challenge, That’s my “Parris Island”. That’s my mountain. And I absolutely LOVE it!