Let's ask the right questions about engaging Catholic youth

Let's ask the right questions about engaging Catholic youth

By Charlotte McCorquodale, Leigh Sterten, c

American Catholic youth today are largely disengaged from their church and poorly educated about their faith. This picture of Catholic young people is not new; and, as the following article points out, it’s also backed up with hard science. While a distressing situation for the entire church, youth indifference gives vocation ministers particular pause, because shrinking numbers of committed young Catholics mean fewer people who will consider religious life. Given the current scenario, many in the church are asking what can be done to evangelize and invigorate youth. The idea promoted in vocation circles that religious communities make a “preferential option for youth” may be part of the solution.

Following is a measured reflection on the question of engaging Catholic youth from two national leaders in youth ministry. They invite vocation ministers to be part of a concerted effort to enliven the faith and commitment of Catholic young people.

Instead of promoting a new paradigm, we must deconstruct the old paradigms and then propose a series of reflections on culture, the church and the state of youth ministry as we begin the third millennium.” —Tony Jones in Postmodern Youth Ministry 1

FINDINGS FROM the 2001-2005 National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR)2 reveal that the Catholic Church in the United States does not have effective answers to the important questions concerning the engagement of the majority of its youth in matters of faith. More so, the church may not be asking the correct strategic questions when considering the many critical issues identified by one of the most significant studies to date on youth and religion, conducted by Dr. Christian Smith. The gravity of the situation is captured by Dr. Smith in his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He describes the immense potential the church has for engaging its youth and the great distance the church must travel to meet that potential.

Getting from where the majority of U.S. Catholic teens currently are in their faith lives to achieving the huge potential that appears to exist for them requires that the church invest a great deal more attention, creativity and institutional resources in its young members—and therefore in its own life. Undeniably the future shape of the U.S. Catholic Church virtually depends on it.3

Supporting Smith’s conclusion, our analysis of Catholic youth and their parents found many similar areas of disconnect in which the reality and the potential were not concurrent. This disconnect was most evident between what the young people say or believe and what they do in practice. For example, the Catholic youth in the NSYR sample expressed a high level of importance of faith, with 84 percent (11 percent extremely, 31 percent very, 42 percent somewhat) saying that religious faith is at least somewhat important in shaping daily life. However, less than half of those youth (39 percent) attend Mass on a weekly basis, which is considered a normative practice in the Roman Catholic Church. Many measures of Catholic identity, such as the intent to want to remain Catholic at the age of 25, were high (76 percent), yet active participation in various Catholic faith practices and programs were generally low. Additionally 74 percent stated they are either very or somewhat interested in learning about their religion, but only 21 percent participate weekly in religious education programs sponsored by parish communities, with 34 percent never having participated in these programs.

A related challenge to the one that Dr. Smith put forth in Soul Searching is presented by Tony Jones in Postmodern Youth Ministry. Jones’ challenge can be found in the opening statement of this article and is directed to a broader group than the Catholic religious tradition, to include all religious traditions. He explains the need to move beyond the search for a new paradigm and to do the hard work of deconstructing old paradigms and seriously reflecting on what it will take to engage the young church in the third millennium.

As both practitioners and researchers in the field of Catholic youth ministry, we concur. Based upon the findings of the NSYR, there is a great need for serious reflection by the Catholic faith community. To that end, this article examines key elements of the current paradigm operating in the Catholic Church’s approach to engaging, educating and integrating Catholic young people into the life of the faith community.

Tearing down the old paradigm

Ministry directed toward youth as a specific population in the U.S. Catholic Church (outside of the Catholic school setting) is less than 100 years old, and in the past it has been commonly referred to as the Catholic Youth Organization or CYO.4 The CYO paradigm, or youth group model, is considered outdated by many currently ministering to youth, especially by those who adhere to a paradigm based on a comprehensive vision of ministry to youth. However the CYO paradigm is still in many ways the current one within parish youth ministry.

In this model, successful youth ministry is to, with, by and for young people and looks primarily like gathered programs for age groupings of youth. Youth ministry efforts in the majority of dioceses and parishes across the country focus on the development of youth groups or groupings around gathered programs. These programs typically target young people only and increase the segregation of youth from the rest of the faith community, rather than integrating them into it. Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster used a memorable image to illustrate this model: “The youth group model— sometimes referred to as the ‘one-eared Mickey Mouse’ model of ministry—created an environment in which youth, isolated in an ‘ear’ on top of Mickey’s head, had only marginal contact with the rest of the body of Christ.”5

The question is not, “What is our vision for ministry with youth?” but, “Why has the clearly articulated vision for ministry with Catholic youth not been realized?”

The CYO paradigm definitely flies in the face of the operative vision of youth ministry in existence in the Catholic faith community for 30 years, which advocates a comprehensive approach to ministry with youth.6 The NSYR findings clearly indicate that the Catholic community is failing to live out its prescribed comprehensive vision with the majority of Catholic young people.7 In 1976, “A Vision for Youth Ministry” outlined the need for the community to change its approach from programs with a limited focus— such as CYO or Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD)— into a more comprehensive approach that takes into account the multi-faceted needs of Catholic young people based upon the changing realities of family, culture and institutions such as schools, parishes and neighborhoods. The comprehensive vision was renewed and affirmed by the highest level of church leadership in 1997 with the approval of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops in Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry, (RTV), the guiding document for Catholic youth ministry in the United States.

The primary purpose of the NSYR was to describe the spiritual and religious lives of American youth, not to measure effectiveness of various ministry efforts with youth. Even though the purpose was not to measure the effectiveness of comprehensive Catholic youth ministry as defined by RTV, the study did shed some light on the church’s overall effectiveness —or lack thereof—in engaging the majority of Catholic young people. Overall the findings of this study lead to the critical issue of how little of the vision has been realized.

Engaging Catholic adults

This leads to the first question, which is not, “How do we engage youth,” but, “How do we engage their parents and other adult Catholic Christians in the faith community?”

The guiding documents set forth by the Catholic Church are clear and consistent about the centrality of the faith community in areas of faith formation, youth ministry, catechesis and evangelization of children, adolescents and adults.8 The past decade has seen important strides in increasing this essential role of the faith community through intergenerational and whole-community catechesis programs. The NSYR suggests that one facet of the challenge in engaging Catholic youth is the lack of effectiveness in engaging the adult community, especially the parents of Catholic youth. This critical conclusion of the NSYR researchers says that young people are both a “mirror” and a “barometer” of the religious and spiritual lives of the adult faith community. The reality is that young people, as well as adults, are not engaged in their faith, as shown in the data on Mass attendance and participation in other religious activities.9

...American youth actually share much more in common with adults than they do not share, and most American youth faithfully mirror the aspirations, lifestyles, practices and problems of the adult world into which they are socialized…. Adolescents may actually serve as a very accurate barometer of the condition of the culture and institutions of our larger society…. American teenagers actually well reflect back to us the best and worst of our own adult condition and culture.10

For many years, parents have been named and identified by the church as the primary religious educators and faith formators of their children. Recently, this has been re-affirmed with the publication of the National Directory of Catechesis.11 While it is the current vision of Catholic youth ministry that the entire faith community is responsible for the transmission of faith (i.e., “it takes a village”),12 findings from this study point out that this aspect of the renewed vision for Catholic youth ministry is based on a false premise that the majority of the adult community—especially parents—is engaged enough in their faith to pass it on to anyone. This leads to the next question.

A place in the church for youth

The question is not, “How many resources are needed to minister effectively to youth?” but rather, “What paradigm shifts are needed to re-position the place that young people have in the life and community of the church?”

In the report published by the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry, we concluded that in terms of Catholic youth who are engaged in their faith, “more equals more,” meaning that when Catholic youth participate in some youth programs, they are more likely to participate in others. Youth who attend Mass more frequently are more likely to participate in youth groups, religious education, retreats and other youth ministry programs than youth who do not attend Mass, or who attend less frequently.13 Additionally we found that young people who actively participate in youth groups, parish religious education and/or attend a Catholic school engage in fewer at-risk behaviors.14 Based on this conclusion, it is obvious that age-segregated programs do have a role to play in the church’s overall effort to engage all of its youth; however, the degree or extent of that role is still unknown. This is especially true given the chilling fact that the majority of Catholic youth are uninvolved (24 percent or less participate regularly in a youth group, parish religious education and/or attend Catholic school, and only 39 percent attend weekly Mass).15

The financial and human resources currently invested in the church’s younger members go primarily to these types of gathered programs and groupings (including Catholic schools). Smith and Denton concluded that more resources need to be allocated for ministry efforts aimed at engaging youth. As we examine our current paradigm regarding youth-only programming, the current allocation of resources toward that programming (limited though they are) begs the question, “Is this the best use of them?” Other important questions regarding resource allocation include, “What would it look like to have sufficient human and financial resources in the church’s efforts to engage youth?” and, “What will it take for the Catholic faith community to reprioritize the utilization of its resources?” We might also ask, “Do we need more full-time paid youth ministry leaders, because we assume that employed leaders increase the overall effectiveness of the youth ministry program?” This leads to the next question.




In light of the finding that Catholic youth need to be engaged more effectively by the entire faith community, we pose these questions to vocation ministers.

1. How can vocation ministry leaders dialogue and collaborate with the Catholic faith community in engaging Catholic young people?

2. Who are the key diocesan, parish and school leaders that should be part of this dialogue and collaboration?

3. How can vocational leaders be considered partners in fostering both the faith and vocation discernment of Catholic young people?

4. How will parents be involved in this dialogue?

5. What types of collaborative programs and efforts can help foster relationships between Catholic young people and vocation ministers?

6. How will the vocation ministry leaders study and communicate to their community the findings of the NSYR regarding their importance in fostering the faith of the young?

7. What should the target be regarding the church’s measure of success in engaging Catholic young people religiously and spiritually?

8. How do the current activities and efforts of vocation ministers help the church attain that targeted measure of success?

9. What should be changed or created to be more effective in this area?


What strategies convey relevance of faith?

The question is not, “What do youth need to know about their faith and why can’t they articulate it?” but, “What strategies are required to help Catholic youth understand the relevance of faith to their lives, relationships and moral beliefs?”

As a result of conducting face-to-face interviews with teens from the NSYR sample, Dr. Smith noted that, while American youth in general are “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith, Catholic youth are “particularly inarticulate” regarding matters of faith.16 Speculation abounds about the reasons for this; some already have been reflected upon in this article, such as the need for a religiously articulate adult faith community, the importance of resource investment (financial and human) by the religious tradition whose young people are more articulate, and the benefit of integrating young people and catechesis into primary religious activities, such as worship.

A deeper look at the issue reveals a more troubling reality. While Catholic young people value their faith and identify with it, there is a large gap between what they say is valuable and how they live out that value. The NSYR found that faith and religion operate in the background of young people’s lives, and there is often a lack of relevance of this faith to their daily activities and decisions.17

Often the question is “How can we foster Catholic identity in young people?” But is fostering identity the critical question for reflection? If identity is measured by the intent to continue being Catholic, then it is not a question of identity. Seventy-six percent of Catholic youth indicated their intent to attend a Catholic Church as adults, and 83 percent stated that they definitely or maybe plan to attend Mass at the age of 25.18 According to Smith and Denton, “Catholic youth move relatively further toward pluralistic and individualistic approaches to faith.”19 Data support this conclusion; 54 percent of Catholic youth say it is OK to pick and choose religious beliefs without having to accept the teachings of the faith as a whole, and 67 percent do not agree that in order to be truly religious and spiritual, believers need to be involved in a religious congregation.20 Catholic young people may be identifying with an incorrect understanding of what it means to be Catholic.21

The challenge in this lack of understanding of what it means to be Catholic is how to respond. The logical conclusion may be that they are being taught the wrong thing, but the NSYR data point to the reality that the majority of Catholic youth are not being taught. Most do not attend weekly Mass, do not participate in formal religious education or faith formation programs, and their parents are falling short in their role of teaching the faith, because they lack the necessary understanding.

Making a change

In conclusion the question is not, “How do we change young people?” but, “How do we need to change as Catholic adults and leaders in our efforts to engage Catholic young people?”

In order to answer the change question, it is critical that church leaders ask, “What is, or should be, our goal in measuring a successful strategy for increasing the engagement of Catholic youth?” Unfortunately, the NSYR does not conclusively tell us what the measure of success should be. It focuses on what it should not be. Incredibly inarticulate is not success. Only a third of Catholic youth attending weekly Mass is not success. A relativistic, individualistic definition of Catholic identity is not success. However, such a negative approach is more often a measure of failure rather than success and can result in a minimalist attitude of focusing on what level of failure will be tolerated instead of what standard of excellence should be achieved.

Renewing the Vision set forth a much more positive approach to establishing goals for the Catholic Church’s ministry to youth. However, the challenge is that such a hopeful—and some would say, idealistic—vision does not establish a clear enough line of demarcation between success and failure, or even progress.

What will success or progress look like in the next five or 10 years, or better yet, for the next generation of Catholic youth?

  • Will it be an increase of 25 percent in measures of religiosity, which is more in line with the Mormon or Conservative Protestant religious traditions who had the highest number of religiously devoted teenagers?
  • Will our goal be to reach 100 percent of Catholic youth? If not, which ones will we choose to set aside as less of a priority?
  • Will it be measured by the number of Catholic youth who respond to God’s call to serve him and the church through vocations to priestly, religious, or lay vocations?
  • Will it be measured by the number of Catholic youth of this generation who remain or become active in their faith as adults?

The first step in developing important measures such as these must be strategic dialogue among key stakeholders. If the NSYR study has told Catholic leaders anything, it is that parents should be at the center of such a dialogue, as well as the leaders in our community who have responsibility for resource allocation. Additionally the dialogue should include both a thorough review of the findings of the NSYR and a clear examination of the church’s present paradigm regarding ministry to youth, especially adolescent catechesis.

The NSYR has assisted the Catholic faith community in quantifying and humanizing realities that we have known to be operative. Before this groundbreaking research, church leadership only had hunches, intuition, assumptions and individual interpretation to rely on in measuring the Catholic Church’s effectiveness in her ministry to, by, for and with young people. The church now has reliable research that confirms many of the hunches, but also challenges many of our assumptions. Most of all, the NSYR research leaves us with many unanswered questions. The time is now for the Catholic Church to engage in this effort of reflective dialogue and strategic action that affects not only the future of young Catholics but indeed the future of the whole church.

1. Tony Jones. Postmodern Youth Ministry (El Cajon, CA: 12 Zondervan/Youth Specialties. 2001).

2. The National Study of Youth and Religion was conducted by Dr. Christian Smith and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC. More information on the study can be found at www.youthandreligion.com.

3. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

4. Charlotte McCorquodale. The Emergence of Lay Ecclesial Youth Ministry as a Profession in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States (Springfield, MO: Ministry Training Source, 2001), 17.

5. Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster. The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1998), 30.

6. See the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) documents, A Vision of Youth Ministry, 1976; and Renewing the Vision, 1997

7. This is supported in the conclusions of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) report, “NSYR: Analysis of the Population of Catholic Teenagers and Their Parents,” 2004, 57-63. See www.nfcym.org for a copy of the report.

8. These documents include the General Directory for Catechesis, National Directory of Catechesis, Our Hearts Were Burning and Renewing the Vision.

9. See the conclusions of the NFCYM report, “NSYR: Analysis of the Population of Catholic Teenagers and Their Parents.”

10. Smith with Denton, Soul Searching, 191.

11. USCCB, National Directory for Catechesis, 2005, 234.

12. USCCB, Renewing the Vision, 19.

13. See findings in the NFCYM report.

14. Ibid, 60.

15. The NFCYM report provides details on participation rates, including the fact that only 24 percent of youth participate in youth groups; 21 percent participate weekly in parish religious education, and 39 percent attend Mass at least once a week.

16. Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching, 132.

17. Ibid, 129. (Smith goes on to say it is like the furniture of their lives.)

18. Ibid, 130.

19. Ibid, 76.

20. NFCYM report, 54.

21. Christian Smith supports this idea in Soul Searching.

Charlotte McCorquodale and Leigh Sterten.

Charlotte McCorquodale holds a Ph.D. from the School of Human Resource Education and Workforce Development at Louisiana State University. She serves as a national trainer and consultant for the field of lay ecclesial ministry and is co-founder and director of program development and research for the non-profit Ministry Training Source, www.ministrytrainingsource.org.

Leigh Sterten holds master’s degrees in theological studies and in administrative studies and has worked in youth ministry since 1988. She is co-founder of Ministry Training Source and is treasurer of its board of directors. Her speaking and training efforts have focused on developing leadership in young people and fostering youth ministry in rural and small town settings.

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