Spend too much time around Catholic youth ministers and you could be forgiven for getting a little depressed.
Standard topics of conversation include how to stop young people lapsing straight after Confirmation, why it’s so hard to get them to take Church teaching seriously, how to get parishes to start making teens and young adults feel welcome and involved without piling job after job on them, and why so many areas seem to have a ‘missing generation’ between the ages of about twenty and forty-five?
Questions abound. Answers, not so much!
And if that’s not depressing enough, it seems that the ‘safe cover‘ ideas we’ve clinged to for the last generation or so are also starting to show cracks: a raft of studies in the last few years has demonstrated pretty convincingly that those who leave the Church are, in fact, not “coming back when they get married.”
Despite all this though, and after almost twenty years of professional youth ministry, I find it hard to get depressed. Firstly, because if you know where to look, there are definitely signs of life. Secondly, because we have a God who has even beaten death, and if the Easter story really is true (and if it’s not, why bother?) then turning round the Church in the West is something God can pretty much knock out before breakfast.
In my view, turning things around in youth ministry is about recognising what’s working and letting God grow it. In other words, it starts with looking for those signs of Easter hope and joy.
One such sign could be seen quite clearly at Wembley Arena just a few weeks ago. Ten thousand young Catholics from all across England & Wales gathered to pray together and to deepen their faith. People sang (led ably by Matt Redman), they listened to an array of speakers sharing the joy of what it is to follow Christ, they learned about the plight of refugees and what they can do to help, and they stayed beautifully silent – all ten thousand of them – before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration.
Events like this, of course, aren’t a complete programme of evangelisation in themselves, but they’re a heck of a start.
Similar signs of hope can be seen in the Youth 2000 summer prayer festivals held each summer, in the young people who give a year or more of their lives to the Sion mission team, in the young adults living in the Wellspring Community in Brighton, in the graduates of the ASCENT discipleship programme, and in so many more places.
Those people telling us that it’s all ‘doom and gloom’ certainly have valid points to make – and I regularly put myself among them – but they miss the point of Easter.
After Jesus’s disciples saw him die, they must have thought everything was lost. They were a small group of people in an unfashionable corner of the Roman Empire, without money, power, influence, or any kind of a plan. But yet that small group grew into something which eventually took over that empire and which, even two thousand years later, is still active and alive.
Indeed, it now commands the following of around a third of the world’s population. I was in a field with three million of them last summer in Krakow – yet another sign of immense hope and joy.
In between the despair of Good Friday, and last summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow, something pretty special had to happen. A small group of scared, powerless guys from Judea doesn’t do that all by themselves.
A great deal of things happened of course between AD 33 and 2016, but the very first of them – and the one that let all the others happen – was the resurrection. When everything seemed utterly desolate, the one who had won our salvation on the cross finished the job by beating death and coming back.
Pretty soon he sent his Holy Spirit to give that small group the power they needed, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But yet, we tend to forget this lesson so often. The lesson that when things seem lost and hopeless, we have a God who takes the impossible and gets it done.
So this Easter, let’s not be people of death dwelling on the things that aren’t working. We shouldn’t ignore problems – that’s a common approach today, and it only makes things worse.
We’re allowed to call out problems, just as we’re allowed to remember the events of Good Friday. But remembering those events without moving on to Easter is utterly fruitless, and so is focusing on today’s problems without seeing the signs of hope.
DOCAT, What to do?