This article was originally posted on Patheos in January 2011:
Chances are that the leaders in your parish have asked the question, “How can we get young people more involved in the church?” As part of a Catholic Young Adult group myself, I know that question doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. However, two guests I’ve interviewed on Christopher Closeup had suggestions they’ve seen work.
The first is Bob Lesnefsky, also known as the award-winning Christian rapper Righteous B. Though he enjoys making music, his real passion is a youth program he co-founded called Dirty Vagabond Ministries. Describing its approach as “incarnational ministry,” the program places missionaries in an urban area to live among the people and meet them wherever they are.
Lesnefsky said, “We show up at a park with a grill and start grilling hot dogs and feeding people. The first time, we just see them and get to know their name. Over weeks or years, it eventually builds relationships and develops into a friendship. It’s much more effective for me to share Christ with someone who considers me their friend than someone who I knock on their door and try to give them a five-minute plug. These are people we have an authentic relationship with. There’s an element of trust that happens before we even tell them about God. They begin to see we care for them outside of whether or not they ever come to the Church.”
One of Dirty Vagabond Ministries’ core principles is that “the greatest intimacy with Christ is found in the sacramental life of the Church.” Lesnefsky admits that many inner-city youth don’t have a foundation of faith, so exposure to Church and the sacraments can be “a little jarring” for them. But by sharing family-style meals and attending Mass together, these young people undergo “a beautiful awakening.”
Another person who’s had great success in this area is author and speaker Mark Hart, who’s also known as “The Bible Geek.” Through his work with the program Life Teen, he is helping young people “form their Catholic identity in authentic and joy-filled ways.”
Hart acknowledged that one of the challenges of getting young people to Mass is that they’re a screen-based culture that’s always texting or online. He told me, “We (shouldn’t) wonder why young people are bored at Mass when they’re constantly stimulated the other 167 hours a week.” Hart’s solution, however, isn’t to make Mass entertaining but to help our “individualistic culture . . . appreciate how communal God designed us to be.”
Hart has discovered that “Modern teenagers . . . want depth. They want deep relationships; they just don’t know how to have them. They’re really drawn to the mystical. When you start walking them into the mystical elements of the sacraments and the depth and breadth of the mysteries of the church, their hearts become enlivened.” Hart sees part of the problem in reaching youth to be adults who talk at them, not to them. He points out, “We should take a lesson from Christ on the road to Emmaus. He walked and listened before He taught.”
Despite the challenges of reaching teens, Hart concludes, “People talk about all the negatives of teenagers (but) . . . I am consistently amazed and blown away by the quality of our young people.”
It’s easy to lament the lack of young faces at Sunday Mass, but complaining doesn’t accomplish anything. Instead, consider the insights of Bob Lesnefsky and Mark Hart and try to build on what they’ve shown can work.