It was nearly 1:00 a.m., and I was sitting in an empty restaurant just off the hotel lobby across from a broken, hurting seventeen-year-old girl.
I was at a youth conference in Florida, and members of my youth group were in their hotel rooms for the night. We had just had a powerful evening of prayer, Eucharistic Adoration, and empowerment, and the teens in my group were buzzing. We had had our standard small-group discussions after the experience, and I said, “If any of you still has something that God did in your heart tonight — something you need to talk about — I’ll sit here in the hotel lobby for a while, and we can talk it out.” Sure enough, I had several teens take me up on the offer. Around 1:00 a.m., I thought I was done talking and could finally go to bed, when Julia came around the corner and approached me.
“I need to talk,” she said. I could tell it was important. “Okay. Let’s grab a seat in this empty restaurant,” I responded. As soon as we sat down, Julia blurted out, “I can’t stop drinking.”
I knew a little about Julia’s background before I took her to the youth conference. She was a high school senior who got drunk at parties nearly every weekend, had experimented with drugs, and had a reputation for being promiscuous. I think she even showed up for the youth conference hung over.
On the other hand, Julia was a sweet, wonderful girl, very beautiful, artistic, and full of good intentions. It didn’t take me long in our conversation to realize that she had encountered Jesus in a powerful way that evening and was wrestling with her sin and brokenness. However, the conversation went in a direction I wasn’t expecting.
I said to her, “There are a lot of people who have wrestled with addiction. The first step is to admit the problem and to come closer to Jesus.”
She interrupted me: “I’m not an addict. I would have no problem giving up drinking. I know that is what Jesus wants me to do, and I’m ready to do it. I don’t even like getting drunk. The problem is, I can’t leave my friends.”
That caught me off guard. As we talked, I got more of Julia’s background story. Her parents were divorced. Her father was absent but knew about her partying and promiscuity and didn’t care, and her mother wasn’t present emotionally. Her brother was in rehab. She said, “The only people in my life who love me are my friends, and they all party. If I stop, I’ll lose them.”
This is not the conversation I was expecting. I told her that anyone who was a real friend would love her, not for her sharing vices with them, but because of who she was. I prayed with her and told her that Jesus would help her find her way. I encouraged her to keep coming to youth group to grow in a community of friends who were virtuous. We ended in prayer, but I could tell that she didn’t have total confidence that her needs would be met following the conference.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end well.
I can’t fault Julia: she gave it her best. She came to youth group every week and tried to participate. I saw her, by herself, at Mass every Sunday. I followed up with her regularly and tried to encourage her. It didn’t matter — the youth group was not right for her. She never quite fit in, and the group wasn’t helping her to feel confident that she ever would. With every game, skit, video clip, catechetical talk, and prayer exercise, she would try, but I saw her drifting further and further away.
Julia had tried — and she had even articulated the problem. She had basic needs that had to be met for her to become a lifelong disciple. Unfortunately, the structure of ministry I had put into place was not sufficient to meet her basic needs.
Meeting Teens’ Basic Needs
If I had to answer in one sentence “Why are young people leaving the Catholic Church?,” I would respond, “The Church is not meeting the basic needs of young people.”
American psychologist Abraham Maslow is most famous for his theory of a “hierarchy of needs,” which basically claims that unless a person’s innate needs are met, he will never become psychologically and spiritually complete.
Think about this theory for a second.
If you were stranded on a desert island, your first thought would probably not be about getting off the island. Instead, you’d need to find food, water, shelter, and fire. Once those basic needs were met, you’d turn your attention to self-actualization — which, in this case, would be getting off the island.
We can say the same thing about teenagers in our Church. Why is it that so many are not becoming lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ? Because their basic needs are not being met by our Church structures.
This was my problem with Julia — she wanted to grow to the point of self-actualization (in her case, breaking free of sin and following Christ completely), but she couldn’t, because our youth ministry was not meeting her basic needs.
So, what are the basic needs of a young person?
My colleague Sean Dalton at the Augustine Institute in Denver articulates better than anyone the five basic needs of teens: the need to be understood, the need to belong, the need to be transparent, the need for critical thinking about faith and life, and the need for guidance. Let’s look at each of those basic needs.
The need to be understood
In my first year as a youth minister, I struggled to connect with the teens I was serving. The program I had started in a parish was failing miserably. I visited family in Chicago for Christmas and spent that time away from the parish wrestling with what I was doing wrong in my ministry. My wife suggested that we visit a friend of ours who was serving as a missionary in Chicago with an organization called Emmaus Ministries.
Catholics in Emmaus Ministries work with male prostitutes on the streets of Chicago. They send missionaries into the streets late at night in order to build relationships with the male prostitutes. The missionaries invite the prostitutes to come to the house for a meal, a shower, or other basic needs. Once at the house, the missionaries work to build relationships with the men, to get them off the street, and to rehabilitate them through Bible study, counseling, drug rehabilitation, and job training.
While I was visiting my friend, he asked if I wanted to do an “immersion night,” which was how visitors were introduced to the work of Emmaus Ministries.
The rules were simple: our goal was to learn from the people we met. At first, I wondered how I had gotten roped into this exercise, and I was extremely uncomfortable; but in one bar, I struck up a conversation with a construction worker from the suburbs. During the conversation, I realized what the evening was supposed to teach me: “If I don’t first understand the people I am ministering to, I can never hope to reach them with the gospel. Every person has a cross in his life, and the first step in helping someone to accept Christ’s love is to help him to carry his cross.”
Emmaus Ministries was very wise in setting up these exercises for those interested in joining their ministry. The purpose of this exercise was to teach missionaries to see each person for who he is — someone created in the image and likeness of God.
The same could be said of teenagers in our Church today. Too many ministries in parishes approach teens with the intention of teaching them about the Faith without first seeking to know them. When I grasped this principle — that the people we minister to must first be understood — my entire approach to youth ministry changed. Teenagers don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Before you teach them about the Faith, you must earn the right to be heard.
The need to belong
Every person has a need to belong with other people. After all, we’re made for love, and because of that, we seek out relationships. Teenagers, however, have such a strong need to belong that they will sacrifice the moral values that they are raised with in order to belong.
Think about it — why do teens get involved in gangs, drugs, drinking, sex, and other sinful activities? Because they find a sense of belonging with the people who do these activities.
Parents understand better than anyone their teens’ need to belong. This is why so many parents are willing to overcommit their teenagers to so many activities — so their teenagers will find community and belonging. Parents know that if they don’t get their teenagers’ need to belong met, their teens may find a sense of belonging in a community that they don’t want them to be a part of.
When parents prioritize their kids’ extracurricular activities ahead of faith formation, what they essentially are saying to the parish leadership is that their children find a greater sense of belonging within their extracurricular activities than they do in the Church. That means that the parish is at fault: the parish is failing to meet the children’s basic needs. In these cases, when parish leadership insists that teens participate in the parish faith formation (or else, for example, they will be unable to receive a sacrament), the parish puts the parents in a difficult position. Do the parents put their children in the parish formation program, where their kids will not feel as if they belong? Or do they keep them on the soccer team with all their friends? More times than not, the Church loses that battle.
I spoke with a friend who had this exact problem. Her daughter was preparing for Confirmation. Her daughter was very well formed in her Faith and grew up in a family with strong, faithful parents. But Confirmation classes in the parish conflicted with dance-team rehearsals, and the parish offered the classes only once per week.
When I spoke with this parent about her frustrations with this, I asked where her daughter found friendships and fellowship more easily — with her dance team or with the kids in the parish. The parent said, “With her dance team. My daughter doesn’t like the parish youth group.” We discussed the matter at length, and you can guess which activity the parent chose to prioritize — the dance team. The reason: her daughter had a basic need to belong, and that’s where she found belonging. The parent found an alternative path to get her child the sacraments.
We cannot expect teens to become lifelong disciples unless we create an environment (or environments) in which teens can develop friendships with other teens and find a sense of belonging in our parishes.
The need to be transparent
One in six high school students has considered suicide. One in twelve has attempted suicide. Every person carries a cross in his life. Some crosses are heavier than others. If you don’t have a place you can go or a person you can talk to when you have trouble in your life, you internalize that problem.
One thing I have noticed in my ten years of working with teenagers is the superficiality of their relationships. Many teens do not have friends with whom they can be transparent. With boys, especially, most of their friendships revolve entirely around shared interests — such as sports or video games. Often, if a teenager is having difficulty with something in his life, he doesn’t have anyone he feels he can approach about that problem — and about his subsequent emotions.
About twelve months after I started focusing on growing relationships with teens in my parish, I could have opened a counseling practice. I had more teens sharing their struggles with me than I knew what to do with.
Every teen is a person, and every person carries a cross. All teens have a basic need to be transparent, because if they can’t be transparent about their struggles, they’ll never learn how to surrender their cross to Christ. I have learned that the Church has to provide the right context for teens to be transparent. Otherwise, teens don’t grow into disciples.
The need for critical thinking about the Faith
Believe it or not, teenagers are fascinated by faith-related topics. Teens have a lot of questions about faith and religion, and they want answers to their questions. The average parish does a fantastic job of answering questions that teens do not have but does not do a good job of answering the questions that teens do have.
On Sundays, most teenagers enter a church where the message communicated from the pulpit has little relation to their life (actually, that’s the experience of most Catholics in general). In faith-formation classes, most teens endure a pre-determined curriculum that systematically walks them through the dogmas of the Creed and the Catechism. Sometimes, they experience a pre-determined curriculum that is disjointed, with no scope and sequence at all. Seldom does a teenager experience formation in his faith that grows organically out of the natural questions he has.
Naturally, as children enter adolescence and their minds develop critical-thinking capabilities, they begin to ask, “Do I believe that God and Heaven exist? Do I believe what my family and teachers have taught me?” They develop questions about faith and even challenge some of the things they have been taught. This is good. They are engaging in critical thinking. It’s the beginning of their taking ownership of their faith.
Unfortunately, too often the method of teaching and engaging teens in the parish does not change as children grow into adolescence. Too often, the Church expects teens simply to accept what is communicated to them. If they don’t receive good answers to their questions, teens begin to believe that the Church doesn’t have good answers because good answers don’t exist. They become disengaged in church and begin to reject the dogmas of the Church in favor of the dogmas of their youth culture. Eventually, as these teens enter adulthood, they stop attending church altogether.
Teens need relationships, and, within those relationships, they have to be given the opportunity to engage in critical thinking and discussions about faith and life. If that basic need is not met, they will not become disciples.
The need for guidance
Adolescence is a difficult time for young people. Their minds and bodies are changing. They’re becoming interested in, and many times pursuing, relationships with the opposite sex. They face decisions about vocation, education, and occupation — decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. They face peer pressure, pressure to abuse drugs and alcohol, identity questions, and pressure to excel in school. They are transitioning into adulthood. If there were ever a time when persons were in need of guidance, it’s during adolescence.
Now, think about the schedule of American teenagers. They wake up early in the morning and rush out the door to school. They spend eight or nine hours a day in a classroom surrounded by peers, with a teacher who needs to communicate an enormous amount of content to them in a short time. After school, teenagers usually rush off to an extracurricular activity or an after-school job. When they come home, sometimes their parents are home, and sometimes they’re not. Maybe they’ll have dinner with the family, but many times they probably won’t. Then they retire to their room, where they do two or three hours of homework and go to sleep.
Looking at the schedule of the average American teenager, consider this important question: At what point during most teenagers’ daily schedules do they have a meaningful conversation with an adult?
Most teens don’t have adults who provide guidance in their lives. In this period when teens are most in need of guidance, our culture has removed from their lives the very people who are responsible for providing guidance. The average schedule for an American teenager does not allow for mentoring relationships with adults. As a result, when teenagers need advice, they’re more likely to turn to a peer than to an adult because they have relationships with their peers and no relationship with adults.
I believe that the need for guidance is the most important of these five needs. The Church cannot expect to form teens into disciples without meeting their basic need for guidance.
The Problem of Context
Pope Francis also believes that youth ministry in our Church is not meeting teens’ basic needs. Without that, we can’t expect them to grow into disciples — they’ll never move to the point of self-actualization.
If we want our youth to stop leaving the Church, we need to change our approach. The next three chapters aim to identify how each of the most common formation practices in our culture and in our Church is failing to meet the most basic needs of teens.
Too often, the Church recognizes that teens cannot clearly articulate beliefs about faith and religion. The Church responds by trying to adjust and improve her delivery of content to teenagers. As a result, we see the influx of resources — social media resources, video-based resources, conferences, and rallies for teens — that are intended to communicate the Faith better on the level of a teenager. We now have tremendous content resources in our Church — better than we’ve had in a long time.
Unfortunately, the greatest problem in youth ministry in our Church today is not content but context. We’re not creating an environment in which teens can have their basic needs met: the need to be understood, to belong, to be transparent, to engage in critical thinking, and to find guidance. As a result, they’re not becoming lifelong disciples.