Young people are incredibly creative. From clever tweets and funny Snapchat stories, to intricate videos and complex fan fiction, the internet is full of smart, uplifting, and incredible content made by youth and young adults. Pop culture is not merely geared towards young people, but also shaped by them.
As a young adult myself, I should say: by us.
If you watched our recent video, “How to Make Ministry Better and More Christ-Centered” (available at youtube.com/y2am), you know that we live in an a culture of almost limitless possibilities--at least when it comes to ideas and religion. Young people are free to inherit the beliefs of their parents, convert to a new religion, or abandon faith altogether. Some of us do all three.
This confusing supernova of choices has helped shape our “age of authenticity.” In the midst of all this possibility, choice and personal fulfillment becomes the one thing that grounds us. We can choose to remain Orthodox, or choose to explore Buddhism or Protestantism or atheism; whatever helps us discover our authentic self.
Much of this choice is communicative. We discuss our struggles with faith on a blog, or make comments about our Church on Twitter, or post beautiful icons on Instagram. Our search for truth and meaning often happens “out loud,” spoken into the great stream of ideas on social media.
By contrast, youth and young adult ministry tends to press people into silence.
Teenagers are supposed to sit quietly while their priest or group advisor lectures them. Young adults are supposed to sit quietly during a lecture or presentation on “the faith.” People who are engaged and active in their day-today lives are forced into silent attention when the Church ministers to them.
Is it any wonder they (again, I should say we) feel so disengaged and disconnected from the Church?
Is it any wonder we feel so bored?
While expressing oneself (whether online or not) is a natural part of the modern quest for authenticity and “realness,” silencing young people comes across as artificial and inauthentic.
It’s directly opposed to a common, and healthy instinct: the impulse to engage the world and test out ones place in it.
Even worse, the Church’s tendency to lecture reflects an information-based model of ministry, where the goal is to fill the minds of young people with the right ideas and perspectives rather than transform their hearts and point their entire lives towards Christ.
Fortunately, our ministry to young people can harness their expressive impulses. And it starts with confession.
Summer camp is often the only place young people are encouraged to confess. Without fail, these opportunities lead to long lines (and exhausted clergy) as confessions last well into the night and early morning. Confession is virtually the only opportunity for young people to express themselves in ministry and, without fail, they take full advantage of it.
Rather than patiently sitting through a session or listening to a lecture, young people can open their hearts and honestly discuss their deepest hopes and fears, their most urgent ambitions and worries, their most intense desires and longings. They can express their struggles with sin and their hope for God’s mercy. Rather than passively receive information about Christ, it is a chance to actively open their hearts and orient their lives to our Lord and Savior.
Yet, despite its incredible popularity at summer camp, confession remains largely absent from other youth and young adult ministry work. This important sacrament, a healing resource that provides reconciliation with Christ and His Church, should be placed at the center of ministry.
Time should be set aside, at least every month, for confession. If nothing else, it will help us reorient ministry: from the head back to the heart where it belongs.
Further, confession itself does not need to be the only opportunity for self-expression. Youth and young adult workers should remember that ministry is about transformation, not mere information. Their goal should not simply be to teach young people about Christ, but rather to reveal the Lord in their lives and orient their hearts towards Him.
Our youth and young adult groups can be places of honesty, where young people share their needs and fears in person rather than simply on social media. They can be places of comfort, where we manifest God’s love to each other through our mutual support and compassion.
They can be places of healing, where we take steps into the Kingdom by praying for each other.
Remember that people, both young and old, have an instinct to express themselves as they attempt to find themselves and their place in the world. If we are conscious of that need, and open to cultivating it rather than combatting it, we can use its creative force to open eyes to the reality of God’s Kingdom.