Partners in Discipleship: Youth Ministry and Religious Education

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by Robert McCarty and Ela Milewska

Does it ever seem that passing on the faith to our children and youth is becoming more and more difficult? All the research points toward a diminished role for Church in the life of the family, declining membership in Church denominations, and an increasing number of people described as “nones” (no affiliation with an organized religion). Research highlights that among Catholics who leave the Church, approximately 68% do so between the ages of 13 and 23. It certainly seems that youth ministry and young adult ministry are significant challenges in our faith communities. Yet, we believe there is deep spiritual hunger in our young people, and that the person of Jesus, the challenge of the Gospel, and the Catholic faith community can respond to that hunger.

But sometimes we, the ministers of the Church, can get sidetracked, divided, and scattered by the very language we use to define our ministries. Consider all the terms that somehow describe a dimension of our ministries: religious education, adult faith formation, liturgical catechesis, sacramental catechesis, adolescent catechesis, evangelization, the new evangelization, youth ministry, family ministry, whole community catechesis, etc. Although these terms do define specific dimensions of our mission and provide a focus for elements of our ministries, they can create division in what needs to be a collaborative approach to passing on the faith to our children and youth.

So let’s begin this conversation with an agreement that our entire ministry is about inviting people into a relationship with Jesus and his community of believers so that we might build the Reign of God. That’s what is meant by evangelization, and it is the core of all ministries.

A Paradigm Shift

Our methodological paradigm in catechesis has been shifting over the centuries. For example, the world saw an early shift from the pre-Protestant reformation, with an emphasis on storytelling and orthopraxis (living), to instruction and orthodoxy (believing) in the modern era. Now we have noted a shift from the modern world of instruction to a post-modern world with an emphasis on engagement and experience.

The modern era catechetical approach can be described as an instructional model of faith formation: “If young people know what is true, they will do what is right.” However, to post-modern youth, instruction that is not anchored in one’s lived experience often appears irrelevant. Following the Second Vatican Council, the emphasis was on an experiential model: “If young people do what is right, then they will want to know what is true.” But experience without knowledge about our faith will soon wither! We are clearly in an era in which passing on the faith entails a blending of both models: instructional and experiential.

In the modern era, our catechetical efforts relied on a three-legged stool of family, community, and Church to uphold the seat of learning. It was collaborative and holistic. It allowed the Church to concentrate on the cognitive (head) aspect of faith because home and community reinforced the affective (heart) and behavioral (hands) dimensions of living the faith. In the post-modern era, our catechetical efforts must continue to rely on the three-legged stool of family, community, and Church. However, more than ever, each leg must intentionally embody—through living witness, teaching, and formal and non-formal methods—the head, the heart, and the hands of Catholic discipleship.

A New Map

This both/and mode of pastoral ministry with young people requires a well-developed formational model that is a comprehensive approach combining both experience and knowledge. Because our goal is to walk with young people on their journeys toward being happy, healthy, and holy Catholic adults (hence the primacy of adult faith formation), this formational model has two complimentary dimensions. There is a communal dimension in which we foster young people’s corporate identity as Catholic Christians. And there is a personal dimension in which we foster young people’s individual faith identities.

The communal dimension (one’s relationship with the faith community) can be represented by a horizontal axis, while the personal dimension (one’s relationship with Jesus) is represented by a vertical axis. The horizontal and the vertical axes—combined in the image of a cross—provide a wonderful image for our pastoral ministry with young people.

These two dimensions also point toward the dual roles of adults serving in this pastoral ministry. We serve first as an “adoption agency”—enabling young people to take on the wisdom, values, life, mission, and beliefs of the Catholic Church. We also serve as “midwives,” accompanying and guiding young people as they give birth to their own personal faith identities. Underlying these two roles is the challenge of connection. Discipleship has both a communal and a personal dimension, and requires a shared vision and a collaborative approach by pastoral leadership.

Building a Fruitful Partnership

This dual role of “adoption agency” and “midwife” is the responsibility of all those who engage in catechesis. The ministry of catechesis falls into the purview of many people: parents, bishops, pastors, principals, teachers, youth ministry leaders, etc. (see National Directory for Catechesis, n. 53). The title of catechist, however, quite frequently is assigned only to those who engage in formal religious education. This often sets up a false separation, especially between those engaged in adolescent religious education and those engaged in youth ministry.

The reality is that effective youth ministry engages in catechesis, and transformative catechesis embodies comprehensive youth ministry. When we erase these perceived separations, we come to the realization that fruitful partnerships can be fostered so that young people move seamlessly between the variety of ministries in our parish—growing in faith because of the unique gifts that each person brings to each experience.

Through this partnership, religious educators and youth ministry team members can share with one another the lessons, skills, and insights they have gained in their respective areas. For example, a youth ministry team member can share with his or her religious education counterpart how to engage in interpersonal evangelization and relational ministry; how to use social media, websites, videos, and other alternative learning tools; and how to train and supervise youth in leadership roles. A catechist can help a person in youth ministry develop an understanding of small group dynamics, teach techniques and steps for planning catechetical sessions, and provide resources and tools for learning more about the Catholic faith.

Even more significant is the opportunity to foster Catholic identity. If the team members in religious education and youth ministry meet regularly, parishes are able to foster more intentionally the Catholic identity of individual young people throughout their lives. As a group, team members can articulate a common vision and goals for the faith formation of young people. With a common vision, it becomes easier to identify opportunities and best settings for fostering the growth of faith in teens. Also, when religious educators and youth ministers collaborate, they can develop approaches to help teens transition from one program to another, making sure no one is lost in the shuffle.

Ideas to Build Relationships

There is a multitude of ways in which team members from youth ministry and religious education can build relationships among themselves. Here are just a few:

Retreat together. Start off the year with a retreat for all parish volunteers. The time they spend together in community building, praying, faith sharing, and casual conversations can build strong bonds between the two groups and strong relationships between individuals.

Pray together. After the retreat, create prayer partners between the two teams and bring your teams together several times a year for evenings of prayer and reflection.

Share plans, events, and activities. The team members can support and complement what is going on in each other’s programs when they intentionally share the plans, events, and activities for the year. This also will prevent over-scheduling and the overlapping of activities.

Teach for and with each other. Members of each ministry team have their own gifts and specialties. Invite members from each team to be guest presenters in your ministry. If team members have similar or complementary interests, consider a team-teaching experience.

Share resources, best practices, and challenges. Gather your teams together for a “toolbox” session, in which the groups share what is in their ministry toolboxes. Individuals can share videos, websites, activities, and resources they use; they can share their best ministry practices. The various team members can also share their challenges and explore how to overcome them.

Learn together. Attend or host ministry training workshops together. Ensure a blending of the members of the groups so that they can share insights and discussions.

Communicate jointly. A great way to cut down paper use and present a unified vision is by communicating with parents as one group instead of two. Consider sending only one newsletter or calendar to families.

Celebrate together. Use Catechetical Sunday and/or World Youth Sunday to recognize all those who catechize and minister to youth.

Dream together. Each parish and each individual team member is working toward growing Catholic disciples. Create a space and an opportunity where team members can gather to share hopes and dreams of how this can be done.

The Family Connection

Any discussion of adolescent catechesis would be incomplete if it does not address the impact of the family in nurturing the faith life of young people. Catechists, both in youth ministry and in religious education, should constantly seek ways in which they can assist families in cultivating a lived Catholic faith.

This can be as simple as developing a take-home (or email) handout that connects what is being covered in the religious education program to a discussion that could happen at home, thus engaging families in youth ministry efforts and catechetical sessions. Or provide prayers and discussion questions for the liturgical seasons, especially Lent and Advent. Special care should be taken to intentionally minister to the spiritual lives of parents.

Signs of Promise

Our faith community is blessed with competent and passionate ministers in our parishes and schools. Pastoral ministers are experimenting with creative formats—facilitated by open-minded, authentic, faith-filled adults—that bring young people together and help them make connections between their lived experiences and the Jesus Experience. These efforts are being supported through the development of catechetical materials that combine the cognitive with the affective and behavioral dimensions of faith. And we are creating a methodology that includes community building, peer sharing, youth witness, and youth leadership.

An experiential, active, and innovative approach—supported by parish staff, families, and the faith community—has the best chance of bringing young people to discipleship and fostering their Catholic identity within the faith community.

George Gallup once wrote, “The challenge to the churches is to build up their youth programs and put young people in places where they can challenge, disagree, and build up trust. If the world in the next century is going to be less sexist, less racist, less polluted, and more peaceful, we can thank our young people.”1

To his sign of hope, we add: If the Church in this century is going to be more welcoming; more creative; able to retain the wisdom of the past as it moves toward the future; more committed to justice, service, and the dignity of the human person; more centered on the Eucharist; and guided by committed and competent ordained and lay ministers, we can thank our young people.2

A Vision for Adolescent Catechesis

Young people grow in their Catholic faith by falling in love with the person and message of Jesus Christ. They mature in faith when they let that love form and transform them within the Church, a community of disciples. Adolescent catechesis is one stage of a lifelong process of embracing the Catholic way of life that forms young disciples by empowering them to know and follow Christ in their daily lives, thus becoming leaven for the Kingdom of God in the world. The following are foundational and interdependently connected elements in this process:

Empowered parents and faith-filled families: Catholic parents and families must be primary in thinking, planning, and programming so that they are empowered to develop a rich and vibrant Catholic faith within the home as the domestic church. Parishes serve as lifelong partners with parents in this effort.

Vibrant, youth-friendly parishes: Youth must find welcome and meaningful engagement in parishes that are alive with rich and vibrant faith, requiring collaboration among parish leaders working together for the renewal of parish life.

Fruitful partnerships: Because “it takes a whole church,” intentional and mutual partnerships must be formed and nurtured among parents, parishes, dioceses, Catholic schools, apostolic movements, and adolescents working toward a common goal.

Comprehensive ministry to youth with intentional and systematic faith formation: Innovative, comprehensive learning approaches and dynamic resources must be developed along with effective and well-formed adults willing to apprentice young people in the faith.

Inclusion, trust, and acceptance: An environment of inclusion, trust, and acceptance must be fostered in parishes, schools, and the larger community, embracing young people and families from different cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

This vision of adolescent catechesis calls for nothing less than re-imagining current faith formation and pastoral ministry efforts with young people and their families. It requires leaders at all levels to engage in honest assessments of current efforts and systems in order to create new relationships and patterns of ministry that work together to form disciples of Jesus Christ. The outcomes of this applied vision include:

* sustaining a personal relationship with Jesus Christ supported through regular prayer, faith sharing, and Scripture reading;

* sharing the Good News through words and actions, through Christian service, and through working for peace, justice, and human dignity;

* participating fully, consciously, actively, and regularly in the celebrations of the sacramental life of the Catholic Church;

* articulating the fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith and demonstrating a commitment to learning and growing in this faith;

* applying Catholic ethics, virtues, principles, values, and social teaching to moral decision making and life situations, and in interactions with the larger culture;

* discerning and using their gifts to actively belong to and participate in the life and mission of the parish, school, and larger community;

* celebrating cultural/racial and ethnic diversity as a gift from God, and pursuing the development of Christian community across cultural/racial and ethnic backgrounds in their parishes, schools, and broader communities;

* exploring God’s call to vocation through prayer, reflection, and discernment.3

Robert McCarty is the Executive Director at the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry and empowers Catholic youth ministers around the world. Ela Milewska is the Associate Director for Cultivation Ministries. She is a speaker and trainer, and works with NFCYM, NCEA, and NCCL as the project coordinator for the National Initiative on Adolescent Catechesis.


1. George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999). Quoted in The Dallas Morning News, December 12, 1999.

2. Robert McCarty. “Catholic Youth Evangelization: A Method to the Madness!” Ministry Through the Lens of Evangelization, edited by Secretariat for Evangelization (USCCB: Washington, DC, 2003), 82.

3. Partnership for Adolescent Catechesis, “Vision and Outcomes of Adolescent Catechesis.” Washington, DC. Partnership for Adolescent Catechesis, 2010.

Copyright 2014, Bayard, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Bayard, Inc.

This article was written by the Catechist Staff and appeared in Catechist magazine, July 2014.

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 383838703

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