Reaching Teens: It's Harder and Easier Than You Think

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by Michael J. Daley

For an exercise to guide teens through reflecting on things spiritual and religious in their popular music, see the end of this article.

What Are You Working On?

This tale set in twelfth-century France begins with a man walking along a winding road. Approaching him from some distance is a workman pushing a wheelbarrow laden with heavy stones. As their paths cross, the man asks, “My good man, what is it you are working on?” Barely stopping, the workman lets out a groan and replies (actually complains), “I work from dawn to dusk with little food or drink. My family doesn’t appreciate what I do. And to top it off, the wages I’m paid are barely enough to make ends meet.”

Walking some distance farther, the man encounters another workman pushing a similar load. The man inquires, somewhat more gingerly this time, “Sir, what are you doing this day?” Letting his wheelbarrow down and wiping his brow dripping with sweat, the workman laments, “Humpf. Truth be told, I’m wasting my life away. When a better job comes along, I’m dropping this one as quick as a fifty-pound sack.”

Quickening his pace, the man walks on. After some time, a third workman crosses his path managing the same kind of wheelbarrow filled with stones that the other two workmen handled. Although dejected by now, the man chooses to tempt fate. “May I ask what you are working on this fine day?” With a look of utter disbelief at the very need for the question, the workman smilingly replies, “Why, don’t you know? I am building the Cathedral of Chartres!”

Our ministry with teenagers is ongoing; it is never fully complete. Satisfaction is often accompanied by frustration. In the end, the rewards often elude us. The tale “What Are You Working On?” gives us a glimpse of what this is like.

We must admit, however, that the grand cathedrals of Europe were not built in months or years. Rather, the work took decades, even centuries. By contrast, the time we spend with teenagers charged to our care is fleeting.

I am reminded of a passage from the words of the prayer attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero: “It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.”

So it is with teenagers; we accomplish only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise of their faith formation—but what a privilege to be part of the effort.

Enter the Culture

Ask any realtor about selling a home and you’ll hear the timeless response, “Location. Location. Location.” Ask veteran catechists about communicating our Catholic Tradition to their students, and they’ll respond: “Culture. Culture. Culture.”

To reach teens, we have to know their culture—their location. And what is their culture, their location? Broadly speaking, their culture is expressed through their language, work, music, dress, preferred colors, physical gestures, what they value, where they find meaning, and how they view or see the world.

Consider how challenging this can be. Communicating within our own culture, peer to peer, is difficult because we actually have to navigate multiple areas of experience—home, school, work, nation, and religion. When we consider communicating across generational lines—Baby Boomers to Generation X to Generation Y (Millennials) to, now, Generation Z (Globalists)—cultural differences become more complicated and the ability to communicate with one another gets even more difficult.

For some years, Beloit College in Wisconsin has offered a “Mindset List” ( This list makes clear that the teenagers graduating from high school over the next several years have a different cultural experience than their teachers. For example, the list notes that cable is the preferred way of watching television with literally hundreds of channels to choose from. Because the use of computers and the presence of the digital world have become so predominant, cursive handwriting has become like a foreign language. Phones have replaced wrist watches and, to the bewilderment of adults, teens would rather use phones for texting than talking. Cinema-wise, Clint Eastwood is no longer synonymous with Dirty Harry (“Make my day”); rather, he is known as a director of films like Mystic River and Gran Torino. The more things change…the more things change.

As catechists of teenagers, we can appreciate the adage, “In order for students to go through your door, you first have to go through theirs.” If we are to reach our students in meaningful ways, we have to be aware of and use the things that they are seeing at the movies and on TV; listening to on the radio or downloading to their iPods; or reading in books, illustrated novels, magazines, and e-readers.

Offer More Than “Just Say No”

In their book Media Mindfulness: Educating Teens about Faith and Media (St. Mary’s Press), media literacy experts and women religious Gretchen Hailer, RSHM, and Rose Pacatte, FSP, favor communication rather than a “just say no” response when it come to reaching teenagers. They write, “Much as we might want to shield them from any sinfulness in the media, what we are really wanting for them is the ability to recognize what they are seeing and hearing for what it is, and to form a Christian response to it.”

Flowing from this sentiment, the authors invite adults—teachers, catechists, parents, pastors, youth workers—to become “co-learners” with respect to the various cultural forms out there. As a result, the experience and opinions of teenagers must be acknowledged and honored. Otherwise, we’ll more than likely—despite our good intentions—be dismissed as judgmental and out of touch.

Here’s the challenge I face: I teach at a suburban, all-male, middle-to-upper-class, mostly white, Catholic school. Many of the students see nothing wrong with watching The Jersey Shore (MTV), playing Halo and other role-killing video games, and listening to the likes of rappers Kanye West and Eminem. (On the whole, these are really good kids.) Instead of saying, “No, don’t listen to him,” “Turn that off,” or “Go outside and get some exercise,” I attempt to call students’ attention to the values they see and hear coming from the cultural expressions they participate in and the values they themselves are trying to live. Often—as we might expect—there is tension between the two. Ultimately, the students know who they want to become—and in the language of faith, that would be “more Christ-like.”

It’s hard, however, for teens to be critical of their own choices, let alone the choices of others. But that’s what media literacy, critical engagement with the culture, and media mindfulness are all about. The serious challenge comes when young people become aware of and reflect on their culture’s myriad of options and must make choices based on their awareness. “Do I want to watch (listen to, purchase, or patronize) this anymore?”

Whether or not we agree with our students’ decisions, the choices are theirs, not ours. As catechists, we know that we’ve provided them with the tools to make their decisions from a faith perspective.

Play and Risk

In and through the Incarnation, God became enfleshed in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular person: Jesus of Nazareth. Suffice to say, God risked.

Every time we come before our students to transmit and share with them the beauty of the Catholic Tradition, we are about a very incarnational, risky, humanizing process. We are not with abstract objects but real people. Our students are adolescent boys and girls confused about the state of the world and their place in it. They desire independence while holding on to their roots. They want to explore new experiences of faith while trying to remain connected with what came before.

I say this mindful of a story I came across in Greg Mortenson’s book titled Stones into Schools. Back home in Montana, Mortenson was eating dinner with his daughter Amira, when she asked him, “What kind of games do the children in your Kashmir schools play?” Mortenson was forced to admit that in establishing schools for girls, games and playgrounds for children had been overlooked. This situation was soon corrected and, after a period of feverish activity, Amira had collected enough jump ropes to supply these schools with the beginnings of what you and I know as playtime.

This bore great fruit when, in the summer of 2009, a group who sympathized with the Taliban asked to tour one of Mortenson’s school’s in Afghanistan. Reaching the compound, members of the group put their weapons on the ground. Looking around, the leader of the group spotted something that immediately brought a smile to his face: a playground. As Mortenson shares, for the next half hour, “he and his companions gleefully sampled the swings, the slide, and the seesaw.” 

After playing, members of the group got ready to leave. The surprised principal offered them a tour of the school. “No, we have seen enough,” replied the leader. “We would like to formally request you to come to our village in order to start building schools. But if you do, they absolutely must have playgrounds.”

I also recall a recent conversation with a friend and colleague. Using the image of sledding, he said that teachers can do one of two things. They can stand at the top of the hill and offer a lot of information: “Watch out for that snowdrift over there; be careful around the ramp to your right; make sure you keep your hands and feet inside the sled.” Then, before heading off for a cup of hot chocolate, they might offer the parting words of “Good luck.”

Or they can pick up a sled, with excitement and fear etched on their faces, and join their students on that trip down the hill. This incarnational sledding ride might be a bit bumpier, but the rewards are all the greater as well.

Now that’s incarnational! Reaching teens is serious business, but don’t forget to play.

The Role of Parents: Who Knew?

According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, “the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.”

Although this may surprise both teachers and parents (maybe even teens), the reality does not lead to teens being more reflective and appreciative of the fact. Yet, it never can be forgotten that parents share in the process of educating in the faith.

The challenge for catechists who find themselves in conversation with parents—especially parents who no longer have the certainty and confidence of the Baltimore Catechism in their past—is to provide resources and opportunities for parents and their children to connect over religious and spiritual matters. This and numerous other insights can be found in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers by Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton (Oxford University Press, 2005).


Reaching teens is hard because we have to enter their culture. It’s easy because the teens are so willing to welcome us into their culture.

Sometimes in the midst of my teaching, I find myself asking the rhetorical question: You actually get to do this for a living? What an honor and privilege it is to join teenagers at this stage in their lives. Letting them name the values that guide who they are and their cultural choices is a lifelong lesson that forms the rest of their lives. Although it can be exhausting, entering the teens’ “playground” makes it all worthwhile.  

Mike Daley is a published author and teaches at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, OH. With William Madges, he is the editor of The Many Marks of the Church and Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories (Twenty-Third Publications).

Teen Resources

Letters to Marc about Jesus: Living a Spiritual Life in a Material World by Henri J.M . Nouwen (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988)
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean (Oxford University Press, 2010)
“The Merchants of Cool: A Report on the Creators & Marketers of Popular Culture for Teenagers” (PBS,
National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (
Catholic Youth Ministry Support (
Disciples Now Ministries (
Why Do Catholics…? Teens Respond to Questions about The Faith, edited by Michael J. Daley (Saint Mary’s Press, 2007)

Helping Teens Reflect on Things Spiritual and Religious in Their Popular Music
Share this reflection with teenagers:
Music is a big part of your culture. It is a language in and of itself. In many ways, music is a powerful indicator of the life and vitality of a group of people. It allows listeners to glimpse what a society values, what its goals are, and what tensions it struggles with.

As you yourself experience, music is an indispensable means of communication. Music can do many things. It can lift our spirits, challenge us in moments of indecision, console us in times of defeat and anguish, and unite us in victory. It does this in so many ways and areas: in politics, social justice, relationships, sports—even in things related to our spirituality and faith.
In this reflection exercise, you’re asked to pick a song that speaks to you on any number of the theological/God-talk topics that you have encountered over the years: your faith journey; stories from Scripture and the Catholic Tradition; images of Church; your understanding of God; the person and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth; the Holy Spirit and the Trinity; the role of prayer; and the life models of the saints.

You might be tempted to say, “But there aren’t any popular songs about any of these subjects.” What I hope you discover as you listen more closely to the lyrics is that countless songs have material that speaks to things spiritual and religious. You also may see that many artists have songs of great substance and songs that celebrate consumerism, materialism, objectification of women, etc.
Here are some guidelines and questions to consider in your reflection:
Select any song from any style of music: rock, country, hip-hop, rap, reggae, alternative, heavy metal, and folk. The only restriction is language. If you wonder if a song is acceptable, then I suggest you choose another song. I am not necessarily ruling out a song because of profane language, though. I just don’t want profanity to be a distraction.
Listen to the song several times with these questions in mind:
1. How does the song make me feel? What emotions are stirred?
2. What are the main theological issues addressed in the song? (Reflect on the lyrics of the song, examining them for their theological content.)
3. Why did the artist write this song? (In other words, is there any history or context to this song? For example, this is an important detail to consider in the song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” by U2.)
4. What metaphors or images does the writer/singer use?
5. What are the lyrics really saying? (It’s a good idea to have the lyrics in front of you for reference. Upon actually seeing and reading the lyrics, people often remark, “I didn’t know it said that!”)
6. Am I called to action by this song? Does it inspire me do something or stop doing something? Does it cause me to look at my life differently? (For example, think about the music that surrounded the Civil Rights Movement. It called people to something. You can get as good example of this in the soundtrack of Forest Gump.)

Write a one- to-two-page reflection paper addressing these questions. Be sure to include on a separate sheet of paper the lyrics to the song. This will enable you get a real sense of the content—the words—of the song and the meaning it is trying to convey.

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