Youth Ministry: Helping Restless Teens to Focus on Faith

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by Lisa Mladinich

Contemporary neuroscience has revealed a remarkable adaptive characteristic in the brain: Whatever actions we perform repeatedly cause our neurological pathways to rewire accordingly. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, says this remarkable neuroplasticity, as it is called, is the reason that old habits are hard to break and new habits are a challenge to establish.

In our technology-obsessed youth culture, the many hours most teens spend gazing at the flickering screens on their phones, video games, and computers is inducing the sociological equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Young people are accustomed to switching rapidly from one screen to the next, scanning for meaning without stopping to read deeply, their brains attracted primarily to pictures and highlighted information. While this tendency can make them efficient information gatherers and community builders, they tend to be restless learners with short attention spans.

To make matters worse, according to studies around the world, too much screen time can cause social isolation and lead to sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression. In 2009, for the 43rd World Communications Day, Pope Benedict XVI, the first Roman pontiff to utilize a Twitter account (@pontifex), made this cautionary statement:

“If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence, and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”

His words have been prophetic.

Catechists and Catholic-school teachers frustrated by the growing problem of teenage distractibility are scrambling to innovate, in an effort to make contact with a challenging population. Meanwhile, some have made the mistake of becoming too reliant on videos and other forms of electronic entertainment for bridging the gap. The answer, according to two educators at a top-tier Catholic high school, is to strike a balance between technology and human interaction.

“Technology is a great aid, a great tool,” says Brother Stephen Balletta, who teaches English and theology at Chaminade High School in Mineola, NY, “but it’s not the end-all and be-all. The end-all and be-all is the interaction between the student and the teacher. That said, technology can help along the way.”

“We want our kids to be on par with the professional world,” says Mike Foley, who teaches moral theology and serves on Chaminade’s campus ministry team, “but they do their best work with a spiral notebook and a pen. Yet we need to integrate technology into education. The kids are entrenched in media, so we need to meet them where they’re at—we need to meet them in their world.”

The school is uniquely equipped to meet that challenge, with its own closed-circuit television station bringing announcements, Christian music, prayers, and catechetical media to students at various times of the day.

“We have been utilizing our educational television system even further to promote vocations,” Brother Stephen points out, “especially during the Year of Consecrated Life. Our educational television staff has produced a 20-minute video and several videotaped three-minute interviews with the priests and brothers of our province.

“We have shown these over the school’s educational television system and posted them on a variety of social media. They have proven to be effective tools for raising awareness about religious life in general and about our own order, the Marianists, in particular.”

Still, much of the spiritual enrichment at Chaminade happens face-to-face. The school’s popular faith-building series is called ADORE (A Day of Retreat Experience) and encourages personal encounters with Jesus Christ. Foley describes the marriage of human contact and technology that helps teens to stay focused during day-long and evening retreats:

“For example, you can’t just talk for 45 minutes straight. You lose them. They have short attention spans, so it’s easier for them to stay on point if they are switching back and forth between stimuli. We mix in three-to-four minute multi-media clips and have them write something during the session. We’ll start by giving them five questions to answer in a journal. They get five or 10 minutes at the start, while music plays, to jot down their answers.”

Foley makes an important point for catechists to remember: “A large number don’t like to write. So if they write something down, they actually care about it.”

He describes another major benefit to engaging teens through the written word: “Once they have done the reflecting and writing, they are much more inclined to talk. If they don’t write and reflect first, they are more impulsive in what they think and say, and it’s less substantive. They just blurt things out.”

Changing things up with a variety of dynamic elements keeps them stimulated, but sometimes students need help to slow down and discover what they themselves think about a topic. “We give them time to form their thoughts so that they are more constructive in their comments. That way, it’s not just two or three students dominating the discussion—and there’s more meaning and ‘teeth’ to the discussion.”

Notice that close attention has been paid to finding pathways to the student’s own deeper sense of meaning—an essential step toward God.

With a deft sense of timing that supports the opening of the mind and heart of each student, Chaminade’s wise and caring faculty saves the best for last. “We end every retreat and evening of recollection,” says Foley, “with 20 to 30 minutes of Eucharistic Adoration. It ends with a question to ponder and gives them time to reflect and bring it to God. They appreciate it. They don’t often have that opportunity to reflect.”

I leave you to reflect on the words of the psalmist: Be still and know that I am God! (Psalm 46:11).

Lisa Mladinich is the author of the “Be an Amazing Catechist” series from Our Sunday Visitor. She is the owner of and blogs at “Water into Wine” at


Copyright 2015, 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, March 2015. 

Image Credit: Shutter Stock 22062451

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