By Paul Gray
Differences have emerged between Catholic and non-Catholic approaches to youth ministry in a study by Australian Catholic University.
While many Catholic youth groups are run on a “top-down” model – where activities for youth are decided by grown-ups – other churches such as the Anglicans and Churches of Christ run their youth programs according to a “bottom-up” model, says the university’s Prof Ruth Webber.
The differences seem to reflect different ways of thinking about the purposes of youth ministry, Prof Webber said in an interview.
A cross-denominational study called “Engagement of Youth in Churches” has been compiled by psychologists and sociologists under the leadership of Prof Webber.
Dr Marie Joyce and Mr Arrigo Dorissa from ACU were also involved in the project.
The purpose of the study was to find out reasons for the success of those youth programs which do succeed in maintaining a connection between young people and their church, Prof Webber told The Record.
This meant that the study had a different approach to other reports which focus more on the reasons why youth are leaving churches.
A small group of Catholic secondary schools and a deanery of the archdiocese of Melbourne were involved in commissioning the study.
The group was concerned for the welfare of young people who are not linked in to youth ministry programs, and also wanted to be informed about what is happening in youth ministry across other denominations as well as the Catholic Church, Prof Webber said.
They also wanted to know what could be done to encourage young people to stay connected to Church life.
Prof Webber’s study was based on interviews with a wide range of youth ministry workers and leaders over a period of several months.
It uncovered a large number of youth ministry “models” in use around the churches, from the “social justice” model to the “liturgical initiation” model.
Social justice youth groups included such activities as building a well for poor people in the Philippines – a project requiring long-range planning, training and commitment from the participants.
Another “social justice” type group had been established in an urban area with high rates of imprisonment and homelessness. This group set up panel-beating and mechanics’ training for young people.
By contrast, an Anglican Church set up two different youth groups: one was a choir for young people who wanted to learn singing in Latin, while the other focused on meditation to help reduce the stress from exams.
What all the groups had in common was that they started from the particular interests and wishes of young people in the group, rather than from church elders.
Prof Webber said this was a common theme amongst the non-Catholic churches, all of whom thought “you shouldn’t have an idea about a set program” for young people.
All churches were also agreed there was little point in conducting youth ministry that was purely designed to provide “fun” for young people.
While Catholic Church youth groups were strongly focused on participation in the liturgical life of the Church, this was another point of difference with the non-Catholic groups.
Non-Catholic denominations held the view that many young people who are involved in youth ministry programs will not necessarily attend church as well, Prof Webber said.
Their expectation was that young people from the group may attend church when the whole group goes to church, but are often unlikely to come on their own.
However, Prof Webber said this was not a counsel of despair. Rather, the philosophy of the non-Catholic groups was that it will be great if the kids come to church, but even if they don’t, they want them to stay connected to the church youth group so that there will a future link which might be activated in later years.
Another typical difference between the Catholic and non-Catholic youth ministry lies in central planning and co-ordination at the diocesan level, Prof Webber says.
There was a strong central role for professionals in each of the non-Catholic denominations, the study found. Often the central diocesan office had four or five youth workers who would go out and help set up groups on request.
In the Catholic system, by contrast, diocesan youth ministry offices acted more as advice and referral centres.
Prof Webber did not wish praising one denomination over another, but said she was impressed by the “highly professionalized” approach shown by the Anglicans, Uniting Church and the Churches of Christ.
She said the central youth workers in these churches brought training manuals with them and used systematic approaches based on schemes such as the “40 Assets” program for healthy adolescent development.
“40 Assets” is a system devised by the Search Institute in the United States which aims to encourage resilience in youths aged 12-18 by developing “assets” in eight different categories such as support, empowerment, positive values and “social competencies,” including planning and decision-making and friendship skills.
Another impressive feature of the work being done in the three denominations is the efficient use of central databases, Prof Webber said. This enables newly established youth groups to link up with other groups which might be in nearby locations, or have similar interests and activities.
Some of the problems the Webber study encountered within denominations included “demarcation issues,” where people from one church did not want their young people to be “poached” by youth groups from other churches.
She said it helps when a school can be connected with a youth group. This need not be a religious school.
In some cases there have been highly successful Christian youth groups set up in association with a local high school, particularly in rural areas. For example, in one town, a newly arrived Anglican minister established an after-school group for primary students.
He then found there were 20 or more high school students with nothing to do who would “hang around” outside during the sessions. In collaboration with other local churches, the minister then established a secondary school group as well.
Prof Webber says she began the study with a “low and depressed heart” about the future of youth ministry.
But through the study, she has become excited by what is actually happening, and by “what’s possible.”