Last spring I had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Ela Milewska from the National Initiative on Adolescent Catechesis. I’m not what people think of as a “youth minister”, because for the last several years I’ve been teaching 5th grade. But I work with teens all the time, and that was one of her messages to us: “youth ministry” is more than just the formal youth group. It’s ministering to teens through mentoring and practicing the faith in every corner of the parish.
What is the National Initiative on Adolescent Catechesis? It’s a think tank. It’s a research organization that exists to figure out what’s going wrong in youth ministry today, and help parishes make the changes that are needed. When you click around their site, a lot of the links are little hard to understand, because it’s so heavily research-oriented. Ela Milewska is the translator: Her job is to take the results of the research, and turn it into the plain English your ministry team can easily understand.
What are some of the findings of the NIAC? Ela shared a number of the trends in youth ministry with us, and I’d like to mention just a few:
- Teens and adults today don’t identify with specific theological truths. God is seen as an all-approving deity who’s not a stickler for any particular viewpoint.
- As a result, people attend church (or don’t) wherever they feel comfortable. Whether or not a doctrine is true isn’t part of the equation. Whoever offers the ministry that makes you feel welcome? That’s where you’ll worship.
- It’s no surprise teens and young adults don’t concern themselves with theology. An attempt to study high school parish religious education programs had to be cancelled, because the researchers were unable to find enough parishes with full 9th-12th grade religion programs to complete the study.
She also shared a few observations I think most youth ministers already understand quite well: That our culture is fragmented, that personal relationships with teens are important, and that teens today are living in a world technologically and socially quite different than the one we knew even ten or twenty years ago.
What impressed me about Ela Milewska’s presentation? The thoroughness. No toe was left unstepped-upon, as she built up a view of what a complete youth ministry program looks like. I could see areas where our parish was strong, and areas where we still had work to do. I could quickly see that there were some parts of an ideal youth ministry program that would come naturally to me, and other areas where I was grateful we had leaders with completely different talents than my own.
Something I learned last night: We aren’t alone. Sitting at the dinner table with an evangelical friend who is a professor in the youth ministry department at a protestant seminary . . . the problems are the same. Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals are all struggling with many of the same difficulties. Youth like our high school programs, and then they leave. I know — I was one of the kids who left.
Is there no hope? On the contrary! Here’s a great profile of the new evangelization at the University of Maryland — where campus ministry is bringing back to the faith the kids who’ve just left. We can’t overlook the work of the Cardinal Newman society, both in promoting campus ministry at non-Catholic schools, and encouraging those who can afford it to attend quality Catholic colleges. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the nationally-recognized vocations program in my own diocese; there are no young seminarians except where there are young Catholics.
When to bring Ela Milewska and the NIAC to your parish or diocese? When you’re ready for change. When you’re tired of doing what isn’t quite working, and you’re ready to take an honest look at where you are, and figure out where you need to go.
And here’s a quick bio Ela sent me, so I’d have my facts straight:
Ela Milewska is passionate about ministry training. She has spent twenty years in ministry—first in parishes and the Diocese of Raleigh an then as a national trainer, speaker, and consultant with Cultivation Ministries. She currently works as the project coordinator for the National Initiative on Adolescent Catechesis. Ela is also a Ph.D. candidate in catechesis and religious education at The Catholic University of America where she teaches a course in Catholic youth ministry.