Equipping a generation through catechesis...

Reasons for the Failure of Christian Education for Youth

Where did they all go?  

If your parish is like most, there is probably a noticeable age-gap.  Between the ages of 19 to 35, a demographic is missing.  A recent Barna Group survey found that %61 of adults in their twenties who used to participate in youth groups and activities in their childhood churches no longer participate in anything having to do with the Church.  Meanwhile, many youth workers and clergy have been saying - if we only made our church more appealing - they would come back.

I am one of those twenty-somethings.  My generation (starting in about the mid-70s through to the mid-90s) consistently received inoculations against real Christianity.  The problem was everywhere - the Church tried to be appealing to us by being something other than what it really is.  We received a weaker version of the Faith, and when we were confronted with full strength Christianity, we either rejected it outright, or (as, thanks be to God!, it was in my case) accepted the stronger version and rejected the weaker.

The Barna survey revealed another shocking statistic: youth are no longer showing up.  Youth attend worship less, they pray less, they read their bibles less than they did less than ten years ago.  Meanwhile, the Church is repeating the same old, tired strain - we need to be more appealing, we need to make church more exciting, we need to be more “relevant.”  Yet, I have friends and know youth who wouldn’t darken the door of a church even if it was more appealing, exciting and relevant.

An Autopsy of Failed Christian Education for Youth

In my research, I have found four reasons for the failure of Christian Education for Youth.  This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but is rather meant to highlight to biggies.  These failures are as follows:

  • A Failure to Teach the Bible
  • A Failure to Move Beyond Moralism
  • A Failure to Personalize and Organize Material
  • A Failure to Bring About Conversion

Each one of these failures contributed to a christian education program that completely failed my generation.  We weren’t given a biblical worldview.  We were told to stay away from underage drinking, premarital sex, and narcotics, but without any theological reason for doing so.  We were presented with a disorganized “pile of Christianity.”  Worst of all, we weren’t converted.  We might have spent hours upon hours eating pizza and making strong emotional bonds with our fellow youth, but many of us never became disciples.

If we did, it was because somewhere along the way - someone hit us with the Gospel - without compromises without candy-coating.  Somebody told it to us like it is.  But, before proceeding with a solution, more about the failures.

A Failure to Teach the Bible

For years it was thought that youth could maintain an entirely secular worldview while simultaneously being practicing, believing Christians.  Daily life became so compartmentalized that most youth growing up in the Church became staunch materialists or moral relativists while on Sunday mornings, hobnobbing with Christians.  The problem, of course, is that moral relativism and materialism as philosophies and worldviews are at diametric odds with a biblical worldview.  This was terribly confusing, and many simply gave up.  The failure was that the Church failed to produce people who thought and lived like Christians.  They lived purely secular lives and adopted purely secular ideologies.  In short, the Church, even though it was making a greater attempt at the task of education than it had since the time of Constantine, failed to convert the mind and heart to a biblical worldview.

One of the main areas of failure has been that the doctrines of the Faith are taught without reference to the Scriptures.  Walk into any Sunday School classroom.  You are more likely to find coloring books and teacher’s manuals than you are Bibles.  Ask yourself what the main task is for a youth worker or sunday school teacher, and teaching the Bible will be toward the bottom of the list.  This has led to a generation that is biblically illiterate.

Saint Jerome tells us that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”  If we are to accomplish the task of making disciples for Jesus Christ, then we must teach the Scriptures.  We must make Scripture study one of our main tasks.

A Failure to Move Beyond Moralism

My generation grew up being told to “Just Say No.”  Many of us did, but many of us didn’t.  Moral decay, according to all the dashboard measurements, has continued.  This generation has been inundated with the DARE program, national abstinence programs (like True Love Waits), and entire youth curricula aimed at simply keeping youth away from moral evils.  Premarital sex of all kinds, pornography, drug use, and all the rest are still statistically normal, and the numbers are no different for kids who grew up in the Church.

Why didn’t our efforts at teaching moral content work?  I would say that there are two reasons.  The first is that we didn’t make a clear connection between moral teaching and doctrine.  The second is that we failed to offer God’s grace and reconciliation.

Most youth today are good little gnostics.  They believe that as long as they believe the right things, they can do whatever they want with their bodies.  Or, on the flip side, they believe that their bodies are evil.  I would say that there are more in the first category than the second.  For instance, ask a group of youth what the Resurrection of the Dead is, and I’d just bet they wouldn’t be able to tell you.  In our culture, Heaven is now more of a state of mind than a destination, and Hell little more than an idea.  If Heaven exists in the minds of youth, it is certainly not a bodily existence.  Most youth believe that their bodies are little more than cocoons, that will be cast off forever, and therefore not of any moral consequence let alone holy.

The failure was this: we hadn’t converted the worldview, and we hadn’t made a connection between the doctrines of the Faith and the moral content of the Faith.

A Failure to Personalize and Organize Material

Much of the energy of Christian Education programs in the 80s and 90s was spent on creating a “pile of Christianity.”  Here’s how the pile works (or doesn’t work!).  Youth A is taught interesting fact B, which is scribbled on a post-it note and placed in a pile.  The pile can be either very small or very large, it doesn’t really matter.  The pile is about ten feet away from its owner, and has little connection to Youth A’s life.  Someday, Youth A will wind up having to answer a question about the Faith, and he/she will think “AHA, I know the answer to that!  Let me think - where is it?”  Then, they go to the pile, and begin to sort through all the post-it notes and scraps of paper, and analogies, and touching stories - and oh no!  They can’t find it!  Why can’t they find the answer?

Two reasons.  First - the pile is, by its very nature, disorganized.  It has no categories, no assigned levels of importance.  “Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem” is just as important as “Jesus Christ has two natures - a human nature and a divine nature.”  In terms of categories - moral axioms are found tucked right next to trite (and easily forgotten) stories about bunnies or caterpillars.  Second, the pile is impersonal.  It has no bearing on daily life, no connection to anything of real value - it is just a pile of facts and figures and truisms.  It is as easily forgotten as the periodic table or the pythagorean theorem.  Why?  The reason is found in the last, and perhaps the most important failure.

A Failure to Bring About Conversion

Have you ever heard the term “preaching to the converted?”  I often find it humorous that a so oft-used phrase could be so patently false.  The idea is that the converted don’t need preaching, or that preaching is a waste of time when the people are already converted.  The trouble is - the converted are the only ones with whom preaching has any effect whatsoever!  The person who is not converted cannot be taught.  This is why Jesus asks His disciples to give up everything and follow Him first, and only then be taught by Him.

We have made the horrible mistake of attempting to reach a generation without convincing them that they are in need of anything.  I happen to think, however, that this generation is painfully aware of the essential problem.  They know what sin is, and they know how much of it they have.  What they need is for the Church to confirm that they are, in fact, on to something.

What is Needed?

It should be perfectly clear that what is needed is an approach to Christian Education for youth that focuses on conversion, is well-organized, and is rooted in strong doctrinal teaching and biblical teaching.  As I began to think - this is exactly what is needed - I realized that the answer to this need was right under my nose!  For many years now, Father William Blewett has brought Christian Formation to the adults of our parish.  The effect is that we have a parish that is biblically literate, knowledgeable, strongly orthodox, and converted.  Father Blewett has, with his colleague Cris Fouse, brought Christian Formation to many parts of the world, especially in Africa.  The manual has been translated into many languages, but has remained largely oriented towards adult catechesis.

For a whole year, Larry Votto (one of our parish catechists) and I presented Christian Formation to a group of senior-high age youth.  They benefitted greatly, but it became apparent that Christian Formation needed an overhaul to be presented to youth on a larger and wider scale.  With this in mind, I approached Father Blewett and Canon Fouse with this possibility.

I will not say that the Youth Formation solves the above issues, but it is a start.  To my mind there are a number of benefits:

  • the Bible is the only text
  • we start with conversion
  • we teach the Creedal Faith
  • we approach youth in a personal way
  • the material is well-organized

Father Lee Nelson, SSC