Anyone who has worked with me in youth ministry already knows what I’m going to say in this post. When I say that this is my youth ministry motto I mean it. I say this to my volunteers almost every time we meet. No need for further introduction. Here it is. My youth ministry motto:
“Teenagers are not as stupid as their youth ministers think they are.”
You can go ahead and tattoo that backwards on your forehead so you read it every morning in the mirror. (Don’t seriously do that. I would be so mad. I do not like tattoos.)
Think about what your teens are learning in school. In their math classes they’re learning algebra, statistics, calculus. In English they’re reading Shakespeare and Chaucer. In the sciences they are learning real chemistry. With beakers and everything! Teenagers are given “the real deal” everywhere in their lives. Why should it be any different for religion?
There is a terrible trend in youth ministry of “dumbing down” the faith. I don’t know why this happens. Maybe it’s because we are trying to copy what other people are doing. (Retaining Catholic Identity in youth ministry could be a whole post on its own. Actually. It will be.) Maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young and how capable people are at that age. I don’t know. But it is a problem. I don’t know how many presenters I’ve seen who go through a whole talk without teaching a thing. I don’t know how many youth group meetings I’ve been to where the teaching portion took ten minutes and the rest of the night was spent playing games or playing music. It’s no wonder teenagers are bored with youth events! We aren’t respecting their intelligence when we have them.
I have a little bit of a reputation as a youth minister. My kids know that my talks are going to be little bit longer than other presenters. They know that they’re going to need to take notes (or more likely, that I’m going to be giving them notes to take home and study). They know that there are going to be verses and concepts to remember. They know all of this and yet I’ve never received a single complaint about any of it. The vast majority of teens respond with enthusiasm. Even my adult volunteers are engaged and taking notes. I have a friend who is in formation for the Diaconate. He says the classes are easier because of the things he learned from me in youth group.
When I teach teenagers, I give them Aquinas. I give them Augustine. I give them Aristotle. I give them everything the Church has given me because they can handle it and they deserve it. Let the teens tell you what is too difficult for them. Let them know from the start that they are welcome to ask questions. Don’t presume their level of intelligence. I suspect most teens are very aware when you underestimate them and most will be offended by it. Show them some respect. Give them the Gospel in its entirety, the way Christ intended them to receive it. They may just surprise you.
If you have maxims that you live by in your youth programs, I’d love to know what they are. Sound off in the comments.