busywoman.jpg (6101 bytes)
Thinking for
Everyday Life
and Ministry

About course
Class Projects

Weird Wild Web

Other Courses

Class Theological Analysis Projects

"Bridging the gap between faith and culture"

By Paul Cannon, Dave Lefurgey, Rolanda Ward, Lisa Zambarano

Main Page for this Project | Bibliography | Index of Class Projects

Adolescent Spirituality and the Church

By Lisa Zambarano


Preparing for the Journey

Human beings are constantly on a journey. An adolescent’s journey is often one filled with the "bumps, bends, and detours" of developmental changes, various stressors, and at times utter confusion. Our journeys always bring us through transition that can sometimes leave us feeling as if we are on one of the latest developed roller coasters. We can’t stop this journey of life or even be sure that all roads will be smoothly paved, but we can at least equip teenagers with a "survival pack" for the road. This project will focus on bridging the gap between faith and culture of adolescents.

The Traveler

If we are to look at how we, as a Church, can help adolescents develop healthy "travel techniques", then we must first look at the adolescent. I will define adolescence as ages 12-20. In my work as a parish youth ministry trainer for the Catholic Diocese of Providence, I have asked many parish youth ministers to describe adolescents. "Self-centered, obnoxious, disrespectful...and of course always hungry" top the list time and time again. It is often only after they reflect on this period of their own lives that they see adolescents as "confused, self-conscious, and seekers of acceptance."

Search Institute has listed a chart of forty developmental assets as building blocks that will help teenagers grow up in a healthy and balanced way.

Christianity Online has a message board with a column dealing with creating a healthy foundation for adolescents. This foundation consists of taking care of one’s physical body, keeping one’s mind active, and continuing to grow spiritually.

David Stone, author of Spiritual Growth in Youth Ministry, states that, "Youth are leaning toward spiritual fulfillment. They have a need to belong and be accepted...they want role models who are authentic in practice and spirit" (Stone 1985, 19).

There are four different styles of faith: experienced, affiliative, searching, and owned. Experienced faith, commonly seen in young children, is a faith that is "first experienced passively through interactions with people who have faith" (McCarty 1991, 84).

As children develop into the early stages of adolescence, they can progress into a more affiliative style of faith. This style of faith is also a "feeling" faith in which it is necessary to experience awe, wonder, and mystery through various sensory opportunities such as drama, art, and music. Affiliative faith is "a belonging faith", and necessitates an accepting community for its development (McCarty 1991, 84). The next style of faith, searching faith, involves a much more cognitive approach. Critical judgement and legitimation characterize the individual’s searching faith. Searching faith "involves an application of what one has learned about faith put to the test of real life" (McCarty 1991, 84). The final stage of faith is owned faith. Owned faith is the culmination of this conversion process. An owned faith is faith lived through action without any major gaps between belief and action (McCarty 1991, 84).

As we reflect upon the various styles of faith, we can conclude that faith is not a linear journey. Instead it is a cyclical journey that involves individual questioning, analysis, community support, and invitation. Therefore, as a community we have a responsibility to aid others on their faith journies. If one is to grow to an "owned" sense of faith, then one must be invited to be a part of that relationship. One Catholic teen said, "Faith is important to me because it reflects my relationship with God. It reflects God’s invitation for to me be in relationship with Him…and to act within that relationship." God calls us to be in relationship. But that relationship will not always be easy. Our relationship with God may often challenge us to conversion, displacement or transition. Our faith needs to be rooted in a God that can respond to life’s struggles and evils rather than oppose or deny them. How can we as a Church community help young people to develop a faith that stands up to the bumps and bends they face?

The Road

I’ve surveyed 30 Catholic young people ranging in age from 14-20 who are fairly active in one of five Regional Youth Centers in the Diocese of Providence, Connecticut. Some of these youth are very involved in their parishes, stating that church "is a place where I feel I can share my gifts, and grow with the community." Others have not had particularly favorable experiences within their church. When asked to list five areas of concern to teenagers in general, nine issues repeatedly appeared. These issues were:

  • violence
  • sex
  • relationships
  • drugs
  • school
  • family
  • acceptance
  • dating
  • sexual preference.

"With divorce rates being so high, and all of the violence taking place in schools, we can really feel confused and afraid at times" stated one teen. Another commented, "there are times when I think that I will just give up one day and not want to deal with everything that’s happening. It’s awful, but I wonder how we will grow up and know what we are doing."

20% of those surveyed felt that their church was responding well to the issues listed above, while 10% said the response was fairly good, and 55% said the response was poor. 15% did not respond.

While comments regarding the Church’s response varied one concept remained consistent. Young people want and need healthy role models to give them guidance and direction. "Life is hard", said one 19 year old female, "and we want our faith community to help us out. Sometimes they (adults) see us as just kids who don’t have real problems, but it’s just not true. We have stress just like they do". A 14 year old girl said that, "I screw up sometimes, but I want to know that the Church will help me get back on track." "Church helps me to see that I have something to offer to others and to actually use my gifts by teaching religious education, and lectoring at Mass," commented one 19 year old male.

We are obviously dealing with a tough journey for adolescents. It is encouraging, however, that most teens (91%) say that teenagers want to develop their faith and spirituality. They want to "be close to God", and believe that growing in spirituality will "give (them) hope" and "lead to happiness and wholeness". Encouraging as those statements are, it also presents us (the church) with a responsibility and a challenge. If God is seen as one who sheds light in darkness, and heals our brokenness, then how can we as a Church evangelize and catechize this God to young people. What can we give to adolescents as a type of "survival kit" for their journey?

The Survival Kit—Essential Criteria

We all know that on any extended journey we need to stop for gas, food and very often caffeine! These fueling and filling stops are more then just "maintaining" measures; they are revitalizing and often essential if we are to continue. The same concept can be applied to the church and adolescents. When a teenager walks into our office, comes to a youth group meeting, or interacts with us after Mass, are we "filling" and "fueling" them? Are we seizing the opportunity at our meetings with young people to share our stories of faith, and our images and experiences of God in a way that helps them to build their faith? Are we focused on a youth ministry that invites young people to deal with tough life issues in a way in which we participate and share in their struggle?

In my work with the Diocese, I often have the opportunity to meet with Coordinators of Youth Ministry (CYM’s) and parish priests to help them assess their parish youth programs, and then to train an adult and youth team to participate in a more "total" youth ministry. We  assess the program in general terms by looking at the variety and quality of programs being offered. Balance in the types of activities is important as is the aspect to evangelize and minister to those not in the youth group. I would like to look at an assessment tool based on "Renewing the Vision," a 1997 document written by the National Catholic Conference of Bishops. This document presents three interdependent goals which "state what it means for the Catholic community to respond to the needs of young people and to involve young people in sharing their gifts with the community"(9).

  • The first goal is "to empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world today"(9)
  • The second goal is "to draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission, and work of the Catholic faith community"(11).
  • The final goal seeks "to foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person"(15)

As we reflect theologically on these goals, we are certain to develop "criteria" that would be an essential backbone for a youth ministry program.

In reflecting upon the first goal of empowering young people to live as disciples, I would like to focus on the challenge of discipleship as essential to Church mission. We are a church rooted in Christ’s words and actions. We are called to be Christ-like, to imitate Jesus and to share His values with others. Discipleship implies relationship, though it can be taxing and difficult at times. It implies that to follow Christ means to sacrifice and surrender to follow the footsteps of Christ. "This is what is needed: A Church for young people which will know how to speak to their heart and enkindle, comfort and inspire enthusiasm in it with the joy of the Gospel and the strength of the Eucharist" (John Paul II, 1995 World Day of Prayer for Vocations).

This leads me to criteria #1—Youth Ministry must be Christ-centered. We need to find an approach to be Christ centered in a way that appeals to adolescents without watering down or candy coating our ministry. We need to remain focused and centered on Christ.

As one looks at the second goal in which we are called to draw young people to participation in the faith community, one can focus on the theological importance and significance of community. God relates to us individually, but He also relates to us a community. We are a family, a community of believers. If a young person is going to deepen his relationship with God through youth ministry, we need to challenge a participation in the community. We are all part of God’s body. If we do not see ourselves as united with humanity, then what "Good News" does the Gospel hold? How can we live as disciples and not be active in community? There is a wealth of benefits which comes from youth participation in community. Teenagers sharing their gifts in a faith community bring a sense of vitality, hope and energy…and very often a unique perspective! Being active in community allows young people to witness the faith of others, to "see" faith in action, and to share in a community’s joys and struggles. There is a sense that we don’t have to live our struggles—or our joys for that matter—alone. What an example Jesus was of community! Jesus shared in communion with a very close knit faith community of disciples. Could Jesus have ministered by Himself? Of course…He was Divine. So what was it about the idea of community that was so important for Jesus? If we are to share the Good News, and proclaim the Kingdom of God, then we have to be in community. Jesus was powerful because he spoke and taught with authority. The authority was given by God, but in order for His message to be heard, Jesus developed relationships and communities with them. He developed their trust, shared his gifts and offered a "fullness of life" that one cannot receive without community.

Communities are not always comfortable. Jesus’ community extended beyond his twelve disciples. He formed community with lepers, sinners, and prostitutes. Community brings us to a sense of accountability and responsibility. As members of God’s family, we are challenged to build up the Kingdom of God together. Well, that can be hard—we are human and we certainly make our share of mistakes. But a community that calls us to recognize our weakness, gives us support and gets us back on track can offer a special kind of healing. Active participation in the faith community is essential to youth ministry. I would like to then develop criteria #2—Youth Ministry should foster a sense of Christian community, and also #3—Youth Ministry should foster a sense of service to others.

In looking at the third goal, "to foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person", one must take into consideration the elements which affects the adolescent’s spiritual growth. What good is youth ministry or even faith for that matter if it doesn’t stand up to the trials of life? We cannot and should not deny that life is hard. We would be cheating adolescents and ourselves if we guided them to "spiritual growth" that didn’t deal with the fact that life is hard. Discipleship does not mean that our lives become easy because we have God. Discipleship gives us the companionship of Christ along the journey. If young people are going to grow spiritually, they need substance…they do not need a "fluffy, wuffy Jesus", or a "feel good" Gospel. Owned faith will occur when the adolescent puts their faith to the test. Will it hold up to the stress and concerns listed above? In theological reflection, then, criteria #4 would be that Youth Ministry needs to integrate faith and life.

The Weigh Station

Just as those eighteen wheelers have to pull into the weigh stations on a journey, we too must check to see how we are weighing in.

All parish ministries have their strengths and weaknesses. Parishes definitely have their own flavor and uniqueness, and need to format ministries differently according to various demographics. Youth ministry is no exception. There are many possible youth program formats which exist within our Diocese. I would like to take a look at a parish whose youth program has existed for over 12 years.

Profile for Parish "X"

  • A suburban parish with approximately 2500 families
  • Religious education classes for grades 1-10 meet for one hour every other week in a lecture/discussion style that focuses on the life of Christ and the Traditions of the Church
  • Youth Group meets every week for one hour.
  • Youth group meeting format consists of opening prayer, followed by planning type business, and then a "community builder" such as basketball or other activity
  • Occasionally, social justice awareness or value-based dynamics are used
  • Youth are invited to sing in choir
  • Strong CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) basketball and volleyball programs

I had the opportunity to receive this information from the parish CYM. In discussing how well she thought the parish was responding to adolescents, she said that "they (the teens) are learning about God but are not applying faith to their lives. They are hearing about God, but not seeing God or how God integrates with their issues. God is often a distant God to them…they don’t see God as someone to be in relationship with."

So, how is the parish youth ministry program at Parish "X" helping to bridge the gap between faith and life? How is it responding to the needs of the teens in the parish? Is it providing the "survival kit" that teens need for their journey? Parish X’s ministry has survived for a long time because young people are attracted to it. They need and enjoy the community, the role models they find in the youth ministers, and the sports programs. Is the program fostering a sense of service and community? Is the ministry Christ centered? How is the parish helping young people to integrate their faith and life? As I asked the parish CYM these questions, she responded that "there are a few activities that we do throughout the year that are service oriented or community building, but for the most part our program is social." Young people need to be social…we all do! But they are yearning for something deeper. They are longing for guidance, acceptance and support in a time when they feel confused, lost and out of control. Is a program that starts with prayer every week Christ centered? What is it about a program that makes it Christ centered? I think a healthier approach would revolve around Jesus’ life, beliefs and values intertwined with our own beliefs, values, and choices. Then we can start to ask questions together. Youth ministry often needs to ask questions rather than answer them. We don’t need to fix kids. We need to share their journey with them.

So often we as a Church try to cover their "stuff" with Religious stuff. And in doing so, we are creating an injustice! God works through people’s lives. We are living scripture. When was the last time a young person came to you with a struggle and you gave them your theological insight or as I call it my "Lisa lecture"? Now, when was the last time a young person came to you with a struggle and you simply shared that struggle—no words, or advice, but merely the support and care of human touch and presence. That is an example of ministry, an example of God.

Have you ever been with a teenager who is in great pain or distress, whether it be physically, psychologically or emotionally? How did you feel? I believe that our desire to fix and take away the pain is a representation of our discomfort with that which is unsettling and disturbing. We are afraid or uncomfortable in relating to a God that doesn’t make sense or at least we have the urge to tidy up the loose ends. In my five years as a Diocesan youth minister and retreat leader, young people have consistently told me that authenticity is an essential quality for pastors and youth leaders. Forget about trying to make "God sense" out of the abuse a teen faced while growing up, or the diagnosis of terminal brain cancer a 14 year old receives or the tragic death of your 17 year old CYO president who was killed by a drunk driver. Instead, listen…listen to what the other person is saying and is not saying. Listen to your own instincts, feelings, concerns. The best things one can do for teens is not to theologize a crisis with Scripture or Tradition, but to be a representation of the compassionate, loving and yet sometimes confused Jesus. Just be (Ponsetto 1989, 16).

There are times when I’ve definitely blown a real opportunity for ministry by trying to give a quick "God solution", but as I wrote the above paragraph, I was reminded of a profound experience of ministry that occurred recently. I was on a weeklong mission trip to Haiti and was visiting an orphanage for the destitute and dying. I found myself in a room of children aging from 2-12 all dying of AIDS. My attention was drawn to one extremely frail child who was so weak that despite her great energy and effort her cries came out as merely whimpers. I waked over to her. Afraid of breaking her if I picked her up, I gently read her name bracelet and age. A twelve-year-old girl—I was shocked! She couldn’t have weighed more than sixty or seventy pounds. It was obvious she was in a great deal of pain as she was keeled over whimpering. I so badly wanted to help her—to ease or take away that pain. "God," I prayed, help me to take away her pain. Please. She doesn’t deserve this. Help me to know what to do". The girl didn’t speak or understand a word of English, and I couldn’t communicate in Creole. As a result I felt my heart pounding, my hands sweating and my blood pressure rising. I was angry and frustrated. I didn’t know what to do. I thought about walking away, but every time my eyes wandered toward the door, the child would lift her head and look at me as if to tell me to stay. "Stay and do what?" I wondered. I found myself praying again. This time I prayed, "God, help me to share her pain if I can’t take it away. Help me to bring some kind of comfort or support by my presence." And then, as I looked at the young girl, I let myself be real. I stopped hiding behind this faith of disconnection from pain, and I let myself feel life. She grabbed onto my shoulders and we cried together for what seemed like hours. As I rubbed her back I began to sing and hum. The music seemed to calm and soothe her. As she lay back down I’m sure she was still in a great deal of pain. But I am also sure that this honest, authentic human connection was healing in a powerful way.

My message to fellow ministers is this: Be authentic! Those who "talk God" are rarely as effective as those who "live God". We are testimony to God by the lives that we lead and by our ministry of presence. Our stories can speak volumes…but are they speaking a faith that can lead others to a strong connection of faith and life or are they glorifying faith by denying life?

The Map

Maps can be extremely helpful…especially if you know how to read them! I would like to present a "map" for youth ministry. This map is to serve as a guide—a possible format to ensure a Christ-centered, youth ministry that fosters a sense of community, empowers people to serve and makes a faith/life connection.

 I’d like to start by looking at your existing youth group or core of teens who are involved in Church.

  • Take an honest assessment o how your youth group measures up to the criteria and goals listed above.
  • Forget about the "if it’s not a social event, they won’t come" attitude.
  • A program may be what attracts a young person to youth ministry, but it’s the relationships that develop that will keep them involved. Therefore, always seek to develop relationships whenever you are with a young person.
  • As far as a youth group night format, remember that people, including teenagers, are busy. So, consider a different schedule of meeting. (Instead of meeting one hour once a week, consider 2-3 hours every other week)

A Schema for a Youth Group Meeting

Opening Prayer: There is an opportunity for ministry, spiritual and leadership development if an adult works with one or two youth to prepare prayer for the group. Invite the planners to be creative, use music, reflections, symbols, poems…anything that has meaning for them and will help bring the group to prayer. (20-25 minutes)

Idea: As a response to some teens conversations about wanting to make a difference in the world, and performing random acts of kindness, you could try the following prayer:

  • Begin by reading Romans 12:3-13
  • Explain the passage (One Body, many gifts)
  • Ask what the Scripture means to them. We are called to use our gifts; to share them with one another. Sometimes there are so many people who need to helped, or social justice issues that need to be acted upon, that we can feel overwhelmed.
  • Read or have a few young people dialogue "One Day at a Time"—Chicken Soup for the Soul
  • Hand out paper starfish—have teens write down one action they can take this week to help someone else. Collect starfish and redistribute randomly.
  • Challenge each teen to complete the task
  • Invite teens to pray our loud for people or situations in their lives
  • Play a song relating to mission or service

This opening prayer is much more participatory and tangible than a short sharing of just the Scripture. Whenever we can connect Scripture to life, we help teens to understand that Scripture exists for them.

Icebreaker: Check the needs of the group. Do you need an icebreaker to learn people’s names, to just move around, or to build community. (20-25 minutes)

Idea: Split the group up into smaller groups by using different color lollipops, types of candy, playing cards etc. Once in smaller groups, have them do some kind of group activity: human knot, build spaghetti towers, go on a scavenger hunt. Be sure to turn the "game" into a dynamic by processing whatever they did with life. I find the questions, "what did this mean to you" or "how does this relate to life" to be very effective.

Large group community builder: Listen to what you hear the concerns and issues of the teens in the group to be and plan accordingly. (45 minutes)

Idea: You can continue with the theme for prayer and look at what it means to make a difference in someone else’s life. Talk about lives they’ve touch and lives that have touched them. When we reach out to someone we serve him or her. After a discussion, have everybody partner off and make "servant sundaes" Tie everybody’s hands together in one big circle. The instructions are that you are to make a sundae for the person on your right. This will be silly, chaotic and messy! After the sundaes have been made, you have the option of untying the teens or leaving them tied as they eat. Be sure to talk about the process with them. What was it like? Was it hard? Was it easier to serve or be served?

Planning Time: (45 minutes)

It’s important to allow the teens to be a part of the planning process. Ask the group, or groups (if you need to split up), what the needs of the parish is regarding teens. Plan activities and opportunities based on those needs. Be sure that events re also fostering a sense of community, and service and are providing life skills.

Closing Prayer: Ask the teens what’s on their mind and close with intentions and a familiar prayer or song known by all

Final Thoughts

Remember that ministry is also a journey. In order to allow your ministry to grow and take shape you must be humble, patient, and persistent. Stay Christ focused and remember your goals and mission. Youth Ministry is about building relationships. We will truly respond to the needs of adolescents when we get involved in who they are. You will not always have all of the answers; it is sometimes more important not to have any answers and you have to just "shut up" and listen! Don’t limit youth ministry to regular meetings or activities, Get young people involved in parish life! Youth ministry needs to exist within the parish, not as a separate entity.

The road and journey through adolescence is log and winding…great things can happen on long winding roads. Remember the power of the journey to Emmaus, and may this image be a model for your youth ministry. If our ministry is solid, we give testimony and affirmation to the life of Jesus. It’s always good to have company on the road.

Main Page for this Project | Bibliography | Index of Class Projects