Magazine article The Christian Century

Believing and Belonging

Magazine article The Christian Century

Believing and Belonging

Article excerpt

YOUTH CULTURE in the U.S. is being reinvented very three years, according to Robert J. McCarty. Keeping up with youth culture is like mapping territory that is constantly changing, he says.

A Catholic with an evangelical zeal for youth ministry, McCarty has observed the shifting youth territory for a long time. He's been in Catholic youth ministry for 30 years, 14 of them in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and the last six with the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, where he is the executive director. In that capacity he consults with youth directors and Catholic schools throughout the country, and serves as an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

McCarty believes this generation of American youth may well be one of the most spiritual ever, but they tend to be "believers," not "belongers." They are interested in spirituality and issues of faith, but are indifferent toward institutionalized religion. "The challenge for the church is, what is it that we can do communally that responds to the spiritual hungers of young people?"

McCarty believes that kids in a virtual age are looking for companionship and connection. As documented by Patricia Hersch in A Tribe Apart, many youth are living in environments where adults are largely absent. As a result they create their own value and social systems. "This has tremendous implication for youth ministry. How do you connect kids to healthy, caring adults?" asks McCarty.

His answer is to create small-group settings in which youth can relate to adults. He talks not about "youth groups," but about "youth groupings"--small faith communities in the larger faith community which bring adult mentors and small groups of youth together around common interests, or involve them in service projects together or engage them in the life of the larger parish, not just in activities that isolate youth from the rest of the church.

"When somebody says, 'How many kids are involved in your youth program?' my only good answer is, 'All of them; you just never see all of them at one time."

McCarty admits that this approach requires more adult volunteers. The key is to involve more adults who each do less. If you ask an adult to be involved with youth every Sunday night for a year, they're inclined to say no. But if you ask, "Can you volunteer to teach three sessions on a particular topic?" they'll say: "Of course I can." The other key is to he clear about what is expected, giving the adult volunteers job descriptions and timelines.

Moving youth from being believers to being belongers is one component of youth ministry. …

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