Catholic Herald staff
The Diocese of Superior’s 52nd annual Fall Conference drew hundreds of teachers, catechists and ministers to St. Joseph Parish, Rice Lake, Friday, Oct. 24, for a day of education and inspiration.
Christopher Wesley, director of student ministry at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, was the keynote speaker. The parish’s successful revitalization, the topic of his morning presentation, is detailed in the “Rebuilt” books by Fr. Michael White and Tom Corcoran.
When Wesley started at Nativity, he bought into the notion that church staffers were there to provide quality activities for families, that a successful parish required “investment.”
“In other words, we fell into a consumer mentality,” he said, the idea that “people were here to consume religion.”
While staff members raced around organizing concerts, dinners, programs and events, they lost track of their mission.
“The more we provided, the faster we had to run just to stay in the same place,” he added. “We spent our energy for nothing, creating demanding consumers.”
In the end, he said, “All it accomplished was burnout of staff.”
Identifying parish mission
The tides turned with the realization that a church’s mission is to make disciples and reach the people of the community, to teach students how to love God.
“Each week we want them to be challenged and encouraged to grow,” he said. “Disciples are people who love God, they love others, and they make disciples.”
After realizing they weren’t “succeeding as Jesus called them to succeed,” Fr. White and his staff began exploring what was working in growing, healthy churches. Nativity’s focus changed from reaching churched people to unchurched people. They made weekends the highest priority above other activities, and they tried to challenge church members to grow in maturity and action.
“Timonium Tim” was the staff’s name for their target audience – a family man with a stressful life who grew up Catholic, but wasn’t well catechized and stopped going to church after confirmation.
“For Tim, church is boring and it’s bad,” said Wesley, who is married and has two sons.
Music, message and ministers
The parish had been operating on the assumption that opening the doors was all it took to bring people in, but the days of motivation by guilt or other means were long gone, he said. The parish needed to be welcoming, and anyone who had a mediocre experience at Mass wasn’t likely to return during the week. Music, message and ministers became their mantra for attracting the unchurched.
Getting the music right was a years-long process, but well worth the effort, Wesley said. For unchurched people who don’t value the Eucharist, “words are powerful,” so the message is the central connecting point. Nativity also adopted the café, parking lot greeters and children’s programs modeled at Protestant mega-churches, enlisting church members to volunteer for those ministries.
“All of this is done to create an irresistible environment people want to be a part of,” he explained.
He also advises parishes to get rid of programs and events that distract from the weekend; staff members should take time to understand the perspectives of unchurched people in their area.
Wesley reminded listeners that Catholics are the biggest religious group in the country, followed by Evangelical Christians and, in third place, former Catholics.
“We can’t give up on connecting them to God through the church,” he added.
Confessions of a ‘retreat junkie’
In the afternoon session, Wesley’s focus shifted to his specialty.
“Youth ministry has had such a huge impact on my life,” he said.
Although he’s been in the job more than a decade, he didn’t start out with that career path in mind. But, he was a big fan growing up.
“As a young teenager, I couldn’t wait to plug into my parish’s high school ministry,” he said. “I just remember as a middle school student being so excited about it.”
When his parents divorced, Wesley’s youth group provided a safe, supportive environment, as well as an escape from home. But, a couple of things happened that changed his perspective.
The group got a new youth minister when he was in high school, a woman with whom he didn’t see eye to eye. Although he’d always been active in the group, she took him off the lead team.
“I don’t think you’re stable enough right now,” she told him.
She tried to mollify him, but, “I was heartbroken,” he said.
Wesley understands her reasoning, and in reflection, he realized she was right. The problem wasn’t with her decision, he added. It was the delivery.
“I was ready to walk away from youth ministry,” he said, and, by extension, the church.
At the time, he couldn’t see how his high school experiences would influence his future.
“Although I wasn’t aware of it, God was preparing me in those years for this kind of work,” he observed.
Wesley also recalls being a “retreat junkie” in middle school and high school; he went on three or four retreats a year. It was a great way to make new friends and meet high school girls – a key motivation for “a normal teenage guy.”
The retreats were never unique, and Wesley loved the predictability of the speeches, the activities and the Mass. The pinnacle was always Saturday night, when the teens wrote down their sins and burned them during reconciliation.
“The night was filled with tears and sobs, and ‘I love you, man,’” he said.
After being broken down and built up, broken down and built up, the teens went home on a high. They were “spiritually fulfilled, but emotionally drained.” They always crashed the next day.
The trouble with retreats is they don’t prepare teens for life, he said. The spiritual element is important, but kids need more.
“The issue with retreats and events is the lack of consistency,” he added. “Consistency matters.”
For parishes that want to have a future, “pouring into the next generation in your parish is a must,” Wesley said. “It is necessary for a parish to survive.”
Youth ministry is often portrayed as babysitting teens with “pizza and ping pong,” a low-priority group in many parishes.
“It isn’t the church of the future,” he continued. “It’s the church now.”
Nativity’s youth ministry is based on STEPS, the acronym for what the church wants youths to learn. It stands for serving in ministry and mission; tithing and giving spontaneously; engaging in small groups; practice, prayer and the sacraments; and sharing.
Knowing your audience is imperative, Wesley said. Today’s teens are facing a world of relativism. They’re overprogrammed, highly stressed and searching for ways to relieve the pressure of everyday life.
“On the plus side, they have a huge heart,” he said, adding that they are looking for a sense of purpose, and are “thirsty for relationship with Christ. They just don’t know it yet.”
“Events and retreats need to be a catalyst in their faith,” said Wesley, but not the sole means of enrichment. “Your spiritual health is just like your physical health. You need to work at it. You need to work at it to be healthy.”
How to make it work
Nativity’s programs for high school and middle school students have different branding and meet at different times. When teens arrive, they can expect five things:
(1) To be loved, wherever they are;
(2) an activity or game that will encourage them to open their minds;
(3) music to help them worship God or help them to reflect on their lives;
(4) a 15-minute message designed for them, given by Wesley or another youth minister; and
(5) time to meet with a small group.
The groups are led by volunteers who “see the big picture,” people recruited by Wesley who connect well with youths.
“It’s important to not just settle for anybody,” he added.
When building or changing programs, it’s also necessary to get the rest of the staff on board.
Youth ministry is “about creating an intergenerational church,” according to Wesley. “The biggest obstacle to anything in the church … is the lack of unity in the staff. If you don’t start addressing that now, you’re going to have a hard time, if not an impossible time, making any of the stuff go.”
Wesley also encourages parishes to have high standards for youths. When he was a teen, they weren’t allowed to be anything more than altar servers.
At Nativity, he added, “Teens are welcome to serve in almost any capacity, even if it’s a leadership role.”
Set expectations high, he advised. “Teens thrive on challenges.”
Editor’s note: More information about the “Rebuilt” approach to parish life – including how to order the books and other resources, is available at www.rebuiltparish.com.