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Lisa Simmons youth group poster (CatholicMom.com) Copyright 2019 Lisa Simmons. All rights reserved.[/caption] This fall, I am helping begin what will be the fourth youth group in our parish. Four, you ask? Yep … in the last twelve years we have tried four times to begin and sustain a youth group in our parish. Twice we had our youth group begun by our associate priest. Twice it was begun by youth ministers. One time we joined with another Catholic parish in our city. Mostly it has been just members of our own parish. Some years the youth group only lasted a few months; some groups have lasted two or three years. As the Youth Ministry Coordinator for 12 years, I should be depressed by such statistics, but I am slowly learning that it’s not me. It’s the nature of what a youth group is all about. Let me explain. Twenty-five years ago, all churches, not just Catholic ones were experiencing a drop-off in their memberships, especially with their younger members, the ones that had become mobile in other words those aged sixteen and older. By the time they hit college if they weren’t still going to church they probably weren’t coming back while in college and maybe not ever. Some did of course, but many have not. Everything has been blamed on this sad trend: our mobile society, our lack of excitement in the Mass or church service, bad parenting, bad catechesis, boring homilies, sports, and general laziness. But this is what I have noticed in the 33 years I’ve been a parent, the 10 years I worked as a school secretary and the 12 years I’ve worked as the youth minister now Family Life Ministry Coordinator: When I saw parents take an interest in what their kids were learning about in the faith, the kids stayed in the faith, no matter which religion the family professed. If a family is active in their faith, talks about the faith in their home at the supper table, goes to Mass together, to church community events, then I have seen the teens still coming to Mass and get married in the church and have their children baptized. But if grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents slacked off their church attendance or shrugged their shoulders at their offspring’s lack of interest, more often than not, their kids quit going. Every once in a while I’ll come across a teen who comes to youth group and Mass all by themselves. They are searching for faith. They come despite their family’s lack of interest -- but honestly, this is rare. Lisa Simmons youth group poster (CatholicMom.com) Copyright 2019 Lisa Simmons. All rights reserved.[/caption] My church has tried everything from trendy youth music at Mass to inviting youth guitarists and cantors to lead us. We’ve held hayrides, Bible studies, bake sales, car washes, and bagged groceries all for the sake of raising money to send kids to youth conferences. Then we have held post-parties following youth conferences. We’ve had campfires, sing-alongs, get-togethers, dances, video gaming, Adoration, Masses, and Confession, and had some success with every one of these wonderful ideas. But none of them gets every teenager to come and stay. It has been amazing to me how much time, money and effort our parish members have contributed to help our youth. We don’t spend nearly that much time or effort for any other age group in our parish, not even the men or ladies' clubs! Why is none of this making a difference? You think I know? Nope. Remember, this is my fourth time trying something different AGAIN to gather up the teens in our church. By now, many of the original ones I worked with are married and have some kids … some of them here in our parish, but most of them not. Yes, it is still true that even the ones who profess to love the youth conferences, the all-night Adoration and Confession sessions, after a year or two have joined those who never set foot inside church again. I am not writing this to sound discouraging. I am not telling any church to just give up on youth groups. But what I am telling you is this: What keeps people coming back to church is not the youth groups, not the quilting clubs or community dinners. It is the work of God’s grace in each and every member. Maybe what we need to be concentrating on is how to help each member feel that grace working inside him or her. Lisa Simmons youth group poster (CatholicMom.com) Copyright 2019 Lisa Simmons. All rights reserved.[/caption] How do we do that? Let me put it this way. Do you smile when you are walking into your church on Sunday mornings or Saturday evening? Are you upbeat, dressing up and lifting your mood when you get ready to go to Mass? Do you give your children a reason to smile and be excited about going to Mass? In other words, are YOU excited about going to Mass? Do you greet other people, stay and talk, go get a donut with other members of the parish? Do you invite Father over for dinner so your kids can talk with him like a regular human being? Do you make it seem normal that you go together as a family to worship God? The kids who have come alone to Mass and to youth group are seeking out something they don’t have at home and this is what they are seeking out: A place to be thankful. They have been given grace to know they are missing something and they are looking for it! Have you prayed for your own kids to be receptive of that grace too? Have you prayed that you are receptive of it? I don’t have answers for why teens or for that matter adults are not coming to church. But I know that it does matter to many teens and adults. Maybe if we just keep reaching out to those already coming, the ones that aren’t coming will still see us going and maybe, just maybe they’ll be curious when we invite them to come along too and enjoy a donut after Mass or come to a church dinner that they feel enough at home to stay and open up to the grace God is handing them. But we have to do it with the joy of our faith shining through. Moaning and groaning about the lack of participation is not going to bring them back. Why would you come to a church full of sad, depressed people? Helping people in their faith life is hard because it’s hard to develop our own faith life. But we have to keep developing our own mission; we need to keep opening our arms to grace before we can model it to others. I fail at this most days so I am not casting stones. I go to Mass but sometimes all I can think about is how bad the music is that day! Then I realize that’s not the reason I am there. I am at Mass because I woke up this morning. I could breathe and move my body. The earth was still spinning, there was oxygen in the air, and I need to say thank you to God for all of that! The grace to feel grateful for what we have received is the biggest reminder to go to Mass every week or even every day. This is just my experience in my own parish, where I've been a member for almost all my life. I do not discount any effort made to include and invite all members into our parishes. But we have to do so with joy and praying for grace. WE cannot do anything without God's help and grace. If we pray for His grace to be given to our young people then it can happen. But first we have to teach our young people, by our example, of how to accept that grace with joy!
Copyright 2019 Lisa Simmons