Turning the tide on youth/young adult ministry

Monday, May 07, 2018 - Updated: 12:19 pm

By Theresa Sullivan Correspondent

Bridgette Kennedy-Riske used to feel upset at the church and hurt by it, leading her to question whether there was a place for her. Then a friend listened to her concerns and invited her to participate in young adult ministry.

Today, she teaches religion at Seton LaSalle High School in Mount Lebanon. After forming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, she has spent more than two decades leading youth and young adult ministry so others can have a relationship with him. She learned to rely on the constancy of that relationship, even in times of doubt.

According to national research, 85 percent of children who are confirmed stop practicing the faith by age 21. Faced with this staggering statistic, youth and young adult ministers dedicate themselves to accepting teens and young adults where they are, listening to their struggles and explaining the reasons behind church teachings.

Angela Gaughan, director of youth ministry and social service outreach at St. Bernard Parish in Mount Lebanon, conveys the church’s teachings on same-sex attraction, gun violence and pornography to members of her youth group. She wants them to hear church teaching directly, rather than distorted versions from their friends or the media. This prepares the teens to answer peers who may have questions.

“Teens are going to seek answers,” Gaughan said. “They want very much for someone in this sometimes overwhelming and frightening world to give them the truth.”

The teens in her youth group appreciate this approach.

“A lot of times in society, people are attracted to things like pornography that our faith teaches is sinful,” said group member Kaitlyn Robson. “Youth group brings the truth to you. It brings you back to reality.”

Ciaran Lamb said that being a member of a community in which everyone approaches difficult topics through the lens of faith grounds him in his own faith.

“If you don’t have the support of youth group, it’s really easy to slip into the lifestyle choices that others make,” he said.

“Youth group makes it relatable and easy to understand your faith,” said St. Bernard teenager Margaret Rodgers. “The life experiences that other people share show that you’re not alone.”

Gary Roney, diocesan director for adolescence and college ministry, urges young people to absorb the timeless truths that come from studying Scripture, the catechism and Catholic social teaching.

“We need to look at the teachings of the church that we’ve always stood on,” he said. “Every generation has to look at these issues in more depth for themselves.”

Youth ministry requires adult volunteers to be honest and vulnerable with teens, said Joni Mulvaney, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry at Holy Sepulcher Parish in Glade Mills. Her volunteers share their real-life struggles and ask for prayers.

Young adults have difficulty building friendships without school-related activities and with the demands of full-time jobs, she said. Young adult ministry requires a deeper focus on building community and developing genuine, Christ-centered friendships.

“Young adult ministry is about facilitating that encounter with Jesus Christ,” Mulvaney said. “You have to have people there to walk with them towards God.”

Effective young adult ministry does not look like a program but like genuine friendship, said Jacob Williamson, diocesan director of young adult outreach.

“When you get a group of people together who are living their lives for Christ, it’s attractive,” he said.

When Catholics live out their faith, the positive effect on youth cannot be underestimated, Kennedy-Riske said.

“We may never say a word, but we have no idea how many young people are watching us, looking for goodness,” she said. “That goodness is the power of God.”

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