Local News Archive
Print Issue: June 22, 2000
Vibrant Teen Programs Key In Transition Years
By Priscilla Greear, Staff Writer
ATLANTAWhen Linda Koerner became the youth minister last fall at St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn, she asked the Lord to show her how to reach the unreachable teens including those whove crossed the border into the land of licentious living.
Her answer was simply to welcome them home and offer them a nutritious Gospel meal of love and acceptance while directing them down the road to reconciliation.
How do you reach the kids that seem so unreachable? In my discernment it was just love them. You just love them for who they are. Thats all anybody wants, to be loved and appreciated and I think at St. John Neumann they can be loved and appreciated for who they are and they dont have to fit into any little mold, Koerner said. I think you give those who have crossed the line a way home through reconciliation ... These teens can turn their lives around just as Jesus turned lives around many years ago. Hes still doing it today. Nothing has changed.
Through Scripture study, pizza and prayer nights, discussion groups and catechesis, a number of teens have found a home in the Life Teen program at St. John Neumann. About 85 youth attend, but the challenge remains as the parish has over 600 registered teens.
The archdiocesan director of youth ministry, Matthew Robaszkiewicz, said that the mountain all youth ministers have to climb to reach inactive youth is high, but that theyre in good shape and on the right trails. He estimates that a fourth of the Catholic youth in the archdiocese are actively involved in youth ministry. We are blessed with phenomenal leaders who work with kids and programs that are progressive andnot like its a competitionI know a lot of other dioceses that arent as fortunate.
The director said the best way to draw a teen back is a personal invitation from a peer and it doesnt have to take place in a church.
Its important for other teenagers to seek them out in the community where theyre at. If (faith) is supposed to be present in all parts of our lives, we can witness just as well in a high school soccer game or wherever kids are. Thats an opportunity to evangelize because thats what generally brings kids to church, those relationships.
From his 10 years in youth ministry, Robaszkiewicz described why some youth drop off the church roll books after the sacrament of confirmation. Some programs teach dogma, but dont foster a personal relationship with Christ.
A lot of (teens) dont feel theres any relevance. They may not feel that they are needed as active parts of the church or their parents arent coming. I think a lot of times its out of ignorance because ... we may not have done a good job in presenting the church to them, he said. We need to look at ways (of) reaching out to the people, to the kids especially.
Parents, the primary faith educators, strongly influence their childrens attitudes towards church by word and example. It is a harder topic for parents to tackle with teens than the list of weekly chores, he said, but if its something thats important and valued in your life, youre gonna make a point of bringing it up and passing it on. Catholic school does not replace the need for church, he said, which should be the primary faith community.
Joyce Guris, youth minister of the ChrisTeen program at Transfiguration Church, Marietta, confirmed that the number one reason kids quit attending youth ministry is because its not important to their parents, who often view confirmation as graduation from religious education. Following confirmation, weve asked parents to sign a pledge that they will make youth ministry a priority in their childs life. Some still drop out, but I call these families. We really try to teach the kids that its not graduation, but a time to step out and grow in Jesus love.
Guris offered a response to the quintessential church complaint: Mass is boring. We, as Catholics, need to continue to educate the faith community (that) Mass is a community prayer. Its what are you bringing to the table? Its your opportunity to be nourished by the Eucharist and to praise God for all the gifts in your life. We have an obligation to challenge people when they say Mass is boring.
Robaszkiewicz said that all youth ministries should follow Renewing the Vision, the U.S. bishops document that outlines needed components of a comprehensive youth ministry. They are community life, catechesis, evangelization, justice and service, leadership development, pastoral care and praise, liturgy and worship. Since the church was once viewed as an adult church, it is important, he said, to give youth ministries the support, resources and recognition they deserve, not putting their needs on a back burner.
One of his top priorities is finding ways to enable youth ministers to better serve the growing Hispanic and other ethnic groups of North Georgia. It is a big need. Each of those communities is growing in numbers and the reality is that right now we have not prepared.
To implement the pastoral plan, Robaszkiewicz said youth leaders, who should be trained, knowledgeable and have a heart for teens, should offer a variety of activities, like retreats, lock-ins and service projects.
All of these are relevant to the teen culture. Its through these things they identify with, that youre going to reach out to them. They may not see any relevance in Mass, Eucharist, sacraments, but they certainly do see relevance in socializing with their friends. A retreat is a great place to hang out, but in the context of this we talk about the Mass, the sacraments.
And all must be done in a loving, nurturing environment. You need to walk with them. They dont care how much we know or how much the church has to offer. They need to know how much we care and (that) they are loved.
That means making an environment open for discussion within programs where leaders really listen to what teens say, even if its heresy.
Thats our first mistake when we think we have nothing to learn and they cant show us anything. If we discredit them, not listening to them, thats a huge mistake ... They have a lot of things on their minds, a lot of trials and a lot of ideas and theyre just eager to share these ideas with someone who will truly listen.
Randy Raus, national director of the booming Life Teen program which has grown from about 20,000 to over 61,000 youth participants in two years, noted that keeping an open mind doesnt equal diluting the Gospel message.
Sometimes we think that if we give it to them straight, they wont be there, but I find it to be the very opposite ... We need to keep our message straight up and they really respond to that, he said.
He said Life Teens focus on the Eucharist helps fire teens up about their faith. After Mass the Life Teen program offers Life Nights, which are educational, social or issue-oriented, and include eucharistic adoration and time for confession.
Theres a relationship building which just really carries them to the Eucharist, the Lord, the sacraments. Were sharing with them the richness of the church and letting them experience it. Theyre responding to that because they are making the intimate contact with Jesus in all the sacraments.
Life Teen has modeled some of its outreach, Raus continued, after the highly effective Protestant Young Life program. One of its best means to sign teens on is by sharing a meal with them at their high schools to invite them to an activity. Were not afraid to go out to the trenches and bring them in and know that no matter how far from God they feel, God still loves them.
He added that Life Teen Core members, young adults who plan certain programs, set an example. Teens see a young adult who doesnt have to drink every weekend and isnt having premarital sex. Teens need to see an example of people whove gone down the road and made it and Core members are that.
Core member Kevin McCarron, 23, who returned to serve after participating as a teen, said he found his faith through Life Teen.
The environment within the Life Teen group is really to just let go and kind of forget all the tribulations of life and just focus on God, he said.
He said the biggest issues teens want addressed are alcohol, drugs, family problems and relationship issues. ...Were just there to support them. Obviously were not psychiatrists or counselors. At least were showing them that there are people that do care about them, he said.
Koerner, who has worked in teen ministry for 22 years, agreed the Eucharist is the hook. Life Teen is really Eucharist-centered and it all centers around Mass and the invitation at Mass. It just opens their hearts to develop a personal relationship with the Lord.
While many teens find identity through their peers, Koerner said that her program helps them find identity in Christ. For any Christian teen, its a constant decision to choose life ... It gives them an opportunity to decide to be different and you give them the tools to help prevent them from walking down (the wrong) path. Theyre all human and their hormones are the same as every other teenager...
Guris said her teens are a devoted bunch. Theres a large percentage of them that are just so committed to Christ. Thats awesome.
So with teens like those, why the frequent drop off from church when they hit college? Robaszkiewicz believes that this rite of passage may be healthy for them to really claim their faith. The best thing youth ministers can do is aim to give them a strong and personal foundation so that they know they are always welcome and they can always come back ... If they leave high school and havent had that, theres nothing to go back to.
BREAKFAST CLUB --
Teens from St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, gather every Thursday in the
summer for 9:15 a.m. Mass at the parish and breakfast at a neighborhood coffee
house. Eighteen-year-old Lorena Pereira, left, talks to youth minister Linda
Koerner, while they wait for their order. Father Jack Durkin, back right, joins
the group after celebrating the Mass