It has been my experience that, when you approach adults with the idea of bringing the gospel to teenagers, the look on their faces often betrays their thoughts: “How about bamboo shoots under my fingernails instead?” or “Quick—where’s the nearest exit?” Aren’t teenagers rebellious against anything that smacks of authority, including organized religion? Whether you are dealing with your children, their friends, or even mere acquaintances, isn’t the plague a preferable alternative to speaking to teens about Christ?
Teenagers are amazingly gifted and dynamic, and interaction with them frequently can be rewarding. I served in youth ministry for 20 years in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and have taught theology to Catholic high school students for the last four years. These combined 24 years prove, I think, one of two things: (1) I am deranged beyond the point where any clinical treatment would be of help, or (2) I have felt God’s presence in an enriching and life-giving way through my dealings with teenagers. I opt for the latter.
But you don’t have to evangelize in a formal capacity in order to touch a teenager’s life in a powerful way. The gospel needs desperately to find a niche in the daily routine of our lives, whether it be on the ball field, at home while your son has friends over, chaperoning some school event, or driving your daughter and her friends to practice—places where casual conversations and lived examples can speak volumes. The ordinary moments in your day-to-day grind offer ample opportunities to touch the life of a young person in a profound and often unseen way. I say unseen because, in most cases, your efforts likely will not produce an immediate result. Don’t be disheartened. Your “seed planting” is of infinite value, and the Holy Spirit will see to the blossoming and eventual fruitfulness of your efforts.
Drawing on my experience, I would like to offer some suggestions on how to go about evangelizing teenagers when the opportunity presents itself. These suggestions do not assume any particular stage of spiritual development on the part of the teens you know. They can be applied more or less, I think, to any teenager—from the most diehard atheist (I’ve met plenty in my travels) to the most Christ-centered young person. In the case of the former, your approach will raise some serious and probing questions in the teenager’s mind, and I’m convinced the Holy Spirit works quite often in this way. In the case of the latter, your approach will simply reinforce the life of the grace the young person is living already.
1. Don’t water down the faith.
This consideration is by far the most important one when presenting the gospel to teenagers. Too often I have seen well-intentioned people (youth ministers, parish volunteers, directors of religious education) dilute the moral absolutes and requirements of the faith in an attempt to make it more palatable to teenagers. Such an approach does a grave disservice to the teens, as it inevitably produces one or more of the following results:
(1) It fails to engage them intellectually on important doctrines of our faith, and a faith grounded primarily in feelings is doomed. (2) It reinforces the notion of “cheap grace”—the idea that Christ doesn’t call us to real sacrifices or that the gospel doesn’t necessitate a change in our very being. (3) It sends the message that the gospel is no more than a cultural value or social norm, something that can change with circumstance or public opinion or fall victim to political correctness. (4) It paints a one-dimensional view of Christ, who comes to be seen only as a best buddy (what I call the “warm fuzzy Jesus”), not also as the just judge before whom I must some day render an account for my life.
When a teenager believes in a watered-down Jesus, it is likely he will find coming to terms with the real Jesus a more difficult process. A watered-down Jesus who doesn’t challenge my lifestyle and worldview and call me to die to self is a pretty easygoing Savior. To ask a teenager to surrender that version of Jesus for a more radical one is a tough sell.
So, from the start, don’t mince words about who Jesus is (the God-Man who is Lord, Savior, brother and judge), what he did for us (laid down his life and showed true leadership in his brokenness and subjection to the Father’s will), and what he demands of us (to be holy and perfect as his heavenly Father is holy and perfect). This Jesus is the only Jesus who has any power at all to redeem humanity. If you’re shaky on some doctrinal matters, pick up the Catechism of the Catholic Churchand refresh your memory.
2. Be honest and genuine in what you say.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but now and then we become oblivious to the obvious. Being honest and genuine means simply that you are truthful and that there is discernible integrity in your words. Teenagers are not stupid; in fact, they are often quite perceptive and can easily tell when you are not being truthful. They are at a stage in their lives when they are questioning the values, truths, and beliefs they were taught as a child, and, in order for them to embrace these beliefs in a meaningful and permanent way as adults, they need to evaluate them—rigorously. Any fluff we throw at them merely clouds that process. Teenagers have little tolerance for it—and rightfully so. Their dignity demands that we deal them with honestly so as to assist them in the process of becoming a fully functioning Christian adult.
As a teacher, I have found that teens do two things extremely well: (1) Once you advance a moral or theological principle, it takes them all of three seconds to zero in on any potential loopholes in the principle. This ability is a marvel to behold. (2) If your knowledge about a given area is lacking or faulty, they will help you to identify it. In either case, stand your ground and continue to be honest. It’s perfectly acceptable for you not to have conceived of every single application of the principle you just advanced, and it is certainly okay for you not to be omniscient. It best serves your teenager for you to admit “I’m not sure about that particular situation” or “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Teens have an amazing ability to cut to the chase where moral and spiritual truths are concerned. Tap it in a constructive way. Challenge them to seek their own answers. Ask them what conclusions they may have already drawn about the given topic. Such a situation has great potential to become a “teachable” moment. (For example, in the classroom a student will ask a question, and before I give an answer I will ask the other students if any of them cares to provide a response. It is an effective tool to employ, and the replies may surprise you with their depth of insight.)
3. Be authentic about how you live your own life of faith.
Teenagers pay meticulous attention to how you act. When they see your behavior is consistent with your creed, it sends a powerful message to them; when they see there is a gap between the two, it sets off a hypocrite alarm. This does not mean they will condemn you as a bad person, but it does mean their perception is that you are not being honest with yourself or that you have not taken the gospel to heart as much as you are asking them to. (Do you extol the virtues of weekly Mass attendance yet not practice it yourself?)
In a world of innumerable distractions—many of which are opposed to the Gospel—today’s teens are in desperate need of true role models and heroes. The world (in the biblical sense of the word) offers them Satan’s entire arsenal of false substitutes—from musical artists to sports figures to movie stars—whose lives are too often antitheses of the virtues of service, humility, sacrifice, and self-denial that characterized Jesus’ life. The fact that teens seek out such celebrities reveals a truth of human nature: We seek out role models or mentors. When virtuous ones do not make themselves visible, teens will accept whatever else is offered, especially when it comes with the glamorous sheen of evil.
You need not be the pinnacle of sainthood. But you must be consistent above all, and you do have to show a tangible commitment to gospel values. You must attend Mass weekly, go to Confession, live out honesty and forgiveness, display unconditional love to the best of your ability, and perform acts of kindness and charity—to name a few. It’s also okay to show a teenager that you too still struggle with sin and have not yet died to self. It lets them know they have someone who can identify with their own difficulties.
4. Make connections between their lived experiences and the faith.
While this dynamic holds true for all people, it is especially the case with teens. If a consideration falls outside their immediate purview, it might as well not exist. You need to speak the gospel message in a language that they will understand; namely, one that relates to what they see, feel, think, and do on a daily basis. Tie in.aspects of the faith (doctrines, worship practices, saints, devotions, et cetera) to concrete situations in the life of a teenager.
Keeping their developmental status as persons in mind, realize that they are most concerned with being accepted, with having a sense of belonging, with friendships, and with romantic relationships. Zero in on these issues and you are highly likely to strike gold.
For example, acceptance issues can be paralleled to God’s unconditional love for us and his refusal to ever turn away from someone who seeks him honestly. Belonging concerns can be correlated to membership in the Catholic Church and how we benefit from it and find purpose in it. (Membership themes are also a great lead-in for discussions about the sacraments of initiation.) The importance of friendship can find its best expression in Jesus Christ, the friend who is always there for you, who understands what you are going through, and who will never let you down. And finally, when getting down to romantic involvements, what better example to discuss than God himself, who loves us passionately, pursues us, and wants to be so intimately connected to us that he became one of us?
Scripture has some great passages that portray God’s love for us in terms of romantic love, such as the Song of Songs. And keep in mind that the one grand theme running through the entire Bible is the marriage covenant. So whereas in point number one you engaged the teenager’s intellect, here you will seek to engage his heart.
5. Don’t neglect the value of presence.
When you think about it, the need for the presence of loved ones in our lives never diminishes as we grow older. Don’t forget that this fundamental requirement for significant others to be present to us—for support, for comfort, for security or companionship—is still a necessary, life-giving component of teenagers’ lives (even though they will seldom admit it or verbalize it to you). Find time to simply “be” with young people. You don’t need to have a formal game plan or a schedule of activities. We’re talking about merely sharing the same space with them, being present in the background, or spending time with them in some capacity.
Examples include attending one of their games, chaperoning an event, seeing them in a school play, or taking them shopping. (This list is illustrative, not exhaustive.) Such presence is beneficial to them for the simple reason that it lets them know you care. For good measure, throw in the fact that teenagers need to know you are there and available—perhaps, maybe, just in case they might need you or want to talk to you. Besides, how can you wax eloquently about the gospel if you’re never with them?
And so there you have it—not some fancy, complicated method for the successful penetration of a teenager’s walls of self-defense, but rather some practical and basic ideas on how to impact the life of a teenager with the love of God and the message of salvation. You will discover that in the process of evangelizing teens and ministering to them, God is ministering to you as well.