The art of Christian youth ministry is complicated and interesting. It is complicated because every single person has their own particular idiosyncrasies and proclivities. This means that you cannot assume that universal skills will apply to every single person in the same manner. On the other hand, Christian youth ministry is interesting because it is about journeying with people who have their own particular idiosyncrasies and proclivities! Moreover, it is being the hands, mouth, mind, and heart of the creator of the Universe. There is no Christian youth ministry without Christ. Anyone who wants to do youth ministry in the Church has to know the joy of knowing Christ, as Pope Francis put it recently in his address to the bishops of Europe, and desire to make known this joy to the young. Even more importantly, it is knowing that the youth that one accompanies belong to the Lord and thus allowing the spirit of God to move them where it wills.
We thus begin with scriptures as our reference point and particularly with “the great youth.” Jesus was a young man. The Kenyan constitution states that youth are those between 15-34 years. If Jesus were a Kenyan, he’d be a youth and a radical one at that. So, how did he grow? Our grounding scripture is Luke 2:52: “And Jesus grew in stature and in wisdom, in loved by God and people.” Powerful. Let us look at the four ways in which Jesus grew and how they perfectly match with the dimensions of a human being.
- Stature = Body
- Wisdom = Head
- Loved by God = Soul
- Loved by people = Heart
That simple verse is the summary of the four dimensions of the human person. Let us expand on that even further:
- Stature = Body = Biological or physical health
- Wisdom = Head = Intellect or cognitive abilities
- Loved by God = Soul = Religiosity and/or spirituality
- Loved by people = Heart = Socioemotional maturity or connectedness.
This is clear that when the scriptures say that Jesus grew in stature and in wisdom, in favour with God and with people, the Word of God is indeed telling us that Jesus was growing holistically and that is useful! It means that the humble parents of the Nazarene and the general environment were meeting the needs of a growing boy. Let us explore the needs of the human person according to these four dimensions:
- Stature = Body = Biological or physical health – need to live
- Wisdom = Head = Intellect or cognitive abilities – need to learn
- Loved by God = Soul = Religiosity and/or spirituality – need to leave a legacy/meaningful living.
- Loved by people = Heart = Socioemotional maturity or connectedness – need to love and to be loved.
Those four needs were indicated by Steve Covey. I am not sure if he was inspired by the same scriptural verse but I would not be surprised. To those who have eyes, even if not Christian or even atheists, the Bible as an ancient text is packed with wisdom. So, now that we have established the needs of the human person, it behooves us to explore whether these needs are attached to a human person’s ultimate reason for existence. My hypothesis is that these needs should point out to our deepest hunger and to what gives us meaning. Like a homing beacon, if we understood the four needs well, they will help us find our ultimate meaning. Can the scriptures come to our aid? Without doubt! From the conversations with the Son of David himself! This particular conversation was had by Jesus and a scholar of the law. The scholar asks, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He could as well have asked, “How do I find meaning in life? What is the meaning of life?”
The response of Jesus is not a spoon-feeding session. He is speaking with a scholar of the law and so he asks him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” Firstly, this is an important process in ministry. When a young person poses a question, it is easier to give a quick solution and solve the problem. However, it would be better to let them struggle with the question first. What do they think is a proper response to their question? What have they known or done so far? This helps in assisting the young person to own the process.
Back to our conversation.
The young scholar, quoting Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5; 10:12, says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself,” And Jesus replied to him, “you have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” It’s important to note here that Jesus is life! So, “do this and you have life in me” is literally what Jesus is saying.
Do you see any connection between Lk. 2:52 and Lk. 10:27? Let us explore briefly and see how they match:
- And Jesus grew in stature – love the Lord your God with your strength.
- And in Wisdom – and with all your mind
- And in favour with God – and with all your soul
- And in favour with people – and with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.
Tell me if this is not incredible! For those of us who are Christians, the meaning of life could not be clearer: We are to pursue the highest good, God Himself and to love his highest creation, our neighbours.
Now, let us shift gears to more “worldly” things. “Learning: The Treasure Within” was the Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century, 1996. In that report, they argued that there are four pillars of education:
- Learning to know (mind/wisdom/cognitive abilities).
- Learning to do (stature/physical/strength/skills)
- Learning to be (soul/religion/spirituality/meaning)
- Learning to live together (heart/socioemotional)
The words in brackets and italicized are mine. These are just to show that there is consistency even from within a secular body in its approach to education. Were they inspired by the scriptures? Who knows. Indeed, the spirit blows wherever it wills.
Youth ministry does not happen in a vacuum. It happens within a time and place: a context. The context has to be organized in such a manner that it meets four dimensions of the human person:
- Body – A playground that entertains (play is so important in youth ministry though often understated).
- Heart – A home that welcomes
- Mind – A school that educates
- Soul – A Church that evangelizes.
How often do many contexts of youth ministry emphasize only one aspect of those four to the detriment of the other three?
How do we go about youth ministry? Now that we know the dimensions of a person, their needs, their goals, and the context of youth ministry, what is the method of accompanying youth? Don Bosco, a Catholic Priest who founded the Salesians of Don Bosco, congregations that are dedicated to youth ministry in the Church, proposed a very unique and helpful method: The preventive system. This was opposed to the repressive or corrective system. Instead of a focus on rules, however important, this system focuses on relationships, proposing over imposing, forming consciences able to manage personal freedom over forcing fear of consequences. In a word, the preventive system wants young people to do and be good because they desire heaven and not because they are afraid of hell. So, what is the preventive system in detail and how does it match the four dimensions examined so far?
Body/Physical – Discipline (as opposed to punishment). Discipline is about orienting your bodily faculties to what is good. Many studies indicate that the disciplined person does better overall in life than the talented person who lacks discipline.
Heart – Loving Kindness. The minister is patient and sees himself or herself as the instrument of God’s mercy and not the owner. He/she is patient with the false starts and mistakes of the young. This comes from the experience of himself/herself being loved and forgiven by God.
Mind – Reason. The minister does not simply explain the “what” of life but also the “why.” Too many times, young people are simply told what to do or not to do. Reason not only explains why but also guides the youth to come up with the why. It is one thing to tell a youth not to do drugs and even indicate the consequences; it is another to guide him/her to find out the consequences and makes his/her own judgment as to why drugs are not a good to be pursued.
Soul – Religion. The Christian youth minister constantly refers to the work of God. He/she never forgets that they are just stewards. They do the work of God humbly. They encourage the youth to experience God too through reading the scriptures and the sacraments especially the Eucharist and confession. They continually propose the joy of knowing and being loved by God and how “our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.”
Finally, let us explore the person of the youth minister. How should he/she manifest himself to the youth within that context, to help them fulfill their needs and using the preventive system?
Physical – Disciplined presence: the youth minister ought to be authoritative. He/she is not one with the youth but one among the youth. This means that he/she cannot hesitate to demand high levels of discipline and commitment to excellence. And he/she has to do that with his/her physical presence and not from a distance. Ministers have to literally be with the youth.
Heart – Father/mother/brother/sister/friend: The youth minister is not a drill sergeant or a police officer. He is not a referee but a coach. In him/her, the youth can see someone who truly loves them.
Mind – Educator – Educare, the root word of education, means “to draw out.” A good educator draws out the good from the learners. Moreover, an educator “knows his/her stuff.” This, therefore, means that the educator has taken time to read and be well equipped in the areas of development and concerns that the youth might have.
Soul – Witness: the best way to evangelize is not to use words, as St. Francis is attributed to have said, “preach the Gospel wherever you go, and if necessary, use words.” At the end of the day, the youth will follow and do what they see adults doing and not simply what they do. Pope Paul VI once said, “the people of our times do not want preachers. And if they listen to preachers, it is because those preachers are witnesses.”
At the end of the day, we hope to journey with youth who will end up being disciplined (body), visionary (mind), passionate and loving (heart), and witnesses of the Kingdom of God (soul). And that, is holistic youth ministry.