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Youth Ministry: a response to Marc Barnes

Benjamin Being Catholic

In an article on his popular blog, Marc Barnes explains the problem with youth ministry, at least, the model of youth ministry that is prevalent in the American Church. His principal point, which I agree with, is that a youth minister is not the first or most important minister to youth. The parents are and ought to be the first ministers of the Gospel to their own children.

Marc supports this position by pointing out that the Gospel is good news, and news is transmitted by an authority. Children believe their parents when they tell them right from wrong and tell them other things about the world because their parents have authority. The priesthood also has a natural authority within the Church, and so the priesthood is a natural vehicle for transmitting the Gospel.

The article says, “The problem with youth ministry — and I speak of the American model of a hired youth minister who is paid to hold classes, lead retreats and otherwise proclaim the Gospels — is that there is no necessary relationship of authority between the ministered and the ministered-to. The fundamental relation necessary for the communication of the Good News does not necessarily exist.”

Marc proposes that strengthening the family and relying on the Apostolic priesthood would be the two authentically Catholic ways of ministering to youth. Here is the conclusion of the article:

True youth ministry will work to establish points of authority, to help build families who — because they live in that natural relation of love which makes the communication of the Gospel possible — do not need modern youth ministry. The Gospel is news, and news requires authority. If youth ministry wishes to preach and spread the Gospel, it will work to continuously reduce the need for hired convincing, to instead build up in number and strength those two institutions which exist in their very nature as sources of authority — the family and the apostolic priesthood.

My twin, Fr. Joel, immediately pointed out a problem with the article, which is that Marc Barnes is missing the essential point of the parent-child relationship when he focuses on authority. More important than authority is trust.  Children listen to parents because they naturally trust them. It is, furthermore not authority but trust that is necessary for the communication of news in general, and the Gospel in particular. People listen to someone they trust.

With this in mind, any paid, hired, professional youth minister can be effective if he or she has built up trust with the teens.  What is effectiveness in youth ministry?  It is carrying out the mission of all ministry: go and make disciples. Youth ministry is a problem when it is not introducing youth to Jesus Christ and helping them to become His disciples.

My other criticism of the article is that, while it is true that the family and the apostolic priesthood are pillars of authentically Catholic ministry, they are not the only pillars of Catholic life.  Another important pillar is the parish, which is the local community of believers.  Marc Barnes totally ignores this third institution.  Young people are beginning to outgrow the family structure that incubated them, and they need to experience and explore the faith beyond that family structure. They need to begin to take their own places in the faith structure which is larger than the family, and this is fundamentally the parish.

With the parish as our fundamental model of what authentic Catholic community looks likes, I think we can offer a specific criticism of most youth ministry models.  The problem with most youth ministry is that it does not involve enough old people.  Using the parish as our base model, the ideal youth group would have a number of people of deep faith: a priest, a nun, a married couple, a single person or two, some old guy, and a widow lady.  If we were to see these people, in addition to parents, as the youth ministers of our church, then our youth ministry would be authentically Catholic. +