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Vol 40 No 3


Barry Brundell MSC

Gerard Kelly

Thomas Groome

Anthony Gooley

Daniel Ang

John O’Carroll and Chris Fleming



Sustainable youth ministry:
Exploring the Role of the Spirit


IN CONVERSATION with others regarding their past experiences of parish life, it is not uncommon to hear stories of rich and memorable youth programs, of the enduring friendships and deep spirituality that were born of these significant and formative experiences. For many, participation in youth programs and networks has been an important and life-giving aspect of their journey of faith.

It is, however, a reality of contemporary church and community life that ministries with youth can often fold or run out of steam as quickly as they emerge. While occasional events, such as World Youth Day, draw thousands of young people into active and conscious participation in the life of the Church, it is not the story of youth ministry writ large. Indeed, following the conclusion of these large-scale events, it seems pertinent to ask the question ‘What now?’

Dioceses and parishes, the latter of which I propose are the coalface of youth ministry, have long struggled to establish effective and long-lasting youth ministry programs, grappling with the complexities of turning well-intentioned policy into practical and sustainable outcomes. While acknowledging the success of particular youth ministry models both here and abroad, a scan of the pews at your local church might suggest that there is considerable work still to be done. It is evident that in the life of the Church young people are not afraid to vote with their feet.

Despite this sobering reality, we move together in hope, searching out new ways in which youth ministry might not only be sustained but, as a response to the Spirit of Christ, flourish as an active and integral part of the life of the Church. While seeking to avoid a detached analysis that speaks only of pedagogy without proper attention to the demanding and concrete practicalities of sustainable youth ministry, we cannot divorce the ‘how’ of youth ministry from the ever pressing question of ‘why’. In seeking to create sustainable ministry with young people, we cannot get away from that which motivates and underpins our endeavour, that is, the source from which our ministry draws its very life.

Our understanding of youth ministry as a genuine and authentic work of the Spirit opens up powerful possibilities in the development of sustainable ministries with youth in our contemporary experience. Specifically, it is our ultimate trust in the living experience of the Spirit that sustains our mission with young people, an experience of God’s Spirit that leads us to decision and creativity and to which our programs must ultimately be attuned. As will be discussed, both the discernment of the Spirit in the lives of young people and our own ongoing conversion are critical elements in the development of long-lasting and life-giving youth ministries.

The Diversity of Belief
To begin with, however, let us take a brief survey of the present situation in which youth ministry finds itself and to which our focus on the Spirit might bring new courage and possibility. While the vigour and impact of youth ministry throughout Australia varies according to diverse and ever changing social and pastoral contexts, recent studies by the Christian Research Association show there is more uncertainty about belief among younger Australians than any other age demographic (Hughes 2005, 1-6). This joint study of the Australian Catholic University and Monash University reveals Australian youth are more likely to believe in astrology and paranormal beliefs such as the power of psychics and fortune-tellers than their US counterparts. The percentage of young people attending religious services continues to remain low while the exploration of Eastern religions among the young appears on the rise, with fifty-one per cent of those surveyed believing definitely or possibly in reincarnation. In somewhat crude marketing terms, it appears that we are selling our message to an increasingly fragmented market, unsure and shifting in its needs and demands, unmoved by the Christian offering and composed of disparate groups of individuals and subcultures willing to explore a range of alternative possibilities.

Youth Ministry: A Work of the Spirit
Having framed our discussion within this situation of complexity and diversity in belief, how might we hope to venture towards a sustainable ministry with youth? Our reflection on and practice of youth ministry as a genuine and authentic work of the Spirit provides sustenance, vitality and direction to our mission with young people both ‘in and out of season’. In speaking of the Spirit, I concur with Michael Welker’s fine analysis which questions associations of this outpouring of God’s Spirit with inaccessible, unusual or sensational experiences: ‘the Spirit is not something numinous, but a power that changes real life relations’ (Welker 1994, 108). Indeed the earliest reflections on Christian service, the letters of St Paul, recognise the pre-eminently public character of the Spirit, as the gift of God’s self poured out for all humanity. This Spirit, an aspect of the mystery of God, calls forth a variety of charisms within the community of faith while empowering and bringing dignity to the marginalised and disempowered (Acts 2:16-18). With this in mind, we might begin to attend to the movement of the Spirit as the deepest reality of our mission, calling us to service with young people who are so often at the margins of the Church with few formal or structured opportunities through which to have their voices heard. The immersion of youth ministry in the Spirit provides both mandate and energy to our task, framing our mission within a relationship of enacted faithfulness to God and giving youth ministry its own particular and irrevocable assignment within the life of the Church.

Trust and Decision in the Spirit
One of the first implications of this vision of youth ministry as an ongoing journey with the Spirit is that it demands our ultimate and overriding trust in the presence of this Spirit in all that we do. By a constant return to this most fundamental reality, we find the courage to be renewed in the successes, failures and questions that emerge from our ministry. In this respect, we draw much encouragement and confidence from the Second Vatican Council, which, as the contemporary theologian Richard Lennan notes, ‘not only endorsed such a pilgrimage, it incarnated it’ (Lennan 2005, 7). Like the Council, our trusting surrender to the Spirit is that which allows us to remain faithful to our missionary discipleship through conditions of change and uncertainty. So well proclaimed in Scripture, it is the same faithfulness to the Spirit that provides the remedy to our fears in the uncertainty of the here and now. Just as the newly-called Peter is reassured by Jesus, ‘Do not be afraid’ (Luke 5:10), so we too have nothing to fear in our faithfulness to the mission of Jesus. However, a correlative failure to centre our mission in the life of the Spirit will lead to a ministry that becomes inevitably fragile, that eventually seeks its own distorted ends or, perhaps, that limps on as if it had only not enough time to die out altogether.

Not only is the Spirit the source, sustenance and assurance of our ministry but it is also the Spirit that provides the creative momentum and the decisive vision needed to meet youth ‘where they are at’, both now and into the future. As Karl Rahner notes, the Spirit is one ‘who constantly breaks through all frontiers’ in order to make the gifts of confidence, unity and ingenuity available to us, provided we are disposed to receiving it (Rahner 1970, 40-41). It is not an offer of cheap optimism in which we believe we can do nothing but wait for the practical strategies to be delivered, pre-packaged and free of responsibility. To the contrary, this immersion of our ministry in the promise of God’s enduring presence is to acknowledge and actualise our position as ‘co-deciders with God’s Spirit’ (Rush 2004, 76). This Spirit does not provide instructions we merely need to carry out but necessarily invites our boldness, our experiment, creativity, and decision. As Denis Edwards concludes, ‘The Spirit is not only a presence but also a mysterious personal counterpart’ (Edwards 2004, 178).

Ultimately, the dynamism of this relationship asks whether we have the necessary courage and openness to venture into all that the Spirit invites us to in our ministry with young people. It is an invitation to give ourselves over to the ultimate risk, challenge and possibilities of far-reaching and bold youth ministry. In seeking to create sustainable ministry with young people, we must seek to give ourselves over to the radical nature of all Christian mission, one which gives without expectation of receiving back, which gives freely what will ‘be coolly taken for granted’ (Rahner 1970, 200). While it would be erroneous to claim our participation in the life of the Spirit guarantees the outcomes we would desire, that we somehow control this wind ‘which blows where it will’ (John 3:8), it is true to say that without attentiveness to the Spirit we cannot hope to carry out a mission that is ultimately faithful to ‘what God would want’ (1 Cor. 2:11). In dreaming of sustainable ministry with young people, we cannot be saved from the challenge of life in the God who is always greater.

The Experience of the Spirit
Having located sustainable youth ministry within a trusting relationship to the Spirit, in all its complexity and creativity, what are some of the fundamentals of youth ministry that flow from this orientation?

To begin with, it leads us to the fact of both truth and experience that youth ministry is not primarily concerned with handing on facts, creedal statements and information about God but, irreducibly, about bringing young people into contact with the living Jesus. While sustainable youth ministry must be, in part, an educational project, one which imparts the deposit of faith found in both Scripture and the tradition of the Church, it is, first and foremost, a ministry in which we bring young people into an encounter with Christ himself, not just ideas, conventions or abstract formulae. Even the educational component of youth ministry must always and forever be grounded in not only pointing to Christ but, by its very exercise and witness, making God present in and through the ground of experience. This accords with our Catholic sense of sacramentality and insists on the spirituality of those who represent the Church in their pastoral work with youth. As a consequence, the pedagogy of sustainable youth ministry is not propositional, nor concerned with manufacturing consent, but is indisputably relational.

In insisting on the experience of God as the first principle of Christian discipleship, Karl Rahner writes, ‘The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all’ (Rahner 1981, 149). Our experience of God through faith, through our ‘Yes’ to the unceasing invitation of God in the self-gift of Jesus Christ, is that which lies at the heart of all Christian life. So too must our youth ministry reflect and offer this deepest reality, bringing young people to this experience of the Spirit through which we have access to the living Jesus. Indeed, if we are able to do this one most difficult thing, everything else we seek to do will be easy. Sustainable ministries with youth must never lose touch with the transcendent yet pervasive reality of the God in our midst and endeavour to provide the environment in which young people can experience the Spirit and clarify this experience in the safe and supportive context of community.

Discernment and the Spirit
If we are to create a life-giving and intimate environment in which young people are able to bring their desires, wonder, struggles and questions into relationship with God, our ability to discern the movement of the Spirit in the lives of young people must also be at the centre of our activity. Listening and discernment allow the Church to respond to the deepest needs of young people. Avril Baigent, youth ministry coordinator in the diocese of Northampton, UK, draws attention to the fact that parishes have often presumed and expected faith in their teenagers, thus failing to recognise the different stages that mark their journeys (Baigent 2003, 10-11). It is critical that we engage with and listen to young people, particularly at the level of our parish communities which are the home of our worship and thanksgiving. It is in the spiritual reality of the parish that opportunities must be provided for youth to not only draw from the wisdom, knowledge and gifts of the Church but also actively participate and contribute to that same treasure, particularly in the liturgy which is its very life. While this makes immediate quantitative demands—namely, the need for adequate and appropriate resources within parishes and dioceses—it also presents a qualitative challenge. In order to ‘pick up’ and respond to the Spirit in the lives of the young people, in the context of growing uncertainty and change, we must be willing to journey towards our own transformation. We, ourselves, must become ever-deeper apprentices of the faith. As Gregory of Sinai writes in the 14th century ‘For the understanding of truth is given to those who have become participants in the truth (who have tasted it through living)’ (Kadlobovsky 1977, 42). In other words, our own conversion is a condition for discerning the Spirit in others.

The discernment involved in creating sustainable ministries with youth will often produce tension, disagreement and sometimes even conflict. However, once again, attentiveness to the Spirit allows such conflict to be negotiated. We can see this in the Acts of the Apostles where Peter, having returned from his stay in a Gentile household, is confronted by the other apostles who object to this apparent recklessness. Ultimately, however, it is the acknowledgement of the Spirit among all people, both Jews and Gentiles, that unifies the community as it strives to live out of a shared and authentic discipleship (Acts 11:1-18). Youth symposiums and conferences serve as valuable locations for our ongoing discernment, creating and sustaining the kind of ‘habitual climate of exchange’ that invites a deep sharing of our values, our ideas, and our faith (Wolff 1993, 90). Undoubtedly, the multiplicity of needs among youth and the variety of pastoral contexts in which we meet them will properly result in a multiplicity of means to minister with youth. Nevertheless, the imperative character of all these creative endeavours is the deep and genuine gift of self in the Spirit that is at the heart of Christian mission. It is a gift first incarnated in Christ himself and so a radical attitude of self-offering that must animate and flow out in our relational ministry with young people.

Ongoing Reception of the Spirit
Finally, the need for sustainable youth ministry to actively discern the movement of the Spirit in the lives of young people presupposes a genuine openness to the world in which young people live. We must cast aside any presumptions of contemporary youth culture as being either static or without treasure. Instead, we must be ready to discern within this world of change and choice both those aspects of youth culture which represent authentic developments of the Gospel and those which are incompatible with Christian faith. In the prophetic words of Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx:

The Church does not simply have something to communicate. In order to communicate, she must also receive from and listen to what comes to her from the world as ‘foreign prophecy,’ but in which she nonetheless recognises the well-known voice of the Lord (Schillebeeckx 1969, 126).

Perhaps even more challengingly, our engagement with the world of youth culture and our ongoing recognition of this ‘foreign prophecy’ invites the Church as a whole to receive and incorporate the sense of faith (sensus fidei) of young people into both its present and future. Only by ‘taking up’ or incorporating the faith of young people into its very own life, no matter how poorly named or articulated, can the church become more of itself: a communion in the one Spirit of Jesus Christ. When the Church is attentive to the living faith of all its members, young people included, it can reside in the world as an ever more powerful witness to the unity of the kingdom of God. In expressing unity and love across difference, the Church may not only express the faith of young people but will also draw young people to the kingdom which it serves.

The experience of the Spirit in a changing world, in the unpredictable context of youth culture and indeed within the life of a changing Church, also opens up youth ministry to the eschatological dimension of Christian faith. As the documents of the Second Vatican Council remind us, we are a pilgrim Church and so the ongoing reception of the Spirit in the present and the necessity of openness to the unknown future resists singular or ‘once-for-all’ approaches to young people. In order that the Gospel might be proclaimed with ever-greater efficacy, we must exhibit a willingness to embrace forms of ministry with young people that are hitherto unknown and unforeseen.

Our ministry with youth, like the Church itself, must be an open system, forever searching for the new signs of life that the Spirit brings forth in the world and willing to take up new means of carrying out its mission. So, in returning to the contemporary experience of belief in Australia, we might ask ourselves, ‘What does the current climate of spiritual uncertainty among youth really mean?’ Does it signal the final indifference of young people to the Christian claim or does it in fact point to a much deeper hunger with which our youth ministries have yet to engage? Our reflections on the Spirit provide us with a powerful way forwards.

There is, perhaps, no greater encouragement for our mission with young people than the Second Vatican Council. Its proclamation in Lumen Gentium of the ‘universal call to holiness’ reveals youth ministry not as ‘remainder concept’ - an optional extra in the life of the Church to be carried out once all the ‘serious work’ is done—but as an indispensable and critical part of our identity as Church. Let our talk about the future of sustainable youth ministry not be the concealment of a lack of courage, for we only arrive at the future ‘by walking into it, full of hope’ (Rahner 1970, ix). Our trust and confidence in the Spirit of the Lord, our constant renewal in its life and our willingness to engage with risk, discernment, and deep and sincere conversation will lead us to a life-giving youth ministry, sustained not by what we have done but by that which God has given to us so that all generations might come to know him in the Risen Christ.

Daniel Ang is editor of Terra Spiritus, an online Christian spirituality magazine, and Mar-keting Officer for Pauline Electronic Publishing, a ministry of the Daughters of St Paul. He is an experienced youth leader.

Baigent, A (2003), ‘Tap into Teenage Faith’, The Tablet (June), 10-11.
Edwards, D. (2004), Breath of Life: A Theology of the Creator Spirit Orbis Books, New York.
Hughes, P. (2006), Pointers: Bulletin of the Christian Research Association 16, Christian Research Association, Melbourne.
Kadloubovsky E. trans. (1977), Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart Faber & Faber, London.
Lennan, R. (2005), ‘Still Relevant? Vatican II Forty Years On’, Compass 39 Issue 3: 3-8.
Rahner, K. (1970), Opportunities for Faith SPCK, London.
Rahner, K. (1981), ‘The Spirituality of the Church of the Future’, Theological Investigations 20, 143-153.
Rush, O. (2004), Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles Paulist Press, Mahwah NJ.
Schillebeeckx, E. (1969), God, the Future of Man Sheed & Ward, London.
Welker, M. (1994), God the Spirit Fortress Press, Minneapolis.
Wolff, P. (1993), Discernment: The Art of Choosing Well Triumph Books, Missouri.


An On-line Resource for Spirituality

Spirituality is a word that provokes a wide range of responses, from enthusiasm to confusion, from anticipation to suspicion. Some accuse the term of being too broad to hold any real meaning while others consider it far more attractive than the institutional religion they have experienced. Whatever the verdict, one thing is clear: spirituality is increasingly recognised as the search for the divine by ordinary Australians. Within the climate of increasing violence and fear, in the wake of natural tragedies and in the ongoing Western experiment with New Age philosophies and alternative lifestyles, there is an observable desire to understand and connect with the sacred. A greater attention to issues of God and the spiritual is emerging within our Australian context.

Terra Spiritus is a new voice that has emerged from this conversation, offering a unique resource on Catholic Christian spirituality through the convenience of the Internet. Published by Pauline Electronic Publishing, a ministry of the Daughters of St Paul in Australia, Terra Spiritus is ‘an invitation to listen, connect and engage with the sacred, an invitation to embrace and nurture an ongoing relationship with God’. To be certain, Christian spirituality has not always been at the forefront of the spiritual conversation within Australian society and much talk on spirituality has tended to centre on New Age spiritualities or Eastern religions and philosophies. The broader Australian public has not seen spirituality as the primary ground of the Christian churches and many Catholics do not immediately experience their parish life as a doorway into mystery or the spiritual. However, this spiritual impulse has begun to find its voice, not only in the richness of Australian literature and the arts but also in the walkways and cafes of our cities and suburbs. Now, perhaps more than ever, there is a growing number of people in touch with the Christian tradition who are openly seeking ways to connect this inheritance with their everyday experience, their home life, work life and relationships.

It is these people, yearning for more in their Catholic faith and practice, which Terra Spiritus aims to engage. The site itself offers a range of articles on Christian spirituality, reflections on prayer and relationships, meditations on Scripture and multimedia features which are accessible by subscription from any computer with an Internet connection. One of the more innovative features of the web site is a beautifully presented online chapel which provides an accessible space for prayer in the home or office. Christians can now tap into the immediacy of the Internet as nourishment for their experience of and conversation with God.

The name of the Internet magazine, Terra Spiritus, is a rejection of the myth of terra nullius, a long held misconception by early colonisers that Australia was ‘uninhabited’ and even a ‘God-less’ land. It affirms the ongoing experience of the sacred in this land and the Australian Catholic experience of God. It seeks to inspire its readers to a refreshed and renewed experience of the sacred, of the Holy Spirit at work in daily life.

Indeed it is this grounded, pragmatic approach to spirituality which has long characterised Australia’s search for the divine. This earthy and practical view of spirituality has been understood as the product of our isolation and development as a nation, from early colonial roots to a later economy of the working class which brought a no-nonsense, level-headed approach to the hard realities of life. Australians, by and large, find their spirituality not through elaborate words or rhetoric but through lived experience, through the individual and communal events and spaces that frame everyday life, from sport and recreation to the familiar surroundings of the beach and the bush.

As the conversations around spirituality and meaning-making continue to grow within contemporary Australian society, the richness of Christian spirituality becomes more and more apparent. Through new voices such as Terra Spiritus and the fruitful dialogue of Christian communities themselves we will continue, as a people, to journey towards a deeper understanding and experience of God and of ourselves.
—Daniel Ang

Terra Spiritus can be found at www.terraspiritus.com.au