As I’ve done on an occasional basis for the last few months, I’m turning over my column space here to another voice whose good work is relevant to the theme of the 2018 synod: “Young people, the faith, and vocational discernment.”
Chris Stefanick began his career as a successful youth minister but has since developed into one of the most effective Catholic evangelists in the United States. The founder of Real Life Catholic, Stefanick’s live events reach more than 85,000 people each year – and his online videos, TV show and radio spots have reached millions. He offers his thoughts on the synod and its goals below.
I’m not a theologian. I’m not a cultural commentator. I’m not a pundit. I’m not a statistician who can track all the trends in youth culture. I’m an evangelist, and have been for my entire “career.” All I have to share is the work I do. All I can appeal to is what I see working. And what I see working is a return to the basics.
My work isn’t ground-breaking or complex. There is no secret formula. In fact, I strive to run the least innovative ministry in the Catholic Church. The central driver of our ministry is a parish-based evangelistic outreach event for all ages.
Our events are consistently full. Even in small towns we typically get 1,000 people — and it’s usually from just a 20 mile radius. Pastors tell us that up to 70 percent of the crowds at our events aren’t “the usual pew sitters.” It’s also very clear that half of the people in our audiences are millennials.
Our outreach plan consists of coaching parish teams of volunteers to reach out to their entire community and personally invite people home to the Church. When local parish outreach teams get too creative in their efforts, too media savvy, or too innovative, my team of coaches gets nervous. When outreach teams stick to the basics and invite people, personally, they succeed every time. And thanks to the hard but simple work of our outreach teams, I’m quite sure that I encounter more English-speaking millennials every year at our events than the number who gave their input for the instrumentum laboris (IL) to prepare for the current synod.
So, what do I see that they need from the Church? A back-to-basics clarity. I’m not merely speaking about clarity when it comes to specific teachings, but in a more encompassing sense of the word: They want clarity on what, exactly, we have to offer for their lives. And if we can’t answer that for them, they want us to get out of the way.
Our message, the “thing” that we offer, is the Gospel, which, despite all the failures of the Church, remains the best news ever. It’s the news that the human person isn’t a cosmic accident whose destiny is worm food and then nothingness. It’s the message that we’re created with a purpose, redeemed by a loving God who has a plan for our lives, and destined for eternal glory. It’s the message that we’re called to greatness by making Jesus the Lord of our lives. We’re not just invited to call him “friend” and then do what we want. It’s the message that he loves us, even in our weakness, and that his love has deep and profoundly good implications for our lives.
The results are conversions. Every week. A young woman recently approached me after an event and said, “I had an abortion. You’re the first person I’m telling this to. And this is the first time since my abortion that I feel like God can love me again.” I walked her to her priest who heard her confession, and she left a different person. These stories happen all the time.
In a world where seemingly the only news about the Church is bad news, all I see, at every event, is hope. I see the joy of people who have taken new ownership of their faith and invited neighbors to Church for the first time. I see the light enter people’s eyes as they begin a relationship with Jesus Christ, who alone is able to give them life.
Simplicity. Clarity. Back to basics. It’s the same principle used by any truly effective company in the secular world. If someone is going to “buy” a product from you, they have to know exactly what you’re selling, and that you yourself believe in it. If you aren’t clear on the value you’re going to bring to a person’s life — so clear that they can “get it” quickly — they’ll find you annoying. As the instrumentum’s text notes quite accurately: “A large number of young people, mostly from highly secularized areas, are not asking the Church for anything, since they do not see her as a significant interlocutor in their lives. In fact, some of them expressly ask to be left alone, because they feel her presence to be bothersome or even irritating” (IL66).
My hope from any document the Church writes to youth is that it should mark a return to first things. We need that now more than ever. Ambiguous language about hard moral issues won’t win souls. After the McCarrick debacle, frankly, vague language from our clerics attempting to be more open-minded and push the envelope on sexual ethics will just seem … well … creepy. (Now is definitely the hour for black-and-white clarity to make a comeback.)
Insisting in a document that “we’re listening” won’t win souls either. It will make us look like we’re desperate to be relevant. Facebook and Apple didn’t rise to the top by telling millennials, “we’re listening.” Creating a rift between new propositions and old moral teachings in an effort to go along with the times won’t make us attractive. It will make us look faithless and confused.
If we want to actually win souls in a world where young people are bombarded by 3,000 ads per day, we have to get back to the basics. We need to be clear about what, exactly, we offer the world. In the midst of a culture of death, we need to offer “life to the full” in Jesus Christ without apologies or embarrassment. We have to be known as the Church of the Gospel again.
Thankfully, we don’t need to rewrite the playbook.
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