The Catholics have long seen their schools as playing a very important role in the development of faith among young people. In many Australian dioceses, most children are prepared for the various sacraments such as First Communion and Confirmation in the school. The schools provide most of the education in faith. And the schools also engage young people in social justice activities, in spiritual retreats and in Masses, so that they learn about and are initiated into the practices of faith.
In recent decades, Protestants have also turned increasingly to schools to provide not only education in faith itself, but a Christian perspective on other areas of the curriculum. Again, through the schools, students are initiated into the practices of faith: prayer and study of the Bible and the practices of charity and social justice.
The Gap between Church Schools and Local Church Life
It has been hoped that children who have been taught about faith and who have been initiated into the practices of faith will continue to practise the faith after they leave school. Indeed, it has been assumed by many people that such education should lead into involvement in Christian communities of faith in which the practices of worship and involvement in the mission of the church are continued. But this has not always occurred. Involvement in a church school does not mean that children become involved in a church, and even if they are involved in a church during their school years it does not mean continued involvement after leaving school.
I know of no national population survey which has actually asked whether the respondent went to a church-run school enabling comparison of the church involvement rates of people who went to church-run schools and those who did not. However, studies of 10,000 students in Catholic, Anglican and other Christian schools conducted by the CRA between 2011 and 2013 found that many were not involved in a church during their time in school:
• 44% said they never attended a church;
• 28% said they attended occasionally; and
• 28% said they attended monthly or more often.
Students were also asked whether they would attend a church if it was up to them, and not up to their families, whether they attended or not. In their responses,
• 29% said they would never attend;
• 38% said they would attend occasionally; and
• 33% said they would attend monthly or more often.
Judging by the fact that around 37 per cent of all secondary school students in Australia attend a church-run school, but only 8 per cent of people under the age of 30 attend a church monthly or more often, it is evident that there is a significant gap between the proportion of Australian young people who attend a church school and the proportion who attend a church after leaving school.
The issue is not just one of attending church, but the continuing influence of faith on people’s way of life. Just 28 per cent of people under the age of 30 believe in God and say that religious faith is important or very important in shaping life’s directions. Thus, on leaving the church-run school, it is evident that many leave faith behind altogether. Many church-run schools have sought to address the gap between school, church and the continuing practice of faith. In some places, the church is on the same site as the school and there are various ways in which the activities of school and church are integrated. In other places, there are requirements for students to attend at least some services of a particular church while they are students. This article looks at a particular process to encourage students in involvement in faith communities in the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.
Youth Ministry Coordinators in the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney
The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney has appointed Youth Ministry Coordinators to all secondary schools in the Archdiocese. One of the roles of these coordinators is to encourage students to become involved in parish life and other expressions of the Christian faith. The Christian Research Association was invited to schools and parishes in the Archdiocese in 2014 to look at how these efforts are working and what factors might contribute to more effective encouragement in the practice of faith and connection with parishes.
The research was undertaken through five case-studies. Researchers visited the school and the local parish. They talked with priests and youth leaders in the parishes, and with the Youth Ministry Coordinators, the Religious Education Coordinators, and students in the schools. They also observed some of the youth activities occurring in schools and parishes.
The Youth Ministry Coordinators had initiated many different activities to involve young people in faith. In one place, they offered hot chocolate before school and combined that with a short prayer and reflection time in the chapel. In another place, a group of students had asked for a prayer group which was organised by the Youth Ministry Coordinator. A large concert of contemporary Christian music had been organised and Youth Ministry Coordinators in a number of schools had taken groups of young people to it. Several schools had strong social justice programs and the Youth Ministry Coordinators were taking young people to serve in soup kitchens, organising for them to mentor young children from struggling local families, to fund-raise for charities, and to visit elderly people in residential care, amongst other activities. Alongside these social justice and devotional activities were the religious education program of the school and the regular patterns of school worship.
All of the Youth Ministry Coordinators had contact with the local parishes and advertised youth activities that were happening in the local parish. In most places, there were also occasions in which they worked with the local priests to organise specific activities, such as Christmas, Easter or Ash Wednesday services. They invited the local priests to school activities, and their hope was that, if the students knew the priest, they would be more open to attending parish activities.
The Youth Ministry Coordinators acknowledged that getting young people involved, even in the religious activities in the school, was not easy. One of the organisers of the contemporary music concert told how she went from class to class advertising the concert and encouraging the students to go. Whenever she mentioned that it was ‘Catholic’ or ‘Christian’, the students’ interest quickly dissipated. Anything religious was seen as ‘uncool’. Yet, when the presenters of the concert did a short presentation during school time to which students were required to go, the students really enjoyed it.
Getting students involved in activities in the local parishes was even more difficult. Most students were simply not interested. In particular, the majority of students saw the Mass as irrelevant to them in content and unattractive in its cultural forms. Few saw the Mass as offering them a sense of community.
The Place of Small Groups
Not all students were opposed to all church-based or religious activities. A number of young people who were interviewed said they wanted small faith-oriented groups in which they could find a sense of belonging and in which they could have fun together. Certainly some of the young people were open to discussing matters relating to faith. They were even more keen to be involved in practical activities, such as helping with a soup kitchen. Some young people had found groups in which they had become involved, for example, in Maronite Catholic churches in the Archdiocese which had well-developed small group structures. There were a few other Catholic churches in the areas covered by the schools which also had group activities. Some found such activities through some of the religious orders, such as the Marists. A few other students noted that they had found such groups in churches of other denominations.
The success of such groups depended, in part, on the quality of the leadership. The young people indicated that they would respond more enthusiastically to leaders who were perceived to be ‘authentic’ and enthusiastic about their groups and activities. They wanted people who would not tell them what to do or be judgemental, but who would get beside them and work with them to create such groups. It was important to the young people that their leaders were people with whom they could relate easily on a personal basis: with whom they could share their thoughts and feelings. Some of the priests and other leaders interviewed in the project had said that they were happy to answer any questions that young people might have about the faith. But that attitude was not what the young people wanted. They were not looking for leaders who had all the answers, but for leaders who would be present with them and share in their lives, their doubts, their challenges and their successes.
Festivals of Faith
A number of the young people interviewed had been either to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or to a Catholic Youth Festival in Melbourne. The students who had been to World Youth Day all reported that it had been an amazing experience. It had encouraged them greatly in their faith in that it demonstrated to them the fact that they were part of a great company of young people from right around the globe who were enthusiastic about their faith. They valued the opportunity to experience the celebration of their faith in different ways. They had also appreciated the opportunities that had been given them to meet people in Catholic communities in various parts of South America and to help in some small way with a variety of community projects. Several students reported that they were now more regular at Mass and enjoyed Mass more than they had before going to World Youth Day. Another student reported that he was less reserved about his faith since attending World Youth Day because he was now more aware of the strength of faith among some young people who are persecuted for what they believe. On the other hand, some noted that the experience of World Youth Day was very different from that of the local parish, and World Youth Day had not helped them find meaning and belonging in the local parish.
The Catholic Youth Festival held in Melbourne in 2013 was similar in the nature of its impact, although on a smaller scale. Yet, one student, for example, spoke about how she was taken aback by the numbers attending (between 3,000 and 4,000 young people). She was greatly impressed by some of the young speakers who had a strong connection with God. The atmosphere and the energy had a great influence on her. However, that experience was not brought back into the parish in any way. Other students in other schools had also attended, but noted that it was the schools, not the parishes, that had encouraged and organised their attendance. Most parishes neither recognised nor owned the experience the students had, and most students did not relate their experiences to further involvement in the local parish.
Special experiences such as World Youth Day and Catholic Youth Festival can have a profound impact on the growth of faith among young people. Students often returned with a stronger sense of belonging to the Catholic faith and the wider Catholic community (see also Fisher undated). Students reported that their faith also became more personal, inspired by the celebrations of these special occasions. They reported that they return with greater enthusiasm in living out their faith and in serving others; but only a few reported that the experience had led to greater involvement in the local parish.
How Can Schools and Local Churches Best Collaborate?
If young people are to continue the path of faith, and live according to the values of faith, they need communities which will support them. As schools are currently constituted, they can only provide such communities for a limited period in a person’s life. Even while young people are still at school, it makes sense to guide them into communities through which their faith and values will be supported and which will give them opportunity to express their faith and values beyond their time at school.
It is inevitable that young people will find such communities in many forms. While some had found it in small groups, a few others had found it in choirs and music groups. Others found it in social justice activities. Others found it in more ‘generic’ youth groups or small discussion or prayer groups. As part of the mix, the big national and international events such as youth festivals and World Youth Days have an important place and contribute to the sense for young people that they are part of something much bigger than themselves and their local communities. A variety of activities and forms of community are needed to involve young people today.
There was one location which had been relatively successful in bridging the gap between church and parish, where there were a relatively large number of young people involved in a church. It occurred where a teacher, who was also the Youth Ministry Coordinator, had also taken on the voluntary role of youth leader in the local parish.
A number of young people accompanied her to a Mass at the local parish. While the Mass was attended by people of all ages, there was a strong affirmation of the young people who attended and they were invited to participate in a variety of ways in the Mass. After the Mass, there was a ‘hang-out’ time with barbecued sausages and an opportunity for informal talking. The priest was there and mixed readily with the young people. He knew them by name and happily joined in their conversations.
Local churches must build ‘faith groups’ among young people that are appropriate to them: that are appropriate in their cultural forms, that deal with the issues of life as young people are engaging them, and that provide authentic and enthusiastic leadership. Such groups and activities need to be jointly organised by school and church. Simply advertising parish activities in a school usually does not work well. Students are only likely to become involved if they are explicitly invited by people they know and trust. They will only continue to be involved if the groups and activities are meaningful and attractive to them.
One way of collaborating would be to develop youth ministry councils which include representatives of the school staff, of the local church, and, where possible, parents of the young people. These councils would work together to develop youth ministry, to initiate activities and groups and to engage young people in them. In that way, the activities and groups will be jointly owned and supported, and the burden is not left to one or two ‘youth leaders’ or the local priest or minister.
Youth ministry in local churches will not be easy in the present climate when so many are sceptical about the Christian faith and so many have little confidence in the churches. However, that should not deter school or local church communities from the goals of seeking the spiritual and personal development of young people, from seeking to build communities of young people committed to Christian faith and values, and encouraging young people to follow as disciples of Jesus. As noted in the ‘Christianity After Religion’ (this edition of Pointers, p.8), the pattern today will often be that of developing belonging first, after which will come the development of Christian behaviour, and finally, belief, rather than requiring commitment of belief first.
In contemporary society, young people look for particular ways of being in community, or expressing faith, that resonate with them. Some young people will find the expression of their faith primarily through social justice and in other ways of seeking to build a better world. Some young people will find it primarily through devotion to God, through prayer and a deep spiritual life. Some will express it through music and drama, while others will express it through service and evangelisation.
At the same time, churches need to work on the widespread lack of confidence in the churches and on the cultural assumption that the Christian faith is no longer relevant to contemporary living. Together we need to find ways of expressing the fact that ‘faith’ can be ‘cool’ and meaningful and can contribute to a better world.
Fisher, A. (undated) Effects of World Youth Days and Australian Catholic Festivals, Parramatta: Catholic Diocese of Parramatta. (Available as a electronic document from the Diocese of Parramatta website.)
This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, vol. 24, no.4, December 2014. pp. 1-4.