Father and son reading a book together.

How Fathers and Families Can Save Youth Ministry From Itself

From The Catholic Gentleman

Man is formed by two main things: family and Church. God made the family at creation and made the Church at the re-creation through Christ. One we inherit at birth and the other we inherit at our second birth (baptism).

What has happened in recent decades, however, is the unprecedented breakdown in both of those institutions, family and Church. They’re divine institutions, so they’re not going anywhere, but they’re populated by men, so it can get messy.

And I want to point out the findings of Mary Eberstadt in her book How the West Really Lost God to perhaps shift your thoughts on which of those two things decline first, or rather, which decline has a great effect on the other’s decline.

Most of us think it does like this: stupid, lame, and lethargic teaching hurts faith – bad preaching, wonky catechesis, etc.. Without faith, then, families begin to loosen at the seams and decline. Families suffer when faith suffers.

Eberstadt looks at the evidence and finds that the opposite is often true. While poor catechesis and soft morality do perpetuate the problem, it is the decline in the family that usually precedes the decline in faith. No, it’s not an “either/or” issue, but we at least need to understand that the health of the family and the health of faith are inseparable. Like a DNA strand, “family and faith are the invisible double helix of society – two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another” (Eberstadt).

Family life itself predisposes us and even prepares us for a life of faith. As St. John Paul famously said, the family is the “school of love”. Loving fathers reveal the face of the Father; tender mothers teach us the value of mercy; siblings teach us fraternal love; and all of the pains and trials teach us of sin and redemption. I’m pretty sure changing diapers prepares you for purgatory. And, of course I’ll mention this, the most important factor for faith is the father. The stronger his faith the stronger the chance that the rest of the family will be lifelong disciples.  So, faith suffers when families suffer.


Youth ministry is a symptom of unhealthy families. Why? Because most youth ministry programs are targeting young people for initial evangelization – often they’re trying to convince them that God is real, sent His Son, and loves them, and that the Catholic Church is the true Church. In short, they’re trying to make them Christians. But few are asking – why do so many youth ministry folks presume (rightly) those kids are not well-formed Christians to start with? We’ll get to that…

But the problem arises when most youth ministry programs see young people in isolation from their family. They are not considering the whole ecosystem, and by doing that they are limiting their effectiveness.

I Googled “Catholic youth ministry mission statement”, and here’s one from the top:

“The purpose of the Youth Ministry Program is to create an environment which leads high school teenagers into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and His Church. This is the command of Jesus to his first disciples: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.’ Everything we do at St. [Example Popular Youth Program] is directed toward the evangelization of our young people, leading them to know and love Christ and His Church!”

That’s a big burden for that ministry to carry. From evangelization to sending them out to evangelize? – it’s the entire Christian formation placed upon one team. It follows the world’s model of dividing and conquering; put babies in daycare, old folks in homes, those in the middle in “productivity”, and once every age is divided and cared for, we’ll be ok.

Let me defend youth ministry real quick if you’re one of those “I hated all them guitars anyhow” folks. Youth ministry is mostly sustained by people who love Christ that have recognized that young people are leaving the Church. So, propelled by authentic zeal and prayer they have essentially been doing the jobs of parents and pastors while parents and pastors live in aloof delusions that everything is ok. It’s not. But yes, we do need fewer guitars.

But now let’s take a hard look at youth ministry attitudes that might be perpetuating the problem their trying to fix.


As the war-based industry of the military during World War II gave way to what Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial-complex”, a military-based system of power, youth ministry can become an autonomous body that creates systems that perpetuate and grow its existence when it might not even be needed or not dealing with the real problems.   Let me give you an example.

I was once at a meeting with youth ministry leaders from around the country, along with some parish leaders with big and growing youth programs. We had just finished discussing the mantra that the family is the primary catechist, yada yada, and then moved on to describe our hip new discipleship based small groups, which is the language that is newer than the tired explanations of “relational ministry”. One Youth Director mentioned how he had hired more people to help lead these groups. He was up to four staff members.

“Aren’t there any parents that could lead them?” I asked. We were just talking parents after all.

“No,” he answered.

We moved on, but I was sitting there astounded. I felt like I was part of a machine plowing through human nature with the best of intentions. Why are we pretending that we believe parents really matter? We may saythey are the primary educators, but we really believe that we are. If they did matter to us, we’d be talking parents.

“Wait!” There was an awkward pause, “Can we back up? You don’t have any adults in your parish capable of leading a small group of youth, that can teach them the faith they are commanded by God to teach them?” This was a famously old youth ministry program, stretching decades, setting standards for the whole country. “Did none of those young people grow up and stick around?”

“No,” he answered. “I mean… I have a masters in theology and my staff went to [insert famously vibrant Catholic college].”

This guy worked at one of the biggest parishes around. I continued to press that fact. He was telling me that in a Catholic parish of thousands of families not one adult could lead a discussion on the Catholic Faith. But I realized then this analogy of the military-industrial-complex. This thing called youth ministry, invented to focus on declining faith of young people, has grown to focus so much on youth that it doesn’t consider them in the context of the family. Because of that we have to work harder, hire more people, buy more curriculums, coordinate more events, and try our best to out-activity the world’s activities. I thought of this moment when Pope Francis said recently:

“If family education regains its prominence, many things will change for the better. It’s time for fathers and mothers to return from their exile – they have exiled themselves from educating their children – and slowly reassume their educative role.”

Most people applied that to public schools, but I thought of the world of “professional” ministry. I’m with the Pope. I think our youth need many things, but they need parents more than they need professionals.

Often its only the youth ministry at a parish that has its own website and mission statement (every other ministry is just on the plain old parish site) – that’s just one sign among many that its too isolated from family and parish life. Oh, and all those Sunday night meetings? If there was one time and day that young people should be with their family, its then. But when you see your program as the primary means of evangelization and formation, you happily take that timeslot. It’s self-perpetuating without question. We’re planting seeds but not realizing that the ground, the environment itself, is rocky and hard.   Our programs are more expensive, require more staff, but if we really look hard at the numbers, they’re not that effective.

We like to look at big youth conferences and gatherings and think we’re doing big things. And let me be clear: they are good (mostly). But the big shows of youth ministry efforts can mislead us into thinking that “youth ministry” is an effective answer to the problem of poorly formed young people. If you’re interested in the evidence, and you think these conferences are signs of a growing youth movement, I suggest Christian Smith’s book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Smith opens a special chapter on Catholics (and we get a chapter not for our good track record) with a note about showy signs of youth ministry:

“What I observed at this conference might suggest that Catholic teenagers in the United States are doing quite well religiously, that Catholic youth are generally committed, enthusiastic, and serious about their faith and Church. But such a conclusion would be mistaken. (Emphasis added)”

And after pages and pages of objective data and anecdotal evidence Smith comes to this conclusion after asking what happened to Catholic kids:

“Most American teens turn out religiously to look a lot like their parents – not always, but very often… It does not appear to be the case that most U.S. Catholic parents of teenagers are struggling to live out vibrant lives of Catholic faith and yet find teenagers to be religiously apathetic and resistant. Rather, it appears that the relative religious laxity of most U.S. Catholic teenagers significantly reflects the relative religious laxity of their parents.”

In other words, youth are not the problem. Parents are the problem. So if we want to fix a problem why are we focusing so much on youth?

One problem we have, however, is that many young adults in youth ministry simply don’t trust their parent’s generation to pass on the Faith. Why? Because they had a conversion late in life through someone else, and they often harbor an understandable and justifiable anger towards their parents and parish for not giving them the Gospel younger, which would have saved them from heartache and sin. I feel this way. Thanks for the extra purgatory folks!   But the answer is not to throw out human nature and family life – don’t throw grandpa out with the bathwater. In this situation we need healing and the rebuilding of trust. I don’t have an easy answer, but I hope bringing it up helps.

There is no command in the Bible to have a youth ministry program. Every mention of “reaching young people” is directed to families, especially fathers.   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes a great point that the very calling to covenant is rooted in parental dynamics:

“All [of the developments of monogamy and family life] led to the home and the family becoming the central setting of the life of faith. In the only verse in the Hebrew Bible to explain why God chose Abraham, God says: ‘I have known him so that he will instruct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just’ (Gen. 18:19). Abraham was chosen … simply to be a parent. In one of the most famous lines in Judaism, which we say every day and night, Moses commanded, ‘You shall teach these things repeatedly to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house or when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up’ (Deut. 6:7, 11:19). Marriage and the family are where faith finds its home and where the Divine Presence lives in the love between husband and wife, parent and child.”

The most influential person in a young persons life is their father. And for boys that extends especially to the father figures around them – coaches, mentors, etc. Why then is there no interaction between the world of youth ministry and men’s ministry? If those people out there that have an amazing ability to approach and talk to young people taught men to talk to and approach young people, what an effect they would have! And really, “professional” ministry people are good at evangelizing. I just think they need to teach parents to do it instead of taking on the world alone.

“But I ask for adult volunteers all the time,” youth ministers respond. I think part of the problem is youth ministers want parents to be involved in what they’re doing, they don’t want to hand over the challenge to the adults themselves. Hey bud, I’ve got young kids, can you stop asking for me to come to committee meetings at dinner and bed-time?

The attitude is, “Come volunteer and help us with our program to reach your kids.” I think we’ll have a revolution when the world of youth ministry shifts its thinking: “How can we equip and serve you in your duty to pass on the Faith as fathers and mothers? It’s your job, not mine.” In Fraternus we’ve had a huge success in going into men’s groups and simply explaining their vocation to be life-giving fathers, to pass on the faith. Our attitude is: “Here’s how we can help, but it’s your job. We’re leaving now…” From there we exhaust ourselves in support and the offering of resources, but our constant reminder is that we serve them in their role as fathers in the community.

Imagine if the clergy or well-formed staff at a parish sat down weekly and challenged every father in the parish to greater prayer and devotion, and gave them the tools to be better husbands, fathers and teachers.   That “program” would be cheap, simple, and resoundingly effective. It wouldn’t even need a fancy logo and tagline. Not even a facebook page (GASP!). And if you’ve been as frustrated as I have with draconian policies, bureaucratic hold-ups, and political struggles behind chancellery doors at the parish and diocesan level, reaching out to parents is easy and effective – they can take their kids skiing without turning in a single form to you or having two adults present always or keeping all kids sleeping in a room without any adults! That last one proves that lawsuits are to be avoided more than hell.

I was once at a Byzantine Catholic parish and the priest, during his sermon, told the parents that if they had in any way neglected their duty to educate their children in the Faith that they need to come see him before they receive communion. Wow. I had never heard such a thing, but it turns out this was an attitude quite natural and normal before the professionalization of ministry. Just listen to the quiet gentle Cure of Ars warn his flock:

“Go on, shameless fathers and mothers, go on into Hell, where the fury of God awaits you, you and all the good actions you have done letting your children run such risks. Go on, they will not be long in joining you, for you have outlined the road plainly for them.”

To my youth ministry colleagues: It’s time for a paradigm shift. We have to conduct our apostolic efforts in a way that recognizes, respects, and assists families in their primary role as educators. I don’t think this always means to stop having programs, though sometimes it might, but I mean that persons must be viewed and understood as members of a family, and the roles that pertain to membership in that family must be respected. Mothers and fathers have responsibility to teach their children the faith. If you rightly see that they are failing at that job, your job is to help them succeed! Do not swoop in like an over-zealous social worker and usurp the role of parents, but assist and augment them in that role. You owe this to the parents in justice. You will get less praise for your efforts and programming (because hopefully they’ll get credit for doing what they are called to do), but your apostolate will be more fruitful. Why? Because you may be equipped for ministry by training and education, but they are by vocation. The best use of your training and educating is to teach others to teach, starting with parents.

And parents? Step in. Yeah, you’ll hear all sorts of things about kids needing their space from parents and how they need peer this and that. Step in. This is your realm, your responsibility and calling. Let your kids go to pizza parties, I guess, but make sure that you’re not leaving their education in the hands of “youth ministry”. If youth ministry is a thing it might better be labeled “parenting”.

Jason Craig is the Executive Director of Fraternus, which trains and equips men to mentor the boys into virtuous, Catholic men. Jason holds a Masters in Theology from the Augustine Institute and writes for The Catholic Gentleman from his homestead in Western NC, where he milks cows and tends to a variety of plants and animals with his wife Katie and four kids (and counting).