One of my passions is learning about what makes successful youth ministry. Thus I really enjoyed my time attending the pathways retreat put on by the diocese of Richmond. This retreat was designed to help train Catechist to better serve young people. The ultimate goal, of course, is, “to empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world.” During my time at the retreat, the one thing that was clearly emphasized is that 1. Religious education is a lifelong process and 2. that young people learn better through direct action rather than verbal memorization. Thus, it seems that if we are to reach the young person, we must engage them not as an instructor or teacher, but rather as a facilitator on a journey. Given this goal, I have come to realize that there are certain pitfalls that Catholic Religious education has fallen into:
1. teaching the textbook
I currently am a 7th-grade catechist. My teacher manual is cumbersome and big. To its credit, it does suggest certain activities to do, but most of the lessons revolve around reading out of a textbook. Likewise, my teachers manual is so vast that it is practically impossible to do every activity suggested in the hour I have with them; not to mention the fact that I am also required to go over the Sunday reading with them. It can be quite overwhelming. During the pathways retreat, we were introduced to the concept of The hierarchy of truths. This is the idea that not all truths taught by the Catholic church are equal and that some are more essential than others. The top three essential truths are 1. the four gospels, 2. The Mass, and the Creed. Hence if the kids leave with nothing else, but an appreciation for those three things, it will take them very far. I am not saying don’t teach what is covered in the textbook, but don’t be a slave to it.
2. sticking to lecture-style catechist
Most religious education still takes place in classrooms rather than open areas. This can make it hard to prepare the meeting space that lends itself to discussion and facilitation. It can be easy to slip into lecture mode. It especially doesn’t help if your textbook requires vocab words to be taught and a self-assessment to be taken. It is very hard to make words like deposit of faith or magisterium engaging. However, if you lecture the whole time you make CCD very boring and the information doesn’t stick. In fact, if you asked my students what the definition of Magisterium is, none of them will remember, but I guarantee that they will remember the skit we did.
3. not involving the parents or forming relationships
This is a big one. During the pathways retreat, I learned that, despite teenage rebellion, parents are the number one influence in the child’s life. Furthermore, teens are most likely to stay Catholic if they have formed relationships with people in the church. Therefore, it is crucial that the parents are on the same page and that the kids have a good relationship with you or a fellow catechist. This is definitely an area where I, as a catechist, could improve. Just recently I had the following exchange:
Mother of X: Hey, I just wanted to let you know that x has band practice and won’t make it to class on certain Tuesdays.
Me: ok, you know there’s always edge nights on Sunday, X could go to that on the weeks he won’t be here, that way he won’t miss a thing.
Mother: Well, we are out of town on some weekends, but we will look into it. Although it shouldn’t be a problem since he isn’t preparing for anything in the church.
Now I don’t blame this mother in that the benefits of band practice seem more tangible than the benefits of CCD or youth ministry especially since there is no sacrament to check off. However, I am not sure why she tells me about his absence. Maybe to avoid judgment or make her feel better, not sure. What I do know is that in those few moments I should have offered to look at the schedule and to give PREP at home to him. This allows the mother to see what is being taught in class and hopefully the benefit of it, but more importantly, it gives the student the opportunity to still learn.
4. not emphasizing the Kerygma
well before we can emphasize the Kerygma, we must first know what it is. Kerygma is the proclaiming of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is that even though we are sinners, God sent his only son, Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, he was crucified and died but rose again conquered death. He ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of the father. He desires to deliver you from your sins. It is the basic gospel message. The problem is that it is all head knowledge and not heart knowledge. We need to accept and believe for ourselves and not just recite. Too much of catechesis takes it for granted that the students wholeheartedly believe this statement, which is simply not true.
5. Not letting go of the old way of doing things
The problem is not really points 1-4 in that most church youth ministers are aware and have easy fixes. Lifeteen and Edge programs being the front-runner. The problem is the unwillingness of the Church to admit that classroom-based CCD no longer works. Also, they fail to admit that teens leave the Church with a lot of head knowledge, but no heart knowledge of who Jesus Christ is. Ultimately they become students instead of relational disciples of Christ.
In conclusion, religious education has problems because it is not something that can be taught but must be something lived in order to be life-lasting. In order to be lived, it must be experienced relationally.