What Is Needed
While the research clearly demonstrates that adolescent learning requires interactive, purposeful, and meaningful engagement, these are not the traditional methods that are employed by most catechists, the majority of whom are volunteers. Smith notes in his conclusions that the transformation that appears to be needed is mostly an institutional and structural one. The interest in faith and in learning about that faith is actually present in teens, but the methods and structures being used leave much to be desired. Smith calls on local leaders to “better engage and challenge the youth already at their disposal [and] to work better to help make faith a more active and important part of their lives. “ (Soul Searching, p. 266).
The home situation, where faith is first transmitted, does not seem to be faring much better. While Smith found that “parents are most important in forming their children’s religious and spiritual lives” and are the “single most important social influence” (Soul Searching, p 261) on their teen’s spiritual development, he also discovered that the majority of parents felt their influence over teens had been lost or severely limited (Soul Searching, p. 56).
Many in the Catholic Church would agree that the current generation of parents can aptly be described as a “lost generation” because they grew up during the 1970’s and 80’s when Catholic identity was challenged by severe cultural upheaval and religious formation in Catholic programs was in transition. Many never learned much about their full Catholic identity and few have chosen to update their formation beyond the mandatory preparation classes required for their children’s sacraments. This lack of faith knowledge tends to lead to a lack of faith involvement, resulting in a lackluster faith overall. Smith concludes that “the best way to get most youth more involved in and serious about their faith communities is to get their parents more involved in and serious about their faith communities.” (Soul Searching, p. 267).
Another dimension of this formation puzzle exists with those who offer their time to form the young people – the catechists and program leaders. There is a wide discrepancy among these various formators of faith. While some see this role as a higher calling to pass on the faith to the next generation, many are busy volunteers with little or no training, who have not been well formed themselves, which only serves to perpetuate the cycle of inarticulation and lack of clarity around the Catholic identity that the young person is being taught. In addition, many adult catechists are not updated as to the current cultural milieu that makes up the adolescent world. It is a rapidly changing, technically challenging environment to comprehend that can overwhelm most adults to the point that connecting and relating to teens at their level becomes an anxiety ridden experience that some feel is better left up to others. The problem is that the Church is not preparing or calling forth these “others” and the pool of experienced and well-formed catechists for teenagers is shrinking.
These elements, along with larger ones such as non-cooperation and sometimes even competition among parish, school and homes, all contribute in their own way to the dysfunctional system that has created this present crisis in adolescent catechesis. So we end up with family and church systems that are not well-formed in faith, which use lackluster methods and outdated models to cover a particular theme in order to pass on this faith to the next generation. It is no wonder that Smith’s research uncovered the realities that it did – at best we are set up for mediocrity. We are in desperate need for a new direction…