Some Internal and External Factors to Consider in Youth Ministry in China
Yifan, translated by Catherine Cheung
Ten years ago I started to get involved in youth pastoral care. I first began this ministry because I had a chance to help. After that, I just could not help but stay involved. For me youth pastoral ministry is
dreams, motivation and growth. Accompanying young people, watching the changes and growth in their lives help me understand what it means to be a pastor. Thinking about the young people and their needs motivates me to keep going. In this ministry, young people become a
Holy Place for me to meet God and other lovely brothers and sisters in the Lord. Youth ministry is a gift, a call, my direction and goal of life right now! During the last ten years, I visited many dioceses and got to know some youth groups, so I have some understanding of the current state of youth ministry in mainland China. I would like to share some reflections below.
I wish to highlight two aspects in the internal workings of youth ministry. First, on the level of youth groups and activities. The development of Catholic youth groups on the mainland (from its budding in the 1990s, to early this century, and now blossoming in many places) has been gratifying and encouraging. Compared with ten years ago, current youth ministry musters a large number of people, activities and groups; there are church groups at different levels, and activities for different groups of people.... On the other hand, as groups formed, and events were organised, some of the problems in youth ministry have become obvious. Some groups lack a clear direction, group spirit and values, resulting in slow or stagnant development. For example, some groups do not understand the importance of vision and mission. The design of some activities lacks content and methods that are suitable for the growth of young people. They are not for the youth, but for the sake of organising study classes. And so the effect of the formation is not obvious. I once observed a youth activity for middle school students: the leader arranged six lectures per day, and the youth were asleep most of the time. Moreover, due to the lack of understanding of young people's psychological growth and culture, the principles and methods of Pastoral Theology, etc., some problems have arisen. Some are even harmful for young people, as when leaders scold the disobedient youth like they were children in religious education classes. In my view, we must cultivate young people in a scientific and effective way: understand the psychology and culture of young people; master and apply the principles and methods of Pastoral Theology; learn to design youth activities; understand the pattern of group development and potential problems; and plan youth ministry development according to local needs, so that they may be more beneficial for young people and groups and make youth pastoral care more effective.
The second internal aspect has to do with the management of youth ministry in the Church. As far as I know, most dioceses already have youth groups or have started youth activities. Awareness of youth pastoral care has been growing for over 20 years. Especially, the theme of this year’s Synod of Bishops focuses on youth, faith, and vocational discernment. Since last year, the Mother Church has called on local churches to focus on young people and youth pastoral ministry through questionnaires, discussions, and documents. On the surface, we can describe youth pastoral ministry in the mainland Church as flourishing. But if we look deeper, we will find that from the church management angle, some problems regarding youth pastoral care are still very serious. For example, certain dioceses or religious congregations have appointed people to do youth work, but full-time youth pastoral workers are lacking; they organise youth activities, but neglect the strengthening, and long-term development of youth groups; some parishes or dioceses cannot provide young people a designated meeting place; there are youth groups, but most of them lack planned formation; in most parishes or dioceses, the youth do not have full participatory roles. Young people therefore lack identity in the Church.
In light of these problems, I appeal to dioceses and religious congregations to appoint full-time and professional youth pastoral workers or set up full-time youth ministry teams. In this way they can provide companionship and formation to the young people who make up more than 10 percent of all believers. This can also promote consecrated living and vocations in the Church. Dioceses and parishes should, within their own capabilities, help young people establish groups, give them a relatively stable place to gather, and involve them in the service of the Church, so as to truly attract and retain the youth, give them a chance to excel, and let them join and build the Church. In this way, the life of our Church will be more energetic and more exciting.
As for the external environment of youth ministry, I also raise two issues. First, the social aspect: the opening up of the mainland over the past three decades has brought about economic development and improvement in material life, while at the same time, morality, law, civilisation and truth are lacking. Our youth also experience political oppression and the lack of religious freedom. The coexistence of material abundance and spiritual poverty on the one hand, and the desire for freedom and internal oppression on the other means the youth of the Church grow up in a state of contradiction, which is not conducive to the development of integral personality. Yet such integrity is of utmost importance to the maturation of youth. Young people feel the disharmony between economic development and spiritual deprivation, between patriotism and political oppression. They are torn between their desire to belong and rejection in reality. Culturally, they do not feel the integration of the gospel value of the Church and the Chinese culture. To a certain extent they are considered "alien" in society. In the hearts of the youth, their desire for growth and the pursuit of material possessions make them restless. Young people are in a transitional stage because they need to grow, but they are not yet mature.
The responsibility of youth ministers is to give young people the things that they need for their growth, which they cannot obtain by themselves. Faced with the current complex social environment, young people urgently need real, effective and lasting companionship and guidance to respond to internal and external contradictions and conflicts, so that they can see the future and grow into optimistic, kind, responsible young people who have dreams. Our church groups need to deepen our studies in political, economic, cultural and social aspects on the mainland to provide more practical and effective theological guidance. Youth pastoral workers also need to enrich themselves in areas like youth culture and the lives of young people on the mainland, the application of youth pastoral theology, psychological growth of young people, etc. in order to better "accompany" the youth. No one is good in all areas, but for the sake of young people of this time, we need to "work hard for the youth". In fact, a better description is "to work hard
with the youth" because, with or without us, they still have to fight for a better future. How can we who are youth pastoral workers let them walk alone?
My second reflection on the external environment of youth ministry concerns the status quo of the Church in China. After the implementation of the reform and opening up policy, the mainland Church quickly regained its vitality within the limited freedom. Today there are thousands of churches of different sizes. Each year, tens of thousands of newly baptised enter the Church. There are thousands of priests and Sisters. Formation programs for the laity are rather common. Online pastoral ministry and evangelisation are on the rise. This is a confirmation of the flourishing faith of the Church. The development of the Church needs to be affirmed, but problems cannot be ignored either. As a youth ministry worker, I feel that there are several problems that have a great impact on young people: the division of the churches (official and unofficial) has made the youth’s spiritual growth and group-building a painful experience. Many people are in the same village or the same school, but they cannot share their faith together. With the improvement in economic life, the pursuit of material wealth and pleasure by some consecrated members of the Church, their immature personality and the expression of their faith shock our young people. Catechetical teaching and theological thinking that would address youth issues are weak and lagging. As a result, many young people do not feel the connection between faith and life, or they feel that the guidance and help that their faith should bring to life are not enough, so young people tend to drift away.
Although I am a priest of the open church, I also serve many groups and youth of underground churches, and listen to the feelings and thoughts of many youth from the official churches and underground churches as well. Regarding thought and the life of faith, I wonder if priests and adult members of our Church can give young people a "third space" (between the official and underground communities) without imposing our memories and feelings on our next generation. Allow the young people to have more contact and increase mutual understanding, so they can make their own choice. I believe in the judgment and ability of our youth today, and believe in their obedience to the Holy Spirit. There are already many grey shadows outside the Church. Can we just leave them a patch of colorful sky in the Church? On the other hand, the strengthening of personal ethics and spiritual life of the clergy and religious, renewal in theological understanding, and the improvement of the catechetical skills are also urgent tasks. The content of our gospel is beautiful and rich. It is like a good meal. But if the stove is dirty, and the vessels are worn and broken, that cannot attract customers or whet their appetite.
The youth of the Church are full of vigor, passion and dreams. They have a deep desire for a life that is good and lived to the full (John 10:10), but their pursuit and growth are faced with many problems and obstacles that they cannot solve. Every time I think about this, I always think of this Gospel image: "Jesus looked at him and loved him”(Mark 10:21). It helps me deeply understand and remember, that it is not I, but Jesus Himself who is looking at the youth and loving them. I must walk into the heart and life of the young people on the mainland like Jesus, know their desires, and see their "sorrows", so I can truly "walk" with them! I hope our "accompanying" work as youth ministers in the mainland Church can be for the youth, help them clear the way, and stay with them, and let the young people grow up healthy in the Lord!