A sampling of attendance at recent youth ministry events indicates participation across the Diocese of Phoenix has risen in the past year as parishes emphasize relationship-building and enjoy full activity schedules.
A trend away from personal engagement can hamper one’s growth in his or her faith, according to Fr. John Ehrich, pastor of St. Thomas More in Glendale.
“The culture really lacks a lot of (community-building). Teens don’t know what they’re missing. There is this huge deficit in their ability to be in relationship with others. If you can’t be in relationship with others, it’s going to be difficult to be in relationship with God.
Learning to build relationships is key. This is really difficult to do through texting, Instagram or Snapchat,” he said.
Three Valley parishes reported that their Youth Ministry numbers have climbed steadily over the past 6-12 months as teens have sought more face time with one another and parents have encouraged children to get involved.
“We are definitely trending up in the numbers we’re seeing,” said Sharon Fabyanic, director of youth formation at St. Patrick in Scottsdale.
“We welcome them to invite friends. We definitely have kids from other churches and parishes. Sometimes these (other) groups are thriving; some are not. Sometimes, they are kids of no faith. Two of our teens we have journeyed with over the years came into the church and were baptized.”
Teens are one of the trend’s biggest drivers, according to Meagan Martinez, director of discipleship at St. Timothy in Mesa.
“Teens are the best advocate in forming their peers to be evangelists. They invite their friends, who find a place for themselves and want to share,” she said.
But parents are contributing, too.
At St. Thomas More in Glendale, where the numbers have jumped dramatically both for youth and young adult ministries, the regular gatherings include not only study of Scripture and prayer but socialization and dinner.
“We make it easy. Parents can drop their teens off at the church, where they’ll be fed. Parents know that it’s a safe place for their kids, they can drop them off, and they’ll be OK,” said Fr. Ehrich.
St. Thomas More’s programs are led by Thomas Muglia, a Catholic recording artist and son of Chris Muglia, the accomplished singer/songwriter and the parish’s director of music and liturgy. The elder Muglia’s song, “You Are Welcome Here” was part of the music during Bishop John P. Dolan’s installation Mass on Aug. 2, 2022.
“What’s really important is helping them build good relationships, be more socialized; connect face-to-face as opposed to through technology. I find relationship-building is of primary importance, creating a Catholic culture where they can feel ‘I belong’ and that it’s normal; not weird to be Catholic; it’s a normal part of their lives,” said Fabyanic.
“I know parents are very motivated. (They) have seen the effects of mental-health crisis, and are asking, ‘What are things I can do to help my child have a healthy life and get to know God?’ These are all the things that take place in a parish youth group. You see a sense of longing for that from parents,” she said.
There can be challenges to teens going regularly to a youth group.
There is homework, and many participate in athletics, band or have jobs. There is also family dinner to consider, Martinez noted.
“Sometimes we have to say, ‘We know you have family dinner. We’ll see you next week.’
We try to help them discern; it becomes a teachable moment.”
St. Timothy also celebrates a 5 p.m. Mass Sunday as a Teen Mass.
Church leaders say participation will reap fruit beyond the teen experience.
Martinez, who has served in various youth ministry roles in the Valley for over 15 years, said faith is transmitted from generation to generation. An individual who gets to know Jesus as a teen has a much greater chance of continuing to attend Mass and be part of Church life through his or her adult years.
“We’re trying to create a dynamic where our teen program funnels into the young adult program – not just new collegians but young married couples. In the past, you would go to the teen program, and then it would just stop,” Fr. Ehrich said.
“Youth ministry doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Martinez explained. “If we don’t prioritize youth ministry as a whole, we set ourselves up for failure.”
Fabyanic agreed. “This is our future church,” she said. “This is everything.”