For Lauren Scharmer, youth ministry is more than giving teens a place to hang out once a week to talk about their faith. The Church, she said, is there to help them understand the relational aspect of the Church — and its desire to help young people become closer in relationship with God.
"We have seen God do some really great things," said Scharmer, director of St. Louis Life Teen, a collaborative youth ministry program with more than a dozen south city and county parishes. The group has weekly Life Teen nights with prayer and discussion — usually paired with a fun activity, such as glow-in-the-dark bowling.
"We're facilitating an encounter with the living God through activities and the sacraments," said Scharmer, who came to St. Louis three years ago to lead the youth ministry group. "By creating a community where these teens are known and loved by us — they are also known and loved by God."
Scharmer shared her youth ministry experiences at a roundtable discussion in August hosted by the archdiocesan Catholic Youth Apostolate, in preparation of the Synod of Bishops in October 2018. With the topic "Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment," the synod will examine how it can lead young people to follow the call to the fullness of life and love. Bishops also are asking them to help identify effective ways to share the Good News of the Gospel.
About two dozen high school teens, young adults, youth ministers, priests, seminarians and curia staff discussed several questions and themes addressed in a preparatory document issued by the Vatican earlier this year. Those thoughts were synthesized into a report and will be shared with Rome, via the U.S. bishops' conference. The Vatican also has a public questionnaire at www.stlouisreview.com/jKx.
"The Church also wishes to listen to your voice, your sensitivities and your faith; even your doubts and your criticism," Pope Francis wrote to young people in his announcement of the synod in January. "Make your voice heard, let it resonate in communities and let it be heard by your shepherds of souls. ... My brother bishops and I want even more to 'work with you for your joy.'"
Nick Lee, who directs the archdiocesan Office of Young Adult Ministry, said the local discussion group focused on the "multiplicity of voices" that young people hear. Several other challenges included estrangement from community life, moral relativism and ubiquity of pornography and a highly sexualized culture.
Young people are looking for ways to find their identity and face-to-face community — and a Church that gives them access to this. The report cited several examples gatherings that have been successful, including the Steubenville youth conference, March for Life in Washington, D.C., campus ministries that host evenings of conversation and Young Adult Theology on Tap gatherings.
"We don't need the Church to be flashy or relevant, we just need to be accessible and beautiful and stable," Lee said. "Accessibility is a big issue we have right now as a Church. They want a place where they're not going to be judged because they don't understand a Church teaching. They want a place where they can ask questions."
None of the Church's teachings will make sense outside of an understanding of lived relationship with Jesus, Scharmer said. "We focus too much on one side or another. It's not a matter of the Church responding to every whim of the culture, but a matter of knowing that everything the Church teaches is for a reason. Everything (the Church) calls us to do is to experience the abundant life Jesus promises us."