Mark Hart’s Advice for Meeting Teens Where They Are

'The Bible Geek' will deliver the keynote address at the National Catholic Youth Conference.

(photo: Courtesy of Mark Hart)

Mark Hart is one of the most respected Catholic youth leaders in the country. As executive vice president of Life Teen, each year he speaks before thousands of Catholic young adults and teens, inspiring them to make a deeper connection to their faith. His books include the Catholic Teen Bible, Blessed Are the Bored in Spirit, and the Bible Geek series, among others.

He’s also the driving force behind T3, a multimedia teen Bible study series used in youth groups and religious-education programs. He is delivering the keynote address, as well as conducting various talks and workshops, at the National Catholic Youth Conference, which is expected to draw 25,000 Catholic youth to Indianapolis the weekend of Nov. 18.

What are your hopes for youth ministry?
I want to help change the perspective of teenagers. When teenagers get involved in their faith in a youth group or when they come to an event like this, they think that they’re seeking God. They think they’re going out of their way for God, but very seldom do they pause to realize that God is already at work. God is seeking them. What God desires from them is that encounter, that sacramental encounter, which really is rooted in intimacy.

And the National Catholic Youth Conference?

It’s very easy when we have an event of this magnitude for the young people to get swept away by the lights, the stage, the music. We need them to see that this is our version of a national World Youth Day, the universal Church coming together, and not just a Jesus pep rally. We need to meet them where they are, but then have them widen their perspective just a little bit in order to realize how significant it is that they are there. They have to realize that God wanted them there, and they need to see the greater Church, the mother Church, beyond their parish.

Isn’t there a danger in large, flashy arena-based events for youth who are coming straight from your average American parish?

Sure, but the danger lies in the people charged with doing it, and with the depth of the speakers and the musicians. In an arena setting with that many teenagers, if you don’t turn it up one notch, it’s hard to reach them. It’s a vast space. You have to use the lights and the screens to draw the attention of that many teenagers at once, and then once you draw them in, you can make your point.

It’s very possible, and I’ve seen it work very well; but the people in charge of leading the youth before and after the event have to help us explain that these peripheral things are merely tools to set up the sacramental encounter. They’re a medium to get to the desired end: which is for the young person to have a deep and intimate encounter with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and in the sacraments.

When I approach a talk, I’ll use a lot of humor as a speaker, but I’m using that as a tool. It’s not the end; it’s the means. The music isn’t “praise and worship” just so we can turn it up loud because “that’s what the kids like.” We utilize the contemporary music to set up the silence. We might only have 30 minutes of music in an hour and a half. That’s followed by maybe 20 minutes from a speaker and then more than 30 minutes of silence. It’s incarnational. It’s about meeting teens where they are, but then walking them into the sacred.

Isn’t it possible for the deeper traditions of the faith to become obscured amid the rock music and lights and charismatic approach?

When people understand teens and liturgy and culture, they see that it doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. There’s a way to utilize some contemporary elements, but then you have to utilize some traditional approaches. You use some Latin, and you absolutely use silence. Teens are capable of silence, and they need it.

There’s a way to blend these cultures together that won’t empty the sacredness of the liturgy and won’t empty the sacredness of traditions or devotions, but will enhance it. Too often, young people are used to one [Catholic] culture, and then they’re dragged to an event like this that is drastically different for them. 

The problem comes when parish youth leaders put teenagers on a bus and take them to an event with stages and lights and things, and it becomes event-based spirituality. It may be the one big thing they do that year, and they put all their eggs in that one basket. And they say, “Hey, it’s better than nothing.” I think that’s dangerous. It’s not better than nothing. It’s a disservice to the young people. Teenagers need help to understand the underlying message beneath the lights and the glitz.

Teens experience these events, where they hear a priest who is a passionate preacher or an articulate speaker or a really talented music minister. When they go back to their parishes, they need someone to explain that: The Eucharist they saw there on the stage in front of 25,000 kids is the same Eucharist that we have in this chapel right here. And that priesthood that proclaimed the Gospel on the stage is the same that proclaims the Gospel here at this ambo. Without that, they can’t connect the dots between their parish and those events.

Is there some secret to connecting to Catholic youth today?

Listen to them. The most effective youth ministers and speakers know how to listen. It’s not a tricky formula. It’s scriptural. Before Christ said a word to the disciples on the way to Emmaus, he listened to them.

A lot of teens are spoken at; they’re not spoken to. Very rarely are they asked their opinion of anything. Teenager’s opinions, even if they’re wrong, they’re still valid, because they’re formed out of life experience. We can still listen to them. Unfortunately, life has taken on such a frenetic pace that people don’t talk to teenagers anymore. We’re seeing the results of that because they would rather go talk to their friends than their mentors or adults, because their friends will listen to them.

Teens really desire depth. They desire relevance and depth in their relationships and their faith. When you introduce teens to the mystical, to the ethereal, to the world beyond what they see, they are far more open to it than adults are. They are looking at the world through wide eyes, and often very pure eyes.

What are Catholic youth looking for from their lives and their faith?

Modern culture has this image of teenagers with faces buried in screens — which they are, since we’re a screen-based culture now. They have this image of them as socially inept, which many of them are. I think a lot of times we’ve just written off this generation. We think they don’t care, but they really do.

They’re yearning for real relationships. They’re yearning for intimate relationships, and I mean “intimate” in the purest sense of the word. They’re dying to be spoken to, but they’re also dying to be listened to. Many of them haven’t developed those social skills and haven’t developed that prayer life, in part because we are increasingly screen-based. And that’s not just the fault of parents or teachers or culture. We all have to take responsibility for that.

We sell teenagers short. They’re capable of tremendous spiritual depth. They are living in a spiritually arid culture. As people hijack words like “spirituality,” a lot of times our Catholic youth are left holding the bag and trying to make sense of it. How can they best understand words like ritual and tradition and religion, which have a negative connotation in their culture? How are these words still relevant in the 21st century?

It isn’t so much about giving them a new message: It’s about helping them connect the dots in a timely way with the timeless truth of the Church and helping them find their place in it.

Thomas L. McDonald is a catechist for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.