I wonder what things our graduating seniors might say if they were asked what comes to mind when they think about their time in youth ministry. I’m sure there would be images of lock-ins, dodgeball, camp pranks, crazy games, sketchy youth room couches, and pizza, lots of pizza. These are fun, good things, but our hope is that they would also carry with them a deeper understanding of the essential nature and function of the local church.
The tragic reality is that in my church, and likely in yours too, many students pass through our ministries without catching the vision for what the Church could and should be.
Perhaps the root issue is that we, the leaders, either don’t know or lose sight of the purpose of the Church. Or maybe it’s that youth ministry has become this obscure silo of the local church that doesn’t quite know how it fits within the larger Body of Christ? We could propose a host of possible reasons why our students have a weak or dying ecclesiology. Regardless of which issue we pinpoint, the essential action steps for youth leaders is to know the purpose of the Church and model it for their students.
The Catholic Catechism is a beautiful gift to the Church universal in how it has preserved a historical understanding of the nature and purpose of the Church. One of its many ecclesial affirmations is the understanding of the church as both sign and instrument. I believe this is one of the most crucial and relevant visions of the church.
A sign points to some kind of reality. I think of Doug, the dog from the Pixar movie “Up,” when he is searching for Kevin, the freaky-looking bird. Once Doug catches the scent he straightens like an arrow and says, “point!” The Church is like Doug. She points to the plans of God for creation. The Church points to its ultimate union with God and union with humanity. She is a sign of God’s Kingdom to come, which is already here in part and yet not fully.
The Church is the visible sign of God’s love. We are stewards of the great story of God and creation, faithfully inviting people into this Good News.
The Church as sign is only half its responsibility. The Church also functions as God’s instrument. An instrument is a tool used to accomplish a particular purpose. God takes a risk on the Church and has chosen to use the Church to be the instrument not because of any qualification we possess. God has entrusted to us, the Church, to be the Body of Christ. Despite her numerous blemishes, the Church is God’s primary means of extending grace to the world. God uses the Church as the means to save humanity through Jesus Christ. Inexplicably, we have been chosen as God’s “Plan A” to incarnate salvation in the world.
I think this may best be articulated to youth through the language of story. For the Church to be both sign and instrument, we must know The Story, share The Story, and be The Story. As this relates to youth ministry, it is crucial for the youth ministry to exist not as a church silo, but indissolubly connected with the larger local church, which is likewise connected to the larger Church universal.
When sharing this with my students, I asked them, “How can our little community here be a sign and instrument of God’s salvation for the world?” One of our students, a 6th grader, shared how she both tells her school friends about God’s love and she also tries to show them. In her own small way, she is being faithful to the Church’s purpose as both God’s sign and instrument of salvation to the world.
This will look different in each context. And yet each local church and youth ministry is called to the same thing, to be faithful in their own way as God’s sign and instrument.
Dream about this with your volunteer leaders, church staff, and especially with your students. How can your community, as representative an arm of the Church, function as both sign and instrument?