The Invitation: Be Strategic, Be Courageous
We know that intentional, active invitation is critical to engage youth in our faith communities. However, when making the invitation, we must ensure we apply our efforts in a way that is most likely to be successful. To do this, we need the correct strategies directed at the correct audience. Otherwise, we’re not only wasting our time and energy, but we are also wasting a powerful opportunity for support, welcome, and encouragement.
During World War II, engineers were trying to identify ways to build aircraft that could better withstand fire from enemy planes. They were limited, however, in how much fortification they could add because the steel plates used as armor were heavy, and weight was a real concern when building an airplane. So, they examined fighter planes that had just returned from battle to examine where the bullet holes were. Wherever the holes were, the engineers argued, is where the steel plates should be placed. But, while seemingly sound, their logic was flawed.
The problem with placing the armor where the bullet holes were located is that the engineers were examining airplanes that had successfully returned from battle. In other words, while these planes were struck, they were still able to fly. One intrepid engineer pointed out that, instead, they should be looking for where the bullet holes weren’t. They were examining the wrong planes, he argued. It was the ones that had not returned that held the information they needed to keep future pilots safe. They needed to go beyond what was in front of them.
So, what does this have to do with ministry? Specifically, what does this have to do with our efforts to reach out to youth?
I often hear from music ministers that they “actively” invite youth to participate but that no new youth respond. When I inquire as to how they extend the invitation, they tell me that they make an announcement at Mass and publish something in the bulletin. While well-intentioned, it is no wonder these efforts often prove fruitless. How can someone read an invitation if it is extended in a publication they never pick up? How can they hear an invitation if it is extended at a Mass they don’t attend?
Just like those wartime engineers, we as ministers need to go beyond what is in front of us. We need effective strategies. We need effective information. We need to go where the youth are. We cannot take it for granted that youth read our bulletins or attend our liturgies. We cannot toss out invitation into the wind and hope that they will be carried to the intended recipient.
It is too easy to think our invitations are effective when, in fact, they fall flat. To address this issue, parish ministers must invite young people in ways that are both strategic and courageous. In the first case, to be strategic requires careful and critical thought. In the second case, to be courageous means going beyond a normal comfort zone. Here are three practical ideas:
1. Know your target.
Being strategic: Don’t just invite the youth who are already involved. Invite them, of course, but don’t just rely on them. Give them roles where you really need someone you can count on, as they are proven participants, but go beyond those you already know.
Dig out your parish directory or database and start mining for information. Which families have children? Which have children the right age (i.e. middle school, high school, etc.)? Where do they go to school? Once you know who you have to work with, what can you find out about them?
If you are a music director, you must know which members of your parish are in the local school choir, band, or orchestra. If you are a youth minister, you must know which members are in the play, or serve in a leadership role. Who is captain of the basketball team? Who is a boy scout or girl scout? Who is on student senate?
Think of the type of skills you need (musical, leadership, organizing, influencing, etc.) and go get someone with those skills. I guarantee you some young person in your parish has them.
Being courageous: If you thought that inviting with purpose was a stretch of your comfort zone, this is going to be a real challenge. But, just as it was in the first case, it is totally worth any fear or discomfort. This task essentially requires you to both do your research and then follow up on it. It will put you in the position of reaching out to young people you have never met before (perhaps even families you have never met before). But, isn’t that what discipleship is all about?
2. Invite with purpose (and persistence).
Being strategic: Your invitation must be specific and it must be for something authentic. Do not say “come help out at the parish,” say “we’d like you to help plan this event,” or “we’d like you to sing at the 10:00am Mass on Sunday.” What’s more, stress the importance of the task both for the young person and for others. Sometimes we try to convince people to help by telling them that what we are asking of them won’t interfere with their lives very much. However, no one wants to be asked to devote time or energy to something and then be reassured “but it won’t take much,” or “don’t worry, it’s super easy.” If this is the case, then surely someone else could do it! Reassurance should be more along the lines of “you have so much to contribute” or “we will all gain so much from your insights.”
Be prepared to be turned down. Even more likely, be prepared to not receive a response! So, be prepared to be persistent. You’ve done your research, you’ve reached out; don’t give up. By this, of course, I don’t mean “be annoying” or “be unrelenting.” I do mean follow up, circle back, and try again.
Being courageous: To invite with purpose, you need to have a conversation. You can’t do this through a generic announcement, and you can’t do it without direct communication (the face-to-face kind, with eye contact). This is hard, because people can be intimidating (especially young people). It’s also hard because they might say “no”! However, unless you invite with purpose, you’re going to get very few “yeses”, so the choice is yours.
3. Be reasonable, understanding, and sustainable.
Being strategic: Imagine that you’ve followed steps 1 and 2. You’ve identified your target (a young person in your parish who sings in high school choir but doesn't often show up for Mass) and invited them with purpose to serve as a cantor. First, congratulations! Second, be reasonable. It might not be a good idea to schedule them for every other Sunday for the next three months if they are just getting their feet wet.
You will likely need to make compromises in order to keep a young person engaged and involved. You will certainly need to work around other practices, rehearsals, trips, events, work shifts, and the like. If you are rigid (i.e. “practice is on Mondays and you must be there or you can’t sing”) then you can say goodbye to your new cantor. Certainly, you must have expectations. But, you will need to consider what is most important.
In all these considerations, think about the future. How will you train and develop participants? How will you think about involving them more fully after they have been initially integrated? It takes a lot of time, research, and effort to get a new young person involved in ministry. Make sure you are laying a solid groundwork that will keep them involved for many years to come (just don’t schedule them for those many years right away at the start).
Being courageous: If becoming more outgoing for the sake of recruiting young people hasn’t caused you fear or discomfort, how about the thought of giving up some control? How about the thought of bending some of the rules like “all rehearsals are mandatory” or “rehearsals must be on Thursday evenings”? That’s what I thought. It’s terrifying. But, you must acknowledge that the struggle, while real, is worth every consolation, adjustment, and moment of flexibility.
The good news.
Research tells us that fewer young people identify with a religious tradition. However, research also tells us that young people are open to, and even crave, the opportunity to contribute to something that matters. They want to belong to a community. Research even tells us that, when introduced successfully, young people want to know more about religion, spirituality, morality, and so forth.
Reaching out in an effective way can seem daunting. It might even seem scary. But, if we can concentrate on the right information, be strategic in our methods, and also find ways to muster just a little more courage, our efforts will bear fruit.
Are you already doing an effective job of inviting young people? Check your efforts using the questions below:
o Do you have a way of identifying all of the young people in your parish (not just the ones who attend Mass)?
o Do you use invite passively (i.e. bulletin, announcements, etc.) or actively (i.e. in-person conversation, direct phone call, etc.)?
o Do you invite with purpose?
o Do you invite young people you don’t already know? who aren’t already involved?
o Have your invitations provided positive responses (i.e. young people have accepted and become involved)?
-- Matt Reichert