‘You don’t have to be the coolest adult in the room’: An interview with Life Teen

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Life Teen's vice-president of ministry and missions, Steve Allgeyer (third from left) and director of events Stephen Lenahan with the team from Catholic Youth Services, led by director Bernard Toutounji (centre).
Life Teen’s vice-president of ministry and missions, Steve Allgeyer (third from left) and its director of events, Stephen Lenahan (second from right) with the team from Catholic Youth Services, led by director Bernard Toutounji (centre).

About  30 per cent of seminarians in the US cite their involvement with Life Teen, a parish-based ministry for young people aged 11-18, as having been formative in their faith. Life Teen’s vice president Steve Allgeyer and events director Stephen Lenahan were in Sydney last month at the behest of Catholic Youth Services (CYS), spending a weekend with Catholic youth leaders from around Australia. Praising the work of their hosts, they spoke with The Catholic Weekly’s Robert Hiini about what successful ministry with young people looks like.

What are the things that people most misunderstand about ministry to young people?

Steve Allgeyer: The teenage culture is very intimidating with all of its slang and how quickly things move and, for adults to jump in there, sometimes they’re intimidated, but really all it takes is caring about them.

We say in Life Teen that they don’t care until they know that you care. It doesn’t matter what age you are; they respond to authentic relationship.

Stephen Lenahan: I think sometimes we forget as adults that the gospel message is for all ages, and so when you start presenting the gospel in a dynamic way you see teens eyes light up and they become more open. You don’t have to be the coolest adult to be the one to present the gospel to them; you just have to do it in a dynamic way. When you give them good solid catechesis they can really be open in a way that we adults sometimes don’t give them credit for.

In the past 50 years in Australia, perhaps the dominant approach to youth ministry has tended to “maximise the fun” with little or no faith formation. How is your approach different?

Steve Allgeyer:  We take an approach where we would do a week’s worth of camp and it would be about 70 per cent spiritual and 30 per cent social. The games and everything, they’re great, so long as long you’re taking them deeper.

The capacity young people have to truly pour their heart into the Lord is huge and sometimes I don’t think we give them that credit because we as adults maybe didn’t experience that when we were their age. We didn’t experience a lot of deep catechesis and deep formation, but they’re much more willing to go there.

And it’s really challenging for adults to go there if they’ve never been there before, so we encourage it. We train them to really be vulnerable with the teens and to really share with them to say “I’m a work in progress and I’m growing in my faith” at the same time as the teenagers are. When they find that authentic relationship with the Lord it changes everything.

How do you help the teens navigate difficult topics such as sexuality?

Stephen Lenahan:  You can’t shy away from these topics because they’re going to learn about things somewhere, so, if we believe in the truth of our faith and our Church, why wouldn’t we deliver the message through the lens of the Church; through the lens on Christ’s message?

I think it’s about not being afraid to tackle issues and sometimes it leads to push back. You know, you have to be careful how you approach topics because if you offend a teenager’s culture, or subculture, then sometimes they can be quick to stop listening.

But that’s where, if you develop that relationship ahead of time, they’re much more willing to listen to you. I think it was St John Bosco who said: “Get them to love you and they’ll follow you anywhere.” That has to be our approach in ministry as well.

Youth leaders at a Catholic Youth Services formation weekend, last month, where they heard about parish-based ministry model, Life Teen, for youth aged 11-18.
Youth leaders at a Catholic Youth Services formation weekend, last month, where they heard about parish-based ministry model, Life Teen, for youth aged 11-18.

Steve Allgeyer: And, I think if you look throughout the gospels, Jesus Christ sat and ate with the prostitutes and touched the lepers, and we have a lot of those same things in our society, and the teenagers have those, too. If you lead first with love and mercy, without judgment, I think all of those very hot button issues get diffused. When you share that space with a teenager, when you say, “Hey, I’m not judging you; I just want to hear what these issues are with you” … they’re much more prone to listen to you after that.

The pope is about to visit the US (at the time of this interview) and the synod on the family is coming up. Is there anything you’d like to hear the pope say to young people?

Stephen Lenahan: The pope went off-the-cuff (in Cuba) and specifically addressed the teenagers, challenging them to not be afraid to dream – to dream big – and that when they get discouraged, to not stop dreaming because that’s how they are going to change the world.

And I think the underlying message is he is really challenging the young people to have hope …  John Paul II, Pope Benedict and now Francis recognise that in today’s society young people are very quick to lose hope … We are trying [to help teens understand] by delivering the gospel message in a dynamic way, so that they don’t think their faith is dead or it’s just another world religion; that it’s something truly dynamic that can transform their life.

Given the state of some communities, what happens to the teens when they leave Life Teen?

Steve Allgeyer:  I think the young are the catalyst for bringing families back to the Church. I think we’ve lost two generations of Catholics because we’ve spent a lot of time on adult faith, or trying to reach our adults and have them be the catalyst (for growth).

I think that when we put that energy into the young people, they’re bringing their mum and dad back to the faith and they are starting to come alive. We are encouraging them and saying that the family is their first mission field.

When you anchor it at a parish, then they come back to the parish … We’ve found that the young people come back and are phenomenal parents to their children, or they get involved with the parish council at the parish because it’s so familiar because when they were a teenager, their parish was their second family. Even when they go away to college, they try to stay anchored to that parish.

Around 30 per cent of all seminarians in the US say it’s because of Life Teen that they entered the seminary. We’re only in around 10 per cent of US parishes but we’re bringing in 30 per cent of (priestly) vocations.

Stephen Lenahan:  More recently, we’re starting to see a surge in our university ministries, which had grown dormant in a lot of places … Now, it’s kind of an extension of what we’re doing and we’re very happy to push the teens to other organisations like FOCUS and (they) are really starting to swell … There are teens who’ve had good formation and they want to continue that at universities, because university tends to challenge young people more than any other experience.

Youth leaders from around Australia who joined Catholic Youth Services and Life Teen's Steve Allgeyer and Stephen Lenahan for formation last month.
Youth leaders from around Australia who joined Catholic Youth Services and Life Teen’s Steve Allgeyer and Stephen Lenahan for formation last month.

In your brief time here, what have you noticed about Australian youth leaders?

Stephen Lenahan:  I was here in 2008 at WYD and I remember talking to a group of Australians who felt like it was the first time they had ever realised that this youthful side of the Church existed.

So coming back now in 2015 what we are seeing is kind of an extension of the fruits that started in 2008. I see so much potential, especially with CYS. There’s just a good spirit about the people who are working here and you know, honestly, I wish that we could duplicate CYS in some of our dioceses in the States.

Steve Allgeyer: CYS here is a model for diocesan ministry. It’s been phenomenal working with the four of them and with NET (the National Evangelisation Team) Australia. It really reminds me of the Acts of the Apostles … It takes an evangelist’s heart that says “there’s no conversation I’m afraid of having with a young person … There is no area, no conversation we would shy away from. We will go and find the teenagers where they are at and we will love them and bring them to the Lord”.

More information – catholicyouthservices.org.au and LifeTeen.com