We’re the Catholic Church, Not MTV

Teenagers don’t want flash. They want the truth.

I’ve been working with teenagers for 18 year. Yes, eighteen years – since I was barely out of my teens myself. I’ve learned a lot about teenagers in those 18 years. One of the most important lessons I learned early, and it’s been reinforced ever since.

I remember one of the first talks I ever gave – at St. Finn Barr’s school in San Francisco. The teachers told me that the kids, collectively, had a very short attention span. Twenty minutes was as long as they could possibly listen. I assured the teachers that I’d watch for signs of fidgeting, and wrap up the talk as soon as I sensed I was losing their attention.

An hour and a half later, the kids had already voluntarily skipped recess, and they were begging to skip lunch so they could keep listening.

I had no visual aids, no multi-media presentations, no sock puppets with cute messages. I'm just myself, sharing the truth with them. And they were eating it up. 
When I move in youth ministry circles, I hear a lot of talk about how “this generation” needs a lot of stimulation. They were raised on Sesame Street and MTV. They can’t or won’t focus for long. Everything has to be high tech, loud, and multi-media. If we want to deliver a message to them, we have to dazzle them.

I disagree.

Yes, that talk I gave at St. Finn Barr’s happened 18 year ago. Those kids are nearing 30 today. (Oh, good heavens. I feel faint.) But the kids I spoke to last week and last month are no different. In fact, the only difference is that I’m older, and theoretically more “out of touch” with their generation.

I still give them no music, no multi-media presentation, no extreme sports demonstration. I’m just a (gulp) middle-aged woman talking to them about God’s plan for sex and love. And they still listen -- for a long time. When I have no time constraints on a talk, I usually speak for about an hour an fifteen minutes. I gave one last year that ran over an hour and a half – to several thousand teenagers. They were with me the whole time. The talk ended with a standing ovation.

I’ve been giving talks for 18 years. I know when an audience is fidgety. I speak at the occasional all-school assembly where the audience is captive and half of them would rather be outside smoking or shooting hoops. Those talks don’t run so long. But a vast, vast majority of my teen audiences stay enthusiastically connected for an hour or more.

Please understand, I’m not bragging. If I were the creator of the subject matter that keeps them spellbound, I would be justified in bragging. But I’m not.
I’m trying to make a simple point. God’s truth is simple, and it’s powerful. Teenagers – and adults – are hungry for that truth. When we’re presenting that truth, we don’t have to apologize for it, and we don’t have to wrap it up in a lot of MTV style hype.

If you don’t believe me, listen to them. I’ve had teenagers come to me, concerned about an upcoming event, and say, “We just don’t want it to be a typical youth event with a lot of flash. We just want substance.”

That’s not to say teenagers aren’t picky about what they hear, or that they’ll sit through just any old talk. They hate condescension and they can spot hypocrisy a mile away. They’re a lot more likely to trust someone who treats them with respect, and who understands their experience. A little humor helps. And no one speaking to teens should ever, ever try to act like a teenager unless the word for his or her age actually ends in “teen.” Otherwise they’ll be laughed off the stage.

But a sincere, articulate, spirit-filled person doesn’t need any high-tech “props.” Teens see that stuff all day long – and most of what they see is a much higher quality than we could ever reproduce. We’re the Catholic Church, for crying out loud. Why would we want to compete with MTV? We don’t have the budget for it. 

Bear in mind, I have no objections to well-produced multi-media presentations, or to extreme sports demonstrations or anything else. They aren’t immoral or objectionable in themselves. Go ahead and use them if you really want to. Just don’t offer them instead of substance, don’t let them drown out the message, and don’t feel obligated to use them or buy into the idea that teens won’t listen to you without them.

Today’s youth aren’t hungry for multi-media presentations or extreme sports. They’re hungry for love, hungry for the truth.

And we’ve got that.