Over the past seven years that I have been working in youth ministry, the only thing that has remained consistent is that young people are constantly changing. The middle and high school students I worked with in my first year of ministry are radically different from the students I encounter today.
There are a vast number of factors to consider when looking at the constantly shifting youth culture, but it is certainly the case that the dawn of TikTok partnered with a global pandemic has catapulted our young people into a new era—an era defined by uncertainty, division, and an increasing investment in their own experience and the experience of those around them.
Our young people today, more than any previous generation, have a deep interest in the well-being of others. We see this in the social issues that are at the forefront of their minds: health care, equality, mental health awareness, etc. It is clear that, on some level, they recognize the value of the human person and they want to be part of helping people experience a deep sense of belonging. This emotional investment, while in itself commendable and inspiring, when coupled with a narrative that leaves no room for disagreement has given birth to what is referred to as the “cancel culture.”
This so-coined cancel culture has stripped from popular society the ability to discuss and disagree while still standing on a foundation of love. It has manipulated the younger generation’s good and beautiful desire to create spaces of belonging and has taught them that those who have different perspectives can and should be written off entirely.
This, of course, has key implications for the Church and her ministers and what it looks like to invest in our young people in the midst of the cancel culture.
As we dive into the problems that the current cancel culture presents for us, it should be noted that at the heart of this movement is accountability for wrongful behavior, which is, in and of itself, not a bad thing. Difficulty arises when culturally we do not agree on what should be considered wrongful behavior. In a world where “live your truth” is the battle cry of the masses, what is considered good by one person is not necessarily considered good by another, and thus the finger pointing begins.
In the midst of all the division and discord of cancel culture, the most destructive element is the finality, the definitiveness, of being canceled. To be “canceled” is not something that can be easily undone. It gives someone permission to write off the other completely and irreversibly, without any attempt at understanding the opposing perspective. The cancel culture takes a single perspective and uses it to define a person’s entire character.
This is obviously dangerous at every societal level, but especially so for the Catholic Church, which is so consistently at odds with the cultural narrative. And so, where does this leave us, those of us who seek to proclaim truth into the hearts of our young people who so desperately need to hear it? How do we tackle the controversial teachings of the Church in a world where one “wrong” statement, one “wrong” move, could lead to a student writing us off completely and irreversibly?
I should preface this by saying that the answer to our question is messy. It is not a nice and neat solution, immediately drawing our young people into a perfect relationship with Christ. It is difficult and complicated because people are difficult and complicated. It requires ongoing investment, humility, and radical surrender to God’s divine plan.
But it is also simple.
St. Paul instructed us that we must become “all things to all, to save at least some” (1 Cor 9:22). And what we must become, what our young people need us to be in a culture that can be so divisive and exacting, is love.
Now, I know, that probably seems like an obvious cop-out. And it is true that the word “love” itself can feel oversimplified. But, the way we love matters. It is important, maybe even imperative, that we love our young people with a love that does not depend on whether or not they agree with the teachings of the Church or on the way they live their lives. We must love them with a love that does not act as a means to an end but exists simply because they, as they are (not what we wish they would be), have inherent value. We must love them with the heart of a Savior who offered a space of belonging for fishermen and pharisees alike, a Savior who accepted the tax collector alongside the religious leader. We must love them as Christ loves them—as he has loved us.
And, finally (and this is truly the crux of it all), they must know that they are loved. In the words of St. John Bosco, “It is not enough to love the young, they must know that they are loved.”
It is no secret that the world around us, the world which deeply influences our young people, radically misunderstands the truths of the Church. And certainly, if we’re being honest, it is also true that as the Church Body we have not always been perfect in our representation of her teachings.
Nevertheless, it is overwhelming and often frightening to consider proclaiming truth in a culture that could cancel you without even seeking first to understand. That is why, in this post-Christian society where logic and reason have been replaced by emotion and personal experience, the best thing we can offer to our young people is an encounter that contradicts what they are being told by the world around them.
When the culture tells them that the Church is rooted in hatred and judgment—but they have an experience of being loved, intentionally and without conditions, by someone who represents the Church—it gives them permission to question the narrative they are being fed. The narrative no longer matches their personal experience, and when that happens, it opens the door to truth. It strips them of the ability to define your whole character by what the cultural narrative says about your perspective, because now they know you. They know your character, they know that you love them, and suddenly they are looking at what the world says about people who believe what you believe and it does not add up.
Two years ago, in the middle of the pandemic, I started working in youth ministry at a new parish. It was a parish where the students didn’t know me and seemed to know Jesus even less. Our church is located in an environment that is steeped in the cultural narrative, so I decided to start practicing the way of ministry I’ve described: a ministry intentionally focused on ensuring that our students know, first and foremost, that they are loved by us exactly as they are, purely because they are worthy of being loved.
Now, if I’m being honest, I was worried that leading with love in such a radical way would require us to have to water down the truth or be less forthcoming about the teachings of the Church. But that is not what happened at all. What we discovered very quickly is that our young people are starved for love—real and boundless love. When we offered that kind of love, transparently and authentically, very quickly we saw doors begin to open.
It has become commonplace in my conversations with students who know that I love them to start by asking them something along the lines of, “you know me and you know that I love you, do you believe that I would be part of a Church whose goal was to judge and reject others?” Or, “do you believe that I would want to introduce you to a God who only wants to make you feel ashamed?” With the answer to these questions (which is always no) as our foundation, we are free to discuss some of the more difficult truths of the Church.
The fruits of this intentional, love-led ministry have genuinely far surpassed my expectations. And so I find myself asking consistently, in the echo of St. John Bosco, do my students know that I love them? Because, as simple and obvious as it may seem, I have found that the best way to minister to our young people in a culture that is so quick to cancel is to lead with love.
Lauren Wright is a youth minister of seven years who, after studying youth ministry in college, moved to the suburbs of Chicago, where she currently lives. She works with 6th–12th graders at her parish.
 “Social Issues That Matter to Generation Z,” The Annie E. Casey. Foundation, February 14, 2021, https://www.aecf.org/blog/generation-z-social-issues.
 Emily A. Vogels, et al., “Americans and ‘Cancel Culture’: Where Some See Calls for Accountability, Others See Censorship, Punishment,” Pew Research Center, May 19, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/05/19/americans-and-cancel-culture-where-some-see-calls-for-accountability-others-see-censorship-punishment/.
This article originally appeared on pages 34-35 of the printed edition.