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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Joel Stepanek

Gordon: As some of our readers know. the recent Pew Report America’s Changing Religious Landscape, younger Catholics are much more likely than older Catholics to say they could imagine leaving the Catholic Church someday. Four-in-ten (41%) Catholic adults under age 30 say they could see themselves leaving the church, compared with about a quarter (26%) of those ages 30-64 and just 14% of those ages 65 and older.

This challenge makes Life Teen one of the, if not the most important,  Catholic ministries in the world, In addition to your work throughout the United States you also have Life Teen ministries in 30 additional countries. When did you join LifeTeen and what are your current responsibilities?

Joel: I began working for Life Teen in February of 2012 and I am currently the Director of Resource Development. I oversee the creation and production of our catechetical resources for middle and high school, college, and the various book projects and stand alone curriculums that we create. I collaborate with our video and film team to produce the variety of video productions we provide for parishes, assist with our training events, camps and conferences, and collaborate with our Parish Support Team to help serve our subscribing parishes the best way possible.

Gordon: You have an impressive background in youth ministry, first as Assistant Coordinator, Life Teen Program at St, Raphael the Archangel Parish and then as Director of Youth Ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Parish. . For those of our readers who many not be acquainted with parish youth ministries, could you provide us with an overview of your primary responsibilities at these parishes?

Joel: Before working for Life Teen, I was blessed to serve as a parish youth minister full time. I implemented the resources that Life Teen provided so our parishes had solid catechesis and youth ministry. My biggest responsibilities were providing training and formation for an adult “Core Team,” who served teenagers directly. In addition, I spent a lot of my time ministering to young people at our parish and outside of it. Really, my goal was to help young people walk toward Christ. I oversaw the programming that we implemented to help that happen, but importantly, made sure we created an environment where teenagers could have that encounter.

Gordon: The Life Teen Edge Program is especially impressive .

Could you provide our readers with an overview of when and why it was formed and how it may have evolved over the past several years?

Joel: Edge was formed in response to a shift in best practices for middle school ministry. At such a highly relational time in a young person’s life, we were putting them in a classroom and giving them a textbook. We realized that we needed to respond with a better model for religious education. Edge was formed to respond to a hunger that middle school students feel for Christ. By placing them with adult mentors and among peers, we are able to create curriculum that not only engages the mind but the heart. Edge continues to grow and is supported through our catechetical resources, but also through our growing middle school camps.

Gordon: The blogs by some of your Life Teen members are a revelation on their honesty in addressing often difficult issues and  provide a greater  understanding of teen challenges. When did the Teen Life blog start and have there been any comments from any of the parents about their children's blogs?

Joel: The Life Teen blog has existed almost as long as we’ve had a website. It has take a variety of forms over the years, but our current goal is to create several new pieces of content each week that address the lives of young people and help them understand the ways that our faith and culture intersect. We want to help them learn and grow in a relationship with Christ and meet them where they are – this means we have to have a solid presence on Twitter, Instagram, and other social media along side our blog content. A lot of parents love the blog – not only do they want their son or daughter reading it, but they often are some of our most avid readers.

Gordon: Going back to the Pew Report, based on your experience, what have been some of the principal reasons why many teens have left the church? 

Joel: I think there are two major reasons. The first is from a lack of connection. We all want to be connected. The early Christian community was heavily connected – they all lived in community and held possessions in common. There is a reason why Jesus called a small community of disciples close to himself. We are built for relationships. When young people begin to see the Church as cold and impersonal, they feel disconnected. Unfortunately, we haven’t always done a great job as a Church fostering a sense of connection in our parishes. The second is because they don’t necessarily understand the beauty of the Church’s teaching, but the only way they will learn is if a community first invests in young people, makes them feel welcome, and connects them with people that care.

Gordon: How does Life Teen address these challenges?

Joel: Life Teen provides training and resources to create a culture of encounter and hospitality. By helping young people connect to each other and to positive adult role models, we also help them walk toward Christ – and that is the ultimate connection. We train thousands of youth ministers and priests each year on how to respond to the needs of young people and not only present the Church’s teaching, but to do it within the context of a relationship.

Gordon: There have been several reports on how TV violence affects teens. Do you have any suggestions on if and how parents should monitor the TV programs that their children view.

Joel: Ultimately, teenagers are (unfortunately) going to be exposed to violence, abused sexuality, and a whole host of other sin. We definitely need to monitor what goes into the mind of a young person and set up boundaries with when a young person can watch television, what screens he or she has in his or her room, etc. But I think the more important role of parent is to help equip their son or daughter with the tools to turn away from in appropriate programming or websites, while providing them with an open line of communication in case a teen does encounter something dark and need to process. 

Dialogue is really the best prevention, but also the best way to help a young person contextualize some of the evil things they encounter and help them learn how to avoid them in the future.

Gordon: What advice would you give pastors who may not have a youth ministry in their parish?

Joel: The young people of our Church are too important not to invest in. They need something innovative and relational. They need something that leads toward Jesus. We cannot continue doing things that seemed to work 30 years ago and expect growth. The costs and challenges are worth the reward – which ultimately is the salvation of a young person’s soul. If you need info on how to get started, we would love to help. Contact us at and we can get you everything you need to begin a vibrant youth ministry that not only helps teenagers encounter Christ, but grow as His disciples.

Gordon: Thank you for a great interview and allowing us to introduce some of our readers to  Life Teen. I hope that  our readers will consider making a donation to support you important mission and also subscribing to your newsletter.


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