ROCHESTER — Bob Seger’s “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” boomed through the Annunciation Church Hall the evening of Jan. 29.
Country-dance instructor Terri Anderson stood in front of about 20 teenagers and adults, telling them to “heel, step, heel, step, split your heels, split your heels!” In between occasional giggles, the dancers slowly caught on to Anderson’s instructions, and began looking like a group of genuine country line-dancers.
Of course, not everybody took to the new dance steps with grace. At one point, two girls crashed into the other dancers.
“I’ve had enough!” one teenaged boy said in mock disgust as he left the floor and sat down. “I tripped over myself!”
All in all, it looked like your typical teenager dance. Some young people couldn’t get enough of the dance floor, boldly trying to learn new steps regardless of how they looked. Meanwhile, other teenagers sat on the sidelines, feigning indifference or gabbing with their friends.
Yet, there was a deeper purpose behind this dance than simply teaching teenagers how to boot-scoot boogie. On the floor and off to the sides were young people who frankly admitted struggling with their Catholic faith or who said they truly wanted to live it. Either way, they were all part of LIFE TEEN, a weekly youth-ministry program offered by Church of the Annunciation and St. Andrew Church, according to Amy Dorscheid, the churches’ youth minister.
LIFE TEEN starts off each Sunday night with an upbeat Mass, which features a contemporary band and opportunities for young people to directly participate in the liturgy through lectoring, expressive hand movements and other activities. Three times a month after Mass the young people participate in discussion groups. Once a month they enjoy a social event such as the Jan. 29 dance, which also marked LIFE TEEN’s first anniversary.
Angela Payne, 14, said participating in LIFE TEEN made her and other teens want to be in church.
“It’s important because a lot of kids are like ‘Church? Ugh! Boring!'” she said.
Her friend, Gretchen Lipinski, 14, seconded that notion, adding that she likes the Mass’ contemporary music.
“The music is upbeat, and it keeps you awake,” she said.
Rohan Willis, 12, said LIFE TEEN had led him to new friendships and kindled an interest in his faith.
“They teach you a lot of stuff about the Bible and things I normally wouldn’t pay attention to,” he said.
LIFE TEEN’s adult volunteers learned about the program through Church of the Assumption in Fairport, which also offers the program, according to Father Michael Mayer, pastor of Annunciation and St. Andrew. LIFE TEEN is modeled on a national program, and the Annunciation/St. Andrew adults traveled to a LIFE TEEN training conference in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2004, the pastor said. The national program maintains a Web site at www.lifeteen.org.
“I came back feeling I was obliged to support LIFE TEEN after seeing how powerful a ministry it was during the conference,” Father Mayer said. “The ministry’s strength, it seems to me, is that it makes clear that its purpose is to serve teens and bring them closer to Christ. In particular, there’s an emphasis on upbeat praise and worship music, which appeals to many teens.”
Dorscheid’s husband, Bob, added that LIFE TEEN holds frank discussion groups about the church’s teachings, noting the young people have discussed abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. On that note, LIFE TEEN member Mary Baloga, 16, said she felt the adult volunteers respected her ability to form her own beliefs.
“They try to guide you in the right direction, instead of ordering you,” she said.
LIFE TEEN is a tool for evangelizing young people, including those who might not otherwise come to church, Dorscheid said. She pointed out that a number of young people had come back to their Catholic faith through LIFE TEEN, and that one even decided to receive first Communion.
“Being in a city with a declining number of parishioners, we need to reach out to the people in the neighborhood and reach out to the young,” she said. “The number one thing that we try to do is show (young people) that they’re loved, that they’re welcomed. If they feel loved, they’re more likely to then take the next step and think about their faith.”
Mary apparently agreed with Dorscheid’s take on the program.
“I feel like I belong here,” Mary said. “I’ve always been a little uneasy with expressing my faith, and I feel that here I can express it fully.”
That notion was seconded by other LIFE TEEN members, including one girl who said it’s easier to talk about God to group members than to the teenagers she knows in her neighborhood. Her brother added he enjoys hanging out with the LIFE TEEN members.
Both Mary and Andrea Harriott, 15, noted they feel they’re welcome to fully participate in the LIFE TEEN Mass, and they both have performed hand movements before the congregation as part of the service. Andrea added that the weekly youth group brightens her mood when she’s feeling down. Paul Civiletti, 17, said that LIFE TEEN members helped him deal with the death of his grandfather.
“Several people here were comforting me when I got back,” he said.
Angela Payne spoke for many of the LIFE TEEN members in summing up her reasons for participating in the program.
“I like the whole fact that so many kids are coming together to do the same thing — the motions to songs, singing and to worship God,” she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about LIFE TEEN, e-mail RochesterLifeTeen@hotmail.com.