ST. PAUL, Minnesota — A nationwide teen evangelization program is gaining renewed interest after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the ministry for several months in 2020.
Minnesota-based NET Ministries has seen both in-person and newly developed online retreats grow in popularity as teenagers seek companionship and new avenues for prayer and reflection, said Mark Berchem, the program’s founder and president.
“When the pandemic became real last March, we made a tactical decision to bring all of our teams back, sending all our missionaries home and ending the retreat year,” Berchem said of the program that has reached more than 100,000 youths in 110 U.S. dioceses since being founded in 1981.
“God said we needed to do this, and I believe it was providential,” Berchem told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “If we had waited, they would have been stuck, as a week later, the entire country shut down.”
NET Ministries invites young Catholics ages 18-28 to devote nine months — August through May — serving with its National Evangelization Teams in offering youth retreats. NET Ministries also has been replicated in Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and Uganda.
“The work of NET is relational evangelization,” Berchem said. “Our focus is on sharing the basic Gospel message with teenagers, to awaken faith and bring it alive in their hearts and minds.”
As the pandemic continued last summer NET Ministries began planning to resume travel in the fall to Catholic parishes and schools.
“We were seeing churches across the country closing their doors, stopping Masses and youth programs. This was happening as today’s young people are suffering the highest level of anxiety, depression and loneliness that we’ve ever seen, some from COVID, but some even deeper than that,” Berchem said.
“And we had these young adult team members still wanting to serve, saying ‘I will go. I want to go now,'” he added. “That was inspiring to see.”
Designed for students in grades 6-12, the retreat format calls for alternating between large group sessions and small groups, using dramas to put the Gospel in visual form, prayer ministry and guided reflection time.
“We worked with three Twin Cities medical doctors to come up with COVID protocols to bring our missionaries and staff together safely in August,” Berchem said. “As we go throughout the country, we follow that guidance, which includes wearing face masks and practicing social distancing, as well as local protocols such as capacity limits in a church.”
Despite the extra safety precautions, retreatants are eager to participate.
“The majority of teens are doing online school and are used to being at home, so they are grateful to be there in person, with the gift of being face-to-face — even if it’s only half-face to half-face with masks,” said team leader Collin Towns, 22, of Fenton, Michigan.
Team members are typically young adults right out of high school or college with a desire to serve before completing their college education or beginning a career.
Team leader Lindsey Streeter, 24, of Okemos, Michigan, joined NET Ministries in August. Her team covers the Midwest but will soon head to the South and East Coast regions.
“I had moved to California to teach middle school band and choir,” Streeter said. “After the pandemic hit and I went from working 60 hours a week to 10, I started a consistent prayer life for the first time in my life. I felt the Lord calling me towards missionary work, which I thought was crazy because I had just settled in California with a dream job.”
Streeter has led 35 of the 69 retreats her team has directed since August.
“Helping young people see the love and light from God — to remind them that they are always seen and loved by Jesus — has been one of the biggest gifts of my life,” she said.
In response to the pandemic NET Ministries developed a virtual retreat option. Berchem said that of the nearly 300 retreats from September through December, 90 were virtual. Plans call for doubling the number this spring.
Rachel Dolby, 20, of Stayton, Oregon, a NET team leader doing both in-person and virtual retreats, was a little apprehensive about the online offering. Her concerns have eased, however.
“Sometimes, that’s the very first time they’ve prayed in their own room, outside of church or school, so that’s a really unique opportunity,” Dolby said. “Today’s youth need the message of hope, and Jesus is our hope; we share that Jesus wants a relationship with them, wherever they’re at in their faith journey.”
The retreats make an impact on teens, and responses teens share on the ministry’s experience forms are overwhelmingly positive.
“NET taught me how to have a better relationship with God,” said a 14-year-old retreatant from Missouri. Another 14-year-old from Minnesota said, “It was a good reminder that there is still good, not only around, but in me.”