Blog/CYM Blog

Am I Speaking Your Language?

Lately I’ve been spending a lot more time on sharing etymology (the origin of words) with teens. The results have been fascinating. The middle school and high school teens I’ve been discipling and speaking with can’t seem to get enough of it. One teen at our Life Teen Leadership Conference came up after Bible Study and said, “For the first time in my life I understand what I’m praying.” It was a beautifully authentic moment. Her journal was filled with notes scribbled at the speed of light during sessions. Her hungry young soul couldn’t seem to write it all down quickly enough.

I’m sure every teen in your program is the exact same. Right?

Well, of course not. To a majority of postmodern adolescents, not only is there seemingly no difference between Latin or Greek terms denotatively, but there is little difference between miserere, eleison, or “mercy,” connotatively. The fact of the matter is that even if our teenagers have learned the definition of a term during their Confirmation prep, within their parochial education, or through their Edge or Life Nights, many have yet to connect the dots between the definitions and what it means to living them out, daily.

That being said, just because a young soul doesn’t know deeper truths about the faith does not mean they don’t wish to know deeper truths. What can we be doing not only to satiate their hunger for knowledge but to reveal it?

The following inventory is in no way complete, just a working list of terms that we frequently hear but that I’m finding our young people are unable to explain. I’m sure you’ll have more. I do, too.

A glossary of terms most teens (and, even, many adults) don’t seem to understand:


Ask a teen, “What is grace?”

They’ll probably respond, “Um… amazing?”

Go ahead, ask a teen to define it or even explain it in their own words. We hear the term a dozen times in the average Mass. We sing songs about it. Grace is sacramentally efficacious, life-altering and life-saving and, still, our young people don’t understand what it is or how it works.

Begin with the simple explanation that grace is “God’s life in us.” and go from there. Particularly important is explaining how the effects of grace are normally not readily recognizable; it’s more vitamin than steroid. Spend time in Romans 5 and 6, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 2, James 2 and 4 and the CCC 1996-2005.


Mercy is seen as a philosophical concept for most, but lacks practical application or tangible examples. They have heard that God is merciful but watch as people challenge His divine mercy at every turn. They may have an image of Divine Mercy in their parish or home but most have no concept of the Chaplet or why we need God’s mercy in our lives, daily. It’s an idea but not a practical reality. So, how do we make this a reality?

We need to help our teenagers understand that mercy is not just something we receive but something that we must offer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers great thoughtfulness in the Church’s explanation: help, loving kindness, compassion, and forbearance. Teens can relate to kindness, sometimes struggle with compassion and, often, have no concept of what forbearance even means. Start there. Discuss not only what it means for us to exercise forbearance and compassion toward others, but how fortunate we are that our Heavenly Father exercises those fruits of mercy, with us. Assist the teens in finding examples of mercy in their everyday faith walk.


It might seem as though worship has become a Catholic “buzz word” in the past two decades. Teens can hardly venture to a rally, camp, or conference without hearing the term “praise and worship” thrown about. As leaders, though, we know the times that singing Jesus songs actually transcend into moments of deep worship, where the mind, lips, and heart are united in an all out response of loving adoration, praise, and honor directed to God the Father.

Do your teens understand that worship is more than singing? Praise and worship cannot be separated; true praise cannot exist without surrender. We are called to give glory to God no matter what we are doing. Spend some time in the Catechism (2095-2098) and in the Scriptures (Romans 12:1-2, John 4:24, the Psalms). Flush out the difference between petitionary prayer and worship, for instance. Spend time, too, on helping those in your group to recognize the difference between honoring God for all He does and adoring God for Who He is.

Perhaps we should go an entire year and substitute the word surrender for the word worship in all of our events, meetings, lessons, activities, and nomenclature with teens, until they see the two as inseparable. There’s a thought.

Other terms and phrases to consider unpacking further:

  • Sacred
  • God the Father
  • Communion of the Holy Spirit
  • Transubstantiation
  • Apostolic
  • Liturgy
  • Amen

If you catch yourself saying, “My teens know this stuff already,” then test them. Give them a sheet of paper. Ask them to explain them in two sentences or less. If they get them, that’s great and that means it’s now time to go deeper.

If you catch yourself saying, “My teens aren’t there yet, they don’t care about this stuff,” remember that relevance leads to reverence. One thing is for sure, God is speaking their language, regardless of what country or time period they find themselves in. They are all empty journals – waiting for God’s Word to be written within.

About the Author

Mark Hart

My childhood plan was to be a jedi. My teenage plan was to be on Saturday Night Live. God's plan was to have me in ministry. God won - and I'm glad He did.

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