In my last post, I was rather critical of programs. It’s not really programs that I struggle with but rather the inability of people to think outside of their programs. I struggle with this myself. It’s easy to fall into the falsehood that we will be able to meet all of the needs of the youth within a single or maybe even a few different programs. When I say program, I mean a regularly offered event (youth group, bible study, discipleship group, etc.) that is planned and available to anyone interested.
The shift that Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry aims to make is to look first at the needs of the youth instead of setting out to create the perfect program. In fact, the perfect program only exists when these ever-changing needs are understood, and the “program” responds to those needs. “Ever-changing” is the key phrase here. The problem is that often a youth leader’s job description and the direction given to them from their pastor is very program-driven as opposed to expecting the leader to observe the needs in a parish and do whatever it takes to respond to those needs.
The reality is that one program will never suffice, especially when the needs of youth are so diverse. I’m not really suggesting that all our programs need to change. The youth group in your parish may be just what many of the youth in your parish need at this point in their life. I’m suggesting that we begin to discover new ways to reach the youth where they are at and create the margin in the structures of our programming that will allow us to point and to direct the youth to all the different – and perhaps previously overlooked or unconsidered – opportunities in the parish.
To help explain this a bit, I thought I would share six “anti-programs” that are probably easier to pull off than you thought. These anti-programs actually are programs if viewed through a certain lens. In fact, you may already be doing these things without considering them in this light. Here they are:
I have to start with this one because I believe using it as an example will help my point make the most sense. If you are someone who “goes out for coffee” regularly with a specific person or group of people, “going out for coffee” is a program. You understand that going out for coffee helps you meet a need in the relationship or situation in a way that other things cannot. This example helps make the point that people who really do understand ministry naturally do things outside of programs (like going out for coffee) and do not even think about it.
If a discipleship group wanted to host a monthly dodgeball night in your parish hall or school gym, it might be an excellent, effective program. It’s the type of activity you could invite people to attend if you believed that whatever dodgeball does (builds community, makes competitive, athletic people feel more included, etc.) fills a specific need for ministry in your parish.
I truly believe that “temporary” programs are going to have a strong place in the future of youth ministry. If a group of youth are fired up about something specific at a certain point in their involvement of the parish, why not offer gasoline to fuel the fire? Imagine a young person desiring to grow in prayer and wanting to dive deeply into it with their friends. Why not offer a temporary program, maybe 4-5 sessions, just for that small group of people (although anyone who is interested could be invited) and fuel the flame? Embracing the concept of temporary programs makes addressing any relevant or timely area of formation possible if it can be done/taught over a short period of time.
This is something I have found myself wanting to do more of in my own parish. For those youth desiring to grow deeper in their spiritual life, having someone help them to do it is vital. It’s very difficult to offer what’s needed in this sort of mentorship through any program or even a small group. Having people who are available to assist young people in deepening their life of prayer and discernment is another “program” you can rely upon if needed but is not something that’s necessarily “organized” or even planned but is available as needed.
Monthly Adoration & Confessions
Setting up a consistent time each month for the youth to gather for a holy hour and confessions has truly been a success in the parishes I have seen try it. It’s not really a program, but again, it’s an organized activity that corresponds to the desires and needs of individual youth.
The “After Program” Program
Think about the hour after youth group. In my experience, many youth typically look forward to and engage more deeply in what’s available after youth group than youth group itself. Take advantage of this opportunity.
With these examples, I have just two final points to make. First, my intent is to help identify ways that youth ministry may already be happening in your parish “outside of programs.” Second, these examples are provided to inspire youth leaders to be more creative in looking at what types of “anti-programs” can exist in your parish. This is not necessarily at the cost of what your current programs already offer, but as a response to needs and desires that cannot be met within those programs.
I’d love to hear more ideas of what you might currently be doing or some ideas you have of other “anti-programs” that could be utilized in a parish.
A couple of years ago, I spoke with a mom in a local parish who was interested in leading a small discipleship group. She was excited because the parish was encouraging discipleship groups to begin as naturally as possible, so she immediately saw her daughter, her daughter’s friends, and a couple other youth as a great group to lead. This mom asked a friend to lead the group with her, and they began meeting in the fall.
About two months into leading the group, the pastor caught wind that this group was having a sleepover at the leader’s house and immediately put an end to it. His reasoning was that according to diocesan policy, sleepovers were not allowed. What bothered me about this situation is that two months prior, the pastor would’ve agreed that there really wasn’t anything wrong with this mother having a sleepover, and to be blunt, it wouldn’t really have been any concern of his. In fact, when talking with him later, he readily admitted this, and we agreed about how frustrating it is that the policy at times can actually inhibit us from just living life as a parish family.
Let me propose something a little crazy. What would happen if as a Church, the “program” we offered was not “discipleship groups” but the formation of the discipleship leaders? How would this impact this specific situation, and how would it play out overall with regard to discipleship focused youth ministry? Let me offer a few thoughts.
Evangelization would be lived rather than programmed
In some ways, this mother didn’t see her “sleepover” as an act of evangelization because she was simply being “mom,” and in simply being “mom” she was living out her call to “go and make more disciples.” We should begin to recognize that this sort of community and intentionality is an evangelizing activity that goes outside the walls of the Church (which is the goal, isn’t it?). The idea of this intentionality being recognized by the parish was attractive to her, but was it really necessary? In this situation, we recognize that by formalizing it, much of the freedoms she would have had before were stripped away.
Formalizing a “lived evangelization” increases risk and liability to the parish
I’m only looking at this one situation, but in this case, by formalizing this “group” as a parish group, the activities that they could previously have engaged in as a normal part of their life now have increased the liability of the parish, the diocese, etc., which is why they couldn’t have the sleepover. I understand that at the same time, bringing something under the umbrella of the parish will provide protections and assistance that someone like this mother might desire. For example, if she were to take her group on a trip or to a conference, she might appreciate the coverage that a diocese or parish could offer as far as insurance, legal protections, etc. In this specific situation, though, the mother would’ve rather taken on the liability of the sleepover than lose the ability to have the sleepover altogether.
Parishes could focus more on formation and less of administration
The greatest desire I hear from priests who want to be more pastoral is that they would not have to be so concerned about the administrative aspects of running a parish so that they could be more of a shepherd for their people in the spiritual life. This proposal would be along the same lines. If we focused more of our time on helping others do the work of evangelization (and administration), we would be focusing more on formation, which over time would build a stronger church family. If the discipleship group mentioned above were merely a project or effort of the mother (which is was before it was ever a discipleship group) and the parish “programs” existed to help that mother grow in her ability to lead these young women, the parish wouldn’t have to be so concerned about the details of the group. It would create a culture where parents and adults felt empowered to view their daily life as an opportunity to evangelize and would cling to the parish in order to receive the support and formation they needed to do it well.
I’m not proposing that all programs are bad. As indicated earlier, a parish leading a trip or an opportunity when it would be difficult or impossible for a group to do on their own would assist adults like this mom in their mission. I’m also not proposing that we do this simply to reduce the risk of liability to the parish. The mom mentioned above has a heart for the Church and a desire for her daughter and her daughter’s friends to be connected to the Church. I’m proposing that the systems that we have in place in order for that to happen can sometimes do more harm than good. I’m proposing that the programs we offer in our parishes be more focused on forming disciples to “go make disciples” and then send them to do so rather than thinking we also need to coordinate and micromanage the ways in which they do.
I recently read through about 80 evaluations from a day of formation offered on discipleship. One of the questions on the participant evaluation asked about specific struggles people had experienced in their discipleship efforts thus far . The most common responses had something to do with the busyness of individuals in the group or lack of commitment from group members. By far, the most popular comment described a tension between the desire of the discipleship leader to form the group members and the reality that this is impossible to do in the context of a one or two hour-long meeting each week.
I believe that one of the greatest misconceptions people have about discipleship groups is the idea that our responsibility is to form the youth as best we can in the context of that group, and only in the context of that group. Too often, leaders create extremely busy group schedules with a night of prayer here, a social night there, and “oh, don’t forget that we have to have at least one night where the parents are invited.” Especially for those who may be new to discipleship, it can be easy to conclude that as long we include something from each of the Four Areas of Formation in the planning, we have done all we can.
To clarify the point I want to make in this post, I’d like to give an example of a situation described in one of the reviews. On the question regarding struggles in discipleship, this person notes that she leads a group of 12th grade young women who are distracted by future graduation plans, and therefore not listening as closely to the content of the group studies as they should be.
I can totally understand this comment. I have led many groups where I felt like the youth were very distracted by other things. What I have come to learn, though, is that it is precisely these things (college discernment) that create the opportunities for real formation in a young person’s life. The irony of this situation is that I have spent the last six months actually discipling a youth through the process of discerning college. Viewing this as an opportunity to help her grow in prayer (spiritual formation), I was able teach (intellectual formation) on two great saints, St. Francis De Sales and St. Ignatius of Loyola, and their teachings on discernment and prayer. Throughout the discernment process, and in the tension of deadlines and peer pressure (human formation), this young person grew much in her relationship with Christ and her ability to listen and be guided by His voice, and the freedom she experienced in it has become something very attractive to others (pastoral formation).
I didn’t get through a curriculum, and if someone asked what this youth actually learned, it might not be the most concrete, “packaged” program, but in fourteen years of youth ministry, I’m confident that this way of thinking and the approach that flows from it is how formation most effectively takes place.
Here are a few additional tips I’ve learned that I hope will be helpful for you:
Learn to Observe
Any professional coach will tell you that in order to coach well, you must know your students well. Start by getting to know your group and discovering what it is that God may be wanting to do in their lives before deciding what you want to teach them.
Practice Getting Rid of the Resource
Resources are good but can actually hinder a leader from being able to lead well. Could you imagine a football coach relying solely on a resource to tell him what his team needs? A good resource should flow from good observation and good coaching and really be supplemental to what knowledge and experience you as a leader can provide.
Do Not Be Afraid to Go Slow
I truly believe that the reason a lot of discipleship leaders live in this tension is because some pressure (coming either from the parish or from their own self-expectations) causes them to think that they have to “get through” a certain amount of material in a certain amount of time.
God is desiring to do much in the lives of the youth that you work with and in you as well. Only when we begin to surrender our preconceived ideas and sometimes even the traditions that we are used to will we become aware of the things God desires to do in us and in those we serve.
One of the most common struggles that I hear about from youth (and that I have experienced many times myself) is the after-effect of what is known as a retreat “high.” If you have never heard of it before, the retreat high is that time during and shortly after a retreat when someone is experiencing a great consolation in their faith. It’s known as a retreat high because not long afterward, they are hit with a great struggle in staying motivated in their faith (a “low”).
Time after time when I speak with youth who have had retreat highs repeatedly, it seems like they have become so dependent on them that these moments have become harmful to the way they practice their faith. The reality is that these types of retreat experiences are extraordinary. Like an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, they may be helpful, and it is certainly acceptable to utilize them. However, the preferred minister is the ordinary minister of the Eucharist, the priest or deacon. The life that we are called to live most of the time is the ordinary life. Extraordinary experiences in the faith should deepen our love for and the practice of the ordinary life. The “feeling” of a retreat high is not bad, just like the attraction between a couple on their wedding day and honeymoon is not bad, but the daily stability, foundation, and practice of love is the way in which we are called to live.
Over the last few weeks, I have been reflecting on the need for Initiatory Catechesis following these conversion-focused retreat opportunities. Initiatory Catechesis is that essential moment in the life of a Christian after they have said yes to Christ. It’s a period in their walk with Christ where they become “initiated” in the faith. The General Directory of Catechesis describes it in these ways:
an essential moment
a comprehensive and systematic formation in the faith
includes more than instruction: it is an apprenticeship of the entire Christian life, it is a complete Christian initiation, which promotes an authentic following of Christ
it looks at what is “common” for the Christian
See full description of Initiatory Catechesis in the GDC here (paragraphs 67-68)
This is the cure for dependence on the “retreat high.” This is the way in which the youth with whom we work with able to adjust and grow into mature disciples. I experienced this recently as I have been walking with a few youth from my own parish. I find it to be a common experience that many of these youth have encountered Christ and are excited about what Christ has done and can continue to do in their lives, but they struggle knowing how to do it. They struggle connecting this awesome reality of God’s love with their daily life. This is where Initiatory Catechesis comes into play and really where discipleship begins and why discipleship is so important.
The cure for the retreat high is NOT more retreats, but it is the process of discipleship which helps a youth give up their life and take up a new. While retreats are a helpful and important part of growing in our relationship with Christ, they exist to enhance, not replace, the ordinary life of a Christian.
What does this look like? Well, it looks different depending on the individual, but for everyone it is discipleship in some form. “Want to learn more?” Check out our new Discipleship Leader Boot Camp Course, in which we cover the fundamentals of discipleship.”
For the past 10-15 years, I’ve been watching the evolution of youth ministry. During that time, people have been searching for the right resource that is going to respond to the needs of young people. Today, we have top notch resources that can be used in just about any setting, for any sized group of people, with the best speakers in the world, and some of the best production available. Still…there seems to be a desire or an understanding that we can do even better.
Over the past five years, there has been a huge emphasis on training. People will often say that you can have the best resource in the world, but without a well-trained catechist, the resource will mean nothing. This is true…or is it? Perhaps, but I think we need to be clear about the difference between training and formation.
Feel free to look up the definitions for training and formation for yourself, but in short, training is the action of teaching someone a skill or behavior and formation is to make or fashion into a certain shape or form. Or, another way to put it is that training is teaching someone to do something, and formation is helping someone to become someone.
Now to start, I have to say that in many respects, training and formation are very connected. An example that comes to mind is when I asked my priest if I could start a prayer group in high school. I was amazed at his immediate yes. He didn’t ask many questions about what I was going to do or how, but he saw it as an opportunity to lead and form me. He knew that as I followed the Lord’s promptings in my life, those experiences would bear fruit, and they did in so many ways. The “program” itself maybe didn’t look so great at times, but I have to admit that I wouldn’t be where I am today without that formation: the formation that came from his support, his mentorship, and his trust in what the Lord was doing in me.
To the extent that I have been able, this is how I have run youth programs for years. In fact, this is what it means to be “discipleship focused.” We must recognize that in order for a program to be run well, our focus must be on the conduits through which that program is run. While it may be important or even necessary to train someone to do a task, we must understand that it will be through their experiences (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral) that they will be formed.
Having made that distinction, I want to share just a few tips with you on how you can accomplish this type of formation in your efforts:
Focus on a leader’s experience rather than their results
When you meet with your leaders, either individually or as a group, focus your conversation around their experience. Instead of asking, “What do you think went well?” ask, “Where did you see God working?” Instead of asking, “Where could we improve?” ask, “What was most difficult for you?” This alone will take attention off of the program and put the emphasis on the leader. Their answers will also give you insight into which leaders are attentive to what’s happening in them and which may be too focused on the “program.”
Be patient with the lacking in order for growth to occur
Taking your eyes off the program will seem like an adult taking their eyes off their two year-old for ten seconds…a lot can happen in that time. Again, we have to ask the question: do we care more about the program than the people? Having patience with an adult desiring to grow in their role will pay huge dividends.
Keep the work simple and easy to understand
Strive to keep roles simple and easy to understand. This does not mean you should simply dumb things down. Asking someone to “assist in leading a young person to Christian maturity” is a straightforward and clear directive, but it will require a depth of understanding and attentiveness to do it well. The point here is that at any time, you could sit down with that person and ask if they believe that they are doing what they’ve been asked to do.
As growth occurs, encourage deeper thought and leadership
Continuing from the last point, pay attention to whether your adults understand their task well, and, if so, be ready to invite them into the deeper vision and mission of discipleship. If someone has been leading a small group for some time and desires to take things even deeper, be ready to journey with them in that.
Focus on the person as opposed to the program
As an adult begins to grab hold of the deeper vision, remain focused on them. It may mean that as they grow in wisdom, discernment, and insight into their gifts and charisms, they will move on and participate in other areas of parish ministry. If you remain focused only on the program, your volunteers will continue to be limited in where and how they are capable of helping out and the degree to which they will be formed. Be willing to sacrifice your best leaders. Remember, your goal is formation, NOT the program. Formation will never end, and if someone leaves your program because they’ve been formed well and feel called to assist in another, you have done your job!
To be clear, I understand that these suggestions apply more directly to people who are in roles that are more formative in nature (leading small groups or bible studies, mentoring an individual, teaching, etc. ) and less important for the more menial tasks (bringing cookies, simply being a chaperone, etc.). My hope is not that you set out to create the perfect formation program, nor do I mean to imply that we should focus all of our efforts on formation to the exclusion of anything else. But I do hope that we begin to accept God’s invitation to us and to all of those in our parish to participate in his work, and through that, to receive more of Him. Our role as leaders is simply to allow that to happen and cultivate a culture where we are all becoming more aware of it. And when we do, our work in ministry will be less about what we are doing and more about who we are becoming. We will be changed!
A twist on the classic Mafia! Make sure you check that one out first so you have at least a small understanding of the rules.
How the game works:
Pick a few teens to be "mafia" members. This is done secretly, either having everyone close there eyes and hold out their hands, or by giving out cards and having the face cards be the mafia. Usually I do about 1 mafia for every 5 regulars. The game is played in rounds until all mafia members are eliminated or the mafia win.
Each round goes as follows: All lights in the area are turned off (youth minister and adult core team can have flashlights and walk around) and the youth are free to walk around the area. It needs to be as dark as possible for it to work well. Mafia members can eliminate townspeople at any time by walking up and lightly touching someone's neck. THERE IS NO RUNNING ALLOWED. Townspeople can't run away from the mafia or purposely try to give away who the mafia is. Once eliminated, townspeople have to lie down and "play dead".
When a townsperson finds a "dead" townsperson, they yell "PINEAPPLE" (because we don't want people to be screaming "Dead Body"). When PINEAPPLE is yelled, the round ends immediately and the lights are thrown on.
After the round ends, the townspeople gather for a town meeting. Everyone who has been eliminated gathers nearby, but they cannot speak AT ALL. The townspeople (with the mafia still pretending to be townspeople, then get a chance to try and vote off people who they believe to be mafia members. This is a game of deception and stealth. Mafia members are trying not to be spotted when they eliminate people, and they can even be the ones to find a "dead body" and yell pineapple. Townspeople try to hide, not get killed, and reason out who they think the mafia are.
This game works best in areas where you have multiple rooms (No closed doors for liability/protecting God's Children Reasons). Make sure there are core members around looking out for people. Also, if PINEAPPLE isn't called, it's best to set time limits. I've heard of people playing with a doctor and sheriff like the original mafia but I've never done it and am not quite sure how it work. Let me know if you have any questions!
In leading 100’s of games over about 16 years this has been one of the favorites.
a marked off area (either a square in a gym or made with cones)
dodge balls (softer is better)
Set up the boundaries. Have each person find a partner. One of them will be blindfolded and the other will not. Place a good number balls scattered around within the boundary. The blindfolded person will be in the boundary area and their teammate will be on the outside. To start, no one should be holding any balls and it works well to move the person around a bit so they don’t know exactly where they are at or which way they are facing when the game starts.
When the leader says “GO” the teammates on the outside of the play area will guide their teammates to grab a ball and throw it at the other within in the play area. When a person gets hit by a ball or goes outside of the boundary, they are out. Play until only one person is remaining.
I found many versions of this on YouTube. I’ve included a video I found of the version we played below.