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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
Have you ever wondered why fitness center memberships can be so expensive or why they require you to have a certain length of contract? Many fitness centers would actually say that charging a higher rate and expecting a commitment from their customers will actually make the customers happier. People use their services because they have a strong desire to be healthy, which motivates them to seek help. Therefore, they are actually helping customers follow through with their resolutions and achieve their goals more effectively by asking for a bigger commitment and charging a higher price. It’s quite a concept.
The call for mutual responsibility by the disciple and the teacher in Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is a similar concept. If you truly want to grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ, it requires commitment and sacrifice. If you really want to be a disciple, you must drop your nets and follow after Christ, or “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow.”
I understand that not everyone is ready for this type of sacrifice and commitment (or, in the case of the fitness center membership, maybe can’t afford it). This is one of the biggest ways discipleship is different than what is most commonly done in the Church. Typically, a Church will offer the same programs to everyone, and every program is so general in nature that it’s not really offering anything substantial to any one demographic. In discipleship, where the process and content are focused on the particular needs of each individual, there will be specific moments that challenge and call the individual to an even deeper commitment. It is in making these commitments that a disciple is able to truly grow.
Here are a few ideas to help you establish mutual responsibility in your discipleship group setting.
Be a Committed Leader
It is important to note that this is “mutual” responsibility. When asking the youth to make a commitment for themselves, they must be given the confidence that you will be committed to this journey together.
Communicate The Expectations
As a leader, be sure you are communicating what the expectations are for meetings, spiritual disciplines, commitments outside of the regular meetings, etc. Do not be afraid to make a covenant of sorts that communicates what you are both committing to. Writing these expectations down will do wonders in establishing a good understanding among everyone involved.
Call Each Other Out
When the expectations are not being met, do not be afraid to call each other out. As a leader, be ok with the youth calling you out when you are moving towards being less committed. Practice patience and gentleness in challenging those you are working with to keep their commitments as well.
Especially in a group setting, it is important to hold each person accountable to the standards your group has decided to set. When one or two people are slacking in their commitments to the group, it can be a parasite to the culture you have spent time building so far.
Re-Evaluate Responsibilities Regularly
Once or twice a year (or more often if needed), go through what you previously agreed to and decide as a group if it looks good or if things need to be adjusted. Ideally, you will be able to set higher expectations over time, especially if they are more specific in practice.
For about the first ten years that I was involved in youth ministry, I remember asking some of the same questions I see many asking today…
It wasn’t until the last few years that the questions I was asking started to shift. I started really focusing on how much responsibility I should be taking on for the formation of the youth. Besides, it seemed like no matter what I was doing, it was still a gamble as to whether or not each youth involved in my programs was going to continue living their faith out after high school anyway. Recently in my own prayer, God has revealed something else to me. He reminded me who the responsibility of forming the youth really belongs to.
We have heard it said a million times that the primary people responsible for the formation of the youth are their parents. The Church doesn’t have a secondary role in their formation, as if it’s only when the parents are doing it poorly, but it shares in this responsibility. What God revealed to me in my time of prayer is that my role should be less about having parents help me, but more about how I can help parents. I am beginning to see youth ministry more as a social service for parents, coming alongside them and aiding them as they are in need, as opposed to a rescue service for youth who are in need.
Here are the questions I am asking now:
It really seems to me that the more effective way of helping families is not through any formal program or group, but really through close, personal relationships and authentic community with others who are walking the same difficult path that they are. While programs can be helpful in bringing this about, I’m afraid we too easily make the program the focal point for what we are trying to achieve. Without a personal connection to someone already in the community, many parents probably won’t respond to programs anyway. This means that we will likely have to go seek parents out and draw them in rather than waiting for them to come to us.
So, while the title states that we should stop helping youth, what I really mean is that I am realizing more and more that the only way to truly help the youth is to help their parents and the communities that they belong to.
Back in 2011, I wrote a blog article titled Down With Youth Groups. I recently did a little research into the popularity of my past posts, and that article has been by far the most read of all I have written in the past seven years of blogging. I remember immediately after publishing that post receiving several emails and messages asking me for more insight on starting to work outside of the youth group model. To be blunt, I’m not sure what advice I gave at the time, but with this new focus on Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry, it has become much clearer to me why I was so frustrated with my own experience of leading a youth group and how a Discipleship Focused approach responds to some of these frustrations. Let me use the Four Earmarks of Discipleship to explain this in a little bit more detail.
When I was leading a youth group, the reality was that my goal was to make the youth group bigger. Once I had grown the group from 4-6 youth to 30-40 youth, I missed the intimacy we had shared in our smaller group setting. Instead of reaching 4-6 youth well, it seemed like I was reaching no one at all. While a larger group model can provide a different sense of community and allow you to do things that a small group can not, Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry strives for an intimacy that is more accommodating to depth and authentic friendships.
One of the most difficult situations for me to accept in a youth group model was when a teen would come for a few weeks and then we would never see them again. The youth group model tends to focus attention more on the number of youth in the youth group than on the individuals that comprised it. I could have 40 youth one week and two of them would never show up again, but 5 more would join the next week, so I was supposedly doing well because now we have 43 total. But what about those two youth that we lost? Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry demands a responsibility and commitment from the youth and the adult leader that facilitates growth in mature Christian discipleship.
Some youth love games, others hate them. Some youth would prefer to spend over an hour in Eucharistic Adoration while others would rather play dodge ball. There was always tension for me in balancing fun and depth in my planning for a large group. With Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry we are able to craft a more customized plan for each youth involved. We meet them where they are at and no longer offer just one program that is generally for everyone, hoping everyone will get something out of it.
Accountability to Life Change
The single most common question I hear in youth ministry is, “How do I get more adult volunteers?” I would argue that this earmark provides the answer that the youth ministry world has been looking for. When adults see the change and the impact that their sacrifice of time and energy is giving them in return, they will continue to give. If adults are showing up simply out of obligation or even just to “help out,” it is not nearly as motivating because anyone could do what they are doing, and if they don’t do it, someone else will. But when an adult is directly involved in assisting a youth to have an encounter with Christ, they are hooked…not necessarily because they did anything grand, but because seeing something like that happen changes who we are. Putting adults with youth who are truly desiring to grow will change the culture of “adult volunteers” in your parish for good!
So, returning to my past post, looking back saying that having a youth group is a bad thing. I think the definition of “youth group” is rather vague, anyway. My point is that the first instinct when youth start to become interested in spiritual growth is usually to start a youth group. I would argue that focusing on these earmarks as the means to teaching them the faith is the better way to go.
If you’ve spent some time on this site, you know that the Four Earmarks of Discipleship are qualities or characteristics that help us understand what discipleship looks like and evaluate its effectiveness. Discipleship is a way of teaching and forming another person. All too often, we in the Church approach the task of formation like we should just be able to instruct on something and others will automatically do it. The reality is that we live in a culture that is so relativistic and distrusting of authority that it will take much more to inspire others to do something than simply telling them to do it. Only love for another will motivate a person to freely adopt a new way of thinking and acting. This love and the trust that corresponds to it will increase with growth in intimacy. Developing intimacy in discipleship can take time, and discipleship will deepen intimacy over time. But how do we begin to work on intimacy in discipleship and through our discipleship groups? I thought I would share some ideas from my own experience.
Spend Time Together
Time together will help to build intimacy. In fact, intimacy requires time. Spending time doing study and talking about the faith is important, but be sure to spend time just enjoying each other’s presence as well.
When you experience joy together, it will deepen the desire to be with each other.
Every relationship needs to be going somewhere. When your group has a purpose that is clearly communicated, it creates a strong sense of support and belonging, which leads to a more faithful commitment to discipleship.
A key part of intimacy is trust. Do not be afraid to speak honestly. Be prudent and humble in your sharing, but do not hesitate to be honest, and expect honesty from those in your group as well.
Share Each Other
Be sure your relationships are being shared with others. When you see the other person proud and excited to be with you and share you with others, it will deepen the trust and care you have for each other.
Talk About Each Other
In your discipleship group, do not be afraid to talk about yourself and address personal questions to each of the others. Get to know the youth you work with, and do not be afraid to step outside of programming and curriculum. Always make your time centered upon each person and not the curriculum or study.
Pray For and With Each Other
Bring your relationships to Christ. Pray daily for the youth you work with, and remember to keep prayer a central component of your group meetings.
Youth have people coming in and out of their lives all of the time. When they discover someone who will make more than a program or a simple time commitment, it will inspire more faith in that relationship. Ensuring you are consistent with your time, attention, and care for the youth in your group will also build intimacy in your group.
Lastly, do not be afraid to say you’re sorry for the times where you may have let the youth in your group down. The patience and trust the youth have for you will grow because you have expressed a desire to love better.
If we can foster intimacy among the youth we are working with, it will be hard for the other things in their life to compete. Youth are hungry for intimate and healthy relationships that inspire commitment, sacrifice, and growth. Do not be afraid to truly give of yourself to the youth you are serving and receive the love that they have to give as well.
One of the things I find most difficult in what I do is being able to explain to others how discipleship is not a program. Any programming in your parish, including discipleship groups, should be done in order to foster and build a culture for discipleship. If a program is not helping build up discipleship or draw new youth into discipleship, then I would take time to seriously consider why it even exists. On the other hand, programming is a very important part of building a discipleship focused youth ministry in your parish. There are plenty of things you can do on a bigger scale that will bring discipleship groups together and will be an opportunity to draw others in as well. Here are a few parameters I have developed that will help evaluate programs as being helpful in a discipleship focused youth ministry.
Coordinate Things That Require More Than a Small Group
It’s hard to play a game of softball with a small group of 4-6 youth. Work towards offering opportunities in the parish that small groups could not do by themselves.
Compensate for What Your Leaders May Lack
Your leaders may have agreed to lead a group of young people in their faith, but they may not be experienced retreat leaders or engaging teachers. Consider planning a retreat that is an opportunity for your groups to attend and do the work of providing quality content that is presented well.
Take the “Work” Out of Being a Disciple Leader
Many leaders are great at mentoring and walking with the youth in their journey of faith. They may be more than willing to go on a camping trip with their group, but they may not have the skills or time to figure out the details. If the parish makes opportunities like this easy for their groups, they are more likely going to do them.
Bring Communities Together
Discipleship groups should be part of a greater community. Doing things that allow a group to continue being a group, while also exposing them to other groups and other youth in the parish will continue to foster growth as they are opened up to other people and possibilities.
Inspire Involvement In Diocesan/National Events
Similar to the tip above, exposing the youth in your parish to the Church community outside of your parish will provide a better understanding to the youth of the bigger picture of the Church that they are a part of in their discipleship groups.
Provide a Bridge to Outreach & Mission
Discipleship groups tend to be very inward-focused, but the goal is that they would be a light to the world and be sent to build up the Body of Christ (the Church). The parish should provide opportunities that make it easier to practice outreach and share the fruits of what is happening in their group.
I should end by saying that in each case, these opportunities are ideas that should be offered, not required, for those in small groups. If the parish has programming in place and no one wants to be a part of it, then stop doing it. People will go where they are fed and formed and the programming is helping them move forward. Be sure to have ongoing dialogue with your discipleship group leaders about what things the parish can do to help build up the small groups and inspire them to a missionary initiative.
When I was kid, I remember my grandparents having a pendulum clock. I thought it was so cool that I could grab the pendulum to stop it from moving back and forth. When I let it go, it would slowly begin to build up momentum and start swinging again from side to side. This clock often comes to mind when I think about youth ministry and as I address questions regarding safe environment, oversight, etc. On the one hand we want to protect our youth, so we need to have guidelines and boundaries in place, but on the other, we don’t want so many limits that those involved have no freedom to do what they know needs to be done. It’s a difficult balance between too much control and too much freedom.
Another example from my own life that illustrates this principle was when I was 16 and my dad told me that he was no longer going to give me a curfew. I did, however, have to tell him where I was going. He knew me and my tendencies well enough by that point, and he wanted me to know that he trusted me but that he still had the right as my father to speak into my life. This is an example of good oversight and accountability while still providing freedom and communicating trust. I am sure it was difficult for him to let go of the control, but he knew it would give me the freedom to truly grow up as I needed to. Discipleship will require a greater deal of trust on our part, but also the expectation of greater responsibility on the part of the adults involved. If we can have faith in the adults we are working with and give them opportunities to “grow up” in ministry, we will gain much ground in the work we do in the Church. Here are a few tips for creating the atmosphere of trust, accountability, and freedom.
Keep The Rope Short At First
Entrusting and delegating a vision and responsibility to others takes time. Do not be afraid to over-communicate and expect dialogue in the beginning stages of forming your leaders. At first, you might expect them to communicate every detail of what they are doing with their groups and how things are going, but as time goes on and you develop greater trust in your adults, you can lighten up and give away some control.
Some leaders would actually prefer that you tell them what to do all the time. This can be a very bad thing. Your goal should be to equip leaders and give them the confidence they need to do it on their own. My dad, by forcing some responsibility on me, forced me to look at all of my decisions differently. Expect your leaders to learn how to observe situations and make decisions on their own rather than coming to you for everything. Helping them too much is not really helping at all.
Do Not Be Afraid to Discipline
While this post might seem to focus more on the necessity of giving adult leaders the freedoms they need to grow, I have often found it to be the case that many adults will require more control than they would like. Either they do not understand what is expected of them in this regard or they don’t respect your leadership. Do not be afraid to have conversations with these “rogue” adults. Like a child running into the street even after his father tells him not to, adults need to be formed. Lean in to this type of conflict and do not be afraid of it. In many situations, you may find it’s actually your own lack of leadership that is causing the leader to misunderstand what is expected. In situations where a leader is not receptive to authority over them, their freedoms should be taken away.
The role of parish coordinator should look very much like me as a child holding the pendulum on the clock, working to find the balance of too much control and too much freedom. The right adults, truly desiring to serve our Lord through youth discipleship, will find great freedom when this type of balance is in place. Much like the child given the boundaries within which to play, they will experience great freedom in knowing what they can and cannot do.
Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is tough because it requires a more natural evolution than simply creating a program and getting people to become involved in it. As the earmark of mutual responsibility implies, discipleship is a two-way street. You need a rabbi (teacher) who is willing to invest themselves in a disciple, and you need a disciple who desires to be like the teacher. The reality is that we cannot force discipleship. In youth ministry, a youth must see something in an adult and develop a strong desire to be with them in order to become like them. In a discipleship group setting, a youth must see something good in a discipleship group, so much that they wish to be with the group and become like those in the group. My point is that this happens naturally, but a few key things are essential to making this take place.
Have Solid Groups
If you are a discipleship group leader, strive to make your group a place that is attractive to others. Fun is attractive, but depth is even more so (strive for both!). When someone comes to check out your discipleship group because their friend invited them, expose them to a group that is a living witness of authentic friendship and committed to growth.
Have Solid Adults
If discipleship groups are led by adults that are living witnesses of Christ’s love, it will attract youth that are seeking that love, and it will inspire parents as well. Look for adults that have humility, patience, and great care towards everyone they meet. Find adults who are committed to the daily sacrifice of following after Christ. A youth desiring to grow in their faith can spot an adult lacking in these things from a mile away.
Create Opportunities to Connect
It will be very difficult for youth to meet adults (and vice versa) unless there are opportunities to connect. The role of the parish leader oftentimes can be to play matchmaker, finding times where an adult might be able to meet a youth that they think may be a good match for a discipleship-focused relationship. An example would be to get an adult and several youth who you think might make a good discipleship group to all go on a trip together to a youth conference or mission trip. If they connect well, it can be an easy transition into a discipleship group afterwards, allowing them to continue building those relationships.
Youth will be drawn to healthy and fruitful relationships and opportunities for growth. It may take time, but I encourage you to let things play out naturally. When we get in the way and try to force things, it can oftentimes do more harm than good.
In the story Shawshank Redemption, there is a character by the name of Brooks Hatlen. Brooks is well-known, well-liked, and has a great gig (relatively speaking) in the prison system. He has been there for so long that it has become his home. To help jog your memory, he is the one who is let out of prison part way through the movie and says, “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” Long story short, he has such a difficult time facing the world when he is released that he ends up hanging himself. The world outside of prison is more of a punishment to him than prison itself.
As youth ministry begins to shift, I am seeing more and more tension in the role of the youth minister in a parish. Whether it be the pastor, the youth minister, or even the parish itself, many people take great comfort in the life, structure, and discipline we have established in the Church today. Those who have not really thought too much about what it would be like outside of the box and have been living in it for so long struggle with the realities when change begins to hit. At the same time, we have people who have been engaging in discipleship for some time, and when they look at the walls of the common youth ministry structure in the Church (the jail), they are able to much more readily see the lack of freedom one has in them.
It is going to take a new breed of youth minister to be able to shift youth ministry in the Church today. We need to be able to get comfortable outside of the walls and experience the great joy and freedom in doing youth ministry in a way that is truly NEW in order to fully enter into the New Evangelization.
I am fortunate enough to be a part of youth ministry programs that are going outside of these walls. Here are some examples of what is working and how things are different on the “outside”:
The Days of One Youth Group are Over
The issue I found in having one large youth group is that it was nearly impossible to craft a plan that really met the needs of every youth that came. The parish youth group must become a community of communities in the parish – each community distinct and able to grow and shift as needed.
A Greater Expectation of the Laity is Key
I have heard some call youth ministry the “welfare system” of the Church. For too long, we have provided a crutch for parents and families without really having a plan for helping them get on their own feet. It is time to expect those who are able to step up and take on bigger roles in the Church. This doesn’t necessarily mean more time commitment, but definitely a greater responsibility in the formation of our youth.
Formation of Leaders is Essential
When volunteers are given a big responsibility and are truly being fed through their involvement in the Church, it will naturally draw out a deep desire to give even more. It’s time to start making the Church a place where volunteers are formed and can grow in the gifts that God has given them, feeding them in ways no one else can, instead of simply looking for people who can do things for us.
Depth Wins Over Hype
Immediately when we began small group discipleship in our parish, the walls of Catholic School vs. Public Schools were broken down. We have to believe and show that what the Church has to offer is more fulfilling than any other school commitment a youth can make. It’s not about how big or fun your programs are; it is about the depth they can reach. The reason sports and school activities are becoming so competitive is because of the depth of commitment expected from those involved. If our desire is greater results, why wouldn’t we expect a greater commitment and depth as well?
We Have to be Ok If People Don’t Like Us
For too long, our programs and ministries have been built to make everyone happy. The expectations are minimal and the teachings are vague. This doesn’t sound much like how Jesus did it at all. Jesus spoke the truth, invited people to “cast into the deep,” and did not make everyone happy. While his message is for everyone, he doesn’t force people to follow him but makes it well worth it for those who do.
A Fruit of Discipleship is Evangelization
When discipleship happens as it should, the result is a missionary heart. As youth enter into a discipleship setting where they are growing in their faith, they are willing to get out of their comfort zone and evangelize others. This is how we will reach those who are not yet engaged. It will not be through some production or fancy offering, but rather through the gentle invitation of their peers who are being changed because of their active relationship with Jesus Christ.
These are just a few examples of the life outside of the walls that I am experiencing. It is a very exciting time in the Church. May the vision of the New Evangelization guide you as you break free and trust in the life that exists outside of the walls!
One of my favorite blogs to follow on Catholic Youth Ministry is written by Christopher Wesley, the director of student ministry at Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland. I was privileged to meet Chris for the first time this last December and learn about his new book which was published on March 9th.
Before I talk about the book, I must mention that Ave Maria Press is actually sponsoring a little giveaway of this book through our website.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I got the review copy of the book. I don’t know a lot about Chris, and I have only skimmed through the Rebuilt books. I am familiar with Chris’ writing through his blog, but that is about it. Most of what I have heard about what Church of the Nativity is doing is through online forums and such, which typically don’t speak about the youth ministry there. In short, I was very curious.
As the title of the book implies, the content covers ten strategies for youth ministry in parishes. It is broken into three sections: Answering the Call, Building a Foundation, and Planning for the Long Haul. Chris does an excellent job of taking a look at youth ministry through the lens of leadership, strategy, vision, etc. I strongly believe that one of the biggest holes we have in the Church today is a lack of leadership and strategic planning, and Chris gives a ton of practical insights for how to set up a youth ministry model that is structurally healthy and provides balance to the position of the youth minister.
My favorite part of the book was Chapter 9 where Chris writes about how to ask the right questions. The first question that he proposes we ask is “How Does The Parish See Youth Ministry?” He goes on to talk about the tension that may exist because of a perception some have and how the perception alone may be cause for a lack of interest from the youth and the parents in the parish. We must strive to be aware of how the youth ministry in our parishes is perceived so that we can more appropriately engage each person in the parish where they are. This, along with strategies for finding and supporting volunteers, creating an atmosphere that is attractive to youth, and learning to build a trusting and valuable relationship with your pastor and other parish staff are all greats components for anyone in youth ministry. Chris tackles each one of these in this book.
On the flip side, if we are really looking at “rebuilding” something, it’s essential to make sure our foundation is strong. While this book is probably one of the best I have read regarding good structures and balance in ministry, it doesn’t really give much insight into what direction the Church gives about our aim and approach for achieving it. The Church is the foundation and the rock from which we must build our ministries. This foundation and mission are given to us through the Church, the Holy Father, and the local bishop and are articulated well in the great treasury of documents we find in the Church today. If we are to rebuild youth ministry, we must be actively listening to and engaging in what the Church, especially through the Holy Father and the local Bishop, are asking us to do. The only mention of the Diocese in the book is regarding Safe Environment or other policies. When rebuilding anything, everyone should take the time to ensure the proper foundation is set in place first.
I am not implying that I think Church of the Nativity has not done this already, but I wish I would’ve seen it articulated in the book (and maybe it’s in the other books that I haven’t read yet!).
Overall, I think it’s a good read for anyone involved in or wanting to get involved in starting a youth ministry program. As the title states, it is really ten strategies that you can do with what you want. In regard to how it aligns with Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry, I just didn’t see much in the book that reflects the vision laid out in our site, but that doesn’t mean that what they are doing is not effective. Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is one model for building a youth ministry…there are many!
On a scale of 1-10, I recommend you buy it and read it (yes that was intentional!), especially if you are new to youth ministry or you are using a traditional youth group model and are looking for ways to improve it.
If you would like to buy a copy of the book, you can get it on Amazon here.
So you have been coaxed into invited to lead a discipleship group in your parish. When a good leader is just getting started with a new group, there can be some very frustrating moments. Perhaps you have no idea where to begin. Perhaps you have already encountered some obstacles and are thinking to yourself, “I was promised that this whole discipleship thing was going to be easier and better because I would be working with youth who had a desire to be there and a desire to grow in their faith. It should be easy, right?” The correct answer is NO! Starting a new discipleship group in any situation comes with its struggles. Here are ten tips for you to consider as you begin.
Strive for the Four Earmarks First
The Four Earmarks are the way you will know you have created a good atmosphere for discipleship. Be ok with doing less learning and study and spend time building intimacy in your group.
Make Every Meeting Worth Their Time
New groups often go through a “settling” time where youth are not extremely committed. One of the biggest mistakes is when a leader believes they can’t follow through with what they planned because one or two people couldn’t be there. Go into each meeting with a goal that you can achieve no matter how many people come, and if only some of them show up, meet that goal with them.
Set a Strategic First Goal
For new groups, a common first goal is to have a bigger faith experience together, something that can help bond and gel the group, as well as foster conversion. Find an event or an opportunity that you can look towards getting your entire group to attend. This could be your Diocesan Youth Conference, a summer mission trip, or even a lock-in.
Get Feedback from the Committed Ones
Discern who in your group is invested long-term, and find time to get their feedback. They will likely have a different perception of things and be able to give you some ideas as well.
Start as Naturally as Possible
Sometimes this is out of your control, but ideally every small group would develop naturally through already established friendships and common circles (This applies to both the teens with one another and the leaders with the teens.) If you were assigned a group and some of the members don’t know each other already, be sure to spend time breaking down those walls first.
Get Their Families Involved
Having the parents of your group members on board will make a huge impact on the commitment level and investment of the youth involved. Consider having a group potluck with all of the families in your group, be sure you have all of the parents included in your regular communication, and make sure they have access to you (phone, email, etc).
Cling to Your Parish Coordinator
If discipleship groups have been going on for some time in your parish, cling to your parish coordinator and other group leaders. Get feedback and share with them some of the things you are seeing and desiring, and they will be a wealth of wisdom for you.
Learn About Your Group Before Teaching Your Group
The goal of a discipleship leader is to form each young person in the Four Areas of Formation. Before you can do this, you must know where they are at. It’s sort of like a music teacher wanting to teach a lesson without first hearing what their musicians can do.
As much as possible, be consistent with meeting times and places, especially in the beginning. Doing so will make it much easier for the youth and their parents to get comfortable and adjust their regular schedules to accommodate their new group.
Youth need fun and YOU need fun. Leading a discipleship group can be one of the most joyful experiences for an adult. If you are stressing out too much, something is out of balance, and it may be good to take a step back and look at things from the outside. Let your first goal be that the youth in your group develop meaningful memories of their discipleship group that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
I’d like to leave you with a few final practical ideas for new groups. Obviously, remain a person of prayer and have a great trust in our Lord. Remember that your investment and sacrifice is a gift to these youth and to their parents. Good luck with your new group and may God richly bless your gift of self to these young people.
As I continue to deepen my understanding of what discipleship is, I am also growing in my awareness that this approach is significantly different than what I have known of youth ministry in the past. As a youth minister, I was able to do what every youth minister dreams of doing…build a successful youth program. After being in the same parish for seven years, I really believed I had made major progress toward being successful and doing the things a youth minister should do. The one thing that has changed in me, and one of the biggest things I believe needs to be changed in order for youth ministry to be more effective, is that we must make ministry less about what we can do and more about what we can enable others to do.
When a rabbi calls someone to be his disciple, what it really means is that he believes that the one he is calling can do what he does. The relationship between the rabbi and the disciple exists in order to help the disciple do what the rabbi did. It doesn’t take long for a Christian to see this correlation to how Jesus taught and worked with the twelve and why he even had disciples. His plan all along was to equip and form his apostles to do what he was doing.
But what is it that we must strive to help others “do” when we are involved in youth ministry and discipleship is the focus? Here are a couple of ideas:
Others Should Become More Aware of God’s Loving Presence in Their Lives and Learn to Articulate That to Others
This is becoming more and more the primary goal I have with my own discipleship group. Every time we gather, I strive to make our time together a time to reflect on what God is doing in their lives and give them an opportunity to share it. Not only is it a good little nudge for them to be aware so that they have something to share, but when people share what God is doing, it changes those who hear it as well.
Practice the Disciplines of a Disciple
YDisciple has done a great job of articulating some good disciplines necessary to being a disciple of Christ (find them here). We use these in our group as a good starting point for how to grow each day in building the spiritual muscles necessary to follow Christ. Ironically, these all seem to be ways in which we can be more aware of and participate in what God calls us to do as well!
I have nothing against doing video studies or using a curriculum of sorts, but one thing that must change is that youth begin to understand that things like these are the reasons we get together and the purpose for which we exist. We must start worrying less about what materials we need to get through, how many times we have to meet, how many people are there, etc. and we must be more concerned with how they are doing and what God is doing in their lives. Besides, anytime I have these conversations with anyone it seems to change me more than anything else I could possibly come up with on my own.
One of my favorite testimonies about building a Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry comes from a parish I work with. They have two different discipleship group leaders who, since beginning to lead their group, have had spouses also express interest in joining a group. This is a beautiful sign of fruit being born in the lives of leaders in that parish. The joy and growth that they are experiencing through discipling teens is something that their spouses see and desire as well. It’s not like it’s an easy task for both spouses to lead a group (trust me, my wife and I know!), but the sacrifice brings great rewards.
I can remember teaching a religious education class many years back. I am confident that the only thing my wife would’ve seen after an average class was me throwing the teacher’s book in the corner and not wanting to think about class again until the next week. What is it about the experience of these adults that makes Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry different than other approaches? What is it that’s so inviting and seems to draw out a deeper commitment of time to the parish and its efforts to disciple young people? Here are three areas upon which to focus that will leave your adults wanting more and make volunteering for youth ministry attractive to new volunteers as well.
Your Ministry Provides Community for the Adults Involved
One of the best things you can do for your adults is to provide opportunities that will build community among them, giving them a place to be with other leaders who desire to grow as well. Learning from others and facing challenges together creates an intimacy that makes it very difficult to leave even if you wanted to.
Your Adults are Growing Spiritually as a Result of Being Involved
If you can cultivate an atmosphere where adults understand the importance of being a disciple first and commit to growing as a disciple, it will not take long for them to see that God has them leading a group not just for the youth involved, but to form and grow themselves as well.
Your Adults are Seeing the Fruit of Discipleship
Anyone who has been involved in youth ministry for some time knows the feeling of seeing a youth encounter Christ for the first time or take that next step in their relationship with Him. It reminds us of the many graces that God has given us over our lifetime and fills us personally in a profound way. When you enable your volunteers to effectively foster discipleship within the teens of your parish, they will see this and it will change them.
Accomplishing these things is not easy, but it is possible. I truly believe that establishing a Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry model in a parish helps to properly orient the ministries toward providing these types of opportunities for adults. I’m certain that this is why I have seen more fruit born in the lives of the adults involved in Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry than in the youth, which is exactly what we need!
Think about the first time you went to an amazing restaurant. After you went, was it your desire to go back alone and just relive the same experience again? I am willing to bet not. Or remember when you started watching that new series on Netflix and you got really excited about it. What was your natural next step? For me, the only thing I want to do is tell my wife and friends about these types of experiences. I want to take them to that restaurant so I can witness their first experience of it. I want them to watch the series on Netflix and tell me what they thought about it. My point is that when we experience something that is good, we have a natural desire to share it. Experiencing the Gospel is no different.
Default ministry is NOT a good thing. When we use the word default, it really means to leave things as they came. For example, when you set up a new account online, you may be assigned a default password. You can either continue using that password or change it to something more unique and personal. Default ministry leaves things be. The opposite of default ministry would sound something like Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium when he says “To go out of ourselves and to join others.” (EG, 87)
Before I get into the signs that you may be doing default ministry I’m going to quickly put a stake in the ground and say that bulletin announcements, newsletters, calendars, etc. are not making an effort to get to those who wouldn’t be there otherwise (see our YouTube video here). These are great ways to communicate and remind those who would be there anyway, but they are NOT effective ways to engage and reach out to new people in your ministry.
Yes, our goal is to make disciples of the youth so that they will go and get others, but this must first be modeled by our own leadership and efforts to “go out of ourselves.” Here are three strategies that can be used to ensure you are looking beyond default ministry and encouraging a Church that goes outside itself.
1. Have Clear Goals
Instead of waiting to see how many people register for an upcoming event or show up to your parish outreach events, set goals for numbers and take responsibility for achieving those goals. Instead of going week-to-week in your planning, create a semester or year long plan showing you where you want to be at the end of the year and how you are going to get there. Others will follow a plan if they know they are headed somewhere.
2. Think Outside of the Box
This is very common in youth ministry. “We weren’t able to get a lot of youth to go to this event because of the football game” said every youth leader at one time. Maybe this event wasn’t intended for those who love football or are on the team. Start looking at opportunities like this to reach those that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Instead of making excuses, practice being more creative in reaching a wider circle.
3. Have Confidence That Fruit Will Come From Discipleship
The best way to go and get more youth is to have their own peers invite them. If youth are not bringing their friends, it likely means that they are not having the experiences like the examples I gave above. They must be experiencing something great and understand that there is enough to go around. Begin doing things that those youth in your ministry will want their school friends to experience as well and hold them accountable to being missionary disciples.
In a sense, what this all means is that we must be more proactive in our ministry than reactive. We must move from being a Church that caters only to those that are interested and would be there anyway to a Church that goes and gets those who wouldn’t be there otherwise. We must become a Church that has a vision that reaches beyond the Church walls and into our families, communities, and the entire world. Discipleship is important because it gives us the capacity to do so. It is important for the youth we work with to learn how to “go out of ourselves.” The difficult part is that this must be modeled by the leaders in their lives first.
In order for a discipleship group to be a discipleship group, it requires the commitment of a disciple. I think it’s crazy the commitments that things like sports, clubs, and music require of the youth these days. What’s sad is that for some reason, when it comes to seeking a commitment from youth in the Church, we tend to think that “it’s too much to ask” or “they are already too busy.” This is a challenge that, while true, is one that I tend to lean in to more than anything else. I believe that this greater level of commitment is what is necessary for real growth and success. Isn’t that why these other organizations demand it? Because they want to succeed and want the youth to succeed?
The challenge that we face then is: how do we get youth to make a greater commitment to a discipleship group? I have created a system in my own discipleship that protects the integrity and the disciplines that we have in place, while still being inviting to those that are interested in joining.
Strategy #1 – Set The Standard
The young men in my group have set their own standards that they are striving for. They have commitments to prayer, the Sacramental life, being Christ to their family, and witnessing to the other youth and families in the parish and in the community. This is a strategy in and of itself because now they have a group that is attractive to others who desire the same things. It’s like being on the winning team (humbly speaking of course).
Strategy #2 – Make The Invitation Open
Since we have made it clear what the goal of our group is, the guys know that no one can take that away from them. All of the guys know that they are free to invite others to the group, but because of the standards we have set, they are not going to invite anyone unless they can “hack it” (for lack of a better term). If they have a friend whom they know desires to have what the group offers, they invite them.
Strategy #3 – Have an Interview Process
I’m not sure interview is the right word, but in our group, we have a simple process that doesn’t judge a person desiring to be a part of our group, but gives them ways to step out if they find that it’s not what they are looking for. First, I invite them to come and meet the group (one meeting). Then, I ask them to commit to two months. This commitment gives them time to get to know the group more and be involved in more of what they do. After the two months, I check in with them and see if they would like to commit to the group. By committing to the group, they commit to striving towards the standards the rest of the group has set.
All of this can take some time to develop in your own discipleship group, but I can assure you that it’s worth it.
Back in 2012, a friend introduced me to a book by Sherry Weddell titled Forming Intentional Disciples (FID for short). This book has gone on to become one of the most popular Catholic books on ministry and evangelization in recent years and has sparked conversation on many different levels. Beginning with the ugly truth of where the Church stands in regard to participation and engagement and leading the reader through how one becomes an intentional disciple, the book is a must read for any Catholic. My only issue with the book was that I felt it was mis-titled. I have been working in my own ministry to help create an atmosphere where those who were already “intentional disciples” had a place to be fed and formed as a disciple. This book covered only how to get them to the point of becoming an intentional disciple, not how to form them once they are there.
So, since 2012 I have been awaiting the sequel, and it is finally here. Published on January 23, 2015 the follow-up book titled Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples is making its way around world to the avid FID fans who have waited anxiously for far too long. I read the book in just a couple of days and am excited because just as Forming Intentional Disciples did, the book is articulated in a way that resonates so well with what I believe to be true and needs to be heard by so many.
To start, the book is a bit different than FID in that Sherry Weddell authored only one of the chapters while also being editor of the book. Each of the seven chapters is written by a different person, each of whom has a great deal of wisdom to share from his or her experiences implementing Intentional Discipleship in the Church.
The first chapter of the book, written by Sherry Weddell, gives an inspiring and brief look into some lives of the saints. Looking at their stories through the lens of discipleship, we find numerous examples of how an encounter with Christ, shared through personal witness and testimony, can create a wave of impact on large communities simply through investing in a few at a time.
Chapter Two, the first chapter that begins to give instruction, focuses on prayer. While it may seem cliche, Keith Strom articulates the need for and the “why” of intercessory prayer in a way that is truly inspiring. It has changed the way I look at prayer in my own ministry in a very powerful way.
My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter Three, which is written by Father Michael Fones, O.P., a former co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute. This chapter focuses on the “Co-Responsibility for the Church’s Mission.” Father Fones focuses his chapter on the relationship between the laity and the pastor in a parish. If we could give one chapter to our priests, this would be it. A great read on how a pastor should engage with and support the laity in the work of the New Evangelization.
The following chapters are helpful in bringing out an understanding of how to build a culture of discipleship that lasts, how to find the first leaders in a parish to begin building a vision of intentional discipleship, and how to form communities that make the efforts of discipleship extend far beyond what a single priest can do on his own.
The final chapter is written by my good friend Jim Beckman. Much of what I have learned about discipleship has come from him. Jim does what he can in a single chapter of this book to give a good starting manual for bringing about discipleship in a youth ministry setting.
In a nutshell, I loved this book. It is inspiring, it hits the nail on the head as far as what needs to be done to further bring about the New Evangelization in the Church.
The greatest disappointment is one that I find almost everywhere I speak about discipleship. As Father Chas Canoy says in Chapter Six, “There is no one answer because the particular pastoral needs of a given people will inform that pastoral structure.” If you are looking for a step-by-step process, you are out of luck. This book will give you the inspiration and a vision. It will also give you tons of great stories and experiences of people who are moving the needle in the Church. But the plan that God has for your parish is unique. This book is not THE answer, but I will say it is likely one of the best tools you can have in your toolbelt for 2015! For those working to further discipleship on the Diocesan or parish level, I would encourage you to order in bulk today and get it in the hands of your leaders.
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