When I was in high school, we had one “program” in our parish for youth: Religious Education. I was placed in a class based on my age and was run through a system that had been going long before I was ever even alive. I’m grateful for all of the adults who over the years were involved in teaching me the faith through this program, but looking back, it really wasn’t what sparked my deeper commitment to the faith. A missionary who I recently interviewed described her parish programming and the efforts of her parents as “kindling for the fire” that when she was taught how to pray “burst into flames.” This was my experience as well. After encountering Christ through an outside event in the diocese, I came home and spoke to my priest about starting a prayer group. The priest gave me keys to the parish hall and said, “Meet whenever you want.” So, for three years I invited my friends and others to join us on Sunday evenings to pray and be together.

Reflecting on this experience, I am amazed at the openness of this priest and his awareness that God was doing something in me. Over those three years, he and my father watched and supported me as I struggled and learned much in my efforts to invite others into the faith. Neither one of them seemed too concerned about what we were doing, but they must’ve been confident that the Lord was doing something in it. In short, they were willing to let me look outside of the “program” in the parish and respond to the specific workings of the Lord in my life. Both of them took risks on me. Looking back, though, I don’t necessarily think it was the prayer group or religious education “programs” that opened me to the call to do what I do now. It was understanding that I was called to witness and lead in the faith, and that even though I will screw things up sometimes, I am still loved and supported. I desired to receive more of what the Lord had given me at that event, and I knew that the way I was called to receive more of this grace was through sharing what I had received and inviting others to receive it as well. There was no “program” in the parish that gave me this opportunity.

Youth Group is a program. Even setting up discipleship groups in a parish is a program. Rarely have I found that when we respond to real, specific needs and the calling of individuals in the Church does it look like or become a program. Programs, by their very nature, only make sense to develop if the time it takes to develop them is worth it, which is often determined by the number of people they will reach or impact. Discipleship in a sense is a program, but to do discipleship well, you must begin by recognizing the needs of the individuals, which might mean simply following whatever specific desires arise from what the Lord is doing in their hearts. This makes it sort of an anti-program, meaning it is one thing (discipling) until it needs to become another thing (a discipleship program). Discipleship is ever-changing and requires a certain mindset and method in order to adapt as the disciple continues to grow. It also changes as the teacher becomes more aware of what the Lord is doing in his or her own life and in the discipleship relationships of which they are called to be a part.

One of my greatest concerns as I dialogue with parishes, begin to dissect the programming they offer, and determine how best to lead them towards Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry is that the parish wouldn’t really be ready or receptive if the high school version of me showed up and said the Lord was doing something, and I wanted help in responding to it.

I will close with a few questions that I often consider in order to be more open and receptive to what the Lord is doing and so that discipleship may truly be the focus of the ministry in which I’m involved:

  • Do I have the margin in the my schedule to respond to the promptings that occur in my own life and in the lives of those I serve?
  • If someone came to me and said, “Youth group isn’t enough,” do I have the humility that will lead me to see the deeper ways the Lord may be desiring to work, either through or outside of the ministry I’m involved in?
  • Am I willing to put myself out there and take risks on others who are desiring to follow what the Lord is doing in their lives, even if they don’t appear “ready” or “qualified” to do so?
  • Do I believe that God could do more through a youth or adult desiring to lead something in the parish than in a program that I’ve lead and that has been around for years?
  • Are my “youth programs” designed to help the adults in the parish become aware of the deeper needs of the youth in the parish, and are those adults encouraged to discern how best to respond to those needs?

In closing, Youth Groups and Discipleship Groups are great ways to engage young people and draw them into the community within the parish. I actually feel that these sorts of programs are also a necessary part of good formation for a young person. But after being involved in youth ministry for so many years, I have learned the simple truth that too often, these programs are not enough. Asking these questions has helped me remain open to the pastoral formation needs of those I serve, and through this openness, my own eyes have begun to see so many new and awesome ways that the Lord can and does work through the Church.