I truly believe that one of the greatest struggles we have in youth ministry today is the fear to look at things for what they truly are. I remember sitting in a meeting with several youth leaders, and we were taking a guess at the percentage of youth who leave our programs and continue to live out the faith in college. The consensus in the room was about 5%-10%. Unfortunately, the conversation did not progress towards a discussion on what could be done better; instead it focused on all of the outside factors that were the cause of these percentages.
While the majority of the people in that room believed the problem was the negative effects of culture and the difficulty of transitioning into college, I disagreed. I believe the challenges associated with these things are both legitimate and substantial, but they are symptoms of the real problem. If teens had the muscle to handle these struggles, the success rate would be much higher. The problem is that we as a Church have failed to help them build that muscle.
This is where Accountability to Life Change comes in. The reality is that we can’t make someone else build the muscle that will give them the strength to overcome the things they will come up against; they must choose to do it themselves. We can only encourage them to do so. Fostering Accountability to Life Change in Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry starts by recognizing that we are not able to do in the 90-120 minutes a week all that needs to be done. If we are going to have ministry that truly helps youth, it will need to begin requiring more than simply attending our programming.
The difficult part is knowing how to do this. Here are a few tips:
Expect Change or Stop Meeting
This can be difficult, but make it clear as you meet with youth that it’s pointless to meet if it is not bringing about change. I believe this alone will inspire change because they understand that you are there for them and not there just for the program.
As youth do struggle and make mistakes, be patient and merciful in your response to them. Knowing that they will have the support to get up and continue moving forward will bring about a greater sense of personal responsibility, as well as accountability to you as their mentor.
Set the Standard For Your Group
As a group, set standards for behavior as a member of the group. Commit to daily prayer, Sacraments, etc. When you ask the question “How is everyone doing?”, it’s a question aimed at how they are doing in keeping these commitments and not so much casual conversation about school, homework, etc.
Provide Opportunities to Grow
Always have a plan in mind for how to encourage the youth to grow. Make your meetings more of a huddle that prepares them for the specific opportunities they will have for growth that following week.
Teach the Disciplines
Instead of just waiting around for things to happen and then responding to them, teach the youth the different disciplines they can grow in each week. Spend some of the time in your meetings actually practicing them, and give them the tools to keep doing it when they leave.
Learn to Observe Growth
One difficult thing as a discipleship leader is learning to observe the life of a youth and being able to articulate what it is they are needing to grow in, as well as how much they are growing in it. This comes by developing the ability to ask the right questions and looking for certain responses.
Be Patient In Your Speech
As a discipleship leader, it is extremely important to speak positively about people and be hopeful rather than negative in your speech. Youth will be more inspired to grow if they believe that you truly think that they can do it. If you spend time talking about others in a way that communicates that you are never satisfied, the youth you are working with will believe that they will never satisfy you as well.
Be Growing Yourself
The best teacher is a good witness. The greatest inspiration for growth will be through the witness of what God is doing in your life as their leader.
In conclusion, I want to return briefly to the first point, Expect Change or Stop Meeting. Our programs in the Church have become so “Catholic nice” that we have neglected making them places of growth. For those who do truly need accountability, we do them an injustice by making things too accepting. It should go without saying that this friendly and overly-accepting mentality that requires no Accountability to Life Change is far from how Christ taught his disciples to follow him. Like Christ, let us be honest and upfront about the expectations and demands required to follow after him and never hesitate to call those desiring growth on to greatness while being patient and merciful at the same time.