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.