I have been assisting parishes in moving towards a discipleship focused youth ministry approach for the last four years. It was really what I was seeing happen with FOCUS on our university campuses that first got my attention, and DFYM was the result. As it has taken shape, I have drawn a lot from FOCUS, dived deep into the teachings of the Church on Evangelization and Catechesis, and even taken graduate courses on discipleship. Much of what I have learned through experience has been reproduced for you here on the site. One of the most common things people are asking me, though, is “Does it work?” I guess that’s a valid question (insert smiley face).

To be honest, I’m guessing my response to this question is not what people would expect, but it would sound something like, “It depends on who you ask.” If they are willing to hear me out, they will learn that I believe that those who have committed to making the paradigm shifts and have been willing to walk with me – even through the confusing and difficult times – will all say that it has been worth it. I do not claim to know what needs to be done in every parish I work with. I will claim that I have made numerous mistakes in my attempts to help. But I thought it would be helpful here to lay out some proofs of how I have seen a shift towards discipleship focused youth ministry making an impact in the Church.

Reality Has Set In

One of the greatest fears expressed by many of the pastors and youth leaders I’ve worked with prior to their move towards discipleship focused ministry is whether or not youth will attend if they are given the choice. When shifting to a more discipleship focused approach, there has to be a letting go of the idea that “we have to please everyone” and a willingness to “invest in a few” with the faith that this investment will bear greater fruit long-term. Just as Jesus asked for a commitment with a willingness to let others walk away, so are these parishes. The result: a deeper level of commitment to Christ among those who respond and facing the reality that some people might not be where you think they are.

Parents are More Engaged

Being more focused on the needs of the youth has clearly made an impact on parents. Discipleship focused ministry offers ample opportunities for parents to be more involved in, integrated into, and responsible for the formation plan for their child, which is often making parents more aware of their need for formation as well!

Leaders and Volunteers in the Church are Being Stretched

This is one of my favorites. I am in regular conversation with three or four other people who are truly invested in all this discipleship stuff. The one thing they (and me) have in common? We truly have no idea what we are doing! The reality of discipleship is that when we think we are the ones helping others discover the beauty of Christ, it’s actually the inverse: Christ is working on us. Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry calls each person involved (especially the youth minister and the adult volunteers) to respond in ways that the Church has not typically been accustomed to, which stretches and grows us in ways that are difficult but truly transformative and life-giving. I can’t get into this more in this post, but the fact that people are not comfortable, yet still joy-filled, is proof to me that God is at work!

People Are Talking

If discipleship focused ministry has done anything, it has gotten people talking. The hard part is that it’s really difficult to explain what discipleship focused ministry actually is (see previous point)! I belong to a parish that has no youth group and no classroom religious education for high school-aged youth, but yet it is truly one of the most active and fruitful youth ministry models I have ever seen. How can this be? That is an excellent question! People are talking about it because they are being changed!

The Church is Waking Up

I have run into many very faithful, vibrant Catholic adults in the last few years who were not engaged in parish evangelization activities until recently. I heard one say they wouldn’t be a catechist because they felt it was not a good use of their time (or the students’). Another shared that they didn’t appreciate the youth group model because it was always so focused on the personality and gifts of the youth minister. Parishes using the discipleship focused youth ministry approach are finding that adults who truly have gifts of prayer, fellowship, etc. become able to use them effectively in ways that they couldn’t or didn’t feel comfortable doing before. Or even more simply put, people who weren’t able to commit to Wednesdays and/or Sundays (or who didn’t fit into the mould of the traditional approaches) but had the gifts to share with the youth can use them now that we aren’t stuck to a single weekly opportunity or structure in the parish.

Responsibilities are Placed Where They Should Be

One of the greatest fruits I have seen in parishes doing discipleship is that people are stepping up to take on the responsibilities necessary to enable the parish to continue to grow. Too often, I find that parishes limit opportunities for involvement to simple tasks that any volunteer can do. Too often, when something big needs to be done, they hire someone to do it. Discipleship and Youth Ministry are not the job of the paid staff person in the parish, but are rather the job of the parish family. When a family member is in need, someone needs to step up and take care of them. I could write another thousand words on the beauty of how I have seen this work, but I will save that for another time.

The reality is that in most parishes I see “doing discipleship,” you will not find anything extravagant, and you may not even necessarily be able to point to anything concrete that sticks out as “amazing.” But if you talk to the people involved, you will find stories and a beautiful witness of the love of Christ spreading throughout their parish. To me, this constitutes greater fruit than any successful program appears to produce anyday.