Where were you on 9/11? Most of us reading this can tell a vivid story our experience that tragic day. Ask a teenager that same question. Most of them won’t have an answer because they were far too young to remember or weren’t even born yet. From security to the way we consume media and information, there have been seismic shifts in the culture since most of us were teenagers. While the culture seems to change in dramatic ways every year, the way we minister to teens has changed very little. I had to humbly face the fact that I had been running the same youth group for eight years with only cosmetic changes. Worse, I was running the youth group I went to when I was in high school.
In the midst of identify this problem and my own soul searching and Google searching, I discovered YDisciple, an online platform designed to enable parishes to engage and train other adults in the parish to mentor small groups of teenagers with training, videos for discussion, well-crafted discussion questions, and more. Through five basic steps, God turned my entire paradigm of youth ministry on its head.
- Reversal of Small Group and Large Group Opportunities
For years, I, like most of my fellow youth ministers, had been putting the majority of my energy into planning and executing a weekly youth group. Occasionally, we would have small group opportunities that would last a few weeks sporadically throughout the year. When we switched to a small group discipleship model, rather than a weekly youth group, teens had the opportunity to be involved in a weekly small group that met when and where was convenient for them. Then a couple times a semester, I would host a large group gathering to bring the small groups together as well as engage teens who were not already plugged into a small group. As a youth minister, this gave me the freedom to put on much higher quality events because I was not putting on a production every week.
- Parent-Driven, Not Dropped Off
We know that engaging parents is essential to good youth ministry, but I felt like I had never been given a viable model to do so. The best I had offered was lip-service, then complained that parents only dropped their kids off, expecting me to do the catechizing. Someone once pointed out to me, “Parents will never fully embrace their role as ‘primary catechist’ if we only ever offer them opportunities to abdicate.”
In our new model, we asked parents to be the driving force in the forming of discipleship groups and hosting them in their homes. Why? Because as much as I loved my teens, I could never care about their success and their well-being more than their parents. I could never have the access to their friends, their friends’ families, and even their activities like their parents had. Rather than trying to be all things myself, we decided to leverage parents’ influence and access to invite other teenagers and families to form small groups. And because we used YDisciple, it was easy to share the video content as well as a parent sheet with discussion questions with parents. So, rather than a parent asking vague questions like “How was group tonight?” and getting a vague answer, “Fine”, they can ask specific questions about specific content, making Discipleship Groups a springboard for faith-sharing in the home.
- Mentors are Recruited by Families
Finding good volunteers is often one of the most difficult tasks for parish leaders. Instead of inundating our parishioners with yet another request for volunteers, teens and parents worked together to identify someone in the parish they wanted to be their group’s mentor. Imagine how an adult would respond when being told, “Johnny wants you to mentor him in the Christian life.” This sort of invitation makes youth ministry bigger than any youth minister.
- Dialogue vs. Monologue
I loved giving talks. If I am being honest, giving talks was one of the top reasons I got into youth ministry in the first place. The truth of the matter is that people retain very little information from listening to a talk once. Teens and adults alike are more likely to retain and internalize information when it is received as part of a dialogue. While most of what I did in youth ministry hinged on large group talks and short small group processing, we put that aside and started using content providing solid, Catholic teaching from some of the top people in Catholic youth ministry, but in short segments with well-crafted discussion questions throughout.
- Customization of Formation
No adult, let alone a teen, is interested in answers to questions he or she isn’t asking. One of the great difficulties of large group ministry was that each meeting had one topic posed to a large number of teens who may or may not be interested in the content. We began recommending that each small group not follow a linear curriculum, but followed the needs and questions of their group. Each group in the parish may be discussing a different topic, but all of our content came from a trusted source so that parish leaders could be assured that the content is high quality and solidly Catholic. This had the added benefit of increasing the level of ownership for the teens and the volunteer mentors. When they had a say, it made the group “theirs” not merely “the church’s.”
Were these changes difficult? Yes. Messy? You betcha. Fruitful? Wildly. In less than one year, our teen participation went up 83%. Our adult parishioner volunteers went up 25%. The parent engagement was so dramatically different we couldn’t even quantify it. And in all of this, we had less than a 10% attrition rate. If a teen started in a group, they stayed all year. Teens who never would have darkened the door of our youth room were developing a regular prayer life. Teens who had been too shy to speak up in a randomly assigned small group during a youth night were talking openly about their relationship with Jesus. Parents who had only ever waited in the parking lot, were eagerly awaiting the next time they could host.
Is this a one-size-fits-all solution? No. Is it a silver bullet? Absolutely not. A silver bullet for evangelization and discipleship does not exist. But we have to do something different. Business as usual in youth ministry is not stemming the tide of young people leaving the Church. Now is the time to do something, anything new.
Our ministry turned on its head, but, in truth, it turned right side up.