I had lunch with two youth ministers from a local parish last week and there was something that they said that struck me. These youth ministers work at one of the larger parishes in our Archdiocese and have the reputation of running one of the most successful youth ministries. The conversation went something like this:
Me: How many teens receive the Sacrament of Confirmation each year at your parish?
Youth Minister: Between 130 and 180.
Me: How old are they when they receive the Sacrament?
Youth Minister: Freshmen year of high school.
Me: How many of them do you retain in your youth ministry all the way through senior year?
Youth Minister: Around 80%.
Me: What?! 80%?! How did you manage that?!
This parish has been intentional, for several years, of developing discipleship groups with teens – small groups of teens that meet regularly to learn the faith and follow the example of an adult core member. The Core members disciple teens through Bible studies, fellowship and community, service projects etc. They have been intentional about shrinking their ministry down to small groups and because of this, they are reaching more teens with the Gospel than they ever had before.
Discipleship: Started by Jesus
Discipleship is nothing new. Jesus had the intention of spreading the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles all over the world. But he did not do this Himself. It is true that he had a large healing ministry, and he traveled around Judea meeting different people. At times, he had thousands of followers and he had over 70 who were relatively faithful followers of His. However, he put all of His attention on 12 men.
In Ancient time, if invited by a Rabbi, a Jew would live with a Rabbi for a number of years to learn from his way of life. The Jew would not only learn from the teaching of the Rabbi, he would learn from everything the Rabbi did. Jesus was the Rabbi of the 12 apostles. They learned from the way that he woke up every morning and started His day, from the way He approached prayer, from the way He handled conflict and the way that He taught and interacted with people. It was these 12 men who spread the Gospel all over the world. Jesus had a small group ministry. He trained others to do the work that He hoped to accomplish.
Discipleship: In a Youth Ministry Model
In the same way, we can model our youth ministry after the way that Jesus modeled his ministry. In youth ministry we offer programs, resources, Life nights, methods, conferences, rallies, mission trips, etc. All of these things only take us so far with teens. The heart of effective evangelization, catechesis, and the purification of youth culture is in discipleship – mentoring teens in personal relationships. People learn the faith from the example and witness of other people.
The first goal of any youth ministry should be personal holiness and spreading holiness to our adult leaders. Holiness and faith should then be modeled to the teens and the best way to do this is in personal relationships. For any youth ministry wishing to go deeper – discipleship requires us to select the teens who have potential to go deeper and mentor them in the faith through one-on-one regular communication or small group development.
Youth groups that do an excellent job in fostering vocations, preparing teens to live their faith in college and keeping upperclassman invested all spend a lot of time focusing on a small group of teens. The final step with teens is sending them out to recruit and disciple others, so that the Gospel spreads.
“Just Get 2” – The FOCUS Model
When I was in graduate school, Curtis Martin – the Founder of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) – came and guest lectured in our class. FOCUS is the most successful college campus ministry organization in the world and it is rapidly growing throughout the United States. Curtis spoke about the goal of, “just getting two.”
He teaches his missionaries to each focus all of their attention on developing relationships with two college students. Through those relationships, the missionary would evangelize, catechize and prepare the college student to be sent out to serve the Church. Those two college students would recruit two more students each and next thing you know, the ministry grows. Curtis Martin said that they figured out, with this approach, they could reach an enormous amount of college students within 20 years.
The idea of discipleship remains the same through the centuries. Instead of focusing on inspiring many teens, focus most of your attention on a few. With those small group of teens, prepare them to be evangelists and strong in their faith. By doing that, you multiply your outreach exponentially and the Gospel spreads.
The Challenge of Depth
Youth Ministry is a challenging field and there is so much work to be done for His Kingdom, we can forget the most important thing – developing and sustaining souls in their relationship with Jesus Christ. If we create ministries that are a mile wide but an inch deep – we are not building up the Church. It may be easy to create enthusiasm in a lot of teens. However, if we do not develop their intellect, prayer lives and lead them to make sustained choices for Christ, we risk sending them to college where they will lose their faith after one class with a liberal professor or one fraternity party on a Saturday night.
Depth takes time, patience and a sustained, personal effort into the lives of the teens. We cannot sustain the Church in the future without developing the young Church today.