Youth ministry programs play a critical role in teen faith development. Here are 5 steps parents can take to start one in their parish.
by Ryan Langr
An Absence of Youth Ministry?
As a teen growing up in the Catholic Church, I found and maintained a personal relationship with Christ primarily through my Church’s youth group and the community I found there. Youth ministry and religious education (faith formation) are both essential components to a developing faith and cannot truly be separated. They are two sides of the same coin.
So what is a parent to when their local parish either can’t afford a youth minister, a program, or for whatever reason just doesn’t have one? Indeed, many parishes rely solely on their Wednesday night religious education programs and supplement with occasional summer trips. This is a good start, and oftentimes it’s all a part-time faith formation worker can handle. But there is another way, and I believe that every parish (or cluster) could support an active and financially responsible youth group if there are people to put in time and hard work to cultivate it. It can come from a group of parents dedicated to their youth’s formation. It can come from you! Here are five steps to take in establishing a youth program.
Founding a Youth Program
1) Cultivate a parish culture that supports ministry to youth
This first step is the hardest and longest, and involves laying a foundation and promoting a parish culture that can support an active youth ministry program. This includes promoting weekly Mass attendance, communal prayer, and a moderate attitude towards sports and extra-curriculars that will allow families to make time for Church events. It also often means a spirit of generosity, as maintaining a youth program can take a lot of time, talent, and treasure.
Start small; if there are even just a couple families that are willing to exemplify and live this culture, they can use the following steps to plant its seeds. But be patient; this step can sometimes take years. Pray consistently to the Holy Spirit that the hearts and minds of the parish will be open to the transformation. A strong youth group can help spread this attitude throughout the parish (and beyond) but it has to start with someone willing to lead.
2) Establish leadership
Once you have a sustaining culture in at least a few families, establish a system of leadership for the group in which a group of teens lead and are closely advised by involved adults. A “Youth Advisory Committee” is a great way to do this, and oftentimes brainstorming a mission statement, a group theme, and a plan for what events you want to offer establishes a solid identity and gives the teens ownership in the group.
Teens have a variety of gifts and passions, and they are all useful to bring people to Christ. As adult advisers, we should help them realize that. They can play music at Mass (or have a praise and worship session), put on a passion play during Lent, write for (a closely monitored) youth blog or manage a Facebook page, and even give talks to their peers. All of this feeds into the culture you want to cultivate, shows them that youth group can be fun and something they’re passionate about, that Christ can permeate every facet of their lives, and molds them into leaders who can better bring Christ into the secular world. They will be disciples ready to be “fishers of men.”
3) Recruit young people
Your youth leadership team should be the primary recuiters of other youth, as grassroots movements are most effective for ministry. Get them to invite friends to events and form them so that talking about their faith in public is not such a scary task. This will naturally draw people in and grow your group. You can also use their talents to make posters and do other marketing things, as well as plan and offer events and spiritual experiences that you know will be attractive to them. Your leaders will be the best indication about what will draw in other youth. At the end of the day, remember it’s not about numbers: it’s about creating an engaged, passionate, and prayerful group of young people.
4) Balance community AND spirituality
Because our goal is make disciples, every event should have some element of spirituality ranging from a simple group prayer to a bible study. But the elements of community (fellowship) and fun must be held in tension with spirituality. If you only ever offer events that focus on prayer, sacraments, and study, those who come will be very solid, but you will not be offering the fullness of experience which teens are seeking. Those elements are important and necessary, but teens also crave to be part of a community. Therefore, make sure you offer things that have high elements of fun. This can be something as simple as a holiday party or a kickball game, or as complex as a lock-in, ski trip, or theme park. All of these things can still have elements of prayer and present frequent learning opportunities about faith in the secular world.
5) Be consistent
Staggered or randomly scheduled meetings lead to attrition in youth programs. At the very least, meet twice a month, at the same time every month. Ideally your youth program would meet weekly, with one or two weekend events a month. If you cannot do this, it’s probably a sign that the culture of your parish is not ready to support the program yet. Meeting any less than twice a month sends an implicit message that Church just isn’t as important as other things in our lives. You may need to work up to this twice-monthly goal, and that’s fine. Start with a couple meetings over the summer, then the next year do one a month, etc. But the expectation should not be that meeting infrequently can sustain a youth program—it simply cannot.
Ryan Langr is a youth minister in Wabasha, Minnesota.