Catholic Spirituality,  Evangelization

Making disciples

“Youth Ministry, as traditionally organized, has also suffered the impact of social changes. Young people often fail to find responses to their concerns, needs, problems and hurts in the usual structures. As adults, we find it hard to listen patiently to them, to appreciate their concerns, demands, and to speak to them in a language they can understand.” – Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

A couple of months ago, back before my world compressed into a tunnel of moving boxes, copious handfuls of vitamins and lots of Netflix, I had a conversation with a friend who has created something that fascinates me.

Everett Fritz is a speaker, author, and fellow FUS grad who has worked most of his adult life in youth ministry. The past 5 years have been spent working with this particular model – both as a program developer for the Augustine Institute and in exercising best practices in small group discipleship in several parishes around Denver. And the model works; the stories from his students paint a clear picture.

As we chatted on the phone and he explained the vision he has for his new ministry – St. Andrew Missionaries – memories drifted back to me from my own experience in high school youth group. I was really involved as a teen, because ding ding ding, the boy I liked was a youth group regular, as was his popular older brother. So I went religiously. (Har har.)

Every pizza social, every lock-in, every service project. I was your girl.

I played all the games of chubby bunny, I drank all the root beer floats, and I snuck all the late night cigarettes on the roof of the cabin we’d been assigned to for the retreat weeken-wait, is that not the point of youth ministry?

My memory is of 99% fluff and maybe 1% content. I think we went into the church itself to listen to praise and worship once, the boom box blasting Twyla Tharp or Newsboys while we sat in a semicircle around the altar.

My faithful attendance every Sunday night at 7 pm did not, for all the boxes and boxes of pizza consumed and all the ice breakers performed, ensure a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church. Did not, as best as I can remember, communicate a single meaningful thing to me about the faith. 

I did not learn how to pray. I did not prepare adequately to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. (I thought it was an opportunity to stand by the cute boy for the group photo with the bishop.) I did not make good Confessions. I don’t actually remember if we talked about the Sacrament of Reconciliation at all, come to think of it.

And now, 15 or so years removed from the experience, I know of 2 other former members of that youth group who are still practicing Catholics. Out of 35 of us.

That isn’t good enough.

Everett said this in a recent post on his own blog:

In order to meet the basic needs of our young people, we cannot continue to use the same failed paradigms that haven’t been working in our Church for the past several decades. Youth need mentors and examples in the faith – they don’t need silly games, empty teachings and stale pizza. Our Church has to learn to shift its approach with young people from youth groups and/or classrooms into discipleship based structures where every young person has a mentoring relationship.

That last piece is what saved me, is what brought me to my senses and brought me home, finally, coaxing me back through the church doors not just in a physical return, but a whole-hearted spiritual and emotional return.

It was a relationship with a mentor, a FOCUS missionary who invested in me and believed that I deserved to have a personal relationship with Jesus and with my faith. And who believed that it was the beauty and truth of Catholicism that would ultimately draw me in: not a conference (which can be amazing!) or a pizza party (which has a place in the grand scheme of things) or another ropes course (can be fun I’ve heard! Not very outdoorsy.)

That’s what Everett is trying to do, but with kids who are younger than I was. With high schoolers who’ve yet to abandon their churchgoing practices after flying the parental nest, who are still actively engaged in their faith, who want to go deeper.

It gets better though, because the way Everett is building up these small discipleship groups is with and through engagement with the parents. Working with the pastor and existing youth staff to identify key leaders in the parish youth scene, St. Andrew Missionaries then approaches the parents of the suggested teens directly, and invites them into the process, explaining the discipleship model and what kind of buy in is necessary on their part.

From there, from natural and existing relationships between the lead teen and his or her friends, the groups come together: intimate, focused, and centered on intentional growth in a maturing relationship with Christ.

Of course, he makes it sounds a little more fun than that. But the purpose of these discipleship groups is to make disciples. To make adult Christian whose core identities are rooted in Jesus and whose dispositions are focused outward on evangelization and mission.

Sounds pretty amazing, right?

That’s what I thought, too. Because while there are amazing things happening in Catholic youth ministry in some places, in many, many parishes the scene is almost identical to what I experienced in my youth.

The New Evangelization can do better than this. And must, if it is to succeed. This week all eyes are on Poland where Pope Francis is celebrating with a million youth from around the globe, walking in the pilgrim footsteps of that consummate apostle to youth, St. John Paul the Great. I thought it would be the perfect time to introduce you to St. Andrew Missionaries, and to invite you to learn more about Everett and his mission, which is devoted to a series of projects that will assist parishes in developing small group discipleship for high school youth and their families.

What makes this mission unique is that all training services and consulting will be offered to dioceses and parishes for next to nothing. The organization is able to do this because each of its staff members will be missionaries – raising their own salary through a mission support team (much like what FOCUS, Generation Life, and Adore Ministries do).

So what about you guys, what were your experiences of youth ministry like? Did you have a life-changing encounter with Jesus at a retreat, through a relationship with your youth minister? At a Steubenville youth conference or at World Youth Day?

Do you have a young person in your life who could benefit from something like St. Andrew Missionaries?

(To join Everett’s ministry support team, click here. The first project for St. Andrew Missionaries will launch in Fall 2016. Follow Everett on Facebook here.)

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  • Abbey Whetzel

    Wow. I still attend the same parish I did as a teenager, and I’m now a catechist for high schoolers. Our program is a little bit better than when I was their age, but is still pretty abysmal. Thanks for the links: I’ve got some reading to do!

  • Tara

    Oh my goodness how I would LOVE to bring this to our parish! I’ll be watching his website/facebook for more info!

  • AnneMarie

    It’s so awesome that Everett is starting up this ministry! I agree that the small-group discipleship model is so important and necessary. I hope that parents will be open to it; one of the big challenges (from what I heard from a youth minister friend of mine) is that so many parents don’t want their teens to be involved in that kind of stuff because teens are already so busy with sports, homework, and part-time jobs. Also, I want to point out that while the small-group discipleship model is very good and important, I think there is merit to having the other types of events that are more lighthearted and fun, because that may be a draw for teens who ordinarily would shy away from a Bible study. There may be a teen who isn’t at that kind of place where he or she is willing to make time to study Scripture in a small group, but that teen might go to a fun youth group event that ultimately pulls him or her in for a deeper conversion. One of the parishes that I attended as a teen had a format where each week would be a different type of activity. One week a month would be an adoration night, another night would include a prayer service or instruction about devotion, and then there would be two nights that revolved around fun games as a group. I thought it reached a nice balance to help draw kids in but give them more than just “fluff.”

    • Laurel

      When I did youth ministry, this rotating schedule is exactly what we did. It really seems to work well to draw in youth. If it is all didactic, they won’t come.

    • jeanette

      Your mention of how parents can interfere with the process of helping a teen to live out their faith hits the nail on the head. It is always amazing to see how parents value “success” in sports, school, etc to the exclusion of “success” in living out one’s faith. Is it any wonder that a child doesn’t grasp the value of their faith when their own parent places its value beneath other things. The values that parents unconsciously communicate to their teens is very counterproductive to growth in their faith life…and then the parents bemoan the way their children leave the faith.

      • Everett Fritz

        Interestingly enough – I have actually found that parents are more willing to be engaged in the small group process than we think they are. No one is more motivated to meet a teen’s basic pastoral needs than their own parents. It is because teenagers do not feel that they belong in their parish that parents over-commit them in so many activities. Parents understand that teenagers need to belong and that if they don’t find a sense of belonging in a healthy environment, they will turn to unhealthy environments to find belonging. Because parishes do such a poor job of meeting a teenager’s pastoral needs, parents are forced to turn elsewhere to find communities where their teenager’s pastoral needs can be met. Make no mistake about it – PARENTS are the people who are most discontent with the state of youth ministry in the Church. I have found, when parents are the people that engaged at the beginning in creating a small group for their teenager, I get total support from the parents. In every small group that I currently run, I have nearly 100% support and involvement from the parents.

  • Kathryn

    I love this concept – that youth ministry (and really all ministry) should be about forming intentional disciples who will gain the knowledge & grace necessary to live out our Catholic faith in spite of its many challenges, especially for young people as they leave home and have to stand on their own. Unfortunately, the parishes around me have a parental involvement rate approaching 0% when it comes to youth ministry. The parents I’ve encountered have adopted a drop-off mentality – essentially viewing youth ministry as free babysitting for their teens. I’ve also witnessed a handful of teens fall head over heels for the Lord only to go home and be told that the Church is outdated and irrelevant.

    How can we form intentional disciples with a generation of teens whose parents were never formed in the faith? How can we build a network of missionaries willing to be mentors to teens who live outside of vibrant Catholic communities like Denver?

  • Lauren J

    We are moving towards this model, although we’re using the “yDisciple” instead of the one you mentioned. But the strengths are the same – focus on mentoring and discipleship! It’s encouraging to see this model spreading!!!

    • Everett Fritz

      Lauren – I was one of the writers and developers of YDisciple. It’s a great resource and something that I highly recommend. St. Andrew Missionaries is not intended to replace programming like YDisciple – it’s intended to support it. When I was traveling and speaking about YD, I found many parishes and their leadership did not understand discipleship, small group focus and mentoring. As a result, they were taking resources like YD and using it in a manner that was not discipleship. I wanted to start an organization that worked on developing the labor force so that the great tools in being put out by our Church would have capable craftsman that knew how to use the tools.

  • Caroline

    I spent my childhood in Mexico, and every week before Easter break, we would suspend classes (this was during grade school) and attend classes, adoration, confession, mass, etc. These times did make a difference in cementing my faith. I think these things need to happen BEFORE high school age, which often times, by that age, it’s too late. Jenny, your experience sounded to me like Protestant youth groups. I hope the days of Catholic parishes trying to emulate Protestant denomination youth groups are at an end. This past summer I put my kids in a “Catholic” Vacation Bible School at our parish, which I won’t again. It was all rock/pop music and a darkened room with video and lights and a theme of bats and lizards and other cave animals. Did the kids have fun? They said so. Did they learn anything about the faith? Not really. I know they began by crossing themselves, saying a prayer and getting the party started. They also were given little saint cards. I think that was the extent of the VBS being deemed Catholic!

  • Dominika

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, 1000 times yes! I always found my high school youth group devastatingly shallow and focused on emotional manipulation (let’s eat pizza and play stupid games and watch a cry-fest skit about alcohol and sex and drugs and Jesus in a dark candlelit room). I craved so much more for myself and for my peers, but being enthusiastic about learning about the rich tradition and beauty of the Church was implicitly considered spiritually prideful and too intimidating for young people. At our graduation dinner, I received a bit of a patronizing tongue-in-cheek award about being the most likely to quote a saint.

    I was so lucky to grow up in the family I did. My parents weren’t homeschooling parents. They didn’t really know much about the Latin Mass or anything like that. We didn’t go above and beyond to live out the liturgical year with themed cupcakes and crafts but they did live out their faith quietly and consistently going to Mass, Stations of the Cross, Legion of Mary meetings etc. They also encouraged natural curiosity about everything and owned a lot of books about the lives of the saints which for me was incredibly compelling. These holy but real people with their attractively courageous and beautiful lives became my mentors.

    So that, and attending a liberal arts Catholic college and there making friends with similar values and desires for a rich, deep faith steeped in everything the Church has to offer, were my saving grace. But so many of my friends in our youth group grew up nominally Catholic doing crafts at CCD and receiving watered down messages about faith (if they were even that lucky–most of them just went to the classes necessary for sacraments), so by the time they reached high school, they had no real foundation to fall back on when the youth group failed them.

    I’m so glad this new model is based on mentorship and friendship. People don’t want to change until they’ve developed an intimate relationship with someone whom they want to be like.

    There’s something similar happening in the marriage prep sphere that I’m really excited about:

    • Laurel

      There is something so vital to this beginning at home. Whether CCD or youth ministry, if the parents aren’t living it with their children in their own homes, it is very hard to reach them. The discipleship begins in the home.
      P.S. LOVE Witness to Love’s model for marriage prep!

  • Sheery

    I am a Catholic Youth Minister in one parish and participate as a parent volunteer in the parish my family is registered at. I have an extremely difficult time getting parents to go through the Child Protection hoops to help me with my program, so I told my colleague he could count on me to help him. Some of us were lucky, we had Youth Ministers who helped us develop our spiritual life in a meaningful way. That is one of the reasons I am a CRE and Youth Minister today, I wanted to be that person in someone else’s life. Most of us involved in Youth Ministry today understand the old model of the pied piper with the guitar, lots of games and an outgoing personality (Rev. Tim-tom from The Middle) does not, as pointed out, help form Catholic disciples. It may have worked for the original idea (version 1.0) to simply provide opportunities to socialize in a safe Catholic environment, but in an age where there is very little faith formation at home, we have to help those families who even bother to attend by actually teaching the kids to be Catholic in the real world. Going to Steubenville or NCYC is great, but that isn’t the focus of everyday Catholicism either. We have to make the connections in a non-classroom way that they ARE Christians by virtue of their baptism, that every time they go to communion they ARE making an altar call saying “Amen, I believe in Jesus, this IS Jesus”, and that part of being Confirmed is not that they don’t have to go to RE again, but that they DO have to go out into the world as a witness for Christ. But many times, before ANY of this, they have to be evangelized to, actually introduced to Jesus. Youth Ministry is not about social events (which are fun), it’s about connecting the dots for young people, and sometimes (many times) for their parents. It is about un-compartmentalizing Catholicism for young people from something that only happens at certain times and in certain places so they actually understand being a Catholic Christian, a follower of Christ, and disciple, is a 24/7 proposition.

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