“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?