Parishes across the country — across the world — are striving to pass the Faith onto the next generation. Getting young people to become disciples of Christ is a challenge that dates back to the first Christians. While the task has never been easy, it seems to be getting even harder.
Youth today face a constant bombardment of distractions — smartphones and tablets, gaming systems, social media, streaming video and more — with which older generations did not have to compete. Attention spans seemingly are getting shorter. The culture in which today’s youth live is growing evermore hostile to those who hold dearly the teachings of the Church.
And while these challenges might seem like a hindrance to the evangelization of today’s teens and tweens, five youth ministers from parishes across the country who spoke to Our Sunday Visitor indicated that society’s continued shift to secularism is a major factor in the success of their ministries — because the Church has what kids cannot find in the mindless distractions of their daily lives: true relationships rooted in Christ’s love.
The five youth ministries profiled here are a small sample of the amazing work being done across the country by those willing to engage young people and spread the love of Christ to them.
St. William Catholic Church - Round Rock, Texas
Personal relationships key in ministry
At St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock, Texas, there is no shortage of activities for teens.
During the summer, young people go on mission trips, attend the Franciscan University of Steubenville Youth conferences and participate in a soccer league with other area Catholic churches.
| Teens from St. William share a meal at a camping retreat hosted by the
Diocese of Austin, Texas, in April. Photo courtesy of Renee White
During the school year, teens have even more choices. They go on retreat, attend the national Diocesan Catholic Youth Conference, participate in chastity programs, attend a diocesan music festival, do service projects with their peers and head up to the church on Sunday night (or Friday for Spanish-speaking teens) for youth nights. More than 300 young people turn out for the Sunday night event; an additional 200 show up on Friday.
For a parish with more than 6,500 families and a generous youth ministry budget, the plethora of possibilities for young people is about what you’d expect. But the secret to St. William’s success isn’t its budget or its packed calendar of offerings. It’s the 50 volunteers who are committed to building relationships with the teenagers outside the parish hall.
According to Chris Bartlett, St. William’s youth minister and founder of nextlevelministry.org, relational ministry is the heart of their youth ministry program.
“If I went to a football game and tried to engage a teen who was unchurched by inviting them right off the bat to come to St. William’s, they would look at me and walk away,” he said. “But if we get to know the teens first, if we listen to them and build relationships with no strings attached, we earn the right to be heard. Before you can start to mentor or challenge teens, you have to build a relationship.”
| St. William Youth Ministry teens (above) gather after Ignite weekend retreat in September 2014. Photo courtesy of Renee White
Those relationships are built, first and foremost, through the small, single-sex discipleship groups, which meet weekly. There, a select group of volunteers takes the most committed teens deeper in their faith. They also are built through the volunteers regularly reaching out to teens, inviting them out for coffee, sending texts to find out how a test at school went or letting them know that they were missed when they don’t show up at youth group, and calling them to ask for their personal prayer intentions.
The goal of all those interactions is creating mature disciples.
“We don’t want a youth ministry program that creates Christians who go off and become atheists in college,” Bartlett said. “We want to create disciples — Christians who are fully alive and engaged in their faith in a way that engages others.”
Doing that, Bartlett continued, is an art, not a science.
“There are 400 teens in the program, and there are 400 different things that will reach each of them,” he said. “It’s extremely specific. We have to focus on the audience of one so they don’t become a congregation of one.”
“To make youth nights fun and relevant is great,” he concluded. “But even if we had poor stage presentations and just loved the snot out of the teens as individuals, the program would still thrive. It’s better for a PowerPoint presentation to break down than for a volunteer to not show up.”
St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church - Littleton, Colorado
Reaching all levels of the faithful
A decade ago, the youth ministry program at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Littleton, Colorado, seemed like a success. Large numbers of teens turned out for big events, like their fall kickoff, and many of those young people attended regular youth nights at the parish. Yet, after graduation, many still fell away from the Faith. Moreover, the program wasn’t necessarily reaching the teens who fell on either end of the faith spectrum: poorly formed or extremely well-formed.
| St. Frances Cabrini's youth group fraternities compete in the annual push cart derby at the parish festival in September 2014. Photo courtesy of David Swanson.
“Like many youth groups, we were trying to use entertainment to win people to youth group,” explained Steve Nepil, the parish’s director of youth ministry. “But even with our comparatively large budget, we couldn’t entertain them well enough.
“Also,” he continued, “we were playing to the new students at the expense of giving catechesis to the old. We were trying to deliver a message that reached the freshman who didn’t know anything, the sophomore smoking pot and Sally home-schooler who did a weekly Holy Hour. The older and more faithful kids were dropping out because they’d heard it all before.”
So, the youth ministry staff decided it was time for a change.
Gradually, they began adding small discipleship groups that met weekly with volunteers to discuss Scripture and Church teaching. As more discipleship groups formed, they organized them into “fraternities” and “sororities,” modeling the miniature communities on Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Household system.
Today, those fraternities and sororities form the backbone of the parish’s high school ministry.
Each week, more than 150 teens, organized into about 25 single-sex discipleship groups, meet with their small groups for intensive faith formation, fellowship and mentoring. Throughout the month, they also meet informally with each other and formally with their sorority or fraternity (the parish currently has three of each). Teens also work closely with the middle school program and confirmation program, helping form the faith lives of younger students.
Monthly, all the teens come together for youth nights. There, because the heavy lifting in terms of faith formation has already taken place in their small groups, they just have fun. For example, one night, the program brought in a swing dance instructor. Another night, kids learned a card game.
Through it all, the St. Frances Cabrini youth ministry team succeeds not simply at teaching the Catechism but also at helping them experience the fruits of real friendship and Catholic culture.
“Young people have tons of entertainment, but they don’t have real friendships,” Nepil said. “We’re helping them form true relationships that aren’t rooted in social media.
“We’re also giving them something that is so much deeper and important than lessons,” he said. “Culture is the means by which we’re transformed, so we’re giving them a taste of living in a Catholic culture, of being a part of something that feels bigger than them and where people are authentically free. While they’re here, it’s the air they breathe.”
St. John Vianney Catholic Church - Goodyear, Arizona
Forming active participants in the Faith
Some days, the youth ministry program at St. John Vianney Roman Catholic Parish in Goodyear, Arizona, looks like any other youth ministry program. Middle school students gather at the church on Tuesday nights. High school students do the same on Wednesdays. Throughout the year, they host bake sales, go on retreats and perform community service.
On Saturday mornings, however, the program looks entirely different.
| Leaders of the St. John Vianney youth ministry core team pose with a guest speaker. Courtesy photo
Every Saturday during the school year, you’ll find more than 50 of the parish’s high school students teaching religious education classes to grade school students. Many middle school students are there, too, working as teacher’s aids. Of the parish’s 84 catechists, 56 are in high school. All are certified.
“If you were to walk onto our campus on a Saturday morning, you’d wonder, ‘Who is running this place?’” said David Portugal, director of parish catechesis for St. John Vianney. “When we first started this, parents would question someone so young teaching their child. But, I would say, ‘Just talk to her about her faith.’”
The unique program, which eschews the idea of segregating teens into a youth ministry program and instead focuses on forming teens into mature, active participants in parish life, grew out of Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead’s 2006 decision to restore the order of the sacraments in his diocese (putting confirmation before first Communion).
When the bishop made the announcement, youth ministers worried that teens would skip youth group if it were no longer tied to confirmation prep. The bishop responded by urging parishes to create more vibrant ministries that would be attractive to young people.
“We knew the challenge would be to keep them interested on the journey of faith,” Portugal said. “The best way to do that was to evangelize them. We had to make sure that as we catechized, we first evangelized.”
To do that, the parish switched to a three-year process for sacramental preparation. Regardless of grade level, the first year offers students a foundational introduction to Christianity; the second year prepares them for the Sacrament of Reconciliation; and the third year prepares them for first holy Communion and confirmation. Throughout the process, parents must bring their children to class on Saturday mornings (sessions are offered at 9, 11 and 1), plus Mass on Sunday (they actually sign a contract promising to do so). Parents also must attend a religious education class for adults one Saturday a month.
The program works so well that even after the students have received the sacraments, a majority continue participating in religious education classes. As they progress from fourth through 12th grade, students study Christian morality, theology of the body, Scripture, vocations and apologetics, using resources like the YouCat, Mark Hart’s Bible Timeline and Bishop Robert E. Barron’s “Catholicism” series.
As the parish witnessed so many mature, passionate Christian youth emerging from the program, they began offering high school students the chance to become certified catechists. That, in turn, worked so well that they started an internship program, which allowed parish youth who remained in the area for college to work at the parish. Over the last few years, 14 of those former interns have gone on to become youth or campus ministers. More are serving the Church in other capacities.
“When you give truth to youth and give it to them straight, they want more,” Portugal said, summing up the program’s effectiveness. “It’s intoxicating for them, and it’s fun for us.”
St. Bridget Catholic Church - Loves Park, Illinois
Finding ‘sincere and authentic love’
In 2015, Loves Park, Illinois, received the unwanted distinction of being named the “drunkest city” in the state. The title — based largely on the number of bars, liquor stores and divorces per capita — reflects the hard-living, hard-working ways of the town’s blue-collar population. Despite the town’s problems, however — or perhaps because of them — St. Bridget Catholic Church is thriving. So, too, is its Catholic youth ministry program.
For years, the parish struggled to get a youth ministry program off the ground. First a deacon, then two part-time youth ministers (each working about 10 hours a week) managed St. Bridget’s weekly youth nights. On a good Sunday, 12-15 young people showed up. Then, not quite two years ago, St. Bridget’s pastor, Msgr. Daniel Deutsch, decided to invest in a full-time, experienced youth minister.
| Youth minister Nic Frank speaks to students during a Sunday night event at St. Bridget Catholic Church in the fall of 2015. Photo courtesy of Kate Genoways.
In August 2014, Msgr. Deutsch hired Nic Frank, who after graduating from college in 2008 worked as an assistant youth minister at one of the biggest Catholic parishes in Dallas (where 500-700 teens came out for Sunday night events), then as director of youth ministry for two struggling parishes in Louisiana. Today, just 18 months later, youth nights at St. Bridget’s draw as many as 70 teens; 120 kids attend other events regularly, and 170 turned out last fall for the annual youth ministry kickoff event.
According to Frank, the program owes its quick and dramatic expansion to three things.
First, he has something the parish’s previous youth ministers never had: time.
“I put in 40-plus hours a week marketing what we’re doing, planning the youth nights and being out with the kids,” he said. “You can’t do that in 10-20 hours a week.”
Second, Frank isn’t afraid to tackle the tough issues. Last year, for example, he devoted three youth nights in a row to talking about the Church’s teachings on same-sex attraction.
“The goal is to teach toward life-change,” he said. “We want them to know why and how we live out the Church’s teachings.”
Third, and most important, Frank doesn’t spend the bulk of his time in the parish office. Rather, he’s out with the kids: leading a morning Bible study at the local Catholic school, attending basketball games, buying them breakfast before school or ice cream after school, and helping coordinate the several small discipleship groups that have recently formed.
“I want the kids to understand that faith is a life commitment; it’s about a relationship with their Creator that goes beyond Sunday Mass and youth group,” he said. “Faith is meant to be lived everywhere. Helping them see that starts with engaging them outside the church basement.”
Building relationships with the teens and forming them into intentional, mature disciples is Frank’s stated goal — not increasing his numbers at the weekly youth nights. The growth of the program is just a nice side effect of the more important work being done well.
“Kids are desperate for sincere and authentic love,” Frank said.
“I tell my adult volunteers that what we’re competing against on a Sunday night is not another youth group or sporting event; it’s Netflix and the couch. If we want to draw the teens to us, they need to feel more loved here than they do streaming Netflix.”
St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church - Panama City, Florida
Smaller size allows for more intimate catechesis of teens
Effective youth ministry programs don’t require large budgets and thousands of families from which to draw teens. Small parishes can serve young people just as effectively, if not more. Proof of that is St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Panama City, Florida.
St. John’s only encompasses 250-300 families, and many of those are military, so the makeup of parishioners and volunteers is continually changing. Nevertheless, for the past four years, youth minister Alison Blanchet has watched dozens of teens become passionate evangelists.
| Teens and adults from St. John the Evangelist and neighboring parish St. Dominic pose during the 2016 March for Life. Photo courtesy of Alison Blanchet.
“When I see them in line for confession or at Mass by themselves, or when they tell me about how they defended the Faith at their schools, I want to dance with joy,” Blanchet told Our Sunday Visitor.
The youth group Blanchet runs is small — maybe 24 middle school and high school students participate on a weekly basis. But those teens are engaged and active. Together, they attend diocesan retreats and talks, travel to the Steubenville Atlanta Conference (one of the series of conferences sponsored by Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio) each summer and partner with other local parishes for special events. They also attend weekly meetings at the parish, where Blanchet does in-depth evangelization and catechesis.
“My goal is always to help them be mature Catholics,” she said. “I don’t want youth ministry groupies. I want them to have an understanding of what it means to be Catholic apart from youth ministry.
“Because of that,” she continued, “everything we do works to help them understand how to live the Faith when I’m not around. We talk about how to read Scripture, find answers to their questions, pray and even how to find out how to get to Mass and confession when they’re out of town.”
According to Blanchet, the small group size often works to her advantage. For example, it allows more time for discussion and makes it possible for them to do hands-on activities, like sacred art projects, that would be more challenging with a large group. It also allows their weekly meetings to begin with a meal.
“It’s so healthy for them to come in, sit down and let food and fellowship be their first focus,” she said.
More than anything else, however, what Blanchet sees having the greatest effect on her teens is confession and Eucharistic adoration.
“When you give them the opportunity to encounter Christ in the sacraments, they relish it; they crave it,” she said. “Not necessarily the kid who shows up for the first time. But when you introduce them to it gradually, challenge them and give them the tools to pray on their own, they love putting that into practice.”
Blanchet believes that challenging teens to stretch themselves, in prayer and relationships, is essential to any youth ministry program bearing long-term fruits, especially in today’s culture.
“Kids today, as opposed to 10 years ago, aren’t as willing to put work into things, because they can access everything with a swipe of a finger,” she said. “But faith takes work. You can’t just swipe into prayer time. So, you have to mentor them more and help them understand that some of life’s greatest rewards come through suffering, trial and effort.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
|5 Key Ingredients
There is no one perfect model for youth ministry. Different parishes, teens and communities have their own particular needs and must find the model that best suits them. Nevertheless, five common threads run through the programs of each parish profiled in this section.
1. Discipleship: Hosting weekly youth nights and taking teens on retreats is never enough; successful youth ministry programs recognize that. They know they need to treat the teens as individuals, working with them personally and in small groups to give them the intense formation they need to become mature Catholics.
2. A full-time youth minister: When it comes to youth ministry, you get what you pay for. A successful youth ministry program, which bears fruit for the whole parish, requires a full-time and well-trained youth minister who can devote the necessary time to relationship building, event coordination and marketing. Anything less doesn’t cut it.
3. Serious catechesis: Effective youth ministry programs are fun, but they’re also more than that. Strong formation in prayer and Scripture, opportunities to pray before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and clear teaching on the hard issues both keeps teens coming back and keeps them Catholic after graduation. The culture does a great job of entertaining teens and telling them easy truths. Catholic youth ministry needs to give them what no one else will.
4. Parish support: Generous youth ministry budgets are all well and good. Far more important, however, is the willingness of parishioners to donate their time to build relationships with teens and other parish programs willing to partner with youth ministry so that teens have more opportunities to grow and serve. Youth ministry should never be seen as a kids’ club but rather as one part of parish life interconnected with all the rest.
5. Prayer: Prayer informs everything the youth ministry programs profiled here do. Youth ministers don’t just pray with teens. They also pray with the volunteers, their priest and the parish staff. Most importantly, they pray by themselves, asking for the grace to love the teens and discern how best to do that. Without grace, the slickest, best prepared and most well-funded programs can bear no fruit. Prayer keeps the grace flowing.