Turning Youth Ministry into Apprenticeship in the Christian Life

YDisciple, a new program from the Augustine Institute, takes a fresh approach toward teen ministry—one that is rooted in the parent-child relationship and in family life.

“Our children need sure guidance in the process of growing in responsibility for themselves and others.  Christian communities are called to support the educational mission of families. They do this above all by living in fidelity to God’s world, cultivating faith, love and patience. Jesus himself was raised in a family; when he tells us that all who hear the word of God and obey are his brothers and sisters, he reminds us that for all their failings, our families can count on his inspiration and grace in the difficult but rewarding vocation of educating their children.” — Pope Francis, General Audience, March 20, 2015

The Augustine Institute—creators of the widely popular and effective Symbolon faith-formation program for adults—has developed another excellent resource for parishes. This time, with YDisciple, AI offers a dynamic tool for reaching out to teens with the vibrant enthusiasm of the New Evangelization.

Precisely because YDisciple seeks to identify and address effectively the unique needs of teen disciples, it breaks with the current paradigm of all-too-many parish youth ministry programs: namely, that youth ministry should be largely peer-dominated, parent-free zones (for more on the benefits and significant drawbacks of youth ministry as it exists in most parishes, see “Youth ministry today: Its strengths and limitations”).

YDisciple: Outreach to youth through parents

The YDisciple handbook begins with quotes from the Catechism and Familiaris Consortio regarding the privileged role of parents and the family in the evangelization and formation of young people. The handbook continues, stating clearly:

Any youth ministry initiative should begin with parents. Parents have the greatest influence in the lives of their teenagers, and they will be held accountable to God for the formation of their children. The role of the parish is to assist parents in fulfilling this responsibility. For this reason, the Church teaches that all pastoral work must take into consideration the pastoral care of the family.

Sean Dalton, director of YDisciple, highlights Pope Francis’ insights concerning the essential role of moms and dads in the religious formation of their children and the vital need for the Church to reevaluate and renew our current (and failing) outreach to young people:

Young people often fail to find responses to their concerns, needs, problems and hurts in the usual structures [youth ministry and religious education]. As adults, we find it hard to listen patiently to them, to appreciate their concerns and demands, and to speak to them in a language they can understand. (Evangelii Gaudium, 105)

Dalton explains that adolescence is a time when teens are “individuating, establishing their beliefs, evaluating what everyone thinks”—including, and maybe especially, what their moms and dads have always taught them to believe. At the same time, Dalton adds, teens are “struggling with their own feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt: my parents love me, of course, but does anyone else?”

While the Augustine Institute absolutely believes in the critical need for dynamic and orthodox content—and indeed provides such content through YDisciple—Dalton argues that context is just as important. Sadly the context of too many teens’ lives (that is, their lived or perceived experience) is systematic abandonment. “Teens feel abandoned by the adults in their world,” he says. Yes, adults continue to teach, chaperone, coach, and the like; but as adults limit their interaction with teens to these functional roles, teens “begin to feel like they’re simply a part of an adult agenda”—projects to be managed, rather than persons to be loved and known by name.

Following the lead of the Pope Francis, the creators of YDisciple have examined the lived and perceived experiences of teens and have discerned five core needs to be met in order for teens to be open and receptive to Christian discipleship. These needs are: the need to be understood; the need to belong; the need to be transparent; the need to engage in critical thinking about faith and life; and the need for adult guidance.

In a certain way, this approach to reaching teens is based on retrieving a basic Thomistic principle and applying it specifically to teens: namely, the principle that grace builds on nature. We have to know the nature (the needs) of teenagers in order for us to minister the grace that will fulfill and uplift their nature.

Dalton explains that it is by meeting these essential human needs that adults—and especially parents—are able to provide the necessary context in which “teens can take ownership of their faith and the faith can come alive” as the animating principle of their lives. In other words, meeting the core needs of teens creates an environment in which teens can be apprenticed in the disciplines of committed, life-long Christian discipleship.

As parents, we understand our children will not achieve academic and extracurricular excellence by chance. Rather, such excellence comes as the fruit of our intentional efforts. Moreover, as part of our intentional efforts, we acknowledge our need to enlist the help of other qualified adults who are equipped to assist our children in reaching their utmost potential. How many times, for example, does something a coach tells our child suddenly click—when we’ve told him or her the same exact thing a million times?

The same is true in an analogous sense when it comes to forming our children in the Faith. YDisciple provides parents with the collected wisdom and experience of some of our nation’s leading Catholic youth evangelizers. In addition to providing dynamic and orthodox content, YDisciple gives parents the practical tools they need to successfully create a discipleship group for their teenaged children and to coordinate with the parish community:

Outreach to youth through parents is a strategy to meet the needs of as many teens as possible, within the parish boundaries, by empowering parents to build a discipleship group for their own teenager. Parents are connected to other parents through the friendships and activities of their teenagers. A parent-driven strategy leverages these relationships to do outreach. The greatest driver for the multiplication of small groups is parents talking to other parents.

How YDisciple works and fits into your parish

YDisciple isn’t so much a program as it is an apprenticeship in the Christian life. It is meant to assist parents in their task of forming their teenaged children to become committed, life-long Christian disciples. The creators of YDisciple explain what discipleship means in the following way:

Discipleship is the process of dying to self and becoming more like Jesus Christ. It is a heroic call—and very countercultural. Discipleship is apprenticing someone in the Christian life and helping that person develop spiritual disciplines.

The reason it’s so important for young people to become Christian disciples in their teenage years is:

The majority of teenagers stop practicing their faith in their first year of college as the social activity and prevalent worldview that surrounds them comes in direct contradiction to the faith in which they were raised. Small group discipleship prepares them for this reality, as they will have developed spiritual disciplines to stay close to Jesus in His Church.

YDisciple’s chief aim, then, is to create parent-driven discipleship groups for teens. Parents are provided with resources on how to speak with their teens about forming discipleship groups for them; how to invite the parents of their teens’ friends to consider allowing them to join the group; how to invite adult mentors to lead the group; and how to coordinate with the parish.

Parents and adult mentors complete their diocesan safe environment requirements, and it is recommended that small group meetings take place two to four times per month in the homes of the parents. At the beginning of each meeting, parents welcome everyone, provide snacks, and socialize with the teens and adult mentors for about 15-20 minutes before allowing the group to have privacy for their meeting in the home.

Dalton explains that YDisciple includes engaging short videos but also leader guides. He adds that the leader guides supply materials for: “connecting (creating community and transparency); discussing (content, critical thinking, how would teens respond to questions and life situations); checking-in (their prayer life, sharing their faith, participating in the sacraments, and helping them to acquire the habits they need).”

YDisciple’s online format provides parents and adult mentors with all the practical training they need to create and facilitate discipleship groups for their teens, including video studies, activity sessions, content for the small group meetings, and thought-provoking discussion questions that help teens to understand the truths of the Faith in a way that is relevant to their daily lives.




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About Bill Maguire 20 Articles
Bill Maguire earned his Master's in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He served for two years as the managing editor of Communio: International Catholic Review and has worked with youth and youth adults in various capacities: youth minister, campus minister, and adjunct professor of theology.