Youth ministry today: Its strengths and limitations

Too many parish youth groups shut out the very persons God intended to have the most impact on a teen’s faith: the parents.

It’s remarkable what God can do in a young person’s life over the course of a single weekend. Some whose hearts and spirits have been broken by their sins or the sins of others experience genuine healing through confession; others who’ve gone to Sunday Mass their entire lives encounter the real presence of Christ for the first time in Eucharistic adoration; others whose hearts and minds were shut to the faith warm and begin to open; still others discover the initial stirrings of a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

This is the power of large-group evangelization. These events can include youth conferences, weekend retreats, the March for Life, mission trips, and so forth. Parish youth groups can be highly effective at large-group evangelization. In fact, such groups shine brightest and do best when they focus on this kind of youth outreach.

I know this is possible, because like many people who’ve served young people in the New Evangelization, I’ve seen with my own eyes and I’ve touched with my own hands (1 John 1).

Limitations of large parish youth groups

Like others who’ve seen and touched, however, the unavoidable question quickly imposes itself: How do we preserve this beautiful encounter with Christ and yet help teens to build an ongoing, consistent Christian life once they’ve come down from their mountaintop experiences?

St. John Paul II put it this way:

Some experiences of religious enthusiasm, which the Lord sometimes grants, are only initial and passing graces which have the purpose of prodding [one] towards the decisive commitment of conversion, walking generously in faith, hope, and love.

And if anyone is qualified to speak about experiences of religious enthusiasm in the life of teens, it’s John Paul II: a man who facilitated the experience of religious enthusiasm for millions of young people at the World Youth Day events he initiated and over which he presided.

The Holy Father continues, however:

It is easy to be consistent for a day or two. It is difficult and important to be consistent for one’s whole life. It is easy to be consistent in the hour of enthusiasm; it is difficult to be so in the hour of tribulation. And only a consistency that lasts throughout the whole of life can be called faithfulness.

John Paul II thus recognized the efficacy and even the need for large-group evangelization as a component of the Church’s outreach to young people. He saw that such experiences can facilitate a genuine encounter with the person of Jesus Christ—an encounter which generates a religious enthusiasm that, in turn, prods and awakens young people to consider the decisive question: the question of life-long, faithful Christian discipleship.

Effective parish youth groups do a good job reaching out to teens through large-group evangelization events. And these events can till the soil and plant the seeds of Christian discipleship. However, because conventional parish youth ministry programs are geared almost exclusively toward such large-group evangelization—and not small-group discipleship and relational ministry—they are thus geared more toward generating religious enthusiasm, not consistent, ongoing Christian discipleship.

Small-group discipleship and relational ministry

Beyond the fact that St. John Bosco—the Apostle of Youth—was a great saint and had such deep devotion to Christ and the Church, there’s another reason why he was so successful in both generating religious enthusiasm in young people and transforming them into faithful Christian disciples. Namely, he spent countless hours with his boys, getting to know them by name, loving and playing games with them, teaching and taking care of them. And he trained other men, who later became priests and brothers, to do the same.

Don Bosco’s famous Oratory was a home, a playground, a schoolroom, and a church—all wrapped into one. He and his band of priests and brothers practiced small-group discipleship and relational ministry. They became both the material and spiritual fathers and brothers of the abandoned, homeless boys they took under their wing. Their daily contact with the boys enabled them to apprentice them in how to acquire the spiritual disciplines necessary for living out the call to faithful, life-long Christian discipleship. It also enabled them to hold the boys accountable.

As Benedict XVI frequently pointed out, vibrant and joyful Christian life takes place within the context of such small-group discipleship and relational ministry:

The essential things in history begin always with the small, more convinced communities. So, the Church begins with the 12 Apostles. And even the Church of St. Paul diffused in the Mediterranean are little communities, but this community in itself is the future of the world, because we have the truth and the force of conviction. … [We] will have really convinced communities with élan of the faith, no? This is springtime—a new life in very convinced persons with joy of the faith…. And so, it’s an attraction, as it was in the old Church.

Young people are moved to take up the challenge of Christian discipleship when they encounter adults who are living the Christian life in a compelling and attractive way—and when such adults are willing to commit themselves to a particular group of young people for an extended period of time: getting to know them by name, actively listening to them, and being sincerely interested in their lives. This is what Sean Dalton, the director of YDisciple, calls “earning the right to be heard.”

Conventional parish youth ministry programs are not suited for small group discipleship and relational ministry

Writing as a former director of youth ministry (DYM) with wide experience working with a great variety and number of DYMs in different parishes, I can state unequivocally that the vast majority of Catholics working in parish youth ministry recognize the necessity of precisely the kind of relational ministry laid out above. In fact, the more successful Catholic youth ministry programs used by parishes all stress the importance of relational ministry and offer many resources that aim at training adults how to do this.

Typically, such youth ministry programs are set up in something like the following manner. The parish hires a DYM. The DYM sets out to recruit enough adults and young adults from the parish to form what is called a “core team.” The DYM then subscribes to a Catholic youth ministry program and uses the resources the program offers to train the core team in the following main areas: how to relate to young people; how to plan and run weekly youth group meetings; and how to lead small-group discussions. 

Ideally, if the DYM is blessed to find a sufficient number of committed core team members, he or she will hold weekly core team meetings where the team will not only plan and organize the weekly youth group meetings (and retreats, and events, and trips), but will be offered spiritual formation so they can grow deeper in their own faith. Additionally, the core team helps the DYM organize and put on one or possibly two weekend retreats for the teens each year, and they accompany the teens to large-group evangelization events, such as summer youth conferences and March for Life trips. Finally, core team members are encouraged to attend the extracurricular activities of the teens in their small groups.

If signing up to be a core team member appears to require a huge commitment of time and kind of sounds like becoming a parent, that’s because it does and kind of is. Yet to do relational ministry correctly, this is precisely what is necessary. The only way to enter into a relationship with people—even, and perhaps especially, with teenaged people—is to spend a lot of time getting to know and love them: there is really no such thing as quality time without quantity time.

If you belong to a parish that offers a youth ministry program like the one described above and you’ve been at the parish long enough, you’ve undoubtedly noticed one glaring fact: the success of such programs is highly cyclical. It could be firing on all cylinders for a couple of years, then fizzle into mediocrity for a couple years, and even disappear for a couple of years before reemerging once again. There are practical and theological reasons for the difficulty in sustaining such a program.

From a practical view, consider the following. The DYM position rarely pays a family wage. This is one reason why DYMs are typically young adults. Young adults, however, frequently get married. Once they get married, DYMs may continue to work for the parish, but young adults who get married also frequently have children. When children come into the picture, DYMs not only feel the financial pressure more acutely, but also begin to feel the pressure of constantly having to spend time away from their spouse and children. As you can imagine, this particular scenario accounts in large part for the high turnover rate of Catholic DYMs. Moreover, if it is the DYM who recruits, trains, and forms relationships with the core team, you can imagine the high attrition rate of core teams when an old DYM leaves and a new DYM comes in.

Here’s another practical consideration: there is no day, night, or time that can possibly fit the schedules of most teens in any given parish. Thus, even if your parish youth group is drawing in 200 or more teens, those teens probably represent less than 10 percent of the teens who belong to the parish. Typically, teens who are serious about sports, a musical instrument, or other time-intensive extracurricular activities are left out of participating in their parish youth ministry program.

From a theological view, consider the following. The Church teaches that parents are the primary educators of their children and thus have the primary obligation and responsibility for their children’s faith formation.

Who, then, is most equipped with the grace needed to ensure that their teens become faithful disciples? Who can discern best the adults who are best suited to play an active role in their teens’ faith journey? Finally, who has the most incentive to devote their time and energy to make sure their teens have an effective small disciple group and make sure it actually happens?

If your answer to the questions above is precisely the person that many youth ministry programs disallow or only begrudgingly accept—i.e., parents—you’re absolutely correct. Conventional youth ministry programs screen out, for the most part, the very persons God intended to have the most impact on a teen’s faith in the first place.

YDisciple, a new youth ministry program produced by the Augustine Institute, seeks to identify and address the needs of young people, breaking with the largely peer-dominated, parent-free zone paradigm of all-too-many parish youth ministry programs. My full review of the YDisciple program can be read here.




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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.