“We may live in a culture in which bigger has become synonymous with better, but we serve a Lord who spoke of his kingdom in terms of a mustard seed, a widow’s mite and a single lost sheep. I love building a crowd. It makes me feel good. It makes me look good. And because of what building a crowd does for me, I have often mistaken short-term success for long-term effectiveness.”

Mark DeVries – Family Based Youth Ministry

This is a quote that was passed around our office a couple of weeks ago that really got to my heart. It’s from a book written by Mark DeVries that was published in 1994. In the book, Mark criticizes traditional youth ministry – meaning the youth group model – and essentially states that we can be very successful at attracting teens to our parishes to participate, but this does not automatically translate into forming disciples. Mark is critical of what he was seeing in youth groups, because he didn’t see the long-term results.

Twenty years later, I don’t think much has changed in the Church. There are millions of young people globally who attend World Youth Day and hundreds of thousands of teens nationally that attend Catholic youth events. Where are all of these teens in their parishes? National averages demonstrate that, even in parishes that have active youth groups, only a fraction of the teens in the parish are participating and even fewer are remaining engaged all the way through their 4 years of high school. I’ve seen a variety of statistics from the most recent youth ministry studies – some saying that as many as 80% of young people walk away from Catholicism within their first year of college. The numbers vary from study to study, but the conclusion is the same:
Something isn’t working. The Church is losing the young people. They are not becoming lifelong disciples.

In thinking around this problem, I came to a conclusion awhile back. There is a BIG difference between youth ministry and youth group. In most cases, if you ask the question, “How is the youth ministry in the parish?” the response may be something like, “The youth group is really active. There are a lot of teens involved.” But youth ministry is not a program – it’s simply ministering to the human, pastoral, intellectual and spiritual needs of a young person.
Effective youth ministry meets the needs of a teenager.

Contrast this with “youth group,” which is a method of faith formation for teens that is commonly implemented in parishes. It usually centers around creating an entertaining or interactive presentation of the faith with a large number of teenagers in one space. There are many teens who participate in youth groups in parishes, but is it the most effective model of engaging a teen’s ministry needs?

I recall sitting in my office a few years back trying to plan out the icebreaker for my next youth group. I think many youth ministers spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to make their faith formation entertaining and engaging. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen youth ministers posting in forums asking for ideas for icebreakers, games or movie clips that could segue into a particular topic of the faith. This particular week, I had settled on an icebreaker game on stage that would result in me getting hit in the face with a whip cream pie. It struck me, as I was sitting in my office, that this was a huge waste of time. What consequence would this game have on a teen making a decision to become a lifelong disciple of Jesus Christ? I don’t know any teen that has made a decision to follow Christ based on participating in a silly youth group game. Teens follow Christ when they have mentors in their life who know, love and care for them and who actively witness to their own faith. I thought about the youth group mentality and I began to see several flaws in the approach. Here are a few things that I considered:

There is no Effective Way to Engage Large Numbers of Teens with One Catechetical Lesson

Teens don’t want answers to questions that they aren’t asking. Any time you are giving a lesson to large number of teens, you are guaranteed to miss the point for the majority of them. A freshman and a senior in high school are on totally different levels, and with one teaching given each week, a youth minister can’t possibly speak on the level of every teen in the room. Some teens need basic evangelization and others want to go deeper. Large group faith formation doesn’t allow a catechist or youth minister to meet both needs.

Building a Youth Ministry Around an Engaging Youth Minister is a Flawed Principle.

In many cases, large group youth ministry is dependent on the gifts and talents of a youth minister to be effective. If we build parish youth ministry around the talents of one person (who, on average burn out within 18 months of starting in a parish), we are doomed to fail. Youth ministry should be about mentoring and discipling teens in the faith. Mentoring requires personalized attention for each teen. No youth minister can meet the needs of each teen on their own. An effective youth ministry strategy should involve empowering a team of adults in the parish, specifically parents, to engage and build relationships with small numbers of teens.

No Teen Wants a Relationship with Every Teen in the Parish

Most people do not have forty or fifty close friends. You usually only have a handful of close friends. Teens need relationships with their peers to hold them accountable to their faith. But large groups of teens meeting together in one space is counter-productive if the goal is to help teens connect and grow in deep friendships with a handful of their peers.

Large Group Youth Ministry Can Hinder Growth and Outreach

In the year 2014, teens and their parents are overcommitted and too busy. There is no day or time in the week that every teen in the parish is going to have available to meet at the parish for a youth group program. By programming youth ministry on one night of the week, we inhibit the growth of the youth ministry because we immediately eliminate the teens who are not available on that day of the week and adult volunteers who cannot volunteer on that particular day. Good youth ministry provides flexibility so that every teen can participate.

I could go on and on. My mindset of youth ministry has evolved over the years. If youth ministry is about ministering to the needs of teenagers, then I believe that youth group is one of the most ineffective and inefficient forms of youth ministry offered in our Church today.

Contrast youth group with the concept of small group discipleship. Small group discipleship empowers many adult mentors to work with a handful of youth. Rather than having one large group of teens, a parish would have several small groups. An environment is developed in each small group where relationships are formed and a teen’s pastoral, intellectual, spiritual and human needs can be met because they are receiving individualized attention. Flexibility is provided to the parish youth ministry because small groups can meet all throughout the week and the groups have some autonomy. A small group provides the opportunity for discipleship and relationships to grow deeply. No silly youth group games, no gimmicks – just straight up mentoring and ministering. It’s a more effective model, and it’s a model that any parish could execute well.

Very little has changed in the youth ministry landscape in the past 20 years. The statistics still reveal that we are losing our young people. The problem isn’t content, it’s context. Parishes fail because the models that we are using are dated and they are becoming obsolete. The idea behind the New Evangelization is that something has to change in order to meet the needs of the people who are leaving the Church. Unless we are willing the critically evaluate our approach to youth ministry, I fear that we will continue to lose the battle for the hearts of teens in our Church today.