Youth Ministry Doesn’t Work

By Jodi Phillips, Office of Evangelization and Catechesis

As a high school student, I was very involved in a youth group at a small Protestant church. I went to Sunday School and our Sunday service every week (even when my parents didn’t), and never missed a Wednesday night. My youth group had lock-ins, an annual Mission Trip, fundraisers, and numerous other fun and engaging activities. This had a profound effect on my view of the world. When I was 17 I began to set standards for myself on chastity, partying, and friendship. I even imagined myself as a youth minister!

I thought I was well prepared for college. Here I was: 18 and ready to take on the world for Jesus! But quickly – far too quickly – I engaged in a lifestyle contrary to all the standards I set for myself. By December, I found myself telling a group at a party that I used to be a Christian, but obviously I couldn’t be anymore, living as I was.

Thankfully, my story doesn’t end there. In the spring of my freshman year, an older woman began mentoring me. She taught me how to live the faith, held me accountable in my decisions, and deeply invested in me. The path of Discipleship she started me on eventually led me into full communion with the Catholic Church only five years later.

As I look back on my path of conversion over the years, I see one great flaw in my youth ministry – there were no adults accompanying me in my new faith life. Even though I had been taught what the right choices were, no one held me accountable. No one asked me deep questions about how I thought, felt, or desired. No one invested deeply in my life and showed me how loved I was.

Do you want more youth involved in your youth ministry? Do you want to see your children as lifelong Catholics, praying daily and evangelizing their peers? If so, one thing is necessary first: invest in the adults in your parish. Bottom line – youth ministry doesn’t work without the right adults. 

Identify the right adults. There are five characteristics to look for in adults ministering to teens:

• Intentional Discipleship: At the heart of effective youth ministry are adults who have met Christ, fallen in love with Him, and desire to share that love with others. A successful adult in youth ministry will be practicing the disciplines of a disciple themselves.
• Enjoys being with teens: There’s nothing worse than a leader who doesn’t like kids and gets annoyed at all their “immaturity.” Good leaders need a natural love for kids and desire to be around them.
• Capable of mentoring and being mentored: One of the biggest challenges in the Church today is a lack of adults intentionally mentored in the faith. This means many adults do not have a vision for accompanying young people. This gap can be bridged by a teachable, observant, and self-knowledgeable adult. A pastor or youth ministry coordinator can come alongside them to teach the necessary skills.
• Committed to your parish: Relationships take time – you need adults willing to stick with your students for a while. Your leaders should be deeply invested in your parish and its future.
• Begin with Parents: If finding an adult fitting the above descriptions seems as rare as a magical unicorn you may have to do some work on the front end. Parents have great potential to mentor children in the faith. Their connection, relationship, and proximity helps foster growth among small groups. Equip parents to disciple their own children and their friends.

Bonus: Start small groups for youth. In the public ministry of Jesus, we see him investing deeply in the twelve apostles. These young men spent three years in close proximity to the God-man; traveling, eating, and talking with him. After his Ascension, the remaining eleven (along with Paul and Matthias) went on to invest in others, leading rapidly to the spread of Christianity across the Western world. Do you want to see tremendous growth in your parish boundaries? Start small. Invest in a few adults who invest in a few students each. Encourage them to invite others into their fellowship and watch these groups multiply.

Jodi Phillips can be reached at 

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