One afternoon, I was sitting at my desk planning and preparing for the upcoming series of Sunday night youth groups. At that point in my career, I had been working in parish youth ministry for nearly 6 years. I had a good number of teens participating in my youth group, and I had everything that I believed I needed to have a large and successful youth ministry.
- Great worship band? Check.
- Dynamic Young adults trained as a core team? Check.
- Dedicated youth space in the parish? Check.
- Best youth ministry resources and parish strategy that money can buy? Check.
- Multiple full-time youth ministers on staff? Check.
- Large Budget? Check.
The ministry was active and there were a lot of teens participating in my parish. The youth ministry had grown exponentially since I had taken over as the director of the program. From the outside, the youth ministry at the parish looked very successful.
That afternoon, however, something began to change in my mindset around youth ministry. I looked at a picture on my desk of a group of 75 teens that I had taken to a big Catholic youth conference 3 years prior. I remembered the conference, because it had been a powerful experience for all of the teens – they had all had a profound experience and encounter with Jesus Christ. I also had stayed in contact with the majority of those teens because most of them had remained involved in my parish’s youth group.
As I looked at this picture, it occurred to me that out of 75 teens in the picture, only 10 were still practicing their faith in college.
There was a story to go along with each fallen away teen. Several of the teens had fallen off due to their beliefs in liberal agendas (beliefs that their parents had raised them with), a few others had fallen victim to drugs and alcohol abuse, still others fell away due to promiscuity and bad relationships where they had gotten into a habit of sin, and there were a few teens that never seemed to stand on a solid ground and understanding of their faith – making them easy prey for the secular agendas that are prevalent on college campuses.
I was deeply bothered by what I saw in that picture – so much so that I had to stop planning my youth group series and I went to the chapel and prayed. That night, I couldn’t sleep. There were too many questions that were running through my head.
- What happened to all the teens that were in my youth ministry?
- What am I doing wrong?
- How can so many teens be encountering Christ, but very few of them become his followers?
- What are the factors that make the difference between a teen that becomes a life-long disciple and a teen that falls away from the Church?
The Measure of Success
Two days later I was having lunch with a friend and colleague in youth ministry. I was telling him about how much the youth group participation had grown in the last year and all of the youth group events that I had planned for the upcoming year. He asked me a question that caught me off guard because it challenged the reality and questions that I had been asking myself the last couple of days.
He asked, “How many teens do you think will become lifelong disciples coming out of your youth ministry?”
I wasn’t ready to admit that I was wrestling with that question, so I started making excuses.
“It’s not about the numbers.”
“The parents are the real problem.”
“All teens are at different levels of development. Some are rich soil, while others are rocky or full of weeds.”
“In some cases, we’re planting seeds that will take root later in the teen’s life.”
I was trying to provide context for my failure, because I knew the reality. After all, I had a lot of teens participating in my youth group. Most people in the Church would have said the youth ministry I was running was extremely successful.
But the teens were not becoming life-long disciples – and that should be the ONLY measure of success.
My friend pushed me harder, “Come on, quit making excuses. You know the teens in your program. How many do you think will be lifelong disciples?”
I swallowed hard, and then replied, “I’m confident that ten teens will become life-long disciples. Please don’t tell my pastor.”
As if this embarrassment wasn’t enough, he continued to push me harder. He asked, “What did you do differently with those ten that you didn’t do with the other teens in the youth ministry?”
When I thought about it, the ten teens in the youth ministry that I was confident were going to be life-long disciples were the ten teens that I had spent the most time with.
- I did Bible study with them.
- I mentored them in their prayer life.
- I challenged them daily and had the type of relationship with them where I could challenge them to live virtuously.
- I answered the difficult questions that these teens had about the faith.
- I knew their parents and I would mentor their parents.
- I spent the majority of my relational ministry time with these teens.
When I described this criteria to my friend, he said, “THAT’S IT! That is the difference between success and failure with a teen. What you are describing to me is called discipleship – The process of mentoring someone through relationship and living example.
Then he asked me, “If that is the recipe for success, why don’t you do that with every teen in our parish?”
And that is when it occurred to me what the problem in my ministry was. Why didn’t I take the time to disciple every teen in the parish? Because it would be impossible. There is no way that I could spend the time mentoring every teen in the parish the way that I mentored those ten. It would take too much of my time and I would be stretched too thin. This is why youth ministry was failing in my parish– because I thought about the teens in my parish as one, big group. In order to accommodate the need to form every teen in the faith, I tried putting on formation nights and activities for these teens. But teens need MORE than that. In parishes, we try to program our teens instead of mentoring our teens. They need deep, meaningful relationships with other teens and adult guidance. And there is no possible way for one youth minister to meet the pastoral needs of every teen in the parish. Instead of thinking about the youth in the parish as one large group – I needed to get smaller. I needed to find a way to get on a mentoring level with every teen in the parish.
The 10,000 Hour Rule
I nearly left the Catholic Church when I was a teenager. I grew up in Catholic schools. I attended the youth groups that were made available to me. But I wouldn’t credit either one of those things as the reason that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ today. I credit Fr. Brian Brownsey with keeping me Catholic and helping me to grow into a disciple.
When I had my first experience of Christ’s love in my life (after having attended a retreat), I was ready to learn more about my faith. The faith and teachings of the Church were becoming real for the first time. I had A LOT of questions and needed a lot of guidance – particularly in my prayer life.
Enter Fr. Brian Brownsey
Fr. Brownsey noticed that I was taking an interest in my faith and that Jesus had sparked a fire in my life. He took an interest in me as a person and he offered me, and several of my friends, regular opportunities to grow closer to Christ and to get our questions answered. He made himself available for the Sacrament of Reconciliation at all hours of the day and night. He took my friends and I to Eucharistic Adoration and then to ice cream after prayer. He offered to take me to lunch anytime to answer questions that I had about the faith (an opportunity I regularly took him up on). He always paid for meals, and he was always available. His invitation to grow closer to Christ was different than any invitation I had previously experienced. He didn’t offer the invitation as a general invitation from the pulpit. Rather, he pursued me personally, and took an interest in understanding my life and struggles. His attitude was, “I will do whatever it takes to help you grow into life-long discipleship of Jesus Christ.” His personal attention, at that time in my life, was the difference between me thriving in my faith and leaving my faith.
There is a great book written by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers: The Story of Success in which the author speaks of something called the, “10,000 hour rule.” In this book, Gladwell shares a sociological study that he did, examining a universal factor that he discovered in studying people that have achieved world-class success and expertise in a certain field. What he discovered, is that to a large extent, the key to becoming a world class expert in a field is a matter of practicing the correct way of doing something for over 10,000 hours.
In thinking about the premise of this book, and the problems facing young people in our Church today, I have considered Gladwell’s, “10,000 hour rule.” Look at the way Jesus did ministry. He reached a lot of people with his ministry, but the people that went out and changed the world were the apostles who lived with Him for three years. They spent over 10,000 hours being personally mentored by God, Himself.
In the time I have spent in ministry, I have found that the young people that I have given the most attention to are the ones that became life-long disciples. It makes sense – imagine what the Church would look like if every person had 10,000 hours of mentoring poured into them. But this seems like it is impossible – after all, how do you spend that much individual time with each person in the Church? And how do you identify and empower enough mentors to pour that kind of time into individuals? The solution is easier than you think, but first, we must have a good understanding of the different layers of the problems facing our young people today and why the Church has failed to address these problems…