Becoming an Inviting Church
This series presents directions to stimulate the thinking of pastoral leaders, helping them focus on the important ministry of inviting. Parishes may, to a greater or lesser extent, greet and welcome. But few parishes consciously invite-and this at a time when participation in church is falling across all the religious spectrum.
Inviting Youth – Part 3
Michael Bayer has long been involved in youth ministry and campus ministry. Presently he directs the campus ministry at the University of Iowa at Iowa City.
Part 1 / Part 2
So what might a parish-based youth program look like?
Let’s take a look at what an ideal year’s sequence of youth ministry might look like. Of course, every parish is different, but here are some highlights:
Late August: A ‘welcome back’ cookout, followed by games and time to hang out. Gatherings such as this should be purely social, and teens should be encouraged to invite their friends. At the cookout itself, resist the temptation to ask teens about their faith or talk incessantly about the fall retreat. Just feed them, let them hang out, and show them that the church can be a place they begin to form a community.
September: Between back to school events and fall sports, this is an especially challenging time, but you want to keep the momentum going. Launch small groups and begin the formal course of “formation” for the year, whether it’s a topical series, book/film study, or Scripture based faith sharing. Be sure to have at least one purely social event per month, all year long.
October and November: Hold a fall retreat. Hold it off-site, and make sure it’s at least two overnights. Cost is always a factor, but this is where pastoral staff need to convince those in charge of the budget that youth ministry is a parish-wide priority. In addition to a retreat, this is a great time to schedule service events, like a Trick-or-Treat for Canned Goods on Halloween. The teens want to dress up and be with their friends anyway, why not stock a local food pantry and help them get service hours for their schools?
Thanksgiving through Christmas: The holiday season is chaotic, but it’s also one of the most fertile periods for youth ministry. Thanksgiving provides the opportunity for a large group meal, but it also offers natural service programs, like food drives and hunger banquets. Advent and Christmas are rich with topics for discussion, and service opportunities likewise abound. Does your parish do a toy drive of any sort? Perhaps teens could wrap the presents. Blanket and coat drives, collections for the homeless, all are excellent opportunities to get the teens together. Fun events like Christmas movie nights and gingerbread-house-building competitions are also a great idea.
January through March: Many students hit their semester exams, and winter sports are in full swing, so this is a tough stretch. Upperclassmen are taking standardized tests, and seniors are waiting to hear back from colleges. But this is also a good time to keep small groups going, interspersed with socials and service opportunities. Valentine’s Day provides the perfect opportunity to discuss, love, relationships, and dating. But it’s important to allow the teens to share their own experiences with these topics, and not simply use it as a chance to lecture them about the Church’s teachings. This is also a great time to do a Winter/Spring retreat if your program can support more than one per year.
Lent and Easter: Generally speaking, teens really like Lent. Perhaps it’s because the notion of giving something up fits well with the sort of viral challenges that light up social media, but the idea of taking on some sort of sacrifice is something that resonates particularly well with youth. Encourage them to undergo a period of discernment, not only as to what they will “give up” or do, but why they are doing it. Along with Lenten sacrifices, meatless Fridays can be a chance to offer some sort of cooking class or group meal, and the prayer practices of our Church, be it Stations of the Cross or the solemn liturgies of the Triduum, are good times to invite teens to cultivate a deeper spiritual vocabulary of prayer.
April through June: The end of the academic year brings final exams, graduation parties, and, in many parishes, an uptick of sacramental offerings like Confirmation. But these activities actually sync very well with the liturgical season, as we come through Easter to Pentecost and emerge at the time when Jesus missions his disciples outward and empowers them with the Holy Spirit. As teens are preparing to say goodbye, be it for the summer, or as friends head off to college, this is the perfect time to talk about what it means to be a missionary disciple.
June and August: The summer months are tough in many parishes. Vacations, summer jobs, and all manner of camps, mean that attendance is hit or miss. But it’s also a great time to schedule some informal social events, along with planned service opportunities. Many local agencies lose some of their volunteer groups over the summer when school is not in session, so it’s a good time to call up food pantries, soup kitchens, and other social services, to see if they can use any help. If possible, you may want to consider a week-long service trip. Immersion experiences can take many forms, but when they’re done well, few things are as life changing.