One of the most powerful aspects of Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry that truly sets it apart from other approaches is the call for a customized plan for each and every student. When I led a youth group, I remember the constant tension between boring those who wanted to go deeper with too many games and doing less games but losing those who were not yet interested in more. Having one option or one program for the youth in a parish is like taking a football team and making them all spend an entire practice punting. It wouldn’t take long for the individual players to begin losing interest and, in the long run, they wouldn’t make a very good team.
Discipleship is an apprenticeship that requires the time and focus of a teacher to observe and help a student where he or she needs to grow the most. It is the watchful eye and specialized instruction of the teacher that helps the student rise to a new level of excellence. A master carpenter, for example, can teach a student to see how he or she sees things. This is what makes it possible for the student to build items of greater quality and craftsmanship than any factory could ever produce. What the teacher teaches is based upon what the disciple knows and what he or she needs to learn.
Looking at things this way helps us to see how a customized plan, crafted through careful observation, will create the best outcome in helping a young person grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Here are a few ideas for how to work towards this customized approach in your ministry or small group:
Allow The Group Leaders To Create The Plan
From what I have seen, the norm in most parishes is to present everyone with the same information, content, or “program,” and the opportunity for customization typically happens through guided small group discussion that has to fit within a 20-30 minute timeframe. We must teach our small group leaders to vision and plan for their own groups and give them the freedom to step out of the programs we provide if they are not meeting the needs of their groups. In fact, parish programming should only exist if it is a response to the needs in the groups anyway (read more about that here).
Observe, Observe, Observe
The reality is that if you are really going to teach someone well, you must observe them in action. Take time doing things with the youth in your groups, and watch how they respond. Ask difficult questions that challenge the way they think about things, and spend time each and every time you meet catching up on the most difficult challenges they are facing in their family, school, and work.
Keep Groups Small
In order for your group to really be able to give each person the individual opportunities they need, you must keep the groups small. I typically recommend groups of 4-6 youth with two adults. Mathematically, this means each adult leader can invest deeply in 2-3 youth or at least be responsible for observing them and ensuring they are engaged in what the group is doing.
Allow Groups To Be Formed Naturally
Once discipleship groups begin to form in your parish, they will tend to take on unique characteristics , especially if your group is active and present in the parish community. People will desire to join a group or may even leave one group for another if they see what a certain group is focused on. Allow youth to go where they will be challenged and will be fed right where they are at.
Make It Less About The Small Group
It doesn’t matter how many times your small group meets or what types of things your group has accomplished. What matters most is that every person in your group is given the opportunity to be formed as a disciple and has someone helping them as needed. Do not be afraid to throw out the agenda if you find something specific that needs to be worked on.
These are just a few ideas. One way you could test if you are customizing your efforts would be to answer the question: “If you swapped out all of the youth in your group and had new ones come in, would you keep doing the same thing?” If so, this is likely an earmark that you can work on!