We’ve all seen them: advertisements featuring the latest piece of fitness equipment that is guaranteed to make us thin, lean, strong, and toned. And if you’re like me, there’s a part of us that wants to believe that all the claims are true, even if we know that this one machine can’t deliver on all the things its makers promise. There’s something in our fallen humanity that is drawn to quick and easy solutions instead of the more difficult path of moderation, self-discipline, and sacrifice that good overall health and fitness requires.
There’s a similar temptation in youth ministry to look for the “silver bullet” or the “magic pill”, the one thing that will solve all our problems with lack of parent involvement and interest, trying to catechize teens who have never been evangelized, helping the ones who have had an encounter with Christ develop a deep spirituality and sense of mission, and so on. So when a new resource or “program” comes out, it’s easy to think that a simple switch from one curriculum or source of content to another is going to produce completely different results. It’s been interesting to watch as resources for small groups are starting to proliferate and “discipleship” is becoming the buzzword used by many youth ministry organizations to legitimate themselves in the midst of a quickly changing cultural and pastoral milieu. But just because a resource or program offers a more dynamic, technological, evangelistic, or “discipleship-oriented” approach, does that mean it’s really going to be more effective to produce mature disciples of Christ and committed members of the Church?
The “Bowflex Analogy”
A few months ago, a priest in our diocese attended a training on Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry for parish coordinators shifting to a small group discipleship approach. This same priest had attended a presentation several months before on a popular program for small group discipleship. When I asked him about the DFYM training and if he had found it helpful in preparing to utilize the discipleship program in his parish, he responded by sharing a great analogy. He said, “It’s like the Bowflex. Some people really think it’s great, and it is an excellent piece of equipment. But using the Bowflex is not the same as having a gym membership or understanding the basics of personal health, or how the Bowflex fits into your overall plan to reach your fitness goals. It’s the same thing with any youth ministry resource out there. What the training [on DFYM] did was to pull apart the pieces to look at what defines discipleship and what makes it work.”
I think this analogy provides excellent insight into the relationship between any youth ministry resource and what it takes to do effective discipleship in a parish. Like any other tool, a youth ministry “program” is only going to “work” (that is, do what it claims it will do) if the person using it has the proper knowledge and skills to utilize it properly. The more a small group leader personally develops the disciplines of a disciple, grasps the purpose of each of the four areas of formation, and experiences for him or herself the four earmarks in his or her own personal relationships, the more that leader will develop vision for what the resource is created to accomplish: the development of mature Christian disciples. He or she also has to learn how to effectively model, teach, and mentor this for others, something that demands a lot more than simply pulling up a video and facilitating a small group discussion. In short, using a particular program or resource – even one created for small group discipleship – doesn’t guarantee that we’re really producing disciples.
From Dependence to Freedom
For the record, I think it’s exciting that a growing number of people are making resources for discipleship. For the small group leader who has limited time to find or create materials, and especially for those in parishes just starting discipleship, quality content can be an invaluable tool. But the goal of a parish coordinator should always be to help his or her leaders reach a point where they can plan and vision for the growth of their own small group of teens. This will almost always mean incorporating other activities, utilizing other resources, or taking advantage of other experiences (retreats, mission opportunities, camps or youth conferences, etc.) tailored to the specific group of individual teens and their unique formation needs.
In my experience, many parishes do not have a plethora of adults ready to lead small groups who are immediately able to do this. It will take real oversight and ongoing training to help small group leaders overcome the very “programmatic” mindset that has dominated parish catechesis, sacramental preparation, and youth ministry for decades. Parish coordinators and pastors will need to individually disciple leaders beyond dependence on a “program” until they have the personal freedom, experiences, skills, and knowledge to disciple teens in a way that is truly effective- with or without a “program.”