There’s an old adage that “experience is the best teacher,” and this is certainly a statement that could be applied to more than one aspect of a Discipleship Focused Youth Ministry approach. There is also some truth in the saying that “you only know what you’ve experienced.” What we have or have not experienced can limit our ability to know or see the whole picture. When it comes to discipleship, many of us have limited experiences with having been “discipled” ourselves; that is, we have not had someone invest in us in a discipleship-style relationship. We learned about the Catholic faith or experienced a personal encounter with Christ through other modes. Therefore, our imaginations are somewhat challenged to envision what this type of mentorship looks like. We have to try all that much harder to broaden our perspective beyond our own experiences and develop the skills necessary to be effective disciplers. Or, perhaps we have been so conditioned by the way we’ve learned to do youth ministry or adolescent catechesis that there’s a kind of inertia that holds us back when we try to shift to a discipleship approach. The result is that we change certain aspects of our structures, leadership, communication, etc., but we don’t fundamentally change our mentality about and methods for forming teens.

In this series of articles, I’d like to address a few common misunderstandings about discipleship, or ways that we can have a limited vision of what discipleship truly is and entails.

Small Group Discipleship: Not the Same As Small Group Facilitation

Small groups are a common part of all sorts of youth events and experiences: retreats, conferences, and sometimes even Confirmation preparation or parish religious education classes. However, it’s important to understand that having adults facilitate activities or discussion amongst a small group of teens doesn’t automatically make it discipleship. This is true first of all because “small group” is not synonymous with “discipleship”; just because it’s a small group doesn’t necessarily mean discipleship is happening.

Small groups are often a preferred setting for youth discipleship simply because they are more conducive to the highly-individualized formation it requires. The reasons why this is true are clear if we look at the four earmarks: intimacy, mutual responsibility, customization, and accountability. All of these things are more difficult to accomplish the larger the group gets. The relational dynamics change, and it’s easy to lose the atmosphere of intimacy or the ability to tailor the formation to the unique needs of each person. In addition, the one (or ones if you have two leaders) doing discipleship has less time and energy to invest in each individual, making effective mentorship challenging.

While good small group facilitation skills are a helpful foundation, the first thing that sets discipleship apart is the attitude and outlook of the one doing the discipling. The distinction really lies in the intention of the adult to invest in a particular teen (or group of teens) by modeling, showing, and teaching the teen to do what he or she does as a mature disciple of Christ. This requires a commitment to be in discipleship long enough to hand on at least some of what the teacher knows and does (like developing a personal awareness of God’s presence and love, spiritual habits and disciplines, a sense of personal mission and vocation, etc.). If this type of personal investment is not happening consistently over a period of time, it would be hard to compare it to the pedagogy of discipleship modeled by Christ with the 12 apostles.

If we look again at the four earmarks, we see that effective discipleship also depends very much on the type of environment established within a group, as well as the direction the group is headed. Do all the group members feel that they can trust one another enough to be vulnerable about areas of struggle? Are all the members of the group committed to growth in the four areas of formation, not just generally, but in specific personal ways? Is the formation occurring in a way that each person can receive and be challenged to take the next step toward Christian maturity? Is there a clear set of commitments to which all the group members hold one another accountable? These are just a few questions that help us identify ways that we can lead our small groups into a deeper experience of discipleship, one that goes beyond just small group facilitation.