Youth groups help teens form authentic relationships with Jesus and peers
February 18, 2022
When Allie Lierz started high school, her parents encouraged her to check out youth ministry at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna by making a “deal.”
Allie’s end of the bargain required attendance at two youth group events. If she decided not to join, her parents offered ten dollars to compensate for her time.
“I never got the ten dollars,” Lierz quipped in a phone interview from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she is currently a freshman. “I was really shy, but everyone was so welcoming, so I kept going back.”
Lierz said she credits the youth group for giving her the confidence to join a campus Bible study and find faith-filled friends in college.
“(Before high school) I was proud to say, ‘I’m Catholic,’ but I definitely had no personal relationship with God, and there was no prayer outside of Mass,” she said. “Now I definitely have a personal prayer relationship with Jesus.”
According to Father Jeff Loseke, pastor at St. Charles Borromeo, this relationship is key.
“The goal is that the kids have a real encounter with Christ,” he said, “not just learning about him but actually meeting him by learning how to pray.”
Kristin Koubsky, director of Youth Ministry at St. Charles Borromeo, agreed. While fun, food and formation are necessary to draw teens together, she said the highlight of each weekly gathering is quiet time in the chapel together.
Koubsky said she leads the teens through a seven-step prayer process of gratitude, awareness and forgiveness developed by the Dynamic Catholic Institute.
“It’s a quiet, contemplative reflection time,” she said. “It allows them to grow close to Jesus.”
Koubsky noticed the teens’ reverence when entering the worship space, even after boisterously playing games for the previous hour.
“They’re not goofing around or ‘squirreling,’” she said. “They’re engaged and peaceful.”
TO BE STILL AND SILENT
Sarah Finneran, former director of Youth Ministry at St. Charles, emphasized the importance of this practice, especially due to the negative influences of cell phones and social media in teens’ lives.
“They’re getting hit with so many conflicting ideas that are distracting,” she said. “I think it’s very important that they learn in middle and high school how to just be still and be silent.”
Johnny Murray, director of Youth Ministry at St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn, added loneliness and isolation to the list of obstacles teens face in developing a relationship with God.
“People are struggling to connect and have genuine conversations again (since the COVID-19 pandemic began),” he said.
Because teens are afraid of not fitting in or finding a group of friends, Murray said building authentic relationships is a necessity.
Murray said he desires to show teens that “we don’t see you as a four-year commitment, but we see you as a beloved son or daughter of God.”
“There is a community here, and you have a place in that community,” he said.
Murray said the best way to bring teens into the Church community is a personal invitation from a fellow student. He said several students frequently bring their friends to St. Patrick Youth (SPY) meetings from various high schools around Omaha.
Gretna High School senior Ethan Menning is one of them.
While Menning expressed deep gratitude for his education at St. Patrick School in Elkhorn, he felt called in recent years to reach beyond his “Catholic bubble.” Menning said he frequently invites friends from the Gretna High track and cross-country teams to SPY events and retreats.
“If we invite people into a space that’s open to where God can work, then we can easily just … let God do his thing,” Menning said. “God is the potter, and you are just the guy bringing the broken pottery to the potter.”
Successful ministry to young people – or anyone, really – follows the method of Jesus who mentored or “discipled” his followers, Murray explained.
“Jesus spent time with his disciples and showed them how to live a life of virtue in the Father’s will,” he said.
As such, in addition to taking students to large-scale conferences and retreats, youth leaders are turning to small groups to meet students’ individual needs.
Sarah Finneran and her husband, Sean, took their firsthand experiences in men’s and women’s groups at St. Charles Borromeo and created boys’ and girls’ “discipleship groups” as an optional supplement to weekly large group gatherings. The girls’ group is currently on hiatus, but the boys’ group continues to meet monthly.
“(The teens) get to know each other on a deeper level in the small groups,” Sean said.
He explained that each meeting includes a short meditation and an opportunity for each participant to share about life, family and monthly goals.
Some young men commit to praying the Liturgy of the Hours daily, Sean said, while others aim to exercise each morning or spend less time on social media. A group challenge might include going to the sacrament of reconciliation prior to the next meeting, he said.
“We’re trying to build virtue in everyday life as a high schooler,” Sean said.
BUILDING FRIENDSHIPS, CONNECTIONS
Kody Robinson, a sophomore at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, said he didn’t know any of the other guys before joining Sean’s small group over a year ago.
“Now they are the closest people I know in this parish,” Robinson said, adding that he looks forward to each meeting.
“I’d rather do this with the guys than go bowling or some other sort of activity,” he said.
While building friendships among teens is crucial, Murray also emphasized the importance of keeping kids connected to their families and the parish.
“Parents are that number one catechist,” he said, “and to have them walk along that journey is beautiful.”
Parents are welcome to help wherever their gifts and talents shine, he said, whether as small group leaders, food providers or logistical coordinators.
Students are also encouraged to serve in a variety of roles in the parish community, from liturgical roles to helping with the Lenten fish fry.
“As a parish, we are one big family, striving to be that one heartbeat in Christ,” Murray said.
John Gencarelli, coordinator of Youth Evangelization and Discipleship for the Archdiocese of Omaha, agreed.
“It’s a whole parish’s responsibility to ‘do’ youth ministry,” he said. “The more we can get young people involved in making disciples and creating missional communities, the better off our Church will be.”