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Starting and Running a Youth or Young Adult Group

by Matthew Pinto

Principles from the forthcoming book, 'Waking the Sleeping Giant: Effective Catholic Young Adult Ministry'

Why are dynamic youth and young adult groups needed?

1) Our heart's deepest longing is for God and Truth. In this day and age, too many hearts are preoccupied with the distractions of the world. We need to break through with the life-giving message of Jesus. Young people need to spend less time in the world and more time contemplating the things of God. Truth leads to sanity and clear thinking. We need to bring people to a deeper love of the Truth.

2) Young people are casualties in this cultural war. The casualties are increasing. We need more spiritual paramedics. Youth and young adult groups are these paramedics.

3) A strong youth or young adult group can relieve some of the pressure young people face. This pressure includes the pursuit of material success and sexual temptations.

4) A strong youth or young adult group offers Catholics an alternative to the lures of other faiths, including some cults. Heaven's Gate is an example.

5) We've lost too many young people due to poor catechesis. Young people need an inviting place to hear the clear Catholic message.

6) Parishes need to reach out to these groups with more expansive youth and young adult programs. Young adults represent 37% of the parish. Where is the future church going to be if the majority of young people stop practicing their faith?

The step-by-step methods to starting a group in your parish
.

1) Someone (a teen, a young adult, a parent, a priest or religious) has to conclude that youth or young adult ministry is vital to the parish.

2) There then has to be a commitment from pastor/parish --both in spirit and by allocating resources.

3) You have to select the right leader or youth minister (part or full-time). I like the idea of a layman or woman leading the group, and a priest or other religious offering back up support. It will be helpful to have both a "theological" and "logistical or managerial" leader. These can be the same person, although two separate people may be more effective.

4) Prepare a youth/young adult ministry plan just like you would prepare a business plan. Your plan should be supported by a lot of prayer.

5) Your plan should include:

  • The logistics, such as the specific parish facility you wish to use.
  • The evening you want to meet.
  • The funding you will need.
  • The target audience you are reaching.
  • The methods of promotion you will employ.
  • The list of topics, speakers, videos, and group formats you will use.
  • The proposed team leaders (music, social, outreach, prayer, etc.)
  • Bylaws for Core Team (e.g., how long a team leader will be expected to serve, etc., expectations of conduct, etc.)
  • The plan for keeping prayer at the core of the group.
Eight elements that will keep a group running and make it effective.

1) Prayer - God blesses those who bless Him. He speaks to those who listen. The fuel of your group will be prayer. Also, when the group leaders pray for direction and guidance, they receive it. If we knock, the door will be opened.

2) Good Topics - Bring in speakers who are faithful to the Church. Vary the formats -- one week have a straight lecture and a Question and Answer session, the next week have small group "warm and fuzzy" discussions, the third week have a large group discussion, etc, etc. In short, mix things up throughout the month.

Keep the people intrigued with a mix of "heavy" topics (e.g., abortion, capital punishment) and "light-hearted" topics (e.g., friendships, the virtues, etc.)

Also do "ice breakers" at the beginning of most (if not all) meetings. They can really help people feel more comfortable.

3) Good marketing - Perception is reality. If the group is perceived as a good place to be, it will become that. Good marketing will attract people. Here are some specific ways to promote your group:

  • Develop a catchy group name. Try for something short and breezy - "Mission Young Adults."
  • Develop a logo.
  • Create t-shirts. These will build the "club" atmosphere. People like to belong to things.
  • Get a sports team together and play in a league.
  • Designate a PR person to consistently place announcements about group activities in the parish bulletin and local media.
  • Print up business cards with group times, location, and even a map on how to find the group.
  • Create and publish a consistent newsletter -- monthly, if possible.
  • Use clever titles to promote certain topics. Be creative, but tasteful.
  • If you're a youth minister, hang out around high school and meet your youth group students there. Be on the lookout for young kids who might benefit from your group.
  • Establish a "Bring A Friend" night once a month.
  • Run a canned good collection in the neighborhood and invite people whom you meet.

4) Atmosphere - Create a comfortable, inviting, upbeat atmosphere. There should be a sense of electricity in the air. People should feel that there is something special happening at these meetings.

5) Leadership - Offer good leadership and an organized, well-run program. One person should be considered the group leader, however, switch up weekly facilitators on a regular basis. At least twice a month the group should see the normal group leader, but back-up leaders/facilitators should fill in once or twice a month. This prevents a cult of personality and grooms others to be leaders/facilitators.

6) Socials - Have a lot of good social outings, including camping trips, ski trips, pot luck dinners, and movie nights. These should be held on nights other than your normal weekly educational night. Your youth or young adult program should be a fun experience.

7) Outreach - Offer good and inspiring outreach programs -- visit the elderly, work at a homeless shelter, run collections for unwed mothers homes, etc.

8) Empower - Assign people small jobs when they arrive at the meeting. Ask a new person to help with the chairs or to set up the literature display table. People like to "do" things. It's part of our addiction to "busyness." It's also a nice ice breaker for a new person. He or she feels part of the system if they're put to work.

What makes a good group leader.
  • Desires to be holy.
  • Loves the Church and is not interested in tearing it down.
  • Earns the respect of others through service and hard work.
  • Knows how to delegate.
  • Can see the big picture - knows where the group should be going.
  • Understands the "pastoral question" - Not everyone is at the same level.
  • Be gentle when presenting tough issues. Be caring, but be committed to the truth. Pray a lot for discernment. Pray to know when you should deliver the tough message and when you should wait for a better time.
  • Can make tough decisions.
  • Is ready to forsake popularity for truth.
  • Is compassionate.
  • Can laugh.
  • Does not gossip.
  • Can be trusted.
  • Asks "What Would Jesus Do?"
  • Knows (or is actively learning) his/her faith.
  • Is diplomatic in handling challenging personalities.
  • Is comfortable in the world, but is not "of the world."
90 topics for your meetings
  1. Creation &/or Evolution (What are we to believe about the origin of man)
  2. Religious Freedom (May I impose my views on society?)
  3. New Age movement (What is it? Is it dangerous to Catholics/Christians?)
  4. Mormonism (Who are they and what do they believe?)
  5. Fundamentalism ("Born-again" Christians - Who are they and what do they believe?)
  6. Jehovah's Witnesses (Who are they and what do they believe?)
  7. Why be Catholic (Does it really make a difference whether you're Catholic)
  8. The Basics of the Faith (What do we believe? Why? What's the bottom line?)
  9. Jesus (Who was he? What was his purpose? What does he ask of us?)
  10. End of the World (What's the bottom line on the Catholic teaching on the "end times?")
  11. The Structure of the Church (Pope, bishops, dioceses, etc., Is it a democracy?)
  12. Celibacy (Is this biblical?, Is it natural?, Is it reasonable?)
  13. Holy days and feast days (What are they?, Why do we have them?)
  14. Role of the laity (What is the laity's function in the church?)
  15. Sacraments (Are they symbols or do they really help change us?)
  16. Baptism
  17. Confirmation
  18. Reconciliation
  19. Matrimony
  20. Holy Orders (The priesthood and deaconate)
  21. Anointing of the Sick
  22. Mass (meaning behind the rituals)
  23. Blessed Sacrament/Eucharist (Benediction, Veneration, etc.)
  24. Mary (Was she really God's mother? How can this happen? What role does
  25. she play?)
  26. Saints (Can we really pray to them? Can they help us?)
  27. Angels (Do they exist? What's their role?)
  28. Apostles Creed (Explanation of what we say each Sunday)
  29. Papacy and Infallibility (Why do we have a Pope? What does he do?)
  30. Purgatory (What is it? Does it exist?, Why does it exist?)
  31. Overview of Old Testament Story (multi-week: What happened?)
  32. Dating (What is healthy dating? What is Christian dating? How should we date?)
  33. Conversion stories (Catholics who left the church and came back, New converts tell their story.)
  34. Friendships/Relationships (What are good friendships? How do we form them?
  35. Simple Gospel Message (What's this Christianity thing all about?)
  36. General Q and A night (Ask any question about the Church)
  37. Personal testimony night (Where are you in your journey in faith?)
  38. History of the Church (multi-week: What happened over the past 2,000 years?)
  39. Demonology (Does the devil really exist? How do the evils spirits work?)
  40. Protestant Reformation (Why and how did it form? Was it a mistake?)
  41. Beatification (Sainthood - How are saints canonized? What's the process?)
  42. Apparitions (Have people really appeared from Heaven?)
  43. Padre Pio (video, :20 min. -- Modern Catholic priest who bled from hands, feet, and side)
  44. The Crusades (Catholic Church goes to war to protect Christianity?)
  45. The Inquisition
  46. Overview of World Religions (What is Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism?)
  47. 12 Steps Programs and Faith (Practical ways to handle life's challenges)
  48. Healing (Everyone writes down hurts and discusses them. Bible can be used)
  49. Lives of saints (videos from :20 min. to :90 min -- multiple choices)
  50. Our Lady of Guadalupe (video: 27 min. -- Mary's appearance in Mexico in 1500s)
  51. Pope J.P. II - Pilgrim to Lourdes (video: 27 min -- John Paul visits Lourdes)
  52. Proclaiming the Message of Jesus (videos of JP II talking: 33 and 20 min.)
  53. Prayer (What is it? Why is it important? How do we pray?)
  54. Heaven and Hell (Do they exist/ What will they be like?)
  55. Religious life (What is it like to be a religious sister/brother?)
  56. Faith (What it is? Is it blind or thought out? How do we develop our faith?)
  57. The Virtues (Patience, chastity, temperance: How to achieve them)
  58. Forms of Prayer
  59. Scripture prayer (What are the different ways to pray with Scripture?)
  60. Rosary (What is it? When did it start? Why did it start? How do you say it?)
  61. Liturgy of the Hours (What is it? Why is it done?)
  62. Novenas (What are they?)
  63. Stations of the Cross (How do we say it? Why do we say it?)
  64. Meditation (How can we meditate? Is this something the Christian should do?)
  65. The Beatitudes (Blessed are the meek, etc. Discussion of Beatitudes)
  66. Devotions (What are various devotions?)
  67. What is interior life? (How to nourish it, What does a life of prayer mean?)
  68. Holy Hour (Night of guided meditation followed by group discussion)
  69. Salvation (How do we get to Heaven?)
  70. Divorce/Annulments (Is divorce ever allowed? What are annulments?)
  71. Homosexuality (Is it natural? Is it allowed in Christianity? What should be done?)
  72. Abortion (Q and A night. Ask any question about the abortion issue.)
  73. Ultrasound (Video on the development of the baby)
  74. Meet the Abortion Providers (Hard-hitting video by former abortionists)
  75. Operation Rescue (Video on those who block abortion clinics to save babies)
  76. AIDS (How should it be dealt with? Does "safe sex" exist?)
  77. Capital punishment (Should a society be allowed to put a criminal to death?)
  78. Social Justice (What is our responsibility in helping others? How far should we go?)
  79. Euthanasia (Should a society institute legalized "mercy killing?")
  80. Organ donation (Can Catholics donate organs after death?)
  81. Cremation (Is it permissible in Christianity to be cremated?)
  82. The Great Population Hoax (2 videos:, 36 Are we overpopulating the planet?)
  83. Gang problem (What can be done?)
  84. Chastity (Video by Molly Kelly on premarital sex and chastity)
  85. Youth, Sex, and Chastity (two :20 minute videos) Fr. Benedict Groeschel
  86. Schools, Clinics, and Contraceptives (:30 min. video, Are schools the place for this?)
  87. Capital Punishment (Can society put a criminal to death?)
  88. Moral dilemmas (Large group discussion with theologian, "What do I do when..?")
  89. Psychology and Religion (Are they friends or foes?)
  90. Liturgy and Beauty (What is good worship?)
  91. Vocations (Where is God calling you?)
General principles to keep in mind (in no specific order)

1) At planning meetings, don't get bogged down in petty discussions. People like to go to meetings where things are accomplished. Otherwise, people will get discouraged. Be bold, make decisions. Don't debate every small detail. Assign tasks to people and let others make the smaller decisions. Have one major planning meeting a month.

2) The group leader should make most of the day-to-day decisions. Big decisions are left to vote.

3) At the actual educational night meetings, create an inviting atmosphere, but one that takes faith seriously.

4) Do not provide an arena for dissent. This does not mean that you should not teach people about opposing views. You should tell people what others are saying, but be sure to give them the strong Catholic answer to the objection. You can discuss opposing opinions, but I don't believe you should invite in representatives from Planned Parenthood or Call to Action. They do not represent the Catholic Church. Your group is there to build up people in faith, not tear it down.

All too often, teachers will give the opposing view without giving the strong Catholic response to it. They leave things hanging with ambiguous statements. This is doing the youth a disservice. Learning the faith does not come that naturally, especially in our modern culture, which constantly contradicts our faith. Therefore, be sure to give the youth or young adults a firm grounding first.

If you do present opposing views to the more difficult issues, consider waiting a few months because you want people to be formed in the faith before you allow someone or something to shake that faith. You would build the foundation of the house before you would put on the roof. Similarly, wait for several months to do the topics that require a greater level of faith and understanding (e.g., tithing, birth control, euthanasia, etc.).

5) Invite in speakers who are faithful to the Church otherwise you are doing a disservice to the group. They need to be formed in the faith before their faith is aggressively challenged. You can learn the opposing point of view without giving someone a forum to expound it.

6) Make sure the primary focus of the group is education-oriented group. If you try to run a group that emphasizes "social" outings (ski trips, picnics), the group will be lackluster. A social club converts very few people. Firm belief and sacrifice bring about conversion.

7) When directing a youth core team, employ discipline. You are the leader. Do not be afraid to lose young people by sticking to your standards and expectations. Others will come in to fill the void. And, your core team will respect you for your leadership.

8) Offer a dynamic social program, especially for youth groups. Do a lot of things at the Church (volleyball games, lock-ins) to help create reverse peer pressure. You want young people associating positive experiences with church. You want the "in crowd" to be those who practice their faith. You want the youth group to be a "hip" place. This does not mean you compromise teachings. It means you balance orthodoxy with a joyful experience.

9) View the secular culture and even other non-Catholic youth programs as your competition. Quite frankly, they are your competition. It can be a friendly competition, but the bottom line is that many views are contrary to the will of Jesus and the teachings of the Church.

A little bit of a competitive outlook can get the kids emotionally involved. I'm not proposing that you be mean-spirited. I'm proposing you create just a little tension by comparing the Church to its challengers. This can always be tempered. The problem with young people is that too many are apathetic because they've not been inspired. Religion is serious business. The young need to know this. There are groups out there who want to win them out of the Church. So, consider occasionally sharing a message like: "Are you going to be the 75% of young people who cave in to sexual pressures?,"
"Are you going to deny Christ's divinity like some churches do?"
"Are you going to be told that you can't pray in public?"
This is done to give the youth perspective; to let them know that all is not peaches and cream out there.

10) Create a little bit of a "them" versus "us" atmosphere or mindset. It can always be tempered later, but will be very helpful in combating apathy. I don't mean that you should be mean-spirited. Spread the truth in love, but let the youth or young adults know that there are those who do not like what you stand for. Talk about the "cultural war" that is going on in the world. Otherwise, you will be doing the youth a disservice (because there really is a cultural war going on).

11) Do not conduct group business (planning, financial reports, etc.) at the actual "education night" meetings. You can make announcements in the beginning or end of meetings, but do not make your large group meeting a planning meeting. The large group meetings should be dedicated to learning and socializing, not to discussing the day-to-day affairs associated with running the group.

12) Be on time. Run an organized meeting. The times I like for youth meetings are 7:00-8:30 p.m on Sunday. The times I like for young adult meetings are 7:30-9:00 p.m. on Wednesday.

Try to conclude meetings as close to the published time as possible, especially for young adults. Apologize if it goes past 9:00. Invite people to stay and ask the speaker questions after 9:00 p.m., assuming the evening is going very well. Adults need to count on getting out of a meeting by a certain time so they can be well-rested for work, get home to families, etc.

Remember the FotoMat Theory -- People drive up the FotoMat, drop off their film, and pick it up two days later. They like the "in and out" convenience. Similarly, have a "packaged program" ready for the youth or young adults. The majority of people should simply come to the meeting, socialize, enjoy that night's topic or discussion, socialize a little more at the end of the night, put a few chairs away, and then leave.

13) Be consistent with your group meetings and planning meetings. People should know that your group meeting is "every Wednesday" or "the first Thursday of the month." Consistency is good marketing. You can imbed your meeting in the lives of people by having the same type of meeting on the same day or date.

14) Avoid cliques. Work hard to make sure every new person is welcomed. Designate a half dozen group "regulars" to make sure there is never someone alone during the "social" times -- at the beginning of the meeting and at the end.

15) Plan topics well in advance so you can arrange for speakers and can publicize the topics. Example: Topics for June should be planned in early May or sooner.

16) Many youth and young adult leaders avoid running an "education oriented" group because they don't know their faith and, subsequently, wouldn't know what to talk about. This can't be. Leaders need to read books and listen to tapes and then use these as resources. Or, simply bring in speakers and videos to deliver the content and you just moderate the meetings.

Matthew Pinto is the Managing Editor of Envoy Magazine, a new journal of Catholic apologetics and evangelization. He can be reached at MattJPinto@AOL.com.

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