by : Patrick Neve
In Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Waddell lays out five thresholds people walk through when moving from disaffiliated to discipleship. Everyone, including our teens, moves from initial trust, to curiosity, to openness, to seeking, and then to discipleship. This roadmap is helpful but still presents two questions: how do we know when a teen is at each stage, and how do we help them move?
We will deal with these questions one threshold at a time. You and your Core Team need to be able to identify each stage in the teens you are closest to. Have (confidential) conversations during Core meetings about which teens are at which threshold and how to help them go deeper.
In terms of identifying, this threshold is probably the most straightforward. Trust is marked by vulnerability, so if a teen is willing to share important things with you, they likely trust you. However, there is a difference between sharing something because they were asked a small group question and volunteering something without being asked. The latter takes a lot more trust.
Likely, many of your regular teens don’t have this level of trust yet. Many teens see youth ministers like they see their teachers: this person is paid to be here for me. The best advice for building trust with teenagers is not, “show them you care about them,” it’s simply: care about them.
Curiosity doesn’t mean asking questions. Some people are embarrassed by their curiosity, especially teenagers, so if they ask a question, it may be vague or indirect.
If you want to tell if a teen is curious about the Gospel, look at their eyes. You can often tell a curious teen by one who doesn’t break eye contact with you during a talk. They may nod or lean in slightly. Others will be less obvious and not break eye contact with a spot on the floor or furrow their brow in thought.
In a youth ministry setting, moving a teen from trust to curiosity often happens in group settings. When someone they trust is speaking during small groups or during a talk, they are more inclined to listen because they know you care about them. It also lets them feel more anonymous and not directly called out by the message.
This is why it’s important to have the Kerygma woven into everything. The Kerygma is the basic Gospel message that we were created by God but rejected Him with sin. Then God sent His only Son to die for our sins so we could become a member of His Body, the Church.
Curiosity is sparked when we believe something to be the answer to a desire, and the Kerygma answers every human desire. When we preach Christ as the fulfillment of the desire for love, justice, acceptance, healing, forgiveness, etc., we pique their interest.
Spiritual openness will often take the form of asking questions. These teens haven’t yet accepted everything Christ taught but are open enough to be challenged by Him.
We can’t move someone into openness, but we can let them know we are ready for them when they are. Many teens are in this stage but feel like they have no one they can bring their questions to. Make it known (and repeat it often) that your ministry is the place where questions are welcome and encouraged.
Some teens don’t know what kind of questions to ask. Familiarize yourself with common questions teenagers have about the faith and ask them questions phrased like “Are you having trouble understanding _____?” “Are you confused about _________?”
A seeking teen may ask you where they can look to go deeper. If you think they are ready, but they haven’t asked you where to look yet, offer them books, YouTube channels, or podcasts made for teenage Catholics. Apps like iBreviary and Hallow are also great for teens looking to go deeper in prayer.
People can stay in the active seeking stage for a long time, even if they don’t need to be. We will always be “seeking” Christ, but we have to answer the call at some point. It’s hard to know for sure when a teen is “ready” for discipleship, but if you have known a teen through the last three stages, it won’t be hard for you to know.
A teen becomes a disciple the same way everyone has become a disciple for the last 2,000 years: they are called.
It’s important to have an intentional conversation with them and say, “I think you are ready to commit to Jesus. What do you think?” Ask them to commit to daily prayer and to the sacraments. Follow up with them regularly to see how they are doing. Invite them to evangelize others as well.
Bringing teens from disaffiliated to disciple is tough, but it is the only way to sustain a youth ministry. Without a clear path to discipleship, youth ministry is no different than any other high school club.
You likely have teens at all of these stages in your ministry. Your ministry needs to be prepared to help teens through all of these thresholds. It’s also likely your Core Team isn’t familiar with these thresholds. Share this with them and have a conversation at your next meeting. Can our ministry handle all of these transitions? Which teens are ready to go deeper?
Learning the steps and the transitions become easier with time. The more teens you see go from one threshold to the next, the easier it will be to help other teens later. The main job of a youth ministry leader is to teach your Core Team how to evangelize and help teens commit to Jesus.
The beauty of discipleship is that the more you work, the more workers you create. As teens become disciples, they will be able to make their friends disciples. Your teens will be able to reach teens at their schools you would never meet otherwise. By focusing on discipleship, your ministry could have a reach beyond what you could ever do without the Spirit.
Remember that in the end, it is the Spirit working through you, your Core Team, and your teens. The Lord reaps what we sow and gathers what we scatter. We are workers in His vineyard, and we can never forget that.Tweet
About the Author
I’m a youth minister in the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the cohost of The Crunch podcast. I was born and raised in Florida, studied Theology at Franciscan University, and I live by the philosophy, “God thinks I’m funny, so it’s okay if you don’t.” You can find me on Instagram @patrickneveiii.