Brooke Tufts admitted it was the homemade mac and cheese that hooked her in.
But it was the relationships she formed with other teens in her youth group and the support of the adult youth ministers at Assumption Parish in O’Fallon that kept her coming back.
And partly because of that influence, God willing, she will become Catholic at the Easter Vigil next spring.
“I think it was because I had such a good time with them,” said Brooke, now a high school junior and in her second year with Life Teen at Assumption. “I realized, these are people I want to surround myself with.”
From the surface, many parish-based youth ministry programs share similar components: a dedicated day of the week (or sometimes a couple of days) for programming, regular retreats and service projects. Masses are planned with young people in mind, with contemporary music and teens serving as lectors.
But looking a little deeper, those elements are the foundation of a relational-based ministry that seeks to build community and draw young people into the fold of the Church, empowering them to become disciples of Christ.
Assumption youth minister Becky Whitaker believes that effective youth ministry is about raising a generation of disciples of Christ — giving them both the head and the heart knowledge of the faith — rather than what she described as a bunch of “retreat addicts.”
It all starts with prayer, she said.
“It’s important to me as a youth minister that every single Life Night, even if it is brief, has an opportunity for an intentional moment of prayer,” said Whitaker, who joined Assumption as a full-time youth minister in 2020. Some gatherings could be as elaborate as an evening of eucharistic adoration or digging into Scripture with lectio divina. Other gatherings could include something as simple as a few minutes of quiet prayer with a few praise and worship songs.
“We’re making sure that at the end of the day how we’re approaching ministry is helping teens to form a relationship with God, so that by the time that they’ve graduated and are off in college, they know how to create and sustain a good prayer life,” Whitaker said.
Brooke describes her upbringing as Christian, but her family was not active in a faith community. She attended public schools through elementary and middle school, but then for a change of pace decided to attend St. Dominic High School in O’Fallon.
By sophomore year, her interest in the Catholic faith began to emerge in religion class. Several friends told her about Life Teen at Assumption and extended a personal invitation to come to a Life Night.
Brooke admitted she was scared to jump into a group of what she described as “cradle Catholics.” As it turned out, they weren’t much different from her.
“They made me feel like I was part of the community,” Brooke said. “I immediately felt like I had a family — which is super crazy to me, because I was not expecting that.”
There was an invitation to come back. Brooke found herself wanting to be surrounded by these friends, she said. Now she’s extending that invitation to other teens at her high school.
“There’s nothing more powerful than another teen inviting someone,” Whitaker said. “They are seen and noticed and missed when they are not there.”
Building relationships with God and others
On a Sunday night in October, about two dozen teens gathered in the parish hall at Assumption for their regular Life Night. The topic: God in the media. After a brief check-in to share the joys they experienced in the past week, they split into small groups for an activity.
The teens rushed for a table filled with props to execute Whitaker’s challenge: Conduct an Instagram-worthy photo shoot using each group’s chosen aesthetic, which included Harry Potter, nature/farm and athletic. Teens later voted for their favorite photos on Assumption Life Teen’s Instagram page.
Afterward, they broke into small groups to discuss the media they consume, including TV shows, movies, art and music. Whitaker asked them: Do the things you consume bring you joy? “Is there something you’ve experienced that moved you and stayed with you? The media we surround ourselves with have an impact on us — on our souls, our minds and our consciences.”
She encouraged them to think more deeply about the media they consume. Do we seek traces of the Gospel in those things? Media should inspire us to something greater than ourselves and ultimately point us toward God, Whitaker added.
A community of
Whitaker remembers the phone call from her younger sister several years ago. Her sister was involved in youth ministry all four years of high school. Two months into her college experience, she called Becky and was very upset.
She told her, “I went to Mass today and I didn’t feel the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and I don’t know what to do.” Whitaker asked her younger sister what happened at Mass. The music was different, she responded, and her parents weren’t with her, either.
OK, Whitaker thought. She’s probably just homesick. So she asked her sister what her prayer life was like at the moment. “She goes, ‘I don’t know what a prayer life is.’” Whitaker held her accountable. Faith needs to be more than Sunday Mass, she told her. There needs to be a relationship with God and an effort to connect with Him daily. We need others to hold us accountable and to work on our prayer life.
Teens need to understand they’re an important part of the faith community, even after high school graduation and once they move on into adulthood. “To equip them with the tools to be able to foster that and grow their Catholic faith is essential to the ministry we do here,” Whitaker said.
A journey of faith
Last summer, Brooke and her friends from Assumption Life Teen attended the Steubenville Mid-America STL youth conference in Springfield, Missouri. A profound experience in eucharistic adoration one evening during the conference left her in tears.
Brooke had been praying for a while about whether she should become Catholic. She enjoyed what she was learning in religion class. She loved praying in the chapel at school. And she was developing wonderful relationships with friends through Life Teen.
“I really do think this is what I want to do,” Brooke recalled thinking. “But I need to know this is what I should do.” She asked God the question over and over again in adoration.
His response landed right on her heart. It was a strong feeling that “there’s nothing else for you to do,” she said.
“Renewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry” is a pastoral framework developed in 1997 by the U.S. bishops for developing effective ministry with youth and adolescents in local communities of faith.
Three important goals guide the Church’s ministry with adolescents. They state what it means for the Catholic community to respond to the needs of young people and to involve young people in sharing their unique gifts with the larger community. The goals also express the Church’s focus for ministry with adolescents, while encouraging local creativity in developing the programs, activities and strategies to reach those goals.
1. To empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world today.
2. To draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission and work of the Catholic faith community (at home, parish and school).
3. To foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person.
To read more about the bishops’ framework for youth ministry, see stlreview.com/3BgTZax.
The archdiocesan Office of Youth Ministry provides ongoing support for youth ministry efforts in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. To learn more, visit stlyouth.org.
To learn more about Life Teen, see lifeteen.org.
>> Make a plan for prayer
Prayer is an essential part of developing a relationship with God and becoming His disciple. Make a plan to incorporate prayer into your life, even if it is something as simple as spending five minutes in prayer every day and attending Mass on Sundays.
Here are three ways to jumpstart your prayer life:
Retreat: Retreat doesn’t mean we have to take a weekend away or go to a retreat center. It means stepping back from the busyness of our everyday life and withdrawing to a quiet space to spend time with God. You can do this in your parish church, adoration chapel or simply by finding a quiet space in your home. What’s most important is the intentional decision to make time and space for God in your day.
Reflect: What is God saying to you? Whether you are meditating on the Scriptures or using another prayer book, it’s important to pause and listen to God’s voice. God has a message for us each and every day. What words or thoughts capture your attention? What do you think God is saying to you today and why?
Respond: Prayer should lead us to action. When we hear the voice of God, we must respond to Him. This part of our prayer focuses on how we can apply the reflection we have just done in simple and practical ways today and in our day to day lives moving forward. These don’t always have to be earth-shattering changes (though they could be!), but rather, they should keep us advancing in our intimacy with God, which fuels our mission to make him known to all the world.
Source: Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Discipleship allthingsnew.org/mission