Youth ministers know that summer means a tremendous amount of work: summer camps for kids and teens of all ages. The prep work starts months in advance, and there’s a seemingly endless list of items to take care of. Many of these are administrative, legal, organizational, etc.. Then there’s the formative aspects: theme, prayer and reflection, sacraments, talks, testimonies. And all of this is mixed in with quite a bit of fun! Yet I think everyone agrees that what’s most important about our summer camps is bringing kids and teens to a deeper encounter and commitment with Christ.
If that’s the case, as youth ministers we can’t forget the importance of our leadership teams. All the organizational aspects set in place, a poorly formed leadership team will not communicate the message of Christ effectively. And I believe young people have the potential to be the best witnesses to their younger peers of what it means to follow Christ. Kids look up, and they look up to those only a few years ahead.
Hence this article is about the young apostles we all wish we had year after year: those young leaders zealous and trained for this mission. Note that every year thousands upon thousands of “counselors” fill the ranks of youth leadership teams in summer camps across the country. Are they ready for this role? How can we properly train them? What tools do they have at their disposal? Do I as youth minister realize the importance of this role? These are the questions that I hope to answer with this article.
I belong to a movement (a “spiritual family” in the Church) called “Regnum Christi” (the Kingdom of Christ). What we try to stress the most in our apostolic outreach is the formation of people into leaders, and leaders into apostles. In this case, young leaders and young apostles. For that reason I like to say my camps have always been mostly about an excuse to give young people an opportunity to evangelize their younger peers.
The difference is more than theory or perspective or attitude. It’s concrete. Every year my first summer camp was a training camp. All teens that were assuming a leadership role during one of my summer camps were obliged to also participate in this camp as well. This camp was very straightforward. The first day was all about ice breakers and team building. Then the training camp consisted in doing exactly everything they would later do in the following camps.
And it worked! The difference was significant. My teen leaders knew how to lead Gospel reflections and also had insightful reflections of their own to share. They knew how to give short thematic talks and testimonies. They knew how to lead a prayer in the chapel, how to sing the songs for worship, how to pray and lead the rosary, how to lead a simple examination of conscience at the end of the day. They also knew how to do each of the various dynamic activities throughout the camp, such as a pushups for snacks activity or Gospel skit. Some of them even knew how to have a personal conversation on a specific aspect of faith. Can anyone imagine teen leaders doing this without any prior training?
While I worked in Chicago I met a youth minister of a large church that had built up a very, very unique kind of youth ministry for High School. Their youth ministry wasn’t the typical “get kids to church” model. Instead, their youth ministry was actually a group of 30-50 students that had committed to a year-long leadership position within a team that runs retreats for churches throughout the school year. These students were trained ahead of time and throughout the year their youth group meetings were actually ongoing training meetings. Being a large group, they would take turns running the retreats so they wouldn’t miss out too much on their own sports and homework (and social life!). I witnessed one of their retreats, and they did a great job. What a great idea, and what a great group of teens.
Steps to Forming Young Apostles:
For this article I’m assuming that you have a group of young people interested (and called) to lead and evangelize their younger peers. Perhaps you’ve been doing this for years already, and you’ve noticed that many of the younger kids eventually want to be a leader themselves. If you’ve had this experience, or you’re excited by the idea, then perhaps you share my conviction that youth ministry is not just about forming young people in the faith and helping them grow in their friendship with Christ. This is already quite a bit! But there’s more. It’s also about helping young people become apostles to their younger peers.
It’s very difficult in today’s complex and bureaucratic society for teens to do this on their own. All youth ministers know we have to create an environment where this is possible. A priest-mentor once told me to setup young leaders to succeed. We don’t just teach teens to get up and learn from their failures and acknowledge their weaknesses; we teach them to succeed. We teach them how an apostle talks about his faith, reflects on the Gospel, prays to God, organizes constructive activities, plays sports with values, in short: evangelizes!
You will notice that training young people to lead their peers is a process. It begins with discernment before God and commitment to a leadership role. But this article is about the actual training: equipping and launching! This process goes through six steps:
You as the youth minister, or some other experienced leader, presents the ins and outs of a concrete activity. For example, a Gospel reflection. Talk about your experience leading Gospel reflections: your fears, mistakes, success stories, tips… Also talk about how to do a Gospel reflection, going over each of the steps one by one. In short, PRESENT is about explaining how an activity works and sharing one’s experience leading it. Talk about it. Use powerpoint. Whatever! Just make sure they get the theory.
Then organize the actual activity with the same group of future leaders. Continuing our example, after talking about how to do a Gospel reflection, proceed to actually doing a Gospel reflection with your teens. Seems simple, doesn’t it? But it’s important that these future leaders gain experience running an activity. Teens tend to think they know how to do something…until they try doing it!
Once the activity is over, lead a small group reflection on how it went. Did it go well? Did everyone participate? Is our Gospel passage adequate for teens? What could have been improved? What went well, and why? What would you do differently? Any other questions? The purpose of reflecting on the experience is to assimilate ideas better. The students are not just thinking about abstract ideas, but now about real life. And it’s not necessarily sufficient to let teens off the hook because they’ve done “millions” of Gospel reflections before. That’s a sign of superficiality. Have they ever done one and reflected on it in a context of leadership training? I don’t think so.
This step is more like a test, or a “try again”. Decide if you are satisfied with the prior performance of your future leaders. Is that what you’re looking for? If you’re not satisfied, you should return to EXPERIENCE. At this point, don’t just lead the activity for them. Let these future leaders organize the activity for themselves. A student is chosen to lead the Gospel reflection, and they all go at it amongst themselves. You have the option of participating (as if you were a student yourself) or of watching from a distance as a spectator or referee. Lastly, go through the REFLECT stage. You’ll see the activity has now taken more form in the minds of your future leaders.
Eventually you have to let them lead! This means “show time”! At this point you can be much more at peace because you’ve done your part. It’s now up to God’s grace to do the rest. You’ve given the Lord worthy young leaders hoping to be transformed into apostles. This is God’s turn to shine. And he in turn will help your own young leaders shine. It’s at this point that you will see all the fruit of your work. You will see firsthand how your own little “disciples” become apostles for Christ! And the more chances your young apostles have to lead, the better they will get at it.
The Gospel shows us that victories need to be celebrated. The greatest victory, the Resurrection of Christ, has been celebrated every Sunday since almost 2,000 years. And teens need positive affirmation! Celebrating their successful completion of anything new they learn is an important way to recognize that what they do is not superfluous. Each young apostle can play a critical role in the lives of their younger peers. God knows. And celebrating motivates them to be an apostle in the future.
At this point I’d like to give you some concrete ideas for training. I recommend that you understand very clearly what exactly are the actual duties you expect from your young apostles. It’s a huge mistake to expect something done well if you have not trained them for it beforehand. So, think carefully! The more you reflect, the more training you will realize you have to do. Then you’ll see why a week is really a minimum for training leaders for camps or retreats. Make sure to train your young leaders in these areas:
- Sports (all the sports and physical activities)
- Ice breakers and Team Building Exercises (these are fun to learn!)
- Prayer (leading a spontaneous prayer, writing down their personal prayer)
- Songs and chants (songs for worship and team chants for motivation and enthusiasm)
- Faith Talks (every faith talk has to be rehearsed)
- Testimonies (click here for instructions on a 3-minute testimony)
- Gospel Reflections (each Gospel reflection should be rehearsed)
- Dynamic Activities (“out of the box” activities; click below for two examples)
- Faith Guidance (click here for instructions and for sample mentoring guidesheets)
- Anything else? I’m sure there is!
Be Specific and Mix it Up:
I conclude with two very important observations. First, you have to train for individual activities. It’s not enough to know how to do a Gospel reflection. Train for every Gospel passage you will use in your camps. Make sure you are specific in your training. The more so, the more success you can expect.
Second, mix up your training activities so they flow better. My goodness, don’t put your teens through 4 hours of Gospel reflections! Mix it up with sports training, then training in Gospel reflection, then in a dynamic activity, then in singing or prayer. This way they will get the feel of an actual camp. Essentially, the schedule of the training camp should mimic your upcoming camps.
And it’s not too important to be on site for training. It may be sufficient to arrive on site with your leaders a few hours in advance, or a day in advance. But did I miss something? You’ll pick up on this with time. And other details may not be as important. You get the picture…
I hope this article will help you transform your youth ministry so that you are also equipping and launching young apostles. Our world and our churches need young apostles because they too have an important role to play in the new evangelization of the 21st century. I encourage you to consider this aspect of your youth ministry a vital role for your church. And I pray that more and more young people will realize that being an apostle is not a dream for the future. They can be an apostle today. And you can help them!
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