Lead article from the September 2020 issue of the DISCIPLE newsletter. Download the complete issue here.
For years Confirmation prep at St. Michael Catholic Church (StMCC) was a 9th- and 10th-grade program culminating in Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul or the Basilica of St. Mary. For many teens, it marked the end of their journey in the Church.
But some stay faithful through high school and beyond. Most of those have something in common: a conversion experience at Extreme Faith Camp (EFC).
St. Michael-Albertville (STMA) Catholic Youth Ministry is rooted in relationship: The goal is bring faith-filled adults and older teens alongside kids to love and walk with them, modelling discipleship and calling them to follow Christ.
“Everything we do—all the crazy games and activities—are meant to draw kids into relationship with each other, with other disciples and, ultimately, with Jesus,” says John O’Sullivan, director of youth ministry at St. Michael Catholic Church. “And every event includes an encounter with God: in His word, in prayer and in the sacraments.”
“It starts with Open Youth Room on Wednesdays after school,” he says. “We just let kids come and hang out, play games, do homework, whatever. Once we get to know them a little bit, we invite them to other events, like Friday Night Live and Extreme Faith Camp.”
At EFC, a week-long Catholic summer camp pioneered by O’Sullivan, middle-schoolers encounter Jesus in a powerful way. Even with ziplines, swimming and Wacky Olympics, most cite Adoration as their favorite part—and after a summer or two, many desire to go deeper. When they are too old to be campers, they can join Prayer Team, spending most of EFC in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and Core Team, which plans and leads events for younger students.
Core Teamers are exponentially more likely to stay engaged in the Catholic Church through college.
“Not every middle-schooler that goes to camp joins Core,” O’Sullivan says, “but almost all of the teens on Core Team were ‘hooked’ in middle school at EFC.”
Given Youth Ministry’s success with middle-schoolers, it made sense to shake up the old Confirmation model. Both St. Michael and St. Albert parishes made 8th-grade the first year in which teens can consider Confirmation and made joining a discipleship small group (D-group) a prerequisite. Sacrament preparation is streamlined; the focus now is forming a strong group of peers who are encouraging each other to live out their faith and holding each other accountable.
Be Fruitful and Multiply
The fruits of relationship-based youth ministry are unmistakable:
- 700+ children and teens participating each year
- 60+ D-groups for teens in grades 8-12
- 100+ Core Team members committed to spiritual growth and evangelization
- More than 20 young adult missionaries serving across the state and country
- Two priests, a deacon and multiple religious vocations as well as young men in seminary and many more youth discerning God’s call
In addition, numerous college-age alumni return to EFC year after year to volunteer as leaders, speakers, musicians and more. Some who live locally come back as D-group leaders as well. Ruth Gladitsch is the director of youth discipleship and evangelization for STMA Catholic Youth Ministry. Formerly the youth minister for St. Albert, she helped to lead the change in Confirmation prep for the two parishes.
“Changing our focus from completing a program to making disciples through small groups and personal encounter was the right thing to do,” she says. “But the goal is for the same D-groups to meet from 8th-grade through graduation, and that requires a lot of volunteer support.”
Recruiting enough faithful men and women committed to walking a group of teens through five formative years is an ongoing challenge, but it’s often a transformative experience everyone involved.
St. Albert Youth Minister Gabby Swift grew up relational youth ministry—her father, StMCC Faith Formation Director Bob Swift, is a former youth minister from St. Raphael parish in Crystal—so she knows firsthand that there is no shortcut.
“It really is all about relationship,” Swift says. “COVID has hit us hard from that standpoint. We are made for communion—no one wants to be virtual! So we continue to look for creative, safe ways to bring kids together.”
Since coronavirus killed the weeklong EFC this summer, the team created a socially distanced Extreme Faith “Day” Camp in August, enabling scores of middle schoolers to experience fellowship, confessions, Adoration and Mass together for the first time since the spring shutdown.
“It was so good just to have kids back in the building,” says O’Sullivan. “Praise God they came!”
What keeps them returning? O’Sullivan, Gladitsch, Swift and their team are making disciples the old-fashioned way—small groups of ordinary people, walking together, with Jesus.