Youth Ministry as Apprenticeship

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Mentoring the skills and dispositions for a vital Christian faith


In youth ministry in the United States, emphasis is often placed on large-scale events that provide a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. Itinerant evangelists speak to the gathered youth. Eucharistic adoration, often accompanied by praise and worship music, presents a sacramental environment in which the Word made flesh comes to dwell intimately with the gathering of young people. Retreats allow young people to escape the anxiety of calculating time, entering a world of contemplative silence where they can bask in the grace of divine love that gives ultimate meaning to a human life. Such events are catalysts, inviting the adolescent disciple to enter more deeply into Christian life. Discipleship is also a matter of apprenticeship in basic skills and dispositions that constitute an active, vital Christian faith.

Yet the prevalence of such events in much youth ministry comes with a concomitant risk. Young people begin to assess the vitality of their own faith related to the energy produced by such events. If seen only through an event-driven lens, those transitioning to young adulthood may worry about the vigor of their faith, since mundane discipleship tends to lack the exhilarating thrill of a Steubenville conference or a LifeTeen summer camp. If they believe that faith rises and falls with attendance at such events, when these young people begin to assume adult responsibilities, they risk moving from a vital faith in the power of Jesus Christ to doubting the existence of God.

This pastoral problem does not require us to end all large-scale events. Rather, it necessitates that we think anew about the role of youth ministry — not only as a catalyst for evangelization — but as an apprenticeship into discipleship. Youth ministry should have as its end the promotion of an adult faith, one marked by study, liturgical practice, an imitation of Christ, prayer, dialogue, and evangelization.

Discipleship as apprenticeship

Within an American context, we have forgotten the value of apprenticeship. American educational systems are designed around an individual approach to learning within the context of a classroom. In such settings, the individual reads texts, then prove that they understand the material by presenting it back to the instructor. Learning is separated from life.

While formal education has undervalued apprenticeship, our earliest occasions of learning within the home can be understood as acts of apprenticing. Think of the young child who is learning to cook. The parent does not hand the young person Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead, the parent involves the child in the act of cooking. The child learns to cook through cutting vegetables, using a strainer and other tools, and sautéing vegetables — all under the competent eye of a watchful master within the culture of the home.

Discipleship is also a matter of apprenticeship in basic skills and dispositions that constitute an active, vital Christian faith. As the theologian and Christian educator Craig Dykstra argues, we learn to be and act as Christians through apprenticeship into specific practices. We discover what it means to be a Christian as we engage in those things that Christians do.

For this reason, even the biggest of all events cannot form young people in a vital, Christian faith. A week-long retreat is insufficient to teach young people how to contemplate Christ in the Scriptures in the midst of a busy schedule. A weekend away from school won’t suffice to teach adolescents what it means to fruitfully pray at Mass. Youth ministry needs to attend more to apprenticeship in the Christian life, forming young people to do the kinds of things that Christians do.

Apprenticeship and youth ministry

What are the essential “practices” that youth ministry can offer an apprenticeship into? Let’s examine a few possibilities.

First, young people need to develop knowledge of Christian faith. In this sense, youth ministry must instill a disposition of study. Within the context of the contemporary school, study is often viewed as a means to an end. We study so that we might succeed on tests, and then get into the right school in order to land the perfect job. This understanding of study is contradictory to the wisdom that Christians seek.

In the context of discipleship, study is related to the act of contemplation, pursuing the deeper meaning behind the youth minister ought to invite the young disciple into an encounter with the Creed. Such an encounter is not exclusively about memorization. Instead, it allows the young person to see in Christian teaching a wisdom that gives new meaning to what it means to be a human being.

Take, for example, the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father. The Father and the Son are really both God, and therefore when Jesus Christ calls out to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, it is the whole God-man who cries out. The Son has taken on the fullness of the human condition, knowing what it means to long for the voice of the Father. Thus we human beings can enter into this relationship with the Father in the midst of our own suffering. Studying doctrine within the youth group underlines the mercy of the God who became human for us.

Youth ministry also can promote full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgical-sacramental life of the Church. Here, practice matters. Youth ministry opportunities can
introduce young people to the entire liturgical tradition, with a particular emphasis on the Liturgy of the Hours. Young people will discover a practice that sanctifies each moment of the day, a school of prayer that attunes the human voice to the speech of the Psalms. Such speech is brutally honest before God, keenly aware that our experience of God may be flooded with the delight of divine presence or the sorrow of absence. In the fluctuating affections of adolescence, the Psalms provide a healing language for prayer.

Likewise, youth ministry has a responsibility to avoid promoting liturgical celebration that manipulates the affections. Liturgical prayer does not typically result in immediate wisdom. It requires a disposition of patient expectation, showing up week after week. Only after years of engaging in such worship will we often discover the subtle ways that God has been writing the mystery of divine love on our hearts.

Studying and praying should also change how we as Christians live in the world. Young people need to be formed in the art of Christian living, one in which we learn the art of self-giving love in our engagement with the world. Here the youth minister must be careful. In the United States, religion tends to immediately be reduced to morality. But in Catholicism, receiving always proceeds doing. In this sense, young people need to discover a moral life grounded in the virtues of Jesus Christ.

The Gospels provide a vision of how human beings might live. We are called to take up our cross, to follow Christ, to become like a little child who relies entirely on God. The supreme moral virtue of the Christian is openness to love, a radical receptivity that does not seek to grasp or seize power. But, in imitation of Christ, we are called to love unto the end. Such imitation is not reducible to asking the question “What Would Jesus Do?” Rather, it is taking up the corporal works of mercy — feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, and bury the dead.

Each of these corporal works of mercy offers a formation into the virtues necessary for Christian life. For example, few of us have an opportunity to literally bury the dead. But we do have occasions to spend time with those who are dying, go to their funeral, and visit the cemetery and pray for those who have died. Here we receive an apprenticeship into the virtue of communion at the heart of Christian life: My life is not my own alone but must be dedicated to others.

In addition to liturgical prayer, youth ministers have a responsibility to form young people in verbal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Young people always ask me, “How do I pray?” They want to pray, but no one has ever taught them the Angelus or how to engage in Ignatian contemplation (lectio divina). Youth ministry should be a place where young persons encounter the full repertoire of prayer possible in the Church. They discover the richness of an interior life expressed through verbal practice, habits of prayer that will sustain them well into adulthood.

The youth minister, of course, also must help form the young person in dispositions related to dialogue and evangelization. In our age, every Catholic will flourish only if they are engaged in dialogue. The pure centers of Catholic culture have disappeared, and each Catholic must be able to enter into conversation with those who may not hold the same worldview. Dialogue is not reducible to a benign tolerance. Dialogue is the desire to establish real friendship with other men and women, to enter into the fullness of love that is the very mission of Church. As Chiara Lubich, the founder of Focolare, writes about dialogue: “It is a matter of momentarily putting aside even the most beautiful and greatest things we have … in order to be ‘nothing’ in front of the other person, a ‘nothingness’ of love.” Dialogue, in this sense, is evangelizing because it creates spaces of love in a world that is often polarized, prone to creating enemies rather than friends.

The disposition needed for dialogue — including conversation and a real commitment to the good of the other person — is precisely what is also needed for evangelization. Teaching the practice of evangelization is not reducible to forming young people in the art of apologetics alone. Instead, apprenticeship into evangelization requires that young people discover how to be authentic Christians living in the world, sharing their faith no matter where they are.

Toward the deeper formation of youth ministers

If youth ministry is about apprenticeship rather than creating big events, then our pastoral strategies need to change. Instead of spending all our efforts and time on creating big events, we need to double down on the formation of youth ministers. Youth ministers who are apprenticing young people will also need an apprenticeship in theology, pedagogy, and pastoral ministry.

Youth ministry as apprenticeship does not have as its goal enormous numbers of young people. Instead, it requires one-on-one attention to the questions and challenges presented by young people. It measures success through the number of young people who learn dispositions of study, liturgical participation, Christ-centered virtues, prayer, and dialogue and evangelization.

The inculcation of these dispositions will enable young people to move into adulthood, not with a fragile faith but one by which they can apprentice their spouse, their children, and their friends in the art of self-giving love.


Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy at the McGrath Institute for Church Life. He is the author of Bored Again Catholic: How the Mass Could Save Your Life (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017).


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