We asked almost 300 youth a question:
"What do you want from Youth Group?"
- NCYC 2022 -
If you were with the over one thousand youth at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC) in Long Beach, CA, you might have noticed a small booth in the back with a huge backdrop of white paper. On top of this nondescript wall were posted 7 simple words; “What do you want from Youth Group?”
By the end of the weekend, 295 youth had grabbed a sticky note and placed their answers on the wall. As you can expect, some were silly (shoutout to the guy who wrote “money and to know where they hide the candy”) but the majority were sincere.
What follows is a breakdown of the answers into their 7 common categories, and an explanation of what we learned about these answers from the conversations with those who placed them.
Most of these had to do with wanting MORE food…..that’s it, not much to say here.
#7 - Food - 5 notes
These notes primarily had to do with having more “good” music or praise and worship. While this can likely be written off as teens hearing a solid live worship band for the first time, it is an area that could see improvement within a ministry.
#6 - Music - 7 notes
Almost half said that they wanted more trips, conferences, and/or retreats. The reasoning behind their answers was that it brought community. One teen told us that she lives 45 minutes from a church with a youth group and that she’s the only Catholic in her High School. She shared with us that when she mentions God or prays before meals, she’ll get comments asking why she’s doing that. But when she goes to a conference, it’s a reminder that she isn’t the only teenager in love with God and his Church, and a time to grow closer to God and stronger in her faith.
While this answer may seem like an outlier, others who said they wanted more retreats said it’s helpful because it gives them a place to focus on their faith. It’s incredible that only a few years ago, a prevailing message on retreats was an explanation of how important it was to take time away from the mundane to rest and learn, and now the youth take that as a matter of fact rather than dismissively.
Finally, three notes mentioned volunteering. The overarching theme here is that youth don’t want to listen about the faith, they want to be active participants in learning about and being the faith.
You may be thinking that this category has to do with games and icebreakers, which makes sense as that is what we categorize as activities. However, only 2 notes mentioned games (with one being very specific - football). In contrast, 4 mentioned activities being used within the lessons themselves to help with breaking down the information and preventing youth group from feeling like class. When we spoke with these teens, a few remarked that the activities needed to “not make us feel like dumb kids.” They wanted a direct connection with the topics without feeling watered down or heavy-handed.
#4 - Activities
Though it may seem too vague or obvious to be its own category, the answers go deeper than what the teens put on paper. The main element of what teens who wrote these notes are looking for is a closer connection to God. While words like strengthen, deepen, and understand were written, eight notes used the words “grow closer” in reference to their relationship with God.
An additional 5 specifically mentioned learning more about God through prayer and conversations. Conversations with these teens revealed that they were looking for concrete examples and methods to grow closer, whether it be through prayer, bible studies, or just talking about God with others.
There was another common thread about learning about the faith as it was relevant to them, but we’ll go into detail more on that in a later section
#5 - Closer to God
After the intensity of the last category, this will feel incredibly simple. There weren’t many delineations, with over 20 simply saying they wanted youth group to be a safe space where they could open up and grow.
When asking why they wrote that, there wasn’t much room for conversation; to the youth who wrote these answers, it was straightforward.
Others simply wrote a single word, such as love, joy, trust, or fun. One of the few conversations we got out of this category lead to the point that youth group feels stuffy, and that talking about God shouldn’t have the same feeling as if you’re in trouble.
#2 - Atmosphere
They want to walk in the doors of the youth room, or Parish Hall, or church, and feel like they’re in a place where they can bring themselves and their beliefs without being judged. A place where opposing viewpoints are welcomed and doubts about the faith received and answered rather than questioned. They want to connect with their peers in a way they can’t elsewhere, a place where saying they are Catholic isn’t judged. They want to not only draw closer to Christ through prayer and conversation but to live the faith through volunteering and retreats.
Yes, these are only the answers of those who would answer our question. There were many who were far more interested in getting their free box of girl scout cookies (and can you really blame them?). But these are the answers of those who were wanting something different enough to voice their opinion. The question of how to minister to youth has seemed to evade us, and I’ve heard so many Youth Ministers lament “We’d do what they want, but they don't tell us.”
This is them telling us.
It’s our decision how we respond.
So now the question is turned back on us:
So……What do they want from Youth Group?
What will you give from Youth Group?
You knew this was coming. With almost a hundred answers, here’s a breakdown of the more common themes:
55 notes about having a community
13 mentions of growing in the faith with others
10 notes just about meeting new people
11 notes on wanting a larger youth group
5 mentions of having a support group
We touched on this in the category about activities but it bears repeating - having a community is a massive help when you’re growing in the faith. We all know it. So I asked teens who answered this way what was getting in the way of making it a community. The answers ranged from not having a big enough youth group, to it being boring, to having few friends who were Catholic.
But each conversation had that desire for youth group to be a place where they could connect and grow with others.
#1 - Community
Many notes called for diversity and inclusion or bringing in different points of view. The perceived need for this was to see how someone from any background can be Catholic, as well as addressing and hearing from a diverse array of thoughts. As one teen said (while wearing a glittery cowboy hat), “If the church believes everything they say is true, then they shouldn’t be worried about someone challenging what they believe.”
Other topics that were mentioned were Bible studies, different types of prayer, testimonies and guest speakers, and topics on red button issues.
As to that last topic, we received 3 notes that said “Pro-Choice.” We asked the young women why this was such an issue, and the response was universally “because I shouldn’t be told what to do,” often accompanied by frustrated looks at the Students for Life booth across the aisle. The issue that these young women had was not about abortion, and they didn’t care how many responses were given to them about why abortion was wrong. Their issue came from feeling like others were forcing them to believe something that they disagreed with, which presents us with a warning.
Despite youth asking for conversations about topics that relate to them, we need to make sure that we are not forcing the faith, but rather presenting it for the truth and beauty that is found within it. Additionally, we need to be discussing topics that are relevant to our particular group. If they’re asking to learn more about God’s role in our lives, then we should focus on that topic, coming at it with the wealth of knowledge that is scripture and tradition. The danger that can often arrive is attempting to make it palatable by watering down or sugarcoating the truth.
As one note put it - “To be taken seriously, we aint kids no more, we need serious topics.” Threading the fine line between having deep conversations about serious topics without feeling like a class is a hard battle; but when successful, it will make teens and their opinions feel welcomed if not fully agreed upon. A large factor in that fight comes from...
This category has to do with specific elements that youth want out of youth group. starting with topics, 5 notes called for talks about mental health. One young man told us about how his friend’s parents had just gone through a divorce, and the struggle that that was taking on both his friend, and on him as he tried to be a good friend. He told us “I wish people told me how I could use the faith to deal with this.” While there shouldn’t be a commingling in the professions of Youth Ministry and Counseling, it makes sense to have conversations about loss, anxiety, fear, depression, and self-doubt. Even if a teen understands that God is there in his suffering, concrete methods of connecting with God in hard times and discussions around struggles can be a massive place of relief for anyone.