Friday night I had the greatest pleasure of attending a meeting of a pre-teen youth group at Holy Cross Parish in Georgetown, Ontario. After the almost two-hour drive (I didn't think Georgetown was that far!) I can't think of a better way to end the week.
Let me tell you a bit about this group of wonderful kids: Their group is called "J.U.S.T. Fridays", which stands for Jesus Uniting Students Together Fridays. They meet for an hour and a half, every two weeks and do all the usual stuff youth groups do. Our get together Friday night dealt with the topic of Saints and we sang songs and shared. The week before, they baked heart-shaped rice-crispy squares (except they were not squares, they were heart-shaped - get it?), for their Valentine's Day Parish event.
It reminded me of another group I had the pleasure to meet earlier in the school year: The Saints and Rosary Club from St. Edmund's Catholic School in Mississauga, Ontario. These kids get together during recess every Friday and pray the Rosary. How cool is that! On this particular occasion, they came on a field trip to S+L and we had a super time, including, of course praying the Rosary. (Which reminds me to tell you that we are always happy to have youth groups or school groups come and hang out with us.) These kids are between grades one and six (if I remember correctly).
And J.U.S.T. Fridays kids are between grades five and eight (although I saw some younger kids there). And this is what my point is: Don't wait until your kids are in their teens to get them in a youth group. You have to start earlier.
I was 12 when I had my first powerful spiritual experience. We had a new priest in our Parish, who wanted to start youth ministry, and so he invited all youth to a weekend retreat (another great suggestion if you're looking for one, don't be afraid, if you need help let me know). So of course, my mother packed us three kids and sent us along. I think I was the second youngest of the group. Suffice it to say that the retreat was of a charismatic nature and I was witness to tongues, slaying in the spirit and prophecies (none of which I found weird or scary) and many other really cool activities, as well as adoration. Can I say that I was hooked? (Another point, don't waste time doing YMCA-type activities. If the kids want to play street hockey or volleyball, or go skating, they can join the Y. They join a Church youth group to get what the Church has to offer - that doesn't mean that recreational activities are bad. Just don't make that the focus. Kids are coming to you because they want meaning and spirituality. Don't be afraid to give them that. And I don't mean it has to be Charismatic, but it has to be Catholic.) Out of that weekend, we ended up with a youth group and a youth choir. By the time I was older and rebellious, it was too late, I was in and won over.
As an adult, I was a volunteer with the Children's International Summer Villages (www.CISV.ca), a secular organization that seeks to promote peace and international understanding by bringing children and youth from different countries together. The village is for 11 yr. olds. Why? Because that's the age to start them if you want to break down prejudices and build bridges. At that age kids still are impressionable but have not yet formed any biases or prejudices. It's amazing how it works (plus the younger kids are less likely to refuse to go).
So, my suggestion to all you youth ministers struggling with your teen-age youth group: Invite younger kids. I say as young as nine. And mix them all together. The older kids can help with the younger ones. Everyone can have a "buddy" that is older (or younger). This creates a familial environment (in what family are all kids the same age?) and gives the kids great skills for going into the real world where you deal with people of different ages (besides kids are less likely to get into mischief if they are mixed because the older kids want to be examples and the younger kids want to impress the older kids, especially if you have the buddy system). Of course, from time to time you have to have age-appropriate activities, but who is going to run the activities for the younger kids? The older kids. Trust me, it works.
So, all this to say: go for the younger kids. I said it last Friday to the group (and to Holy Cross' pastor Fr. Dave), "if every Parish had a group like this, they would all have awesome youth groups" AND I went as far as saying (and I truly believe this), "there wouldn't be any wars."
Send me your comments. Love to hear from you.