When we began to pray for a WyldLife ministry at St. Paul the Apostle, we had no idea that soon we’d be hosting monthly clubs with more than 60 kids. We had no idea we’d have 10 volunteer leaders, or be doing contact work in the parish school, and offering Campaigners and summer camp trips! Now in its fourth year, this WyldLife ministry has expanded into a Young Life club at the local public high school.
I can’t imagine what it would have meant for me to have WyldLife as a Catholic kid. Middle school years were the hardest for me. I was totally lost in the crowd and even bullied. While I didn’t have a WyldLife leader taking me directly to the feet of Jesus, I did have some Catholic school teachers who saw my pain and carried me through a very hard time. Looking back, I wonder how much my faith story would have changed if a WyldLife leader would have been there.
I grew up in a strong Catholic home and attended Catholic school my entire life. This gave me a great foundation of faith. However, it wasn’t until I encountered people in Young Life that I really had an incarnational experience of the gospel that propelled me into a deeper and more personal relationship with Jesus. When I think about us raising kids of our own in the Catholic Church, I so desperately want them to have that experience and not have to wait until they’re in their 20s.
When you think about launching a Young Life ministry in a Catholic setting, it may seem natural to start at a Catholic high school, but I would encourage you to consider starting with WyldLife. As someone who works at a Catholic parish and who volunteers as a WyldLife team leader, I can say with confidence: Catholic kids need WyldLife, and if WyldLife is proposed and introduced in the right way, there’s hope that the Catholic schools and parishes in your area will embrace it.
Tips for launching WyldLife in a Catholic setting
1. See what’s being offered.
Find out what your local Catholic parish or school is providing for middle schoolers before you assume it’s nothing. If you find a gap, this is a good place to propose something new. Middle schoolers need something (and someone) who will care enough about them to enter their world and share Christ in ways they can understand, bridging the gap between the religion curriculum they hear in class and the experiential journey of following Christ in daily life.
2. Find a few advocates and form a prayer team.
We took a few Catholic friends to an adult guest week experience at Timberwolf Lake, and it didn’t take long for them to be excited about reaching kids the way they’d seen at camp. The day we came home from camp, we formed a prayer team. It was three mothers who were convicted about the need for this type of ministry. We were small, but we met faithfully every week. I believe those prayers were the deep roots that nourished so much fruit that was to come. Start with prayer. And don’t stop praying. It is truly a non-negotiable.
3. If you are not Catholic, you’ll need an ally or two on the inside.
It comes down to trust. The best way for you to introduce Young Life or WyldLife to school and parish administrators and teachers is through someone they already know and trust. Be relational. You are a Young Life leader; you are an expert at this. Reach out, build friendships and engage Catholics in your community. Then ask them to help you introduce the ministry to school administrators and parish staff. Often the question is not “How?” but “Who?”
4. Remember Young Life isn’t taught; it’s caught.
Once you are introduced, invite a teacher, the school principal, or the parish youth minister to visit an existing WyldLife club. Better yet, invite them to camp. At camp, our adult guests caught it. They saw it lived out. They saw first-hand a leader-centered ministry. They witnessed Young Life’s singularity of focus — the mission of introducing every young person to Jesus and helping them grow in their faith. That’s a tall order to deliver through a brochure or video.
5. Emphasize how we “go where kids are.”
Young Life and WyldLife are not meant to replace Catholic faith formation but to support students in the walk they’ve already started with Jesus. “Going where kids are” really helps differentiate what we do. This was a recent revelation for us. In a teacher meeting at the parish school, one teacher asked about the WyldLife club and said, “I don’t see anything happening.” Another teacher who happens to be a WyldLife leader stepped up and said, “We are sharing the gospel. Our leaders are out there at games, musicals, coffee shops. You may not see big events at church, but what you see are leaders pouring into kids’ lives. That’s our approach.”
6. Use “ecumenical” to describe Young Life.
We are committed to being an ecumenical organization, which means we respect the different Christian religious backgrounds. There are no judgments or assumptions; we are all followers of Jesus, and we are aiming to reach kids to help them know Christ. But also, know your limits. If this all goes well, you may end up serving Catholic kids. And when theological questions come up that you aren’t equipped to answer, help kids find the answers, point them in the right direction, but always respect the tradition they are coming from.
7. Reflect the school you serve.
Young Life leadership teams seek to mirror the populations they serve, so if the school is 70% Catholic, seven of your 10 volunteer leaders should be practicing Catholics. School administrators and parents will appreciate this.
At our St. Paul WyldLife club, I would estimate that 90% of the students who come to club identify as Catholic. WyldLife clubs are meant for “every” kid. And this includes the Catholic kids from this Catholic school, the Catholic kids from the parish who go to public school, the Protestant kids from the Catholic school, the kids with no church background from the Catholic school, and all the kids from the neighborhood who get invited along the way. What has been so amazing in our area is that we now have kids from eight different middle schools in town. Kids are inviting kids to come to club from schools we haven’t even been to yet!
WyldLife and Young Life clubs are launched and operated by a Young Life area, and they tend to be school-based. But in Catholic communities where the school is usually a mission of the parish, the clubs can find their “home” in either the school or the parish. When a WyldLife club meets in a parish hall, it’s not “the youth group” but an outreach ministry dedicated to serving kids inside and outside the parish walls. But the two worlds blend together naturally and beautifully. When it’s time for our kids to go through confirmation and pick a sponsor, the first person they consider is often their WyldLife leader.
Never could I have imagined what God was stirring with this effort. There are countless kids who have been a part of our ministry and there are many more who need it. The tapestry of relationships He has formed all in the name of reaching kids for Christ is something only He could have established.