ROGERS — Gabrielle Raphael stood outside on the porch in the chilly night air and rang the doorbell. Within seconds, the door opened and she was welcomed into the warmth and greeted with the mouthwatering aroma of lasagna and garlic bread fresh out of the oven.
This is not youth group. This is Life group, a youth group that is reimagined and poised to meet the challenges of finding faith and friends in an ever-changing, fast-paced culture.
Raphael entered the kitchen to join other ninth-grade girls in the home of the Necessary family who are committing to be like family for these girls as they progress through high school. An ambitious venture and commitment, but one St. Vincent de Paul is banking on for future dividends.
About 80 St. Vincent de Paul parish teens, ranging from 14 to 19 years old, gathered in homes around the city Sunday, Nov. 22 to debut the first meeting of Life groups. This idea, one that evolved from two small groups piloted last year, goes hand-in-hand with the parish Life Teen program. Its purpose is to build deeper, more meaningful relationships between small group leaders and participants. It works in conjunction with the Life Night teachings but gives teens a chance to get deeper and form closer relationships.
“This is like Life Teen 2.0,” said Michael Dienes, 24, new youth minister at the Rogers parish.
Dienes, who came to St. Vincent de Paul from a parish in Zionsville, Ind., recognized the genius of launching such a project and was on board from day one. He said he can see the long-term results that Life groups can offer.
“Teens need small community,” Dienes said, “and we needed a way to reach more teens. The small group culture provides somewhere and someone they can trust.”
The premise is simple, Dienes explained.
Meet and eat regularly in a host home with the same group of high school students from freshman to senior year and work at forming intentional relationships that could last beyond high school and into college.
“Jesus invested a lot of time in 12 people, and these 12 people grew the Church,” Dienes told the teens at Life Night. “When we talk about growing the Church, we talk about growing you.”
Kevin and Denise Necessary opened their home Sunday night to eight girls and four leaders because they have a ninth-grade daughter who they want to stay involved with other girls seeking to grow in their faith life.
“This gives teens a more homey atmosphere to talk and share,” said Kevin, a lifelong parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Church.
Across town, another home opened their doors to host junior and senior boys. Tom and Marianne Zondlak, parents of three teenage boys, are willing to give up some Sunday evenings so these young men can bond, pray and build fellowship.
“Reaching out, encouraging and helping young people grow in their Catholic faith is part of the responsibility we feel as parents and parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul,” Marianne said. “The opportunity to offer our house as a host home gives life to the Gospel’s invitation of hospitality and welcoming.”
The couple also believes hosting a group in their home opens up possibilities for leaders to have “more unplanned, unexpected moments in which to be disciples, mentors and friends to the boys.”
“Our primary goal is to build relationships with our youth,” Judene Kuszak, the parish’s director of religious education, said. “We want to have more relational ministry and our challenge was to find a way to do that with over 200 youth in our Life Teen program.”
This is the hope shared by the adult leaders as well.
“I think a home is less intimidating,” said Monica Seiler, a two-year veteran Life Teen leader who teaches first grade at St. Vincent de Paul School. “I like that the groups are comprised of girls from several area schools, not just one, and that I can stay connected to the younger generation.”
For Gabrielle Raphael, a ninth-grader at Rogers High School, the first night could be chalked up as a success.
“I feel like it helped bring some of the girls together and it helped make us more comfortable around each other,” she said.
Kuszak realizes every new idea takes a few years to seed, but it looks promising following the first night.
“All of us are the Church and all are called to be the Church to those around us,” Kuszak said. “Life groups, because of their intimacy, will help us be more successful in doing that and in the long term may be fertile ground for the promotion of more vocations.”
“With a house full of praying boys, leaders and hosts, who knows what blessings can unfold,” said Marianne Zondlak. “God’s grace and plan for the growth of us all has just begun.”
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