I believe that relationship is at the heart of everything we do as a church. Nowhere is this more apparent than in youth ministry. If we are to be effective at leading students in spiritual transformation, taking them deeper in their relationship with Christ, we have to do so in the context of real relationship.

We have to think about discipleship in terms of relational ministry.

Now, many of you are responding to this right now with a laugh. "No kidding, Andy." You're probably thinking the phrase "relational ministry" itself is redundant. Isn't all ministry relational? Yet, if we're honest with ourselves and take a good, long look at our ministries, I think we might find that it's not only very easy to "do ministry" that is not relational, but "non-relational" ministry is also very commonly being done in our ministries. Think about these questions:

  • Are your students truly forming meaningful and spiritual relationships with the adults in your church?
  • Do you have adult volunteers who teach students Bible study each week and yet have not invested themselves relationally in students' lives? (I bet you do.)
  • If you're a youth minister, think about this: If you suddenly disappeared, would the youth ministry at your church continue? If you answer no, is part of the reason because there are not enough adults invested in the lives of your teenagers?

I think if we're honest, many of us would agree that we could do so much more to promote and encourage relational ministry to happen in our youth ministries. As we think about implementation, here are a 5 distinctives of relational ministry. I wonder what you would add to this list?

1. You Must Be Intentional

Relational ministry doesn't just happen. I bet there are plenty of adult volunteers in your youth group who know the names of a lot of your students, yet aren't relationally ministering to any (or many) of them. True relationship takes intentionality. You have to have a plan in place, whether that plan is simply to start meeting at Starbucks with a handful of students, or whether it is a program-driven small group strategy.

2. You Must Be In For The Long-haul

There are some adults who seem to think that because students have shown up, and because the adult has volunteered to lead, then relationship is going to happen. This simply isn't true. If you want the opportunity to be able to speak into the lives of teenagers, you must be willing to put in the time to grow real, authentic relationships with them.

3. You Must Be Open To The Downside Of Relationship

For many, the idea of investing in the lives of teenagers has this sort of romantic, or noble feel to it. I've seen people so fired up about taking on a small group, only to be completely bummed out a few months later. Why? Because their expectations were completely off. Many adults forget that teenagers can be unreliable, manipulative, and downright mean. (Then again, so can many adults!) Teenagers are flaky at times, because, well, because they are teenagers! And often, they are at the whim of their parents who may or may not be very reliable themselves. (Teenagers are also incredibly amazing! Felt like I needed to say that after being all Debby Downer for a second.) When we open ourselves up to doing ministry in a relational context, we open ourselves up to getting hurt and disappointed. And you know what? This is true of all relationships, not just the ones we have with teenagers.

4. You Must Also Be Open To The Upside Of Relationship

"Huh? Open to the upside of relationship? What do you mean?" I've noticed over the years that many adults will engage in a teenager's life with no real thought that the advantages of relationship would ever be mutual. In other words, the adult has this idea that he or she will impart all of their awesomeness to a student, shaping and touching the student's life, while never considering that a teenager might have the same impact on their lives. If we're going to ask students to allow us to impact their lives, we have to open up our lives to being impacted by our students. If we want our students to see us as their friends, we need to be open to a friendship that reciprocates. We need to be able to look at a 13, or 16, or 18 year old and call them a friend. Do we need to still be adults? Of course. Being a friend with a 13 year old doesn't mean acting like one. We simply need to be open to being moved or challenged or even convicted by our students in the same way we expect them to be open to this from us.

5. You Must Share Common Spiritual Experiences Outside of Church

"Secular" experiences are vital to relationship, such as hanging out at a sporting event, going to the movies, eating out, etc. But the shared "spiritual" experiences that happen outside the church are vital to relational ministry. To do relational ministry at its most effective, you need to serve together and minister together. You need to get out in your community and be the hands and feet of Christ.

I think relational ministry really should be the hallmark of how we "do ministry." The questions for us, I think, are:

  1. Is our youth ministry really facilitating relational ministry?
  2. What changes do we need to make from a programming perspective to move toward a more relational model?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.