Relationships are the key to life for any young person in today’s society. Relationships play such a major role in today’s youth culture that businesses and media have found a way to market to the need through social media and the web. This is why it is all the more important for us, as youth leaders, to infiltrate their lives by meeting them where their heart is – in relationships. We are not necessarily talking about the “lovey-dovey” relationships that we assume they are focused on. We are talking about relationships of relevance and interest. If we are going to impact the lives of students (focusing on middle school, high school, and college) with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to leave our comfort zones of the church and take steps into their world as genuinely loving and caring individuals who are not only concerned with them becoming just another statistic of a “salvation” in our record books, but as an individual who is important and needed in your life and ministry.
In order to understand why this is an important aspect of any student ministry, one must realize that it was also important to Jesus himself. The New Testament, as a whole, puts most of its major emphasis on relationships all while presenting the gospel. If one were to analyze the life and ministry of Jesus, they would see that Jesus spent more time fellowshipping with his disciples than he did “preaching”. There are so many times where Jesus ate with the disciples and just “shot the breeze” and was still able to convey to them the importance of why He was there in the first place. The Gospel was presented in a way that catered to their interests through parables and an evident difference in lifestyle. We can never downplay the effectiveness of the unadulterated Gospel but we must also find a way to make that plain to students and unfortunately, that is not powerfully communicated only through our “preaching.” We, as youth leaders, must take our cues from the ultimate teacher:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:3–5 NIV).
What does this mean? I feel this means we, as leaders, sometimes put way too much emphasis on the numbers of our youth group or how many young people we can get to come to the altar when in reality the true life changes that stick are the ones that take place away from the average church service. Some might call this blasphemy while I have seen it as truth. The most meaningful moments our students will have with us will be when we get out of our own ambitions and form true relationships that transcend titles or positions in ministry. This is how Christ was successful in changing the world as we know it with only 12 men supporting Him.
This should give smaller youth ministries a newfound hope. You have the opportunity to actually invest time and effort into forming faith-based relationships which young people will actually want to be a part of without having to stretch yourself amongst the masses. The youth culture of today really just wants to be heard. I spend most of my time throughout the week listening to what our students are going through – whether it is relationship issues, sports, school, family, etc. Surprisingly enough, I don’t even have to fix their problems. I just need to be someone who will have a genuine concern for what they’re going through and be willing to go through it with them as they navigate. Contrary to popular belief, your youth do not need you to give them a Scripture verse every time they see you in order for them to see that you are a man or woman of faith. It is through exposing them to your life that they will see this “Jesus guy” you are following.
Here are some practical things you could do to form relationships that foster faith and build trust between you and your youth group:
Attend Their Extracurricular Activities
So maybe this is something you have heard over and over throughout your time as a youth leader and reading books but there is a reason for that – it works! I have been to countless plays, recitals, and sporting events that I may not have even had a “keen” interest in, but in the end, when that young person saw that I actually took time out of my busy schedule to come and support something they loved, they saw the love that Jesus displays for us daily.
Adopt Them into Your Family
Some of you have already started cringing. Honestly, you should only do this if you are willing to continue to pour into an individual’s life because once they are in, there is no kicking them out. Allow the young people to feel like they are as much a part of your family as your own children. Allow them to see you interact with your wife or loved ones. Allow them to eat with you and partake in your study time every once in a while. Let them experience when you encounter a struggle and deal with it in a holy manner. This exposure will show them your humanity (which is necessary to reach this group) but it will also show them how you handle situations when they come up (which is what they need to mature spiritually).
Allow Them to Be Young and Free
This may be the greatest challenge to many of us. But the truth is this—more young people are leaving the church every day because they feel the church is “stifling” their youth and trying to make them someone they are not. It is so easy for us to want to make little clones of ourselves. This is not conducive to youth ministry. Let them be free, let them make mistakes, and let them flourish. This is what makes them who they will be. We just need to be there to give direction and as a catcher if necessary.
We have overcomplicated things when it comes to youth ministry. The Gospel is essential, Bible study is paramount, and holiness is the key. But relevance and relationship are what develop our young people. Without this, we are going nowhere and taking them with us. Let’s take a moment and refresh the relationships we are forming with our youth and make it count. Faith is built through experiences—and most experiences are made with others. Relationship with one another and with God is necessary. It worked for Jesus.