Student ministry has always been about relationships. Well…to be clear, the real ministry of student ministry has always been about relationships. It’s through relationships that students are reached with the gospel, are taught to follow Him, and the church becomes a vital part of a teenagers walk with Jesus. It’s through relationships that long-lasting faith is built. Along the way, we can get distracted by our programming, by our desire for hype, and by our need to have ministries that shine and sparkle. Without relationships, all of these things give a shiny veneer to an otherwise hollow ministry.
One of the healthy things that has come from this weird, digital ministry season is the rediscovery that people really are much more important than our programs. The return (or refocus) to relational ministry is a needed one for this moment in student ministry as teenagers in our culture are increasingly post-Christian in their thoughts.
- It is taking longer for teenagers to think through a faith decision than it once did.
- They are far less likely to just wander into a student ministry, they are far less biblically literate as a foundation
- They are placing their faith in Jesus at large events to a lesser degree than in decades past.
The reality check is that for student ministry to be relevant in the future, it has to be centered on building and nurturing relationships with people. If you’re still with me at this point, then I’d like to share five thoughts with you on how this line of thinking is implemented practically in your ministry.
1. Every aspect of ministry should be evaluated through the lens of relationship.
To become a relational ministry you need to take some time, a pen, notepad, and a quiet space and evaluate every aspect of ministry based on how relationships are being started or nurtured. For events that you have, how do those events provide opportunities for relationships? Now, you might be thinking, “Ben, you just said we get too distracted by events!” Yes, I did say that. What I didn’t say was “stop doing all the hype and events.” What I am advocating for is a reconstruction of your events, hype, and programming to reflect a vision for gospel-driven relationships. If you are going to have a relational ministry, then you need to be able to draw a straight line from everything that you do to relationships being started or nurtured.
2. Volunteer leaders should be recruited and trained differently.
This is one that I am wrestling with personally right now. As I look back on my time in the local church as a student pastor, I think I could have been more focused in this area. If I were to do it all over again, I would have spent more time training and developing on the importance of relationship and how to build them instead of on how to prepare and teach a lesson.
Before you panic, this is not to say that we need to ignore the teaching side altogether. It is, however, recognizing that discipleship and transformation happens most effectively within the context of relationships and because of that truth we should begin with a relational foundation. To me, this has huge implications all the way down to what you call volunteer leaders in your ministry. For example, calling them “teachers” or “small group leaders” defines their primary task and it doesn’t point them to relationships. Biblical teaching, and as a result our training and development of people, must become more of a dialogue and less of a monologue.
3. Relationships should go beyond students.
Relational ministries have relationships with parents and volunteer leaders in addition to relationships with students. You know this already, but is it something that you live out practically? Think back to the fall semester of ministry asking this question: how often are you connecting with adult leaders and parents compared to teenagers? What about during the pandemic, how has your relational time been spent? Partnership with parents and leaders in ministry flows through relationships, not announcements, job assignments, and information.
4. Goals should reflect a focus on relationships.
You measure what matters. If you truly want to be a relational ministry, then it will be something that you measure. With that same pen and paper from earlier, jot down some thoughts on how you can begin to measure relationships within your ministry, and not just for you but for your volunteer leaders as well.
5. The behavior of the leader reflects a relational ministry.
As the leader of the ministry, you are the primary modeler for what the ministry will become. If you desire the student ministry to be a relational one, then it has to begin with you regardless of where you are on the introvert/extrovert scale. People will be looking to you to see if you follow up your words with actions on the importance of relationships and with how many different people or groups of people you are seeking to build relationships with. For example, who are you drawn to when you walk into a room? Chances are you are drawn to the same groups of people or even the same individuals. That happens naturally for all of us. In order to lead a relational ministry, you have to fight the temptation of comfort and look to build relationships with those outside of your normal routine.
In a recent conversation with Mike Taylor, he used the phrase, “the gospel moves at the speed of relationships” and it has really stuck with me. We’ve known this to be true and have experienced it in student ministry before. Maybe you are now, and I applaud your efforts! But, if you find yourself in a place where relationships have been replaced, or lessened, or even neglected then I want to challenge you to re-engage.
It’s not too late and it is something that you can do. You, student pastor, can take the necessary steps to have a truly relational ministry. I’m here to help
This post was written by Ben Trueblood, Director of LifeWay Students. Ben is passionate about investing in student ministry leaders like you. You can find more encouragement from Ben on his YouTube Channel, Student Ministry That Matters.