Youth ministry doesn’t just happen. Love of teens, creativity, versatility, and an abundance of energy are all required elements, but one criterion is essential early when beginning a youth ministry—namely, developing relationships quickly.
Developing relationships early happens when youth ministers:
- Set Aside the First Six Months to Visit Youth Homes—Explain to your youth and church leaders that it is of upmost importance that getting to know your teens happen soon in your ministry. One way is to get into the homes.
The most comfortable environment for most kids is in a home—though that may not be true in their own home. Find out from other youth leaders about the family climate of each teen. If you find out that family issues are affecting their lives or they are embarrassed by their living conditions, avoid meeting in their home. Meet in a public restaurant or in another group member’s home.
Jasmine’s home reeked of a foul smell and her mother was a hoarder. She never allowed anyone in her house. Embarrassment ruled. My visit with Jasmine happened in her best friend’s home. Our visit was pleasant and she acknowledged her living environment. Over time her mother received help. Her house became a home again. My non-judgmental initial visit opened up many more times to go one-on-one with Jasmine. She became a mover and shaker in my youth group.
- Send Out Birthday and Recognition Cards Consistently to All Youth—This is an easy and inexpensive way to show you care.
Jack walked slowly—quietness described his movement. His presence grew barely noticeable. In fact, he was one you risked leaving at a campsite or truck stop because few observed his being there or absent. Yet, when I sent him a birthday card, he let it be known loud and clear how much that card meant to him. In fact, he loved the picture on the card so much, he asked his mother to do a painting of it. Once finished, the picture was framed and the card taped to the back. His mother said, “Jack had never received a birthday from anyone outside of the family until he got yours. Thanks so much.”
All of us like to be recognized—especially teens. In addition to birthday cards, send cards to recognize their accomplishments. Get on the mailing list for the school newspaper. Subscribe to the local newspaper and constantly browse any student news. Cut out the article, laminate it, and send it to the student expressing your congratulations on their achievement.
Mark Twain said, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” May we encourage their pursuits by recognizing their accomplishments.
- Start No New Programming the First Six Months—Let other youth workers lead old programming while you concentrate on developing relationships.
Communicate this fact to key church leadership. They must understand that developing relationships take time. Students must like you before they will follow. Talk to students. Ask questions about their wants, likes, and dislikes, and their dreams. Tell them you would like to help them fulfill their God-given destiny and then set out to prove it.
While other leaders lead youth programming, mingle. Listen for what students are talking about. Ask for clarification on what you don’t know. Ask, “What programming would you like to see changed? Why?” Use their answers for any new programming you may decide to attempt after these six months.
Look for opportunities to build trust. If a student or a youth leader has an un-timely death, be the first at the funeral home when students arrive. If a youth parent or sibling is having surgery, make your presence known. Stay with them throughout the surgery. If events in your life are emotional, share them from your heart. An emotional connection can turn a distrustful youth group into a “you can do no wrong” reality.
I spoke to a youth group soon after my arrival. Someone asked me about my son. In the process of talking about him, tears welled up. The more I talked the more emotional I became. Soon, the entire group was emotional. I connected. From then on, I had their following. Trust between us was felt and acted upon.
- Stay After All Youth Activities to Make Yourself Available to Those Who May Want to Talk—Tell the youth you are available after youth activities if they want to talk—or any other times, morning, noon, or night.
Good youth leaders make themselves accessible. Students spell love TIME. Always provide at least a 20-minute period after the lights are out just to hang around and see if any teen wants to talk. If you’re male, secure a male worker to linger as well. Never be left alone with a teenage girl after hours. Same goes for a female youth leader regarding boys.
You may even want to invite any youth group members who want to come to go to your home following regular youth activities. Use it to listen. Offer encouragement, guidance, and advice when requested.
- Spend as Much Time as Possible Having Fun With Your Youth the First Six Months—Times will come for serious study and dialogue on issues youth face but they won’t listen unless they have a relationship with you. Having fun helps that happen.
This is the time to pull out the “sugar sticks”—games that are a hit wherever they’re played. I have found three games by different names but they always are a lot of fun:
1. Murder—Pass out a deck of cards and designate the queen of hearts as the murder card. Whoever has this card is the murderer. Without showing their card, they wink at everyone in the group. The person says they’re dead if they see the wink. If someone else sees the wink, they say, “I know who the murderer is. Someone back me up.” Once someone agrees to back them up, they call out the murderer. If they are wrong, both the person guessing and the one who backed them up are dead. The game goes until all are killed or until the murderer is caught.
2. Wink—Girls sit in chairs in a circle with a boy behind them. One chair is left open without a girl. The boy behind the open chair must wink at one of the other girls. If they see the wink, they run to the open chair before they can be tagged. If touched before they leave their chair, they must return. Game continues for as long as interest remains.
3. Power—Tell three or four group members how to play beforehand without letting other members know. A leader sits in front of the group and says, “Power, Power, Power; he who has the power, or thinks he has the power, let him get up and leave the room.” (Use different hand signs, motions, etc. while you say this—which has nothing to do with knowing who has the power.) One of the group members you told will get up and leave the room. After they leave, tell the group who had the power. Once the member who left returns, ask them who had the power? They will tell you the right person every time. The solution: The first person who speaks after the leader finishes the power saying has the power. Note: If it is difficult to tell who spoke first, simply say, “The power was weak that time and it was difficult to determine who had the power but I believe (name of person) had it.”
- Schedule Fellowships in Your Home—Teens will come more quickly to a home than a church building. Laughter, fun games, and home openness further your ability to connect with teens.
Fellowships in your home tell group members you want them into your life. These informal settings allows for an uninhibited freedom from acting or being a certain way. The more comfortable they can feel in your home the more at ease they will be in church settings with you.
When planning such fellowships, try to include munchies (finger foods), mixer game(s), and message (short devotional by you or youth leader). Use these early fellowships to connect on a personal level and to remove any obstacles from you developing relationships.
Your fellowship does not have to entertain. Veteran youth minister, Dr. Barry St. Clair says, “If a student comes on the basis of an entertaining program, then the first time he doesn’t like it he won’t come back. But if he comes on the basis of a relationship, he will keep coming back because of that relationship.” This return visit happens whether it is a relationship with Christ or a relationship with you or a group member.
Youth ministry is 99.9% relationships. Three words sum up successful youth ministers: relationships, relationships, and relationships. Have you heard me yet? It’s all about developing relationships. Until they happen, nothing else matters. Develop them early and reap years of accomplishing great things for God.