You know that teenager who never misses youth group and shows up for every retreat, no matter what else is going on? I was that kid. I’d skip my basketball games and school dances to avoid missing a youth rally or even a Wednesday night meeting. Okay, I’ll admit: my dad was the pastor.
I got a lot of Jesus growing up. But perfect attendance and knowing every youth ministry song ever written weren’t agents of transformation in my life. Plenty of youth ministry moments brought me to the altar, but what brought me to Jesus was transformational relationships with youth leaders who were living Jesus-centered lives.
As a youth minister, it’s important for me to reflect on my own transformation and to remember that my youth ministry experience wouldn’t have brought me to Jesus if it had been centered merely around pizza and road trips.
Many of us are living testimonies that Jesus uses relational youth ministry to transform both teenagers and adult leaders . In my experience, four pillars give Jesus space to transform us through relationships. (By the way, I’ll be on the road this fall with the rest of our Youth Ministry Local Training Team, leading half-day trainings on “3 Crucial Practices that Fuel Unstoppable Growth.” These four pillars are threaded through the training. We’ll be in 55 cities, so one of them is near you. Check it out.)
Four Pillars of Transformational Relationships
- Look for Jesus—Every moment we spend with teenagers must have Jesus as a backdrop. Ask: How is Jesus at work in this young person’s life? What does He want me to pay attention to in this interaction? What question is He prompting me to ask? For example, when I was with a teenager the other day, I felt a nudge to ask how high school was going. That opened up a bigger conversation, giving me the opportunity to listen and be present. If you receive a one-word answer, such as “good,” respond with “What’s been good about it so far?” Keep asking questions, like a miner searching for a vein of gold. Jesus can do a lot with a simple question, so be alert to opportunities He opens up in the midst of your conversations.
- Actively listen—As youth ministers, we’re always busy. Because we’re surrounded by teenagers and working within a small window of time, it’s easy to default to passive listening habits. But transformational relationships require active listening. When a young person comes up to you right before youth group and shares, “I’ve had a bad week,” it can be tempting to smile, nod, and politely pull away. Active listening means being attentive so you can repeat what you’ve heard. In this example, you could respond, “I’m so sorry you’ve had a bad week. I hope you’re okay. I want to hear more. When can we hang out so you can tell me more about it?’ Active listening never passes on opportunities to serve and pursue.
- Mutually admire—Cultivating a ministry of mutual admiration ensures that every teenager is affirmed and encouraged. One relationship isn’t more important than another. All kids are cared for and held in high esteem. This challenges us to go beyond the surface. Recently, a teenager told me he has no secrets from his mom. I responded: “I really admire your honesty. A lot of people don’t tell the truth because they’re afraid they’ll get in trouble. Honesty always produces better results than fear does. Keep it up.” The young man’s eyes lit up as we shared a moment of mutual admiration.
- Learn from each other—Discipleship is about practicing faith, not merely hearing about it. Relational ministry involves interactive learning. Teachers must expect to learn from students, and students should expect that Jesus will reveal himself to them and their fellow youth group members. Adults don’t have the monopoly on Jesus. Create a place where teenagers can have great discussions, come up with great questions, and experience Jesus together. We learn the most when there’s an exchange.
How is your youth ministry doing in these four areas? Be encouraged: Jesus is at work! Think through every programmatic piece of your ministry (Wednesday evenings, Sunday school, youth group, Bible study). Then think of the teenagers who are part of those programs. Finally, ask Jesus to be at the center of each relationship.
Here’s a prayer for a relational youth leader: Jesus, help me see you in every teenager you bring to this place and to my life. Open my eyes. Jesus, help me hear their victories, failures, pain, and needs. Open my ears. Allow me to recognize and call out your attributes in teenagers. They’re each created in your image. Open my heart. Help me to keep learning each day. Open my mind. Amen.