"Ask God for opportunities to connect with youth... God will answer your prayers in unexpected ways. These encounters will enrich your life, your ministry, and the lives of your teens."
The Importance of Relationships in Youth Ministry
Building relationships has never been more critical than today. Nowadays, teenagers are more isolated and have fewer closer friends. They are drifting away from activities with personal interaction, they are struggling to connect, and – because of this – they are hurting more than ever. Teens crave meaningful relationships. They pine for connections more reliable than wifi.
Strong relationships are paramount for a healthy youth ministry and the well-being of the teens you minister to. There are multiple ways to come together in youth ministry: playing crazy games in a church hall, sharing stories around a bonfire, going for a group prayer-walk, drinking red Kool-Aid out of old pickle jars, or eating pizza galore. But real connection comes down to one thing: using the energy and excitement of those events as vehicles for personal interactions.
6 Ways to Build Relationships with Youth
Building relationships in youth ministry is less about what brings us together and more about what helps us connect. Here are some best practices for building meaningful relationships and strong connections in youth ministry:
1. Get together and get connected
Use big and fun events as vehicles for personal connections with the teens in your youth ministry. Nerf wars, scavenger hunts, and movie nights are great opportunities to spend quality time with teens in your youth group. This happens one teen at a time. Often these connections happen unexpectedly. God uses these unexpected encounters to bring unexpected blessings. Make the most of those moments.
2. Use social media to create connections
You might see the teens in your youth ministry once a week (or once a month). Use social media to keep in contact with them (be mindful of safe church guidelines, though). Use your youth ministry account to message them and let them know you are praying for them. Use humour, share a scripture passage or funny picture with them, celebrate their small and big victories. The digital space is a great medium for ministry. Social media is a wonderful avenue to invite teens to live their faith in daily life.
3. Share the Gospel with the youth
We want to help our youth build a relationship with God. But that works differently for every teen. Our youth are on different stages of their faith journey, but they all want to connect. Some teens are more oriented to outreach and service. Others crave an authentic way to live out their faith day to day. The process of helping teens to find Jesus is ongoing. No teen is the same. The key is investing in them relationally, as individuals. Don’t assume they are believers. Don’t assume they are not believers. Don't assume. Don't judge. Look for opportunities to share Christ. Ask questions. Listen actively.
4. Inject yourself into the lives of your teens
Take an interest in their passions. Ask them about the sports they play, the movies they watch, the music they like, and the books they read. Find out where they hang out. Go to their games, concerts, and plays. Invite them out for a chat over coffee or to get together at a greasy food joint for a burger and a milkshake. When you spend time with them, they see that you care and they begin to see you as part of their lives. Pray for the youth – let them know that you pray for them. Ask them how you can pray for them.
5. Include other adults
Build relationships with the youth, but also with parents, with adult leaders, and among adult leaders and youth. Extend your ministry to include families. Equip the adult leaders to love teens and to connect with them. This is scary for many of the adult leaders, but once they try it, they love it. Youth appreciate having a community that welcomes, loves, and accepts them for who they are. Connect the youth with caring adults in your community (mentors). I believe that if we aren’t connecting our teens with adult mentors, we are making a huge mistake.
6. Be yourself, but have a plan
You don't need a complicated plan to connect with youth, but it helps to be prepared for expected or unexpected encounters. Create opportunities to connect one-on-one. Look for common ground in conversation. Tell them how God is working in your life. Be ready for their attempts to shock you. Have a few questions ready to help you break the ice if necessary. I like to ask them, ''What do you like to do when you are not in school?'' Ask well-placed questions and listen carefully.
Remember: God is With You
Relationships are the source of all ministry. Building relationships in youth ministry (and elsewhere) is less about what brings us together and more about what connect us. These connections take time and intentionality. There's no simple solution and no one recipe for success. Ask God for opportunities to connect with youth, parents, and adult leaders. And prepare to be amused – God will answer your prayers in unexpected ways. These encounters will enrich your life, your ministry, and the lives of your teens.
Personal relationships can be transformative – God uses them to shape lives. Remember that the entire Bible is about relationships, so use those stories as inspiration and motivation. Have fun with the things that bring you together, and celebrate the moments that help you connect.
Santi Rodriguez is the Youth Minister at Christ Church Alexandria in Virginia. He specializes in spiritual formation and the relationship between prayer and social media. He is married and has a son, age 8. You can follow Santi on Twitter @sayochia, and read more of his work at peekaboowithgod.blogspot.com.