Debunking the Myths: Common Misconceptions of the Relational Ministry Mantra

Shaun Sass
October 7th, 2009


When was the last time you weren't assaulted by the relational ministry mantra at a youth worker training event? “I believe in ministering through relationships. I believe those relationships earn me the right to speak…” and so on. It makes me a little queasy to think about all the junk that gets tossed our way in the name of “relational ministry.”

Who in the world decided that youth ministry is all about hanging out at Taco Bell with a bunch of teenagers? Is that what it's about, really? Well, what do the kids have after they leave Taco Bell? A relationship with you? Great; I'm sure that'll help a lot when they go off to college or to get a job.

It's no wonder the latest stats that my state convention guys throw at me say 88% of Christian teens don't practice their faiths in college. A relationship with you may be fun and positive, but (I hate to burst your bubble) you aren't that great. Did you think that they'd stay virgins because you hung out with them? Did you think they wouldn't smoke because you goofed off in their presence? Did you think that they wouldn't drink or do drugs because you had lunch with them once a week, off and on, for six years?

Now it may surprise you, but I'm all about a relational youth ministry. I'm for modeling the Christian struggle in front of teens. I'm not, however, for hanging out with kids 24/7 and calling it youth ministry. That's not youth ministry; it's egocentrism. There's one who has the power to change lives on an eternal level, and none of us fit the bill. We're temporal. We effect temporary change at best. Our relationships must serve to connect kids to God so they can stand on their own. Otherwise, it's a waste of time.

Actually, it's worse than a waste of time. Hanging out with kids all the time can cripple them. They don't learn to stand on their own. They become dependant on you to constantly encourage, remind, and rebuke. Unfortunately, you won't always be there. That's why 88% drop out of the church lifestyle when they move away.

All this is aside from the toll it takes on you and your family. How long will you be able to spend all your time with other people's kids before your family disintegrates?

I'm not saying everyone who has a family needs another job. We're just often so bad at balancing everything. We should use relationships, but they're means to an end; they're not an end unto themselves. So, I'd like to address five myths that lead us all down the crimson path in the name of “relational ministry.” They need correction. Debunking. Redefining. Something.

Myth #1: You have to spend all of your free time wherever the kids are hanging out.

This is idolatry; it's the worship of teenagers. You orient your life around them in such a way that they don't need to invest in the relationship—you do all of that. What do they have to do? They go to Sonic and sit on the tailgates and wait for you to show up and relate. Not only isn't it doing much for them (they'll be there whether you're there or not), it's not healthy for you and your family.

I used to believe in this idea that “we must go find them and hang out with them and be there for them and spend our time with them.” Then one fine, midweek day, I went on a youth worker's retreat and Helen Musick was our guest speaker. I piously whined about a couple— youth workers in my church—that just didn't “get it.” They actually wouldn't hang out with teenagers all the time to build relationships. They said they didn't have time to follow other people's kids around; they had kids of their own.

God can use public humiliation, don't you think? Helen kindly looked at me and told me, in effect, that my expectations of them were out of bounds. She told me her own schedule and asked where I thought she should work in hanging out with teenagers. I opened and shut my mouth a few times.

Helen said that instead of following around the kids in her youth group, she invites certain ones to follow her. She told the story of a girl who she took grocery shopping whenever she had to go. Her kids are watched, she has a little help, and she spends some solid time dealing with this girl and her life.

Investment of time is a mutual thing. You have a life, and generally speaking, they don't. So bring 'em along where you're going. You're bound to be better at showing them how to be a strong Christian when you're at the sick bed of an elderly church member than you ever could on the back of a tailgate.

Myth #2: You have to relate to every kid.

Have you ever noticed that youth groups start looking like their youth ministers? The activities we like, Bible Studies, even our senses of humor attract kids who are like us. Pretty soon, all the kids who don't like that stuff (our stuff) are on the sidelines—or in another church.

We don't have to be the center of the youth ministry. In fact, it's far healthier if we aren't. We must set up a ministry that has a niche for every student by recruiting and training adults who are as different from us as can be. If our youth ministries are to be diverse, the leadership must also be diverse. And we need to lead the charge. Go find an adult who doesn't worry about being cool, maybe a numbers cruncher. Look on that person with God's perspective and see the treasure God sees. Invite him or her to come and lead in your church's youth ministry. He or she can then reach out to all the teenaged number crunchers and kids who just don't quite fit in.

Myth #3: Relational ministry is better in a smaller, rural setting than in a large, urban one.

Again, this has to do with you being the center of the youth ministry. Relational ministry is just easier for one person to do in a smaller town. It's built into a community that knows everyone and what they're doing. In a town of 10,000, you can go to the high school's football game with your family and see your whole youth group: one third on the team, one third in the band or cheerleading, and the rest in the stands. In an urban setting, you may commuhave seven, eight, or more high schools playing every Friday night. And they play all over town; it'd be impossible for you to see them all.

The key for urban ministries is to diversify your leadership (see myth/truth #2). Let your leaders hang with the ones with whom they're close. Sunday school and small group leaders tend to the kids in their classes and groups. Urban lifestyle almost begs for a come and go ministry in which kids can blend into the crowd and disappear from the radar screen. They still need a personal touch. Just because it's impossible for you to do it alone doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. You just need to plan ahead and make sure that everyone on your team is in the game. Wouldn't everyone like a little help with the groceries?

And those in rural towns? Go back to myth/truth #2 and diversify. It's good for your ministry even if you don't feel like you have to do it.

Myth #4: Being transparent means telling everything about your past/current experiences.

Have you ever sat and watched as a teenager humiliated himself by telling absolutely everything he's ever done as he “shared his testimony?” Being open and honest within your youth group is one thing, but this goes way over the line. Where do you think they got the idea that public, self-flagellation was what they were supposed to do? Do you think they do it for attention? Many do. Could it be that they've seen that attention-seeking behavior in us?

The fact is that teenagers aren't equipped to separate the “you” of ten years ago from the “you” you've become. Saying that you've struggled with “how far is too far” in dating relationships is something with which they can identify. Telling them how many people you slept with in high school, even if you weren't a Christian at the time, is too vivid a picture just to make a point.

It glorifies the flesh. C'mon, the real reason most people do anything like that is so the teenagers will judge them according to their very worldly value system. That's just warped. It says a lot about you that you probably don't want said. Do you want to be seen as one who jumps through hoops of teenaged-defined “cool” in hopes of being accepted? It's immature and shallow to do that as a teenager, but that's part of who teenagers are. As a leader, they need far better from you.

Myth #5: The kid who doesn't have a deep relationship with you won't listen to what you have to say—especially on touchy subjects.

A deep relationship does earn you the right to speak to your teenagers about sensitive subjects, but let's get practical. No one really expects you to have a deep relationship with every teenager—even (and maybe especially) the teenagers. Let's say you have 60 kids in and around your youth group. If you spend 15 minutes per week with each teenager, you haven't done much to deepen that relationship beyond its basic level. Yet it would take you 15 hours a week to accomplish that task. Where does anyone get that kind of extra time? No one should expect you to actually do that.

Really, it's not the super-duper deep relationships that qualify you to speak to your kids. It's what that relationship produces: respect, a sense of safety, and a realization that you care for them and want what's best for them. If they believe that, they'll listen. That's true whether their relationship with you is long and deep, or just beginning.

I'm all about relationships with teenagers. My youth group has been known to hang out at my house until we run them off. I often have kids come hang out in my office and talk for thirty minutes. But I'm tired of following the chanting cult—the cult whose mantra is that I should give away all of my (and my family's) time, energy, and respect in the name of youth ministry. That mantra says that I should be the center of all of those relationships. That mantra presupposes that my presence would change for eternity the lives of each member of my youth group. That's God's job and only God can accomplish it. It's a sin for us to try.

Shaun Sass

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