Relational Basics: How to Develop Relationships with Students

Doug Fields
February 7th, 2020

We have souls that thrive in the warmth of kindred spirits. Why? Because God wired us this way, and because of that wiring we have the capacity for relationships. Through this divine wiring and our human capacity for connections, we instinctively feel good that youth ministry is about relationships. The emphasis on relationships in the context of youth ministry is where we get the term “relational youth ministry.” Relational youth ministry is simple, life-on-life; an adult follower of Christ intersecting the world of a student. That’s it!

If you love God and care about students, you’re an invaluable asset to your youth ministry program. Students don’t need a teacher, theologian, or therapist, as much as they need an older friend who cares about them and takes an interest in their lives.

To be honest, we often make youth ministry appear a lot more difficult and confusing than it really is. Good youth ministry isn’t about perfect programs, incredible facilities, or the unbelievable abilities of the youth worker—it’s about relationships.

When you strip youth ministry down to its bare bones, what do you have? People—you and students; that’s relational youth ministry. God uses people to impact people.

We’re relational in youth ministry because of God’s model. Because Jesus loved us, we in turn love others and hope that they see God’s love through us. We must move toward our students, enter their worlds, meet them in their struggles, on their turf. Instead of teaching them to see the world as we see it, we must move into their worlds and see through their eyes in order to reveal to them the truth that God’s love is real and available. But relational youth ministry isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What Makes It Difficult?

Here are five reasons we’ve heard from veteran and rookie youth workers alike:

1. Teenagers. If every teenager looked and acted just like you, it might not be so difficult. But they don’t. In fact, almost none of them dress like middle-aged youth workers!

2. Teenager humor. Humor is a wonderful thing, but students often hide behind it. Sometimes kids are trying to be funny, and sometimes they’re being plain mean.

3. Non-verbal teenagers. They don’t know how to talk and carry on conversations! Try to get a conversation started with “How’s it going?” and all you get is the “head bob.” How do you translate this? What does this mean? I always interpret it as “I like you a lot, and that was a great message tonight!” But it could mean “Hey, I’m really hurting but can’t show it.”

4. Busyness. This isn’t just an adult issue anymore. Students are too busy. They live through smart phones, stay up late, get up early, and go to more extracurricular events than ever before.

5. Our insecurities. Wouldn’t it be great if the problems relating to relational youth ministry were just the students’ problems. But it’s more than that. Even young, good looking youth workers have real fears: I’m not cool. What will they think of me? I’m not smart enough. I lack boldness. What if they reject me? My past is embarrassing. I’m a loser. I have halitosis.

The reality is that being a relational youth minister is difficult; but we need to recognize these difficulties, drive past them, and get to the “how.”

The “How” of Relational Youth Ministry

It’s helpful to realize that there are different levels that relationships take within the context of a youth ministry setting. We minister to different students at different levels and that’s okay. You can’t go deep with everyone. You can probably meet everyone, but taking in-depth steps beyond an initial meeting will be limited to a few.

Jesus did this. Every time Jesus spoke he was with crowds, but he also had several one-on-one interactions which varied in depth. Some were brief, spontaneous encounters; then there was John who was described in the most intimate friendship terms: “The disciple Jesus loved.”

Let’s look at this natural developmental process by dissecting relational youth ministry into four understandable levels.

Level 1: Contact—Everyone

This is the level that youth workers can have with all of their students. This is the basic, initial stage of a relationship where you meet a student for the first time or you recognize a student but you’ve never really interacted with him/her. This type of contact may happen because of a youth ministry program or result from a spontaneous contact at school, mall, restaurant, etc. To make this level go well, make sure you remember the student’s name, make eye contact, offer words of encouragement, and touch him or her (appropriately, of course).

Every encounter with one of your students is a potential ministry moment, and you can make this kind of contact with every one of them.

Level 2: Connect – Most

This is the level where you begin to discern if a relationship can go deeper. If the contact level went well and the student didn’t reject you, you begin to look for some connecting point. What is there that’ll give you some reason or way to continue getting to know one another?

Behind the “connect” is the assumption (a pretty safe one) that relationships have to have some kind of chemistry. In other words, we don’t all connect with every kid. Yes, we can be acquainted with all the kids in our youth groups, but there has to be something that pushes us beyond acquaintance. It’s usually something that triggers the feeling of “Okay, we’re beginning to develop a relationship.” Hopefully, you’ll be able to connect with most of your students.

Level 3: Care – A Few

This is the level in which the youth worker begins to consciously care for the student by taking intentional ministry opportunities. This type of care begins to emerge in simple ways and grows to more substantial time together. This is when the youth worker begins to show a personalized interest in the student’s life and uses little things like phone calls, letters, small gifts, or just your presence to communicate that the student is important enough for you to stop your world and enter hers.

You’ll probably get to care for just a few of your students, but don’t feel guilty about that. The goal of the primary leader is to make sure everyone is cared for, but you can’t personally care for everyone. You have help around you, so use it.

Level 4: Challenge – 1 or 2

This level becomes a selective relationship with one or two students in which the youth worker can challenge a student’s actions, character, and choices and make intentional directives regarding the student’s spiritual life and soul. This is the level where you intentionally influence a life. You challenge assumptions, ask more difficult questions, and walk with students during their journeys.

At this level, students are more comfortable asking questions, so be ready. Instead of running from them or being intimidated, welcome and encourage all question asking. But when a question arises, don’t be so quick to answer it—even if you have something to say. Try saying something such as: Let’s look for the answer together on this, or Why don’t we both read some of the Bible this week, and we’ll see what answer we can find? or Let’s meet next week to discuss our findings. The key to this idea is that you’re learning together. Also, challenge these students by giving them small steps toward leadership roles, creative ways to provide an appropriate stretch.

Making It Easier For Yourself: The Basics

As you’re relational with all students, there are two basic actions you need to develop: active listening and asking questions. In addition to the ideas for developing relationships with students at different levels, these two basic actions could be categorized as “what every youth worker needs in order to be relational.”

1. Active Listening

An important part of active listening is paying attention to body language, yours and the student’s. You also need to learn how to discern the emotions behind the words.

  • Listen slowly. Listen beneath and beyond the spoken words. What do you think they are trying to say and not saying?
  • Invite them to talk about it. Ask clarify questions. Ask about more details. Ask open ended questions and reflect his answers back. Often, the more he talks, the more he’ll open up and expose his real needs.
  • Maintain your focus. Be careful with distractions around you. It’s important that you make good eye contact and stay focused. Also, be careful to focus on the student’s needs rather than your own agenda. Good listening isn’t trying to figure out what to say next. It’s just listening.
  • Embrace the student as a person. Let them see that you’re not running away, and you’re not scared of what she’s telling you. They may be testing you—throwing up verbal flares to see if you’ll stick around. During a conversation a few months ago, a girl asked me, “If I told you I was gay, would you still let me come to church?” It was a test. Although you may disagree with her, embrace her as a person.

If you’re going to connect deeply with a few people, you’ll have to master the skill of listening well. Intimacy won’t come with deaf ears.

Often in a relationship, the other person isn’t naturally inclined to take the friendship deeper and needs to be encouraged. This is where the second core foundation comes in:

2. Asking Questions

One of the best ways to move through the four stages is to master the art of asking questions.

  • Ask questions that are appropriate for each relationship’s level of intimacy. When a person you’re caring for shows up to youth group in tears, don’t ask, “So what did you eat for dinner last night?” Don’t go too deep too fast, but also don’t dwell too long at superficial levels.
  • Ask questions that explore thoughts and feelings, not just behaviors. “When your friend said that to you, how did you feel?” Dig beneath the surface, and try to discover what’s really going on.

True relational ministry is a lot of work, but there sure are a lot of benefits. Students change. You change. They want to grow. You want to grow. You make a lasting mark on a young life.

Relational youth ministry is life- on-life, an adult follower of Christ intersecting the world of a student. Thank you for loving God and caring about kids. Thank you for being an older friend who cares about students and takes an interest in their lives.

Doug Fields

Doug Fields is a 30+ year veteran youth pastor. He is also the co-founder of Downloadyouthministry.com, a teaching pastor at Mariners Church, an Orange-consultant, part of the HomeWord Center for Youth/Family at Azusa Pacific University, and the author of more than 50 youth ministry & marriage books. More information about Doug is available at www.dougfields.com.

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