the cost of relational youth ministry…emotional

(If you have time, take a look at the video above created by a good friend and former youth leader of mine)

I get it. Relational youth ministry is not easy!

It is easier to hid behind a desk full of clutter then have to listen to a student discuss his addictions.

It is more enjoyable to stay at home and play video games then to be the mediator between a girl and her abusive father.

I would rather be here typing this blog than have to ponder my response to a student who thinks he is gay.

So, not only is relational and intentional ministry to adolescents not easy, it can be hell in some moments.

But it is only in these moments that we can discover the healing and transformative power of the incarnational youth ministry.

It tends to be during these moments of sharing life together that real and often unsolicited conversations take place with teenagers.

Conversations about their struggles, parents, identity issues, addictions, fears, pain, questions, etc…

I am unsure how many relationships have developed and matured during my mid-week meetings.

Only when we start leaving the comfy confines of our offices and youth rooms and start getting messy with the real lives of our teens, will our ministry take root.

Sure, they may remember some of our messages and events, but they will never forget the time you were there for them in the hospital, or the time when you both just cried for hours over the phone about the divorce.

In order to enter into the lives of teens, we must exit out of our comfort zones.

And this implies both internally (what we are willing to listen to and discuss) and physically (leaving our offices and youth rooms).

It is totally uncomfortable to listen to a girl talk about suicide and see the cuts on her arm.

It is awkward to talk with a student about his addiction to pornography and masturbation.

It is difficult to sit and listen to the stories of neglect, verbal and physical abuse that goes on in a home of a “Christian” parent and their kids.

But it must be done for the sake of our students.

They are crying out for caring adults to come beside them to listen and enter into their lives… not to shy away from the reality of their situations or offer cheap Sunday school answers.

(Of course, I must make a disclaimer and say that in some situations, as youth pastors we must refer our students to trained professionals. Don’t try to tackle an issue that is way out of your league because you think you have to.)

It will take time, it will cost you some evenings at home and precious hours of sleep, it should cost you some lunch money, and it will cost your heart being broken and poured out.

Youth ministry can hurt and produce emotional pain in the youth leader.

But it is worth it.

And building these kind of relationships is a hard (basically impossible) task for one person.

As youth pastors, we have one of two options. Either try to get smaller and have less students involved so you can build healthy, long-lasting relationships….or……

Try to assemble a large enough team of leaders and invest in them personally, spiritually, and philosophically the importance of relational youth ministry, as opposed to just recruiting more chaperons for your annual lock in.

I will conclude with an email I recently sent to my volunteer leaders.

I do not include this to display what a great idea it is.  Contrary, I sent this because I was so convicted that we were not really serving our students the way they needed and deserved.

And that was primarily my fault.

I would like to think that things are changing, but we still have a long way to go in this rediscovered pursuit of relational/incarnational youth ministry.


Dear youth team

Over the past few months I have been struck with the importance and necessity of building real relationships wit h our students.  Not just the kind that wishes them well each Wed and stays at the surface level, but the kind of relationships that enter into their lives; their pain, suffering, hurt, joys, fears, hopes, and dreams.

The kind of relationships that are willing to ask the tough questions about home life, schoolwork, addictions, anger issues, self esteem, etc… and be willing not just to pray for them, but to come alongside them in the midst of what they are going through

Sometimes it will be good things and a real blessing, and
other times it will be difficult, discouraging, and depressing

We need to be prepared ourselves and be able to handle whatever comes our way. We need to be emotionally and spiritually ready and mature enough to help these students deal with these issues and bring healing and hope to them.

Some of our kids battle depression, anger, child abuse, neglect, spiritual confusion, shattered dreams…but do we even know about this stuff.

Are we asking the right questions?

Are we taking enough time to find out?

Are we really doing a good job of building relationships that will last?

Are you willing to join with me and do this?

I just think that we are doing a disservice to the real needs of these kids by only entering into their lives for 2 hours each Wed (and if we don’t have small group time then it seems like it can be all surface level stuff some weeks)

I am not sure what the next step is except to commit to pray for them individually, be very intentional every time we see then, and make sure to contact them throughout the week.
If the Lord leads you to do more, then great!

It may seem like an overwhelming task with over 40 students, but God has blessed us with a great team.

So, if we can each find a few students to intentionally build real relationships with, that would be an answer to my prayers…and maybe to theirs as well!

I know everyone is busy, but I believe these students are worth it.
I don’t expect you guys to have the time (like I can afford) to meet with students one-on-one each week, but I have to believe that we all have the time to write to a few and make a few phone calls each week.

Please let me know if you read this and what your thoughts are in general, and specifically about your individual role and desires for this ministry.


One thought on “the cost of relational youth ministry…emotional

  1. I think your suggestions and the email to your volunteers are good ways to put into practice incarnational youth ministry; which actually is the only kind that authentically cares for the youth and lives out the call of Jesus. For me, the rub comes in with youth who are scattered over a large geographical area. We have students in a dozen different high schools (or more) in our ministry.
    thanks for the email. We also have about 10 different high schools represented in our program and while the potential impact is widespread, we face the constant difficulty of assimilation and connectivity.

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