If the gospel and all its truths, commands, and beauty is like poured concrete, then relational discipleship is like the steel frame upon which that cement is poured. The frame extends and reinforces the concrete, and within its bounds, the concrete sets into a solid foundation. Relational discipleship, helping students grow in Christ Jesus through the framework of our relationships with them, can happen in a variety of ways. It is visible in a comforting arm around a shoulder that accompanies prayer. It is the Spirit-reliant, careful selection of necessary and difficult words driven by desire for the good of the hearer. It is evident as the audible joy of a room abuzz with the fellowship of believers united under the shared identity of belonging to God and one another through Jesus. It is love and hospitality that is fragrant with the aroma of Christ (2 Cor 2:15).
Different, but the Same
However, relational discipleship might look differently depending on the age group and church. In the context of a predominantly Chinese church in a major Canadian city, the approach to relational discipleship in our college ministry has changed over the last ten years.
Perhaps it’s some combination of the ubiquity of social media, the way students have been taught to orient the world through a mental health lens, or that they lived through the isolation of COVID-19 in their formative years, but Gen Z students are characterized by their concern with safety and caution for potential danger. They are more wary of authority and reluctant to reveal their true feelings. They are more hesitant to get to know others and to allow others to know them at a deeper level. Yet, their desire to belong, to be known and loved in relation to others– a desire that is rooted in a universal longing to participate in an eternal, perfect kingdom– is just as prevalent as it was in the generations before them (Rom. 8:19-23).
So in the spirit of “becoming all things” for the sake of pointing our students to Christ, the only One who can bring forth a Kingdom that satisfies their thirst for ultimate restoration, we do well to try to connect with young people in a way that acknowledges who they are and where they are in order to love them well (1 Cor. 9:22-23). We can seek their good by showing grace in the midst of their hesitancies. We can meet them where they are by using a relational approach that is sensitive to their generation’s inclination towards cautiousness. In word and deed, we can strive to be thoughtful instead of reckless, slow and steady instead of fast and furious, consistently present instead of parachuting in, all with Spirit-given affection (1Thess. 2:8). In this way, we emulate the same wisdom that Paul demonstrated by never overlooking with whom he was speaking (Acts 17, 26). With a prevailing attitude of love that seeks to see and understand our students, we become a wordless witness that frames and reinforces the very gospel message we speak (Col. 4:4-6).
Going Where They Are
One practical implication of a “becoming all things” approach to building relationships with this unique generation of students is to capitalize on informal, ordinary spaces rather than creating new programs. Students, like us, have such busy schedules that even a well-meaning invitation for coffee can be construed as another unwelcome addition on an already too-full plate. To a student who serves in multiple ministries and spends several nights a week in various fellowships and groups, asking their commitment to a new weekly Bible study may not be the most helpful to them. Instead, I’ve found that by leveraging the existing time we have together, we meet them where they are instead of asking them to come to us.
One relational discipleship tool that is both disarmingly informal and practically easy to employ is the most organic one of all: good old-fashioned, casual, face to face conversations – the ones that arrive with no additional scheduling and happen simply when a few individuals are present in the same space at the same time. “Just catching up” conversations can happen anywhere, but for our college ministry they are most conducive in the space after the formal program concludes and students are discussing rides and who is available to go get late-night eats. Simply by not turning off the lights or making any indication that anyone should leave, standing circles form and people mill around, taking time to catch up with one another. This time is indispensable in building familiarity and connecting with students.
By taking the extra half hour to ask a few students about their weeks and following up with what was talked about in previous weeks, we communicate that their presence matters to us. The simple act of sticking around when it’s not required is visible assurance that “our doors are always open.” Slowly but surely, week by week, the minutes turn into hours and we build safety and familiarity that would not have been there had it not been for those inconspicuous ten minute blocks.
Certainly, in those ten minute blocks there may not be room for much counseling and prayer, but that’s exactly the point. Cumulatively, these mini-visits afford enough time to discover where students may be in their journey to maturity in Christ. After this “triage,” we are better equipped to see how they can be encouraged in their faith. This may mean we extend an invitation to talk further over coffee, invite a group over to make breakfast on a Saturday morning, or decide to go through a plan together on the Bible app. Whatever the case may be, the shorter interactions are a natural stepping stone to further discipleship within the safety of a relationship that has the groundwork of familiarity laid down over time.
At our year-end sharings, we’ve often heard the refrain, “You showed me Christ by always talking to me.” As I reflect on my own faith journey, I’m so thankful for how God used his people to make the gospel beautiful to me through their listening ears and attentive questions. When they talked with me, they were being the living embodiment of Jesus’s unconditional welcome (Matt. 10:40).
In them, I saw Jesus’s willingness to meet me – someone who had nothing to offer. A mentor of mine has always said, “Nothing, done in faith, is wasted in the economy of God.” And so we “believe all things, hope all things”, trusting that our all-wise and wonderful Heavenly Father puts to use even and especially the seemingly insignificant, ungrand and ordinary, for the onward task of helping our students know and love and walk in the Lord, now and for a lifetime (1Cor 13:7).