Called Out and Up: The Essential Nature of Relational Discipleship in Youth Ministry

Jesus’ ministry as recorded in the Gospels was largely marked by two main dimensions: his public miracles and teaching on the one hand, and small intimate moments with his closest followers on the other. Jesus heals a paralytic in front of a crowd in Capernaum, then he calls Levi to become a disciple and follow him (Mark 2). He feeds the five thousand, and then we find him walking on water before the disciples (John 6).

In youth ministry, we tend to be good at creating large events, retreats, and gatherings that give our students opportunities for group engagement. But often we lack organization, thought, resources, and training for facilitating more intimate relationships between teenagers and adult leaders who love them. In Jesus’ ministry, these small moments are where we see the disciples called out for their wrong thinking or called up into greater obedience. These intimate moments in Jesus’ ministry are what we would call relational discipleship, and they are crucial for our students, leaders, and churches. As youth ministers, we must help students to see their need, lay leaders to give their time, and our churches to embrace the task of discipleship.

Your students need relationships more than they know.

The small, intimate moments of relational discipleship are important for your students as they are growing into mature believers. The problem is students may not realize they need these close friendships with caring adults in the church. Many of our students have strong relationships with their peers, but they lack deep relationships with older believers who can call them out and up when needed.

One of the best things that we can do is show our students that they seek a form of discipleship with all their interests. If they play sports, they likely have a coach who works with a small group of players to help them grow in their abilities and skills, if they are in clubs or the arts, they may have teachers who guides and prepares them. We always look to those who are more experienced than ourselves to help us be successful—and we should do so even more with our spiritual lives.

When I was a young believer, my youth minister, Kory, invited me to join him and three other high school guys one morning a week to eat donuts and study the Bible. I had a basic understanding that as a believer there are things that I should do, like read my Bible, pray, and be involved in church community. But it was that small group that helped connect the dots of what real discipleship could look like. My youth minister gave me a model as I was growing.

Kory became a mentor in other areas of my life like dating, friendships, sports, and work. That influence played a role in many decisions that I have made throughout my life. He facilitated premarital counseling and performing my wedding, helped me to discern a call to ministry and to choose a seminary, and even more recently, influenced my path to becoming a student pastor. I was able to experience all of these benefits because of a relationship I didn’t even know I needed.

Your leaders are more open than you think.

If relational discipleship represents such an important part of our students lives, then we must ask ourselves how we can get them into these discipling relationships. The answer is simple, just ask. 

The leaders who serve in our youth ministries don’t volunteer for the free trips and five dollar gift cards at Christmas. Instead, they have likely been influenced by older believers themselves and now have a desire to make that same deposit into the lives of teenagers. We might think to ourselves, “But they have busy schedules and families and other commitments.” In reality, most leaders want the opportunity to speak truth into teenagers’ lives, and they’re grateful to be asked.

The opportunities and structures for relational discipleship will be varied, and that’s okay. The relationships your youth leaders have might not include donuts and Bible study one day a week. It may be dinner with a leader’s family and just a little time to catch up. A leader might invite a teenager along to do everyday chores and errands. Maybe there is a service opportunity in which a student and leader can take part together. I have seen long-lasting relationships begin just because of a “one time” lunch meeting in which a student needed to talk about a specific issue. 

The disciples followed and participated in Jesus’ everyday life, not only in the big ministry moments. They watched as Jesus served people, prayed, slept, and worked. In the midst of those experiences, Jesus prepared his disciples for the work he would give them after his ascension to heaven. 

These relationships are crucial for the church.

While discipleship relationships are not easy, they are the backbone of the church. The richest relationships I have had within the church have been with those who are older than me who can call me up and call me out when needed in order that I would grow into deeper love of Christ. In Titus 2, Paul gives us the picture of older men teaching younger men and older women teaching younger women.

I currently have two groups of guys that I meet with in the mornings before school. Our church also has a college woman who meets with high school seniors, and one of our adult leaders goes to the YMCA and works out with a group of students. These are multiple generations binding themselves together and sharing life and experiences. They are people who apart from the transforming power of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus have very little in common but desire to see each other grow. For me, that model started with Kory and has continued into my adult life. Had it not been for one person reaching out to a 14-year-old new believer I would have missed out on years of discipleship that helped me know how to reach into others’ lives.

Youth ministers, if you don’t know where to start in connecting students you might begin by reaching out to your students’ parents. Then help your students take the first step in asking adult leaders they trust to spend time with them. Teach the teenagers in your ministry to see the need for intentional relationships that help them run fiercely after Christ. Shepherd the church by connecting generations. God is using you to make space for young believers to grow in the grace of the gospel.

If you’re looking for coaching and community to support you in gospel-centered youth or family ministry, Rooted offers mentoring programs that can help. Consider applying today!

Travis Palmer

Travis was born and raised in Murray, Kentucky and he came to know Christ through the youth ministry at Hardin Baptist Church.  He received his bachelor's degree in agriculture from Murray State University and is currently studying Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He married Meagan in 2013 and they have a daughter, Oliva. Travis came on staff in 2021 and currently serves as the Family Minister to Students at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, Kentucky. He is a graduate of the Rooted Youth Ministry Mentorship Program.

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