Rethinking Relational Discipleship (Confessions of a Struggling Youth Minister)

I love discipleship! Or at least, I love drinking coffee. Somehow “discipleship” validated my desire to spend countless hours in coffee shops, hanging out with friends and indulging in single origin pour overs. When I was on the receiving end of discipleship during my student years, I was happy to meet up with any leader or mentor who was willing to spend some time at the local campus coffee shop.

When I found myself on the giving end of discipleship in campus ministry, this discipleship strategy translated perfectly. College students, with their flexible schedules and social lifestyles, were always willing to meet me at a coffee shop and support my caffeinated habits. I built strong relationships and introduced 18-22 year olds to the local coffee shops of New Albany, Indiana. I even started an at-home discipleship group around the idea of trying new roasts while my favorite cafes were shut down in 2020. 

Reshaping Strategy 

Stepping into youth ministry has led to a reshaping of my discipleship strategy. Unfortunately, these students have to spend most of their day at school. On top of that, many of them don’t share my deep-seated appreciation for hot, black bean juice. 

I know there is a problem, but I’ve struggled to recreate my strategy for investing in discipleship with high school students. While relational discipleship previously was a strong aspect of my ministry, it now has become one of my biggest hang-ups.

Who Has Time for This?

My theology and ministry philosophy support my desire to disciple students in the context of relationships. A ministry of presence reflects Jesus’ missionary strategy and opens doors for gospel transformation. I want students to feel seen, known, and loved, so I know it is important to be vulnerable, trustworthy, open to conversation, and consistently present in the lives of students. 

But if I’m honest, it hasn’t felt easy lately. In particular, the relational piece feels like the barrier, which means the discipleship piece struggles to follow. Discipleship rarely (if ever) happens outside of a relationship. Students might hear me talk a lot, but it takes their knowing and trusting me for their hearts to open to receive my words.

So what is getting in the way of relational discipleship? We all are familiar with busyness and schedules, so let’s start there. Students are at school before 8:00 a.m. and by the time they finish with practices and clubs, they don’t leave until after 5:00 p.m.! Throw in a couple of games, recitals, concerts, travel sport practices, and maybe a little time for homework, and they don’t have a free moment until bedtime. 

On top of students’ busy schedules, I have ministry work to accomplish. Varied tasks demand a lot of focused time to lead a student ministry well. Budget requests, credit card reports, event planning, writing lessons, staff meetings, preparing and setting up for regular worship gatherings, communicating with leaders and families, cleaning up last night’s event, fixing today’s technology issue, shopping trips to buy more snacks and drinks, ordering more pizza, the list goes on. How am I supposed to spend time hanging out with students when there is so much work to do?

When I’m finally with students, sometimes I am my own barrier. Usually the biggest compliments I receive in ministry have to do with my planning and preparation. This strength comes with an underbelly, though. Sometimes I can’t get out of the planning and evaluation headspace when it is time to actually be with the students.

Rather than being fully engaged in a conversation, I’m busy thinking about what needs to happen next, if the pizza will arrive on time, whether the leaders know the schedule for the night, or if the slides are running smoothly enough. 

Most of the students wouldn’t care if every single one of those went wrong (okay let’s be honest, missing the pizza might create a stir). They just want to know they are loved, valued, and seen. The preparation is important, but what is even more important is focusing on the students when we are together.

Incarnational Ministry

Youth ministers all feel the challenges of relational discipleship in some way. These frustrations should not keep us from building relationships for the sake of spiritual formation. We follow Jesus’ model as we step into the lives of students as ministers of the gospel.

Jesus deems relational discipleship valuable enough to make it his own approach to ministry. Jesus was not God’s avatar; he is God. When it came time for God to implement his rescue-strategy of humanity, he did not wave a wand or issue a decree from his throne in heaven. Instead, he left the throne and came to earth to be with his people.

Jesus spent three years walking with his 12 disciples, guiding them through life, training them for ministry, and refining their work. God’s presence became manifest, not just in a tent or a temple, but in human form. He pursued his loved ones with presence. 

When we pursue a ministry of presence with our students, developing relationships for the sake of discipleship, we reflect Jesus’ pursuit of us for the sake of eternal relationship with him.

Depending on your context, you may have opportunities through student organizations or partnerships with athletics and extracurriculars to enter the world of students regularly. I have weekly opportunities to walk onto campus to be with students before and after school as a club coach for several organizations. As I walk through the halls I not only greet students, but I get to see church members who serve as teachers and administrators and pray for their presence among students.

I love sitting on the sidelines with parents and siblings as we cheer for the soccer, football, baseball, lacrosse, softball, and volleyball players represented in our student ministry. The opportunities to give high-fives and say “good job” as students cross the finish line might not feel like much to me, but I trust that God will use those moments to increase the ministry of the Word in the hearts of the students and families of my church and community.

Glimpses of Joy

When I reflect on my earlier approach to discipleship and my recent perceived challenges to relational discipleship, I recognize now why we call it “the work of ministry.” Ministry is not always easy. We toil to plant gospel seeds in the lives of those we serve.

I think back to 1 Thessalonians 2:8-12, where Paul rejoices in sharing not only the gospel, but his own life, working hard day and night to make gospel investments in the lives of the Thessalonians. Student ministry will not be a nine-to-five job, and that is part of the joy of it. We get to show up for important, special moments in students’ lives. As students remember their formative teenage years, hopefully our presence holds a significant place in their minds, as we served as the hands and feet of Christ, investing into their lives. 

Recently, I had the privilege of watching students in our church walk across the stage at their high school graduation. As I mingled with their families on the football field afterwards, I thought of moments on the sidelines cheering for these students, or funny memories from camps, mission trips, and weekend events. I remembered the challenges and lessons I watched them walk through. I reflected on meetings with their parents to help them process and shepherd their children through the ups and downs of life.

Called to a Glorious Privilege

I confess that I’ve been discouraged, tired, and full of doubt about my effectiveness to connect with students relationally. I question my ability to find open doors for speaking God’s Word in the power of the Spirit to bring about transformation in their lives. Sometimes I want to throw in the towel. 

But then I remember this is why I’m here in the first place. God has called me to a glorious privilege. God works through our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). He delights in choosing the humble to demonstrate his greatness (1 Cor. 1:26-31). The gospel, not my ability, holds the power of salvation (Rom. 1:16). 

I will keep looking for opportunities to build relationships for the sake of discipleship in each changing season, praying that God will give growth to these gospel seeds.

If you’re looking for encouragement and resources for gospel-centered youth ministry, we hope you’ll join us at the 2024 Rooted Conference in Dallas, Texas, October 24-26!

Caleb lives in the beautiful mountains of Northeast Tennessee with his wife, Mollie, and two sons, Will and Phillip. He serves as Student Pastor at FBC Kingsport, TN, where his motto is “love students and equip parents to raise up lifelong followers of Jesus.” Caleb has been an avid runner, hiker, and coffee enthusiast for most of his life. His high school and college cross country career culminated in the 2016 Boston Marathon. Since then, running has become a much more casual hobby which often includes pushing a stroller. When he’s not enjoying a light roast pour over with a theological or ministry-related book, he’s chasing around his boys or spending time with students and families in his community.

More From This Author