The Blessings (and Challenges) of Relational Discipleship In the Time of Social Distancing

“Hey, how is it going?”
“Are you hanging in there with all this crazy stuff going on?”

I cannot tell you how many times I repeated these two questions during the month of March. By April, our new normal had set in (sort of) and the questions became more like:

“What have you done to get outside today?”
“Have you learned any new card games with your family?”

None of those conversations happened in person. All of them were over Zoom, or FaceTime, or Google Hangouts, or text.

“I miss hugs” became the common refrain in May. After the novelty had worn off and the fear of what our lives would look like dwindled, what we had lost in the necessary separation became more tangible. Hugs, high fives, having to squeeze past people in the hallways to get to your locker – those everyday moments of human touch are important. They help to remind us we are in fact human beings with sensory needs. Those needs came roaring to life for ourselves and our students as we began to recognize how much we missed it. And the missing shined a light on the needing of it.

None of that is new information to those of us who know Jesus as our King. We praise him because he came and dwelled with us, touched us, healed us, declared us clean. As Christians we know the importance of being with God and with one another. Yet, this time apart has made our with-ness difficult and no matter how many FaceTime calls you make, it does not make up for sitting across a table from one another at the coffee shop on the corner.

We were made to be relational from the beginning in the Garden. We were made for healthy, appropriate, life-giving touch. We were made to be together. Yet the necessary separation due to the coronavirus has changed and altered many of our summer plans and will more than likely change our fall plans as well.

We use the term “relational discipleship” because we know that all facets of ministry and life are meant to point towards the care that we receive from Jesus. We love because he first loved us. And that means all things (including movie nights) are used for his glory and for our students’ good because they come from the desire we have to pour out love onto our students and the families in our ministries.

Having a gospel-centered youth ministry means that relational discipleship should be one of the foundational aims of your ministry. Though this time of quarantine is forcing us into a place where regular programming will be difficult, it is actually creating an open playing field to build into the way your ministry prioritizes relational discipleship.  Here are ways for us to pursue relational discipleship with our students as we navigate the necessary protocols of a pandemic.

Online Communities

The beauty of technology is that the ministry we were a part of before the pandemic can still take place. It has not stopped, we are just doing what in fact most youth ministers do more often than the rest of the church, we re-contextualize. If your ministry is truly gospel-centered in its foundation, then you can rest in the fact that the pandemic has not thwarted it. Instead, it has given all of us an opportunity to stop and reevaluate the practical side of our ministries.

One-On-One Hangouts: Whether logging on to play a video game together or prepping to do some water colors, consider thinking creatively to do what you would do if you could be together in the same room. If you are doing a Zoom call or FaceTime and you’re concerned about the awkward pauses, participating in activities together over a call can help break the ice. The heart of our conversations with students is the same regardless of what mode we use to have them. We build a relationship with students that allows us to point them to the greater relationship they can have with Jesus.

Small Group Meetings: Even though we have to deal with bad internet connection, jumping on a group FaceTime or a Zoom call to study God’s Word together is worth your time and commitment. Choosing a set time and day to meet (just like you would for a weekly small group) can help to make it a part of your students’ routine this summer. That being said, recognize that being on a Zoom call can be awkward for many and difficult especially for students with an attention disorder. One of our students actually plays a video game while on a call with his small group so he can pay better attention to the discussion. It is also imperative that you consider all of your students when making plans. If you are working in an area where technology in students’ homes is hard to access or non-existent, be sure to consider how your ministry could help your student stay connected virtually. In this new context, it’s imperative to give grace to one another in how we connect, knowing that there will be a learning curve for us all.

Large Group Meeting: Depending on the size of your entire ministry, it may be many months before you can all be in one room together. If you haven’t attempted a Zoom call with your whole ministry, I’d highly recommend it. It can be chaotic, but fun! To avoid any awkward silences as you wait for students to join the call, prepare some trivia questions to ask the group (I’ve googled Pixar and Disney trivia questions and the results have been pure joy!). If you’re going to teach, keep the lesson short and either be prepared to ask specific students to answer your discussion questions or utilize the “breakout room” function of Zoom. If you don’t know the “breakout room” function, you need to! It allows for you to either manually or automatically split everyone who is on the call into separate Zoom rooms. As the host, you’ll be able to send a message to all of the rooms and can control when they all come back in the main room. This setting is available to you when you set up the room. (Pro tip: The “breakout room” setting can be hard to find. You’ll want to look towards the bottom of the settings page when you’re setting the room up.) Prepare questions for your students to discuss and be sure to pray for each other. If you want to focus on building community simply by sharing time together, take advantage of Netflix parties and watch movies together. Though you won’t be able to see each other’s faces, you can all at least be connected with each other in the chat window. You can also play games on Zoom together, such as role playing adventures like Mafia or Werewolf. It’s not the same as being in person together, but it continues the work of your ministry before the pandemic, creating an atmosphere for gospel-centered relationships to take place in and for your students.

In Person Communities

One-On-One Hangouts: If you are able to meet with a student in person, consider having a driveway or porch meetup. Maybe grab some Starbucks and bring it with you (especially if you are accustomed to meeting at a coffee place!). Going on a walk around your student’s neighborhood can also encourage fuller conversations about the world they are living in and how they are coping within their family.

Small Groups: If your ministry has a small group structure already set in place, consider getting your students together in a small gathering outside. If gathering in small groups isn’t a part of your “normal,” now is a great time to start! Asking parents to host “distant” parties in their backyards is a great way to build relationships with parents, as well as providing a place to meet with your students. In our ministry, our small groups were accustomed to meeting at the same time on the church grounds, so moving it to homes is a new way for us to engage our students in their homes and to engage with their parents. To keep it COVID-19 sanctioned, you can have kids bring their own food and chair or blanket and have everyone wear a mask. Ask the host family if a bathroom could be made available for emergencies, and stock it with disinfectant spray and wipes and ask each kid to spray it down after they are done.

Whether you decide for the time to be spent diving deeper in scripture together or more focused on building community through watching movies or playing games, all of it is considered relational discipleship. And do not forget that for families and students who are more “at risk,” they more than likely will not be able to join physically. Loving them well means making sure to always have a laptop available so they might be able to participate in the fun even through a screen!

Large Group Meeting: Depending on the size of your ministry, it may be a long while before you join together in one room. If you can manage it, have an outdoor gathering at some point. It will be hard to ask students to stay distant, to keep masks on, and to not hug one another. Remind your students that we do these things in love and in action in order to continue the good work that God has been doing in our ministries already. Be cautious and wise before setting out to host a whole ministry gathering if you have a larger group.

Whether your church is beginning to re-open or you’ve got months to go before that becomes a reality, these are practical ways to continue to pursue relational discipleship in your student ministry, though it will look different than we are all use to. Some of these ideas may work for you, some of them may not. Regardless, the prophet Isaiah tells us that when God’s Word is shared, it goes where it should and does what it is supposed to do (Isaiah 55:11). Friends, that passage alone should teach us again that the Gospel means rest for our souls and bodies because God is in charge of growing our ministries, our students, and our own hearts. As you consider the suggestions given, call that promise of rest to the forefront of your mind and heart. May you find rest in the grace of our King and power through the Holy Spirit to do the work the Father has given to you.

Becca Heck is a veteran youth worker based in Atlanta, GA. She has served on the steering committee of Rooted Ministry and is currently working on her MDiv at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. In between classes she is a part of the Anago Partnership Co-hort in Atlanta, upskilling pastors to lead flourishing churches. You can find her on the weekends teaching at various trainings, conferences, and retreats.

More From This Author