Why Relationships Are Stronger than Roles

I recently transitioned out of 12 years as a student minister in a local church into serving pastors through a missions organization. As I’ve made this change, God has been showing me the power of relationships that have extended beyond my role. Over the past 12 years, I have been invited to speak into students’ lives, whether it’s through a quick call  for prayer and advice, or going to visit a former student’s newborn baby. It’s been encouraging to see that these invitations haven’t stopped simply because I no longer have an office at the church. God has continued to allow me to journey with students and their families as we all seek to follow Jesus and grow in our faith in Him.

At its core, ministry in all of its expressions is relational. We serve and worship a God who sent Jesus on a mission to restore the broken relationship between man and God. The gospel is the message we are sent to proclaim: Jesus died for our sins on the cross and rose again from the dead so that we can have a relationship with God despite our own sin and failure to follow God. The local church is meant to be a relational community where brothers and sisters in Christ help to build up and encourage each other as a family. We are called to build relationships and disciple others through the Great Commission. Relationships are an essential part of our faith.

As a youth worker, you have been given a role in the ministry where you are serving. Maybe you are a youth minister, a Sunday school teacher, a chaperone, or a small group leader. Each of these roles has different responsibilities, authority, and influence. In order to effectively influence students to point students to the gospel, you must leverage your role to invest in relationships.

Relationships are based on a personal connection and investment rather than a positional role of authority and status. When you think about back to being a high school student, you remember the teachers that took the time to build a relationship with you rather than simply transmitting information. When you think back on your own spiritual development, you can likely name people in your life who took a role and turned it into a relationship. Here are three ways we determine whether we are building relationships or simply fulfilling our roles.

Relationships Reflect Jesus while Roles Reflect Religious Transaction 

Jesus’ ministry was totally relational. From calling the first disciples to follow Him, to taking them on a daily journey through life with Him, to preparing them for His departure and the coming Holy Spirit, the relationship between Jesus and His disciples was the vehicle through which Jesus taught, led, and guided them into faith. Jesus did not simply come to state His role as the Son of God and expect people to respond in worship to Him for that role.

By contrast, the ministry model of the priests in the Old Testament was simply a role. The people would come to the temple, have a transaction with God through the priest giving sacrifices on their behalf, and move on with their day. It was a transaction with a role rather than a relationship with a person. In today’s church, this could look like the youth worker who simply presents the lesson to the room and when the teaching is complete, feels his or her job is done.

Jesus did not leverage His role in order to influence His disciples; He fostered a relationship. When it comes to our ministries, do we seek to build and develop relationships with students, or do we simply interact through religious ceremonies in our assigned ministry roles?

Relationships Promote Influence while Roles Promote Power

Jesus’ relational ministry was based on influencing His disciples. As Jesus lived life with them, He looked for opportunities to teach them the truth. Jesus’ words made a deep impact on the lives and hearts of His disciples because He was able to speak truth into the specific moment they were in. Because Jesus’ love and care for His disciples was communicated through relationship, they were willing to listen and follow Him even when what He said was difficult to understand or challenged their thinking.

For many students, they are used to relating to adults in authority through their roles of power. The principal sets and enforces the rules in many cases with minimal relationship and interaction with students. As youth workers, especially if we are serving in larger ministry contexts, it is easy to be the one who gives the talks, sets the rules of conduct for youth trips, and seeks to enforce expectations for students in our ministries devoid of a relationship. Although youth workers lead with a role, which gives us power, we must seek to develop relationships so that students don’t simply see us as the church principal.

Generation Z struggles with the idea of authority, so they will be drawn to relationships of influence and repelled by positions of power. Students regularly listen to powerful people telling them what they are supposed to do. When it comes to our student ministries, are we influencing our students through relationships or leveraging power from our roles?

Relationships Are Eternal While Roles Are Temporary

Roles are temporary. No matter how big the role may be, there will come a day when someone else will be in that role. The church will hire a new youth minister. The small group will have a different leader. The trip will have different chaperones next year. When we are serving in a role, we must constantly remember that the clock is ticking.

If we want our ministries to have a lasting effect, we must leverage our roles to build relationships. It is easy to get so focused on checking the boxes of expectation that we miss the people God has put in front of us. The goal of our youth service is not merely about presenting the perfect gospel-centered sermon. The goal is to relationally engage with the students sitting in the seats. We should learn their names, learn their stories, and look for ways to speak life and truth to them. Students listen better to truth spoken while walking beside them than truth spoken at them from a podium.

As we seek to pursue relationships through our roles, we realize that the challenge is worth it. Inevitably, as we journey with students beyond their time in our youth ministry, we will have opportunities to help them wrestle with the challenges of college or to officiate their weddings or pray over their newborns. In moments of crisis, students do not pick up the phone to call or text those in roles of religious transaction and power; they call youth workers who relationally invested in them.

May we maximize every minute of our temporary roles to build lasting relationships with students. We do not know when our time is up. We do not know how the moments of encouraging, challenging, and speaking life into students will impact the trajectory of their lives. And when we get to heaven, we will truly know the extent to which our relationships led to an eternal effect.

Ben Birdsong is a church and para-church student ministry veteran and currently serves as the Minister of Missions at Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He is also an adjunct professor teaching children, youth, and family ministries at Birmingham Theological Seminary. Ben also helps churches with custom curriculum through Your Youth Ministry Curriculum and authors with book projects through Birdsong Innovations. Ben has bachelor’s degrees in Marketing and Human Resource Management from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a Master of Divinity degree from Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, and a Doctor of Ministry in Ministry to Emerging Generations from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. As an author, Ben has written the devotional books Words from the Cross: 7 Statements that Will Transform Your Life, journeying through Jesus’ final moments before His death, and James: Everyday Faith. He is also a monthly contributor for parenting and family ministry content for Birmingham Christian Family magazine. Ben also wrote the John study and a portion of the Psalm study for Rooted Reservoir. Ben is married to Liz. He enjoys reading, writing, watching movies, and blogging at www.benbirdsong.com.

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