You are the Mortar, They are the Bricks: The Foundation of Relational Discipleship

I had been a youth pastor for a number of years when I had a great chat with a mentor of mine, a youth ministry pioneer who’d written extensively on youth ministry philosophy. He didn’t know it, but over a Panera bagel, he was about to change my paradigm. In the course of our conversation, he defined youth ministry as something along these lines: “It’s the crucial relationships that develop between adults and students, allowing the gospel of Jesus Christ to come to life.” 

It wasn’t an earth-shattering definition by any means, but something struck me in his description, namely that youth ministry is mostly about when adults and students interact.

His definition struck me because he didn’t mention anything about the youth pastor. His assumption was that youth ministry is about getting students in contact with volunteers who can, largely through the relationships they’re able to build with them, share the life-changing news of the gospel and invite them to walk with Jesus.

I realized that it was time to evaluate if the“Youth Pastor One-Man Band” model I’d been operating under needed some tweaking. And it did. Especially when we start out, it’s normal for youth pastors to do more work themselves than they would like to be doing a few years later. But eventually, the work must be shared. Not primarily because of the potential of burnout (although that’s a factor as well). The work must be shared because this is how the body of Christ is intended to function.

1 Corinthians 12:14 says, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” This is a reminder that in ministry, there is a beauty in the diversity of gifts God has given each member. This is what it’s supposed to look like: sharing the work of ministry with the people that God has put in our churches. In short, we have to share. We have to embrace the ways that other people are more gifted than even we might be to reach our students with the gospel.

Think about how you might go about building a brick house. We start naturally with Jesus as the (Chief) Cornerstone (Eph 2:20), but then we sometimes think that it’s just a matter of putting up the bricks, and boom—there’s a house. The problem is this: God didn’t make you the youth pastor with all of the gifts needed to minister to all of the students in your ministry. 

For instance: I’m an extrovert who likes sports, movies, and music, but when it comes to strategy board games and video games, my eyes glaze over. I can pretend to know what’s happening, but the truth is that I just don’t get it. Consequently, Mitch, one of my volunteers who happens to be an introverted gamer, is much better equipped to connect with our student Nick, who is also an introverted gamer, than I ever would be.

When the ministry is running the way it should, your volunteers are the bricks, and you are the mortar: the cement that binds those bricks to one another, and that enables the bricks to have their strength. You provide the context (weekly youth meetings, fun events, serving opportunities, retreats, camps, mission trips etc) to allow the ministry to happen through those volunteers.

You might be saying: “Just mortar, huh? That’s all you think I am?” Hear me out. Bricks piled on top of each other won’t hold up. If something runs into those bricks, they’ll fall down, and so will the house. Likewise, volunteers without a strong ministry leader won’t last. But if they have sturdy mortar keeping them together, the bricks will hold. The house you’re building will be sturdy and long-lasting. Your leadership provides the structure necessary for your volunteers to develop the relationships with students necessary for relational discipleship to happen.

So the question for you, youth pastor, is: can you relate to the One-Person Youth Ministry Band? Are you trying to be the bricks when you’re really supposed to be the mortar? It won’t all change overnight, or even in a quarter. But do one thing, even this week, that will help you empower your leaders to do ministry. 

Here’s one idea. The next time you know a student needs some attention, reach out to a volunteer in your ministry that you think would be a good resource. See if you can help that relationship grow, and perhaps the mortar God has made you to be will bind to those bricks more every day.

The great news is that the Chief Cornerstone has already done the hardest work. He has redeemed us, and he is the Rock we build our faith on. He invites us to help grow his kingdom, one beautiful brick at a time.

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has been the student ministries pastor at Christ Church in Lake Forest, Illinois, since 1998. He writes a column for YouthWorker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and is the co-author of two books. Syler and his wife, Heidi, have four kids.

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