Youth ministry is the church’s ministry, not just that of specialists who can “relate” to young people. The mandate to be there for young people belongs to the Christian community, not to any individual or group of individuals.”

—Kenda Dean, Practicing Passion
(Italics indicated by DeVries)

When I first started out in youth ministry in the late 70s, relational youth ministry was all the rage, the new frontier. Anybody who was anybody in the youth ministry world seemed to be talking about relationships as the new silver bullet.

The unexamined, standard argument went something like this: “We need to stop focusing on programs and start focusing on relationships!” We bandied about axioms like “earning the right to be heard,” quoting everyone from Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Across the board, proponents of relational youth ministry argued vehemently, if unoriginally, that “kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

And for decades now, the battle has been raging, between the proponents of relational youth ministry, and….

The problem, of course, is that there has never really has been much of an “other side” to this battle. I’m still not sure whom the relational youth ministry fanatics thought they were arguing against.

Who in the church would be against adults building relationships with youth? Almost all of us in the church can point to significant adults who impacted our faith in profound ways by being faithfully there for us. For generations now, we’ve been standing (or raising our hand or responding verbally) at baptisms, confirming that relational youth and children’s ministry is and has been a fundamental part of our DNA for centuries if not longer.

But with all the foment around the topic of relational youth ministry, I’m concerned that we may have lost our way, that we may have become fuzzy about what we’re really talking about when we use that broad term relational. So I offer here, as a volley for clarity in the conversation, the following Four Declarations of What Relational Youth Ministry Is Not:

  1. Relational youth ministry is not about hiring young highly hip youth directors to be the primary “relational experts” with our youth.

    We hire youth directors so that they can catalyze their congregations to fulfill their baptismal vows by themselves each taking responsibility for building relationships with youth.

  2. Relational youth ministry is not about investing in relationships with students just because it works.

    Many youth ministry books affirm that nothing leads kids toward embracing a full life of discipleship quite like building relationships with them does. But as Andy Root warns in his book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, when we use relationships as a means of getting kids to change, we are on seriously slippery ground. We are not called to love youth simply as a method for maintaining discipline or increasing our numbers or even leading kids toward embracing the invitation to follow Christ. We love students as a free expression of God’s love for us, whether it ever leads our youth to “get with the program” or not.

  3. Relational youth ministry is not in opposition to programs.

    Programs can be the most natural context for youth and adults to build faith-nurturing relationships. To assume that faith-building, intergenerational relationships will simply happen naturally, apart from any programming, is short-sighted and wrong-headed. The unnatural polarization of relationships and programming has done much to contribute to the chronic fuzziness and under-functioning of most youth ministries today.

  4. “Hanging out” with youth is not somehow more faithful ministry, more real ministry, than creating the systems and structures to provide for lots of saints in the church to be “hanging out” with youth.

    Far too many youth workers see “administration” as trivial interruption compared to the “real” ministry to spending time playing basketball (or getting ice cream or…) with students. No doubt, a professional youth worker spending time with youth can make a massive difference in young lives. But unless someone takes responsibility for inviting a “great cloud of witnesses” into the lives of youth, our efforts at relational youth ministry will be limited by the random initiative of staff and volunteers (spending most of their time with the kids who are already seeking out godly adults anyway).

The local church is one of the only institutions left where youth and adults can build friendships across the generations. But these relationships will simply not be built accidentally. Sadly, the most “successful” youth ministries have made a habit of isolating youth into age-segregated groups in which the paid professional carries almost the entire relational role with youth.

Relational youth ministry at its best comes as a result of a well-coordinated effort of a person or team in the church who deliberately constellates adults around every youth in the church. Increasingly, research is showing that one of the strongest predictors of lifelong faith for graduates of our youth programs is the quantity and quality of a young person’s relationships with adults in his or her church. And that’s the kind of relational youth ministry worth fighting for.

Mark DeVries is associate pastor for youth and their families at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn. He is also the author of Sustainable Youth Ministry and the founder of Youth Ministry Architects (, a consulting team that works with churches in transition in their youth ministries.