Dan Colwin: In an Epidemic of Isolation, ‘Relational Ministry’ Isn’t Enough

Dan Colwin is director of trips at LeaderTreks Youth Ministry, a discipleship and leadership-development organization.


When I first started leading mission trips and wilderness experiences 12 years ago for LeaderTreks Youth Ministry, students spent their downtime laughing as they played card games like Dutch Blitz or Phase 10 together. These days, students sit silently on their phones, texting friends back home or making sure they don’t break their Snapstreak on Snapchat.

One teenage girl I spoke with recently told me she has thresholds in her mind for the number of Likes or comments she needs to get on an individual post to deem it successful. If she doesn’t get the Likes she needs, she goes into an emotional spiral. While students maintain a hyper-connected, global community through social media, it is often only screen deep.

According to a recent study by health insurer Cigna, loneliness has reached “epidemic levels.” When asked by Cigna how often they feel like no one knows them well, over half of respondents (54%) said they feel that way always or sometimes. Research done by the British Red Cross revealed that over nine million adults in the UK—about one-fifth of the country’s population—feel always or often lonely. And young adults are the most likely to be addicted.

The “BBC Loneliness Experiment,” a 2018 survey of 55,000 people from around the world, revealed that loneliness levels were highest among 16–24 year olds, with 40 percent saying they felt lonely often or very often. Cigna reports that more than half of Gen Zers identify with 10 of the 11 feelings associated with loneliness, more than any other generation. The most common feelings expressed by older members of Gen Z (ages 18–22) include, “feeling like people around them are not really with them (69%), feeling shy (69%), and feeling like no one really knows them well (68%).”

And the label of “epidemic” may be appropriate in more ways than one. According to a 2015 study published by the Association for Psychological Science, loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s a better predictor of early death than obesity.

Every day in my role at LeaderTreks, I coach youth workers by phone and in person to effectively minister to this emerging generation. Many are eager to restructure their ministries to better respond to Gen Z’s loneliness epidemic. What can you, as the pastor, do to help your church create a relational youth ministry where the room layout and program structure engender organic conversations between adult volunteers and students?

From what I’ve seen, that is the wrong question.

Relational Ministry Isn’t Enough

When youth pastors tell me they are taking an “organic” approach to “relational” youth ministry, I know there’s a problem. These two terms signal to me that the youth pastor simply encourages volunteers to hang out with students, usually without much of an agenda. I routinely see long, contentious online discussions in youth pastor Facebook groups about how to redesign the youth room to provide students with “a space to call their own.” These youth pastors dream that, if students feel comfortable in the youth room, they’ll naturally bring friends, learn about Jesus, and dive into organic relationships with adults who care about them. But that rarely happens. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been brought in to train youth workers serving in a “relational” youth ministry where the adult volunteers admitted they don’t even know their students’ names.

Even if those volunteers were able to make deeper connections, mere relationship doesn’t go far enough. I’ve seen what happens when we prioritize one specific ministry element over robust discipleship, and it isn’t pretty.

When I was in college from the early-to-mid 2000s, like many millennials, I became enraptured by the social justice movement. My friends and I idolized celebrities who used their fame for good and organizations that focused on ending child slavery and bringing clean water to those in need. Our college ministry focused heavily on these and other issues because our leaders knew they would keep us coming back. It was exciting to live out our faith and serve people in need.

Yet in the years since I graduated from college, I watched many of my friends who joined me in those causes walk away from God while still serving the marginalized in society. They realized they could keep the activism and drop the gospel.

Should we be surprised if Gen Z does the same with relational ministry?

The truth is, building friendships with students isn’t all that hard. Perhaps even more than previous generations, students today crave relationships. I was reminded of this last year when I noticed that three high school boys—formerly youth ministry regulars—rarely showed up anymore at our Sunday night gatherings. I invited them to hang out at my house to play video games, and without hesitation, they all jumped at the invite.

But just like social justice that isn’t rooted in the gospel, relational ministry that doesn’t generate discipleship ultimately falls short of our calling, and it won’t solve the root issues of the loneliness epidemic. Hanging out with students is never bad, but as ministers of the gospel, we are meant to show them God in everything we do and say, as God commands in Deuteronomy 6:4–9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Relational youth ministry falls short if it doesn’t make discipleship its ultimate goal. Students’ loneliness won’t heal unless we connect them with the God who wants to know them and be known by them. And a healthy discipling relationship takes far more effort, strategy, and intentionality than an organic friendship.

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Source: Christianity Today