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What You Must Know About the Power of Relationship in Ministry

We live out grace and truth by identifying with one another through the heart-changing words “Me, too!” Here’s how to transform the heart of your ministry from perfect programs to rooted relationships.

Tony loves being a children’s minister. His church is passionate about reaching kids of all ages with the good news of Jesus so they become lifelong disciples. When kids and families show up, Tony connects them with dynamic volunteers who serve in the ministry regularly. He believes programming must creatively engage kids in Bible lessons. He’s also crystal clear that having fun can’t be the ultimate win; he ensures the teaching and discussion time always focus on heart comprehension and life application. All in all, Tony leads a great, vibrant children’s ministry. But lately, Tony’s been lying awake at night, bothered by some significant questions.

Spiritually speaking, how much is sticking with the kids?

Why are most families okay with attending once in a while instead of weekly?

How is it that team members struggle to serve for more than one ministry season?

Why are so many kids still uprooting their church ties after graduation?

What’s missing? What could we change so our kids and families find deeper connection to their faith?

Relationships are more than a spiritual “you are here” sticker.

Think of the last time you stood in front of a map on the wall somewhere. Whether you were at a rest stop on a road trip or at the bottom of the escalators at the mall, you did what everyone does: You looked for a big dot or an arrow that indicates where you are. It makes sense. It’s important to know your location before moving forward. Identifying your starting point is helpful in making it through life, both in this world and as disciples of Jesus.

However, there’s a temptation in today’s churches and children’s ministries to focus on “You Are Here” rather than the ongoing relational discipleship journey we’re on together. It’s easier to point out who’s present, monitor beliefs and behaviors, diagnose where people stand with God, and point them toward their next spiritual step. Of course we want to build relationships—but it takes time and can be messy. Efficiency gets in the way.

Far from our desires and intentions, “You Are Here” discipleship is a label that communicates Jesus—without community. It tells the truth instead of talking about it. It runs programs without going deep, and it rewards being right over relationships. Frankly, it can be easier to put exhaustive effort into exciting experiences for kids and families than it is to establish meaningful relationships.

Like Tony, you may be wondering what shifts you can make in your children’s ministry for the sake of discipleship. Many factors contribute to the challenges you’re facing, but there’s one dimension of discipleship that never changes and desperately needs your attention. It’s life-on-life relationships. Let’s stop handing out spiritual “You Are Here” stickers. Your ministry can embed the heart-changing power of “me, too” so kids have a greater opportunity to get relationally rooted and stay spiritually connected.

Become a “Me, too!” disciple-making community.

Long ago, I discovered kids are more likely to walk with God if a loving Jesus-centered community of kid-influencers surrounds them. When the family of God practices presence, humility, and empathy like Jesus, it transforms a ministry’s discipleship trajectory.

In Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Zondervan), the authors highlight an incredible truth: “The greatest gift you can give your children is to let them see you struggle and wrestle with how to live a lifetime of trust in God.” This doesn’t happen once a week or overnight. Kids desire to be known, loved, and served in the way of Jesus over the long haul. Children long for someone to see them, to walk with them faithfully, to help them grapple with unknowns and uncertainties, and to resonate with their fears and frustrations. And kids need this across many seasons of life, not just in curriculum snippets and hypothetical situations.

Every follower of Jesus has the disciple-making opportunity, and responsibility, to enter into people’s lives deeply. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28? Jesus’ calling and character draws us toward God in the midst of life’s burdening cares. Children of all ages need to be wrapped up in relational community with other disciples to grow. We live out grace and truth in the family of God by identifying with one another’s joys and sorrows through the heart-changing words “Me, too.”

Your children’s ministry leaders can enhance how you’re already serving kids and families by making a heart shift toward relational discipleship. There are three powerful phrases that flow from a “Me, too!” posture. When communities of disciple-making kid-influencers learn to live out presence, humility, and empathy, kids get relationally rooted and stay spiritually connected. Try out these three heart shifts and watch what happens.

Heart Shift #1: Personify “I’m here.”

Ask people in your church, “What’s impacted you most in your walk with God?” Responses are almost always relational in nature. Biological and spiritual family members play a disproportionately significant role in whether people follow or flee from Jesus. Yes, individuals make choices about faith. It’s just harder to navigate spiritual life when like-minded community is absent.

The truth is, hearts open up most where bonds of trust are strongest. Personifying “I’m here” is a powerful way to experience a heart-to-heart connection with a child. More than showing up to serve, kids need leaders who become a loving presence in their lives. This requires a sustained investment of time and emotional energy. At the most basic level, leaders personify loving presence through consistent attendance over time. Additionally, they communicate “I’m here” through full engagement with kids, using their eyes, words, questions, stories, appropriate touch, and shared experiences to connect.

Assess your current level of relational rootedness, personally and in your children’s ministry. How confident are you that leaders are a loving presence in kid’s lives? In what ways does your volunteer schedule help or hinder leaders from building bonds of trust with kids and families? (Hint: If someone serves every six weeks and then gets sick, they’re gone for an entire quarter.) How many leaders are huddled around the coffee station as kids arrive instead of making eye contact, greeting children by name, and taking time to hear about their lives? What margin is in your curriculum to foster genuine spiritual friendships between leaders and children? How connected do leaders and families feel to each other in your church family?

It’s riskier, but you could ask leaders and families these questions. It’s incredibly valuable to get a pulse on how strong the bonds of trust are in your children’s ministry.

Heart Shift #2: Model “I don’t know.”

The longer I follow Jesus, engage God’s Word, and walk with the Holy Spirit, the more aware I am that I don’t know everything. (It also helps that I have two teenage sons; they remind me of this regularly.) What’s more disturbing than me being wrong is that my lack of omniscience still surprises me. It’s no wonder I carry my smartphone all the time. At least Google knows, right?

Consider the experience of teachers, volunteers, kids, and families in your children’s ministry. What’s expected of each? Kids and parents often perceive the teachers holding the curriculum in hand as Bible experts and spiritual giants. Kids and families show up anticipating the church will teach and guide them spiritually. Parents get routine reminders to partner in shouldering faith development at home. This dynamic makes sense in a culture where schools, organizations, and extracurricular programs often provide expertise. Unfortunately, it’s not how lifelong relational discipleship works.

“Me, too!” disciple makers are open to the unfathomable, highly personal, nature of God. They’re growing in what it means to know, love, and serve Jesus alongside kids. And they’re mindful that more than receiving children who show up, they’ll exemplify genuine humility by learning to say, “I don’t know.” Rather than relying on curriculum to provide every answer, they raise questions, heighten curiosity, encourage dialogue, accept unknowns, offer transparent stories, and celebrate progress not arrival. They understand kids actually prefer leaders not to be know-it-alls. Getting comfortable saying, “I don’t know” helps kids discover the character of true discipleship.

Heart Shift #3: Embody “We’re in this together.”

Better than discovering “You Are Here” is having someone stand by your side saying, “Me too.” Community is essential to life with God in his family. Applying Romans 12:15 is a great way to establish heart-to-heart connections with kids: “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.” Another version says rejoice and mourn with one another. You may be unaware of team members and kids in your ministry who’ve experienced many similar highs and lows. If you want kids to get relationally rooted and stay spiritually connected, equip and empower adults to express true empathy.

Where sympathy communicates, “I see your pain,” empathy demonstrates, “I feel your pain.” Relational rootedness increases when two or more people affirm, “We’re in this together.” When I was a child, it helped tremendously to know that I wasn’t the only one from a divorced home, my relatives weren’t the only ones recovering from substance abuse, and financial struggles weren’t unusual. It was also encouraging to have spiritual family come to my side when I was longing to grow in wisdom, learning to serve in ministry, and looking to what my family’s future may hold. Realizing I’m never alone in God’s family greatly impacted my heart—both then and now.

How well are the adults in your children’s ministry identifying with kids God sends their way? In what ways are you cultivating a community that celebrates life’s highs and lows on the journey of discipleship? How can you establish bonds of trust through bridges of empathy?

Relationships: Changed hearts change hearts.

1 Thessalonians 2:8 is a children’s ministry favorite: “We loved you so much that we shared with you not only God’s Good News but our own lives, too.” The Apostle Paul affectionately cared for those he served alongside. He wasn’t about to limit his touch to the word of truth; Paul poured himself out because God’s grace reached him first.

How are you doing in the areas of presence, humility, and empathy? What shifts would increase “me, too” moments with the kids, families, and leaders in your ministry? As you consider the children and adults you currently reach, how would they describe your level of compassionate awareness and engagement in their lives? If you’re weighed down by running programs rather than nurturing relationships, it’s time to make a heart shift. The change you personally experience in relational rootedness and spiritual connection will cascade onto every child, family, and adult you serve.

Dan Lovaglia is an author, speaker, and children’s ministry catalyst. He is passionate about propelling lifelong relational discipleship forward with kids, families, and leaders through the local church.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

3 thoughts on “What You Must Know About the Power of Relationship in Ministry

  1. The article itself contains a lot truth and is well written but maybe we shouldn’t exploit an incredibly important cultural phenomenon in the title and not address it at all. Whether done intentional or not, you can find a better title. It feels like you’re exploiting a women’s movement around sexual assault for clicks

    • Jennifer Hooks

      Hi Ryan,
      Thanks for your comment. The article’s title had previously appeared in print a few months ago, but given current cultural events, we agree with you that a different title is important. We’ve changed the title to be a straightforward reflection of the article’s content.

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