Here are 5 ways to build relationships with preteens and junior highers in your ministry. We all know that strong leader-student relationships enable you to point students to Jesus more effectively. It paves the way for discipleship, spiritual growth, and students opening up about what’s going on in their lives. Ideally, all the leaders in your ministry would prioritize going the extra mile and building solid connections with students.
That said, here are the top 5 ways I’ve connected with students over the past 20 years in preteen and junior high ministry (and many of these also build community among students):
A year and a half ago, I jumped in as a small group leader for 6th grade boys in my church’s preteen ministry. After a few months of getting to know them, I asked for their birthdays. As the day arrived, I wrote a heartfelt birthday card to each of them. I put much time and effort into highlighting their admirable characteristics and what I see God doing in their lives. Some parents even texted me that my words deeply impacted their son. I noticed a shift in my connection with all the students after they got a birthday card. They were more attentive and engaged in small group, and any influence I had in their relationship with Jesus seemed to increase.
Fast forward to their 7th grade year, and I move up with them to our junior high ministry. They’re all turning 13 years old, and I want to go big with celebrating them becoming teenagers. So, I take a few of them with birthdays close together to Knott’s Berry Farm, a local amusement park. We have the best day ever! One student even told me it was the best day of his life. So cool! I took another batch of guys to iFly to celebrate their 13th birthday. We had a really great time. These experiences bonded the boys and reinforced my relationship with them, ultimately enabling me to continue being a part of what God is doing in their lives.
Birthdays are an opportunity to do something small or big that brings you closer to students so you can more effectively point them to Jesus.
2. Small Group Emphasis
A small group is where students are known and know others, accepted as-is and accept others as-is, celebrated and celebrate others, prayed for and pray for others, and encouraged and encourage others. It’s where students are seen and loved by their peers and leaders. Small groups lay a fertile ground for discipleship and a deeper connection with Jesus.
Our preteen ministry on Sundays has two small group times broken up by grade and gender. A 7-minute small group connect time, where the group catches up with what’s happening in each other’s lives. And a 12-15 minute discussion time where students talk or ask questions about the message. Small group leaders consistently show up every Sunday at the same service. With 30-40 preteens at each service, small group time is the foundation of everything we do in our preteen ministry. It’s what made it possible for me to get to know my 6th grade boys, and it is essential to having a relational ministry to students.
On Sundays in our junior high ministry, we have a quick 8-10 minute small group time discussing the message. On Wednesday nights, we don’t do another message. Instead, we have 30 minutes of small group time diving into a deeper discussion of Sunday’s message. Most importantly, the same leaders show up on Sundays and Wednesday nights.
My journey with the same group of guys in preteen ministry and now in junior high ministry would be completely different without emphasizing small groups. Because of it, the boys in my group continue to thrive in their relationship with each other and Jesus.
There is no one way to do small groups. Experiment and do whatever works for your ministry. The point is to make it a priority.
3. Show Up to Games and Activities
Showing up to a student’s game or activity they’re involved in sends a clear message: you value and see them. It is also a great way to build relationships with parents since they’re the ones you’re talking with on the sidelines as you cheer on their kid. I also enjoy going TO the student and showing up in their everyday life. I’ll grab a burger with the student and their family after the game when possible. Or even invite other boys in our group to join me for the game and go to Chick-fil-A together afterward. Also, I’ll catch one of their games when I don’t see a student in youth group for a few weeks.
Showing up to a game has an interesting side effect: you journey with them through life’s peaks and valleys. I’ve been to a championship or playoff game that the boys LOST. But I was there, sharing a very intense and vulnerable moment in the lives of those middle schoolers. Other times, they WON the championship game!
I think of one boy in particular who had a rough start to his football season last fall. The coach was mean. One of his teammates was cruel to him. They lost the first few games. The star quarterback was injured and out for the season. But they somehow made it to the championship game and won in overtime! It came down to the last play, where his team blocked a field goal for the win. The crowd erupted, and I was there to share in the victory!
Showing up to students games and activities is such a great way to build relationships with students and families. They feel seen and valued by you, and you get to walk with them through life’s ups and downs.
4. Get Together In Small Groups Outside of Church
I regularly get together with small batches of students outside of church. I’ve done simple things with students: pizza, Chick-fil-A, In N Out, gelato or ice cream. You could also do something fun together, such as laser tag, an escape room, or a trampoline park. Or show up at their school with pizza. Last week, I brought pizza to a school of 6 boys in my small group. They invited all their friends too. It was such a great time hanging out with them on their turf. So much fun!
5. Connect with Parents
Although I saved this one for last, it’s one of the most important. It’s the secret sauce to preteen and junior high ministry.
One of the primary reasons I am so close to the guys in my small group is because I am close with the parents. My relationship with them and ability to speak into their lives directly relates to my connection with their parents.
Go here to read more on this topic. In that article, I go into more depth on the why and how of building relationships with parents.
Written by Nick Diliberto, Founder of Ministry to Youth & Ministry to Preteens
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