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How to Find the Balance Between Relationships and Programs

I was talking with a youth pastor friend of mine the other day. He’s a great friend, but he’s also a great youth minister. I can point to his youth ministry as one of the ones that really works. It’s healthy. It’s vibrant. And it’s solid, all the way around.

Over breakfast yesterday, my friend said something that really caught my attention. It was such a wonderful insight, I thought I’d pass it on.

We were catching up, just reflecting on some of the positive developments in his youth ministry over the past few months. We talked about the number of teenagers who recently have come to a saving relationship with Christ. We were once again blown away by the awesomeness of God and the power of the Gospel.

One of these new Christ-followers had been in the midst of a pretty troubled time. God really lifted this young man out of some significant struggles. As my friend was talking about how this guy was becoming a part of the youth group, he said in passing, “I realized our discipleship groups probably weren’t the best fit for him. So I asked our adult volunteers if someone would be willing to disciple him one-on-one. An adult volunteered, and they’ve been in an awesome discipleship relationship since.”

I was instantly hit by the power of this simple observation. In just a short statement, my friend communicated an incredibly healthy view of program-based ministries. Here’s what I mean.

This youth pastor friend of mine attends a large church. They utilize a programmed-based ministry model to help facilitate their ministry vision. The discipleship small groups that he was referring to are one of their programmed ways of facilitating in-depth discipleship. They run a program-based ministry model. But there’s a big difference in program-based and program-driven.

The decision NOT to shuffle this student into the “logical” programmed ministry is a reflection of the right way to approach a program-based ministry.

My friend recognized that the program he had set in motion to meet the “in-depth discipleship” aspect of his ministry philosophy wouldn’t be the best way to serve this particular student’s needs. And so, he went outside his programmed ministry slot to find the best way to help this guy grow closer to Christ.

This might seem like a small thing, but for many people who utilize a program-based ministry model, this line of thinking is foreign. It’s simply a step of the process that isn’t usually considered.

Having a day to think about it, here are my observations.

Tell Your Programs Who’s Boss
Our programs must be birthed out of our vision for ministry. Our ministry vision can’t start with which programs we can put in place or have in place. Simple as that.

You Have to Know In Order to Know
If my friend and his team weren’t relationally invested, they would have missed this student’s need. If they didn’t know this specific student, they wouldn’t know that the default slot for making discipleship happen wasn’t a good fit. You have to know in order to know.

Don’t Limit Your Ministry to What You Can Do
A lot of people would have said, “This student needs one-on-one attention. I’ll do it.” Instead, my friend said, “Who will help?”

Value Your Volunteers, and They Will Value Your Ministry
If you have cultivated an environment where your volunteers are valued, where they know the vision for your ministry and where they feel empowered to serve as they have been gifted, when you say to a group of them, “Who will take on the responsibility of discipling this student?” there will always be someone who raises his or her hand.

For so many of us, programs are a valuable way to make ministry happen. But our approach toward them must be healthy for them to be utilized properly. We can never put programs above relationships.