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The Difficult Work of Relational Youth Ministry

Matt McGill
2 min readJan 29, 2021


Admittedly, “relational ministry” is a broad subject.

It's a piece of jargon so big that 99 youth workers reading the words “relational youth ministry” will probably have 106 different ideas.

(I’m assuming that if we had 99 youth workers, at least a few of them would have more than one voice in their head…)

In the context of administrating small groups, relational ministry isn’t easy.

It’s easier to break everyone up into grade and gender — when a new person shows up, there’s only one place for them to go.

Easy isn’t always better.

When grade becomes the primary “bucket,” you run into trouble when friendships cross over grades. Maybe you solve this conflict by allowing exceptions — that’s awesome! But … exceptions can still single a student out.

Let’s say you have a freshman group of ten dudes. One of them brings a sophomore friend and the exception is made! Now you have one sophomore in a freshman group. What are the chances of him feeling like an outsider? A lot more than if the group is evenly split between freshman and sophomores.

Doug Fields and I wrote a book called “Small Groups from Start to Finish.” I didn’t even know it was still around but you can get this ancient dinosaur on Amazon.

It’s an old book, but the principles are solid. The second half of the book is filled with practical tools you can rip off for your ministry. One of the steps we talk about is to clarify your groupings — take some time to consider what you want to accomplish.

I think breaking people into grades is great for institutions like schools — they are pushing everyone through an education process and your years of experience are a practical way to group students.

In the church, we are building community — and grade plays a big role in relationships, but it’s not the only factor. I think school (and where they live) is also important.

I’d rather have a group of 9th and 10th graders from the same school rather than a group of 9th graders from four or five schools. But this is just my opinion. What do you think?