Urban Youth Worker as Relationship Builder

by William Parker
In the Search Institute’s report on Positive Developmental Relationships, Peter L. Benson writes, “After decades of forming hypotheses, conducting surveys, crafting and rewriting definitions, analyzing data, and writing journal articles, Search Institute researchers and practitioners have arrived at a surprisingly simple conclusion: nothing–nothing–has more impact in the life of a child than positive relationships.” For urban youth workers seeking to make an impact in the lives of young people, relationships lie at the center of their success. In this article, we will walk through the five stages of building a developmental relationship, the actions required to make an impact and the opportunities at each stage. As an urban youth worker, creating a sustainable youth ministry from this perspective allows transformation to occur in a context that longs for authenticity.
Expressing Care
It’s been said, “young people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” For young people who have experienced abandonment, youth workers must prove that they desire to be in relationship with students and their families. Simply being available and present speaks volumes to the commitment you have made to your faith community, and the community you are serving alongside.
You must earn the right to be heard and that begins with expressing care. Being dependable, believing in young people, encouraging young people to achieve more, and listening are ways of expressing care.
Dependability is a critical asset in any ministry you are investing in. If you commit to a particular activity with a young person, you must follow through or communicate why you can no longer keep your commitment. Authenticity is your best friend. When you are dependable, young people know you believe in them. They know you have their back when hard times come their way. Now, you have influence in which you can call young people to live into their God-given potential. You have the opportunity to cultivate and point out particular gifts without your voice being muted by distrust. Simply listening to the experience and struggles of young people will allow you greater access to their story. If young people are willing to share themselves with you, they are confirming the level of trust they have in you. So, listen in relationship, not to respond with arbitrary solutions. Think of the people who expressed care to you as an adolescent. How did they speak to you? How did they include you?
Challenging Growth
We must expect the best from our young people because they matter to the world. The two actions that further nurture the relationship and challenge growth in young people are empowering and reflecting on failure. Empowering others is not only about giving them a voice, but it is also about allowing them to take responsibility for their future success. In doing so, you are building their confidence and instinctual ability to make positive decisions. Accountability is a mutual relationship that needs to empower young people to claim and respond to their own failures. In any healthy relationship, discussing shortcomings becomes an avenue for restoration and wholeness. Youth workers have the opportunity to provide perspective on how to deal with and learn from failure. For the urban teenager, resiliency (the ability to bounce back) is a skill they must acquire through setbacks. Youth workers offer a different lens on how failure redirects our actions to better align with future success. Who helped you make sense of your failure? Who called you to be more than your mistakes?
Providing Support
Urban youth workers have the privilege of navigating urban blight with a demographic that is ignored yet directly affected by systematic decisions made by adults. Therefore, advocacy indicates the level of commitment a ministry has to its young people. Having a ministry of presence is powerful when in the context of relationship. Think of the people who have shown up in your life. What were they like? How did they walk with you? Helping youth navigate an at-risk environment is about being the consistent voice they can depend on. Expressing care and challenging growth gives you connection and influence. It gives you a seat at their table as you care for them. At this table, you are able to advocate for them in a manner that truly matters. In a developmental relationship, asking permission to defend, values the young person and affirms their own power when injustice is present.
As youth workers, we encourage,guide, navigate, and empower young people to make sense of the world around them as they experience who God is and where God has called them to serve. Throughout this process, practice varying levels of support as youth grow and mature in their identity as a Christ follower. If a young person is proficient at a given task/discipline, offer more opportunities for that young person to grow. Who was the first person to believe in your ability to do ministry? How did they support you throughout the years?
Sharing Power
As a youth worker, you have influence which also means you have power. Given the nature of your position, people will naturally look to you for spiritual and life direction. Your words and actions have power as you represent the Kingdom of God in your ministry setting. The misuse of power can cripple relationships and cause harm to those participating in your ministry. Now, the question becomes, how will you use your power? Institutionally, young people have very little power. They are often silenced by a culture which views them as products to be managed, by providing high expectations/standards and very little support in achieving the desired outcome. Therefore, your youth ministry must provide an alternative to this narrative. Sharing power offers young people voice and choice on how they participate in your ministry. Involve young people in the decision-making process as they are the direct beneficiary of your program offerings. Simply put, young people know how to reach young people. Collaborate with youth in your area to provide sustainable solutions for community change. Young people are eager to make a difference, thus, you have to make room for their voice. Who gave you a voice and the opportunity to speak into the process? Think of the example Jesus set as he proclaimed that his disciples will do greater works than he did. Will you be able to say the same about your ministry? Create opportunities and experiences for young people to take action and lead as they encounter God in new ways.
Expanding Possibilities
The goal of any developmental relationship is to inspire others to live a life of purpose. As you are building deep relationships with your young people, you have the opportunity to expand their experience of life by exposing them to new ways of being in the world. From different ways of experiencing God through worship to alternative ways of doing life together. Your ministry offers what it means to be inspired by God to take action in the world. Surrounding a young person with a community that inspires them to become the person God ordained them to be sparks a passion to change the world. You will see the gifts and grace of your young people and be tasked with cultivating what God has placed in front of them. Who was surrounding you as you began to answer your call to ministry? You have the opportunity to express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and inspire young people to live fully into the Kingdom of God. One positive relationship has the ability to alter a young person’s life. Who will you invest in?