Dabdoub, Paul

How one youth pastor revamped his ministry to build deeper connections among his kids-eight ideas that’ll keep your newcomers and build friendships among your regular.

A little over a year ago I was frustrated and ready to upend our ministry’s apple cart. Our regulars were showing up, but that’s about it-they weren’t growing deeper in their commitment to Christ or the group. Worse, our visitors weren’t coming back.

So I sat down to assess the problem. Our games were appropriately goofy, the teaching times were solid and biblical, and the worship was pretty good. But something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it. So I spent time in prayer, laying our vision before God and trying to listen.

As I pressed in, the problem surfaced like a, well, like a zit on prom night. There was something wrong with the environment we’d created for our gatherings, and it had nothing to do with my bad jokes. We were building what we thought was a “relational ministry,” but we weren’t doing much to help kids build relationships.

Now I believed in relational ministry, practiced it, and stressed it to my volunteers. Our regular gatherings were upbeat, fun, understandable, and relevant-but it turns out those strengths were a facade for our flimsy relational structure. I took a big gulp and plunged in to a major “remodeling” job.

A year later, our small groups have quadrupled in attendance, our adult volunteers are effective relational ministers, and the number of our core attenders has grown dramatically, giving us more student leaders than we ever dreamed possible. The following eight strategies got us there-maybe they’re worth a look if you’re scouting for ways to build deeper connections among your students.


Remember your great aunt’s living room-the one where no actual living took place because it was so carefully decorated with tasteful furnishings that it was not fit for human comfort? Remember the time you put your arm on the back of her couch and it didn’t sink in? This was not a relationally friendly environment.

I’m no interior-design expert, but I understand how our choices impact the room’s function and mood. Is your seating arranged for relaxed conversation, or is it designed for kids to throw paper wads at the back of the person’s head three rows in front of them? Get rid of the “theater” seating arrangement. It’s a barrier to relationships, and it creates the same expectations a schoolroom does. Move in couches, futons, and a wide variety of table sizes. If the room is uptight, then your group will be uptight.


Our leaders jokingly refer to our youth room as “the battlefield.” That’s because a soldier will tell you that winning the battle has a lot to do with understanding the battlefield. Kids are creatures of habit. At our gatherings, they generally sit in the same places with the same people. Based on this knowledge, I created a diagram that split our meeting room into sections-each one had approximately 10 students.

For my next adult leader meeting, I created a diagram on a PowerPoint slide that pinpointed our regulars in their chosen sections and summarized each student’s perceived level of spiritual commitment. I also pointed out the “safe zones”-those areas in the room where newcomers gather to be less conspicuous.

After we covered the room sections, I designated each adult leader as a section Captain, paired them with a student section Leader, and made them responsible for only the kids in their section. The goal was to divide and conquer for the sake of relationship-building-we reduced the ratio of adults to students to fuel more and deeper connections.



You can’t do relational ministry well if you’re not somehow connecting with every student who shows up.1 Start at the door-make your first contact when the student is walking in.

We formed a student leadership team called, remarkably, the Welcome Team. These students hang out at the main entrance 20 minutes before our gatherings and 10 minutes after we get started (for stragglers). They greet kids by name as they walk in. I try to make it easy for my student leaders by giving them a “program” to hand to people as they’re entering. The program serves two purposes-it gives my leadership kids an excuse to greet people at the door, and it gives newcomers something to hide behind during that first-time awkwardness.

Section Captains and Section Leaders know one of their primary responsibilities is to greet the students in their areas. They’re also responsible to be on the lookout for newcomers. When they spot new faces, they have kids fill out “first-timer” cards and provide any materials needed for our time together.

The first five minutes of your gathering sets the tone for the entire time. Start them off with an experience of friendliness and warmth.


When the Barna Research Group2 polled teenagers about their hopes and expectations for their church experience, “understandable, relevant teaching” was near the top of their list. It’s our job to give our students something they can use. If you’re like me, you love talking to a captive audience for as long as time allows, but are kids really getting something worthwhile out of that?

That’s why we shortened our formal teaching time to make room for small-group discussions. We split into small groups led by Section Captains who facilitate discussion on whatever topic was introduced in the talk. The discussion questions are always oriented toward everyday application. It’s remarkable how retention increases when kids start talking about the lesson through the filter of their everyday lives.


To build a relational environment for your gatherings, your kids will need to feel physically touched. I encourage handshakes, pats on the back, high fives, same-sex hugs, and so on. I discourage male adults from hugging girls and vice versa, but appropriate touch communicates something deep to kids, and we can’t minister to them without it.


Most youth services are fun and relational with an understandable, usable message. I felt we were doing a pretty good job on those scores, but we started asking ourselves how we could make everything more attractive.

* Worship-In our worship singing, we include songs that are mainstream and culture-current, such as “My Sacrifice” by Creed.3 Of course, when we include these songs, we explain our spiritual intent. The result is a much more relevant, memorable, and newcomer-friendly worship experience.

* Icebreakers-Icebreakers often seem like the “necessary evil” of youth ministry. In the past, I’d spend an hour or two every week trying to find some outrageous game that I could inflict on my kids. During my remodeling process, I wondered if this goofy game time could be turned into something more relational (and something our more “mature” kids could stomach).

So I’ve substituted some of the sweaty, wild games with word games on Power-Point slides that encourage talking and conversation. These games range from music-and-movie trivia to pocket scavenger hunts. Our kids have fun with them, and the embarrassment quotient is low. The “hidden curriculum” is to get kids talking with each other.

* Audiovisual-Not long ago I took our group to watch a Triple-A baseball game. It was a great outing because we were offered the use of a suite at the stadium. I thought the kids would love to watch the game from this vantage point. To my dismay, one of the kids turned on the W and shouted, “Hey, they’ve got cable!” So much for America’s favorite pastime.

If you can’t beat their addiction, turn it into something life-giving and spiritually challenging. That’s why we started using movie clips and mainstream songs as biblical discussion starters in our weekend services. I recommend using a resource to help you find ideas that work. I thank God for group’s Web site because it saves me a lot of time searching for media-related biblical discussion starters. It also keeps me current with the culture that our kids are deep into. In addition, group’s Media Editor Bryan Belknap has written two books full of video-clip discussion starters: Group’s Blockbuster Movie Illustrations (Group Publishing, Inc.) and a similarly titled sequel.

If you can swing it, I’d also recommend adding PowerPoint slides as an element to enhance your gatherings. I know you’re probably seeing dollar signs right now, but if you already have a TV and a computer, you don’t have to spend $1,000 on a projector. In the beginning, when we really didn’t have a budget for it, I went to a local computer store and bought a box that would convert the computer signal into something a TV could view. My whole setup cost less than $150.


Here’s how we’ve coached our Section Captains and Leaders to provide care and nurturing for the kids in their area.

* Make each student an integral participant in the group. Make sure every young person is included in the small-group discussion. And make sure they have all the materials they need.

* Make eye contact with each student who’s speaking.

* When it’s game time, participate. Don’t be an observer.

* Hang out with the kids in your section rather than talking to other adults across the room.


If we do our job, our kids will keep coming back. And we have to hold on to them because it’s the only way we can impact their lives. If we do the things I’ve already mentioned, we’ve earned the right to follow up with them.

Our Section Captains have a personal roster sheet for the kids in their section. If a student is absent for a few weeks, the Section Captain makes a phone call or sends a note in the mail to tell the student that he or she is missed. Newcomers always get a phone call from their Section Captain.

This simple action has made a deep impression on kids who stopped coming. I’ve actually had students run up to me the moment they walk in the door to let me know they’re back!

Our weekly youth group gatherings may be our only opportunity to connect with kids-we have to maximize it. If we believe what we say-that relationships are everything in youth ministry-then we’ll back up our rhetoric by orienting everything we do toward relationship-building.

1 For a powerful and practical primer on how to create an inherently welcoming environment for your students, check out “The Secrets of Welcoming Youth Groups” in the March/April 2002 issue of group. To access the article online, go to on Back Issue Archives. Then type in your subscriber number when prompted, and click on the March/April 2002 issue to find the article.

2 For a boatload of Barna stats on teenagers, their family relationships, and their religious beliefs and practices, go to, click on Research Archives, then click on Teenagers.

3 Two years ago group’s editors decided to build an online resource for youth leaders who are ready to start teaching their kids to be in the world but not of it. It’s called, and the site offers hundreds of video clip ideas from popular films that are paired with reviews and biblical discussion questions. It offers the same thing for music (both mainstream and Christian) and breaking news stories, plus information on TV shows and video games. Go to the site (, take a free tour, then sign up.

PAUL DABDOUB is a junior high pastor in Louisiana. Visit his Web site at or contact him at

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. Jan/Feb 2004

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