the shape of leadership

A Matter of Trust

Effective student discipleship starts with showing up

I like to think if Jesus walked the Earth today, He’d spend a lot of time at seventh-grade tennis matches.”

This observation from Richard, a youth ministry volunteer, captures what it takes to build trust with today’s young people: everyday acts of showing up and loving unconditionally.

If you’ve ever been to a seventh-grade tennis match — or a middle-school theater production or freshman band concert — you know you’re not likely to see top-notch entertainment or skill. You’re there because a kid matters to you. And perhaps more importantly, you’re there because your presence matters to a kid.

We met Richard during a research project at the Fuller Youth Institute. Our team set out to explore discipleship methods that build character and form lasting faith in young people.

Our study involved surveying 378 youth leaders, conducting 96 phone interviews, and visiting seven noteworthy faith communities in person. We also interviewed senior pastors, volunteers, parents, and teenagers.

One thing we discovered is that discipleship begins with building trust.


Consistency and Closeness

At 71, Richard remains an active, fully vetted, and background-checked youth volunteer. He no longer serves as a regular small group leader. Instead, he tries to get to know all the teenagers.

Working with the youth pastor and other volunteers at his church, Richard has helped create a trust-filled culture where every young person feels known and welcomed.

Before the pandemic, the local McDonald’s was the youth group hangout. When the fast-food restaurant closed its dining room during the early months of COVID, Richard bought a used limo so their ministry could take groups of students to the drive-through window for milkshakes.

With parental permission, pairs of adult small group leaders drove students to McDonald’s after youth group, ordered at the drive-through, and then hung out in the parking lot to talk.

One young adult we talked with at the church called Richard the “hands and feet of Jesus.” Another young person described him as setting “the standard for who we are as a church … how we care about each other, support each other, and encourage each other in all aspects of life.”

Richard models what it looks like to cultivate trust, the critical first step for anyone who wants to connect with teenagers.

Generation Z generally mistrusts institutions, including the Church. Most teenagers don’t think religious institutions care about them or their friends.

In a Springtide Research Institute survey of 2,500 young people aged 13–25, just 10% said a pastor or church staff member reached out to them during the first year of the pandemic. Amid one of the most difficult periods of their lives, 9 in 10 never heard from a faith leader.

Yet in the same study, nearly 70% of teens and young adults said they would no longer take relationships for granted.

A new door is open for building transformative relationships with young people. Based on our research, we believe trust is the key to unlocking that door.

Often the pace of building trust is slower than we desire or expect. What does it take to convince students we will treat their stories, gifts, and lives with dignity?

When you trust young people with your story — including your failures, hurts, and embarrassing moments — they’re far more likely to trust you with theirs.

Our research points to two ingredients: consistency and closeness. Consistency is about relational longevity, while closeness has to do with relational proximity. They require showing up and demonstrating Christ’s love again and again.

Consistency and closeness are the essential soil in which trust can grow.


Small Acts

Most new believers learn to trust Jesus by first trusting someone who trusts Jesus. For today’s students, that “someone” is often the adults they get to know personally.

Our research suggests trust grows through a series of small acts. Following are five things you can do to start cultivating trust with students in your church.

1. Show up consistently in their lives. Whether you are a senior pastor, youth pastor, or volunteer, find ways to connect with young people both on and off your church campus.

When you’re consistently present, students will begin counting on you. Showing up can be as simple as attending a little league game or stopping by the local high school robotics match.

Don’t underestimate the power of a student feeling seen and known for what they do and who they are outside of church.

2. Take time for activities that build relationships. Play games. Eat together. Go on a youth trip or retreat and make memories. Connect teenagers to one another and your volunteer leaders.

Trust often develops outside of formal ministry worship and programming. God can work in a student’s heart through a variety of activities. And when God is in them, a picnic or volleyball game is no less spiritual than your next sermon.

3. Ask good questions, and pay attention to the answers. Listen to what students are saying — and not saying. Remember what’s happening in their lives, and then ask about those things next time you see them.

One youth leader in our study said, “If a kid shares an important story, ask them follow-up questions about that. If they’re really looking forward to an upcoming trip, when they get back, ask them about it. Show them you remember, that you care, that you are interested in what they have to say.”

Consider keeping a record of what’s going on in the lives of students and reviewing it weekly.

4. Share vulnerably (but appropriately) so teenagers can get to know and trust the real you. Trust is a mutual process. When you trust young people with your story — including your failures, hurts, and embarrassing moments — they’re far more likely to trust you with theirs.

5. Apologize when you make a mistake. Perfection doesn’t cultivate trust. Authenticity does. Young people need their leaders to be real, and that includes apologizing for mistakes and making them right.

Keep in mind that just as we build trust in small steps, we can also lose trust little by little. We build trust when we attend the band concert; we lose it when we say we’ll be there but don’t show. Taking time to listen to young people’s ideas builds trust; failing to follow up on any of those ideas diminishes trust.

Richard worked hard to build trust with young people. He summarized his approach quite simply: “I don’t have all the answers. I just hang out with teenagers. Some are easy to hang out with, and some aren’t. It’s the ones who aren’t as easy to hang out with who really need a friend.”

Richard does more than just hang out. He trusts Jesus. And because teenagers trust Richard, they trust Jesus, too.

Through his consistency and closeness, Richard cultivates trust and inspires the entire church toward more Christlike character. You and your congregation can do the same.


Adapted with permission from Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship, by Kara Powell, Jen Bradbury, and Brad M. Griffin. Published by Baker Books, 2023.


This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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