5 ways to cultivate trust with teens in your youth ministry

Jen Bradbury Image Jen Bradbury | Jun 20, 2023

My daughter, Hope, loves singing in our community’s children’s choir. At least she did until four months ago—when she went from eagerly attending practices to looking for every opportunity to get out of them.

When prodded, she explained that her choir director actively called kids out when they made mistakes—something that gives my introverted daughter actual nightmares. While it’s not uncommon for choir directors to correct singers by name, this felt especially harsh for my daughter because the director was brand new. He didn’t know Hope yet, and she didn’t know him.

Despite her growing distaste for choir, Hope attended week after week and we made it to the end of the year (barely). Much to our surprise Hope decided she might want to return next year—which meant she had to do an end-of-the-year evaluation with her director.

After Hope's evaluation the director asked to talk to us, her parents. He asked about our experience, and we told him how Hope had begun dreading choir because of his tendency to call people out for their mistakes.

At this our normally dynamic, extroverted director went silent.

After thinking for a minute, he wondered if he’d spent too much time rehearsing and not enough time actually getting to know the kids so they could learn to trust one another. As a youth worker, my heart went out to this director. I understand his dilemma.

In ministry we have so few hours a week with young people, it feels critical to use every moment well. Often it can be tempting to do exactly what Hope’s choir director did: skip over the “less important” stuff in order to spend more time on whatever curriculum we’re teaching because that’s what feels more spiritual.

But here’s what FYI’s latest research on forming faith beyond youth group found: cultivating trust is every bit as important in the faith formation of young people as teaching for transformation. Both are integral points of the Faith Beyond Youth Group compass, which gives us a framework for discipling young people.

In some ways, this might seem like a no-brainer to you. It probably makes sense that trust is critical to faith formation.

But do your students actually trust you?

Leading at the speed of trust

Before you automatically answer YES, consider my story: I’ve been serving as the volunteer youth pastor at my church for the last two years. Most of the students in my ministry have genuinely liked me since day one (or at least day two).

Yet they’ve only begun to trust me in the last two or three months.

What changed?

Nothing…and everything.

Here’s what I mean: I didn’t make a grand gesture that magically made teenagers start trusting me two months ago. Instead, I just kept showing up, week after week. Every time we gathered, I listened to what young people were saying. I empathized with them. When appropriate, I vulnerably shared pieces of my own story so they could get to know me. Finally, after about 20 months of consistently showing up, the teenagers in my ministry began to believe I wasn’t going anywhere. Trust followed.

What I discovered—-and what our Faith Beyond Youth Group research found—-is that trust requires consistency (relational longevity) and closeness (relational proximity). Without these two ingredients you can be liked, but you won’t necessarily be trusted.

Of course, consistency takes time to build. But the good news is that there are practical steps you can take to cultivate the relational proximity needed to form trust.

Here are five things you can do today to start cultivating trust in your ministry.

  1. Show up consistently. If young people have to wonder each week whether or not you’re going to be there, they’ll never trust you. But if you’re consistently present, slowly but surely, they’ll begin to count on you. This is particularly important in settings where there’s been a revolving door of youth leaders. If that’s true in your context, you’re likely going to have to dig out of a trust deficit with young people. To help with this, in addition to modeling consistent presence yourself, ask those who serve alongside you to commit to serving consistently for a designated period of time that will help rebuild trust. To be clear, this doesn’t mean you (or they) can’t ever miss youth group. That’s an unrealistic (and unhealthy) expectation. What it does mean is that you (and your leaders) need to clearly communicate when you’re going to be absent so students know you didn’t just abandon them.
  2. Take time for activities that build relationships. Play games. Eat together. Go places with each other. Make memories together. Connect teenagers to each other and your leaders. Don’t underestimate the importance of these elements—all of which cultivate trust. What’s more, remember that God is in these activities, too. And because God is in them, they’re no less spiritual than worship, a talk, or the next lesson in your curriculum.
  3. Ask good questions and listen to how students respond. Listen to what they’re saying…and to what they’re not saying. Remember what’s happening in their lives and then ask them a question about that event or activity when you see them next. (Pro-tip: Make yourself a cheat sheet of what’s going on in the lives of your students and glance at it each week to help you remember.) 
  4. Share vulnerably (but appropriately) so teenagers can get to know and trust the real you. Trust is mutual. When you trust young people with your story—particularly when you share failure stories—they’re far more likely to trust you with theirs. While every teenager knows what failure feels like, not all young people have tasted success yet. That said, be careful. Sharing vulnerably doesn’t require you to bare your soul to the young people in your ministry. That’s what therapy is for. So before you share, consider this question: For whose benefit are you sharing this story? If it’s for the benefit of young people, tell your story but skip the nitty gritty details that your adult friends will find amusing. Young people don’t need your TMI. 
  5. Apologize when you make a mistake. Perfection doesn’t cultivate trust. Authenticity does. I was reminded of this when, after realizing he hadn’t spent enough time actually getting to know the kids, Hope’s choir director asked if he could talk to her. When he did, he apologized. He owned the fact that he’d prioritized the wrong thing and then gave her concrete examples of how he’ll make rehearsals different next year. As a result of his apology, Hope went from fearing him to trusting him. By the time we got to the car after her evaluation, she was excited to do choir again next year. In the same way, our youth group kids don’t need us to be perfect. They need us to be real and that includes apologizing for our mistakes and making them right.

Even when you take these five steps to start cultivating trust in your ministry, there’s still no magical amount of time after which young people will automatically trust you. Instead, you’ll slowly start to see shifts in how teenagers interact with you. When students trust you,

  • They’ll tell you about the worst part of their day, not just the best.
  • They’ll start texting you randomly instead of randomly responding to your texts.
  • They’ll acknowledge you when they see you outside of the church. If they’re with their friends, they might even introduce you.
  • They’ll stop asking you for advice about “their friends” and start asking you for advice about their lives.
  • They’ll tell you what’s really going on at home and with their friends.
  • They’ll show you their real emotions. They’ll laugh but they also might get angry at you or cry.
  • They’ll disagree with you, passionately but respectfully.
  • They’ll admit when they don’t know things because they won’t be afraid you’ll think less of them.
  • They’ll ask you questions they can’t ask anyone else.

In other words, when students trust you, opportunities for discipleship will abound.

So don’t skip this important step. Take time to intentionally build trust with young people because doing so is a critical component of ministry that forms faith beyond youth group.

Tweet this: Trust requires consistency (relational longevity) and closeness (relational proximity). Without these two ingredients you can be liked, but you won’t necessarily be trusted.

If you're tired of youth ministry that fails to change lives, it's time to change youth ministry


Building on two decades of the Fuller Youth Institute's work and incorporating extensive new research and interviews, Faith Beyond Youth Group identifies the reasons it feels like you’re working so hard but having so little impact, and offers five ways adult youth leaders can cultivate character for a lifetime of growing closer to Jesus rather than drifting away. With practical insight and tips, you’ll find out how to cultivate trust, model growth, teach for transformation, practice together, and make meaning so that teenagers can become adults who hold fast to Jesus and boldly live out a robust faith in the world around them.

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Jen Bradbury Image
Jen Bradbury

Jen Bradbury serves as the Sr. Director of Family Ministry at First Pres. Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. With more than twenty years of experience in youth ministry, she’s the author of several books, including The Jesus Gap, The Real Jesus, Called: A Novel About Youth Ministry Transition, and What Do I Believe About What I Believe? Jen and her husband, Doug, live in the Chicagoland area where they can regularly be found adventuring with their two young daughters.

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