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I was sitting across from her at her kitchen table when she said it.
Staring at me with eyes full of passion and a smile that expressed her excitement, she said, "We want you to do relational ministry with these kids; we want you to be incarnational because that's what they need. They need Jesus."
I returned the same intense stare with a nod of enthusiasm; I was ready to be relational and incarnational-I was ready to give these kids Jesus.
We nodded and smiled at each other again, now with less intensity. She, the chair of the youth ministry committee, grabbed my hand and invited the junior high pastor to pray a blessing upon our new endeavor. That was it-the beginning of my stint as outreach minister at a church in Los Angeles.
It may have been a stint-I was only there for two years-but my time there would forever change me and my ideas about youth ministry ... specifically, relational ministry. Four months prior to my start, the church confronted what they believed was a serendipitous occurrence. One Wednesday night, for no particular reason, dozens of adolescents began showing up at the church. I'm sure partof the reason for their appearance, if not most of it, was the suitability of the church steps for skateboarding, as well as glimpses of the opposite sex and the faint odor of pizza drifting from the building. While these adolescents from the neighborhood were happy to hang out in front of the church, they were much less willing to participate in anything inside the church.
It was my job to bridge the two worlds, to stand between the world of the church and the world of the neighborhood adolescent. It was my job (as understood by the youth ministry chair-person, the youth ministry staff, and myself) to influence these adolescents toward participation in the church and its faith. I didn't blink twice at this expectation. I had just come from working for three years for Young Life in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, and I understood the power and potential of influencing adolescents through my relationship with them.
My ministry began on a houseboat in the middle of some godforsaken stretch of water in Northern California. (My apologies to those who appreciate a Northern California houseboat trip-I don't!) Most of the participating adolescents came from families of the church. They were white, upper-middle class, and (for the most part) respectful. Yet two of the adolescents on the trip were different: they were non-white, came from economically challenged families, and were (for the most part) disrespectful. I was told that these two, Jeff and Javier, were representative of the adolescents I was to influence.
And so I began. Throughout the next school year I was thrust into a ministry context for which I was vastly unprepared. I kept trying to influence them, and though I succeeded at getting them to come into the church building, I was clearly failing to get them to commit themselves to the importance of the church and (more significantly) the faith.
How could I influence them? I knew how to do classic relational/incarnational youth ministry; I had been trained by Young Life, earned youth ministry degrees, and read all the most important books concerning relational youth work. But it seemed that in this context such perspectives didn't work. Still, I did as I had been taught; I met these adolescents in their own location and initiated conversations with them focused on things they liked.
But when you approach a kid you already know while he's talking with his friends and say, "Hey what's up?" and his response is literally, "Get the f- away from me!" what do you do? What do you do when an adolescent-who, only a half hour ago, through long looks and shoulder shrugs, expressed how deeply it hurts never to see his father-is now calling you "a rapist" for expressing any care for him? How do you influence a group of teenagers when they return your favor of a burger and a ride by tagging your car windows with rival gang signs of the very territory you'll have to drive back through after dropping them off at home? How do you influence teenagers who refuse your care but nevertheless continue to ask for it with their constant and consistent presence?
The latter may be far more extreme than your experience, but it raises questions for all of us-most directly, What is the point of our relationships with kids? And how do we know when these relationships are successful? Faithful? Or simply worthwhile?
Still my experience pushed even more questions to the surface: How can you be a relational bridge between adolescents and a congregation from whom the adolescents steal money, tag their building, and use their parking lot to sell drugs, exchange sexual favors, and harass elderly members of the church?
And what do you say to that congregation when their commitment to the neighborhood adolescents has turned from honest desire to all-out fear, frustration, and new assertions that kids must earn the right (by good behavior) to be at the church?
I started to realize that relational youth ministry was much more difficult than I had previously thought or experienced. It appeared that, because of these adolescents' deep suffering, they were unable to be influenced toward the ends I desired for them. Their deep wounds of poverty, abuse, abandonment, and violence kept them from trusting me.
But it wasn't just these adolescents. As I thought back to my ministry in St. Paul, I recalled many kids who seemed beyond the reach of my, or any ministry's, influence. They, too, refused to trust my relational approaches. It appeared that the only difference between them and the adolescents in L.A. was the middle-class decorum that softened the manner in which they avoided me or denied my attempts to influence them toward faith.
I was heartbroken about the deep suffering of the adolescents in L.A. and wanted to help them in any way I could. But because they didn't trust my relational motives, there was nothing I could do.
Then, in the middle of a fight with my wife, it all started to make sense. She was going through a crisis in her own family of origin and dealing with the hurt of the situation, and every time she expressed her feelings, I tried to reframe or fix her problems. I said things like, "Well, what if we thought about it like this?" or "Yeah, but don't think of it like that."
Frustrated, she turned to me and said in exasperation, "Stop! Stop trying to make things better! Relationships aren't about making things work; they're first about being together in the crap of life! It's only when we're together, really together, that things can get any better! Just stop trying to fix things and be with me!"
Hang on a second: If it's true that relationships aren't about making things better, getting them right, or making them work, then what was I doing in my ministry with these neighborhood adolescents? What was I doing in relational ministry?
I had to be honest with myself: I was trying to influence them. I was trying to get them to accept, know, trust, believe, or participate in something, believing it was best for them, believing it would fix them. But my desire to influence them was keeping me from really being with them-in a truly relational way.
Suddenly it was clear that the implicit, influence-centered relational/incarnational youth ministry I had learned was more about my agenda for these adolescents than it was truly about them. As my wife had reminded me, true relationships set their own terms for interaction (rather than being defined by one person's agenda).
Of course, my relationship with my wife isn't the same as the relationships I had with the adolescents in my ministry (in terms of level of intimacy and commitment, to name a few differences), but surely there are commonalities. They may be distinctly different verses, but they are part of the same song. For example, both relationships call for loyalty, commitment, sensitivity, compassion, and love. If we assume, as incarnational ministry does, that there is an analogy between our relationships with kids and God's relationship with humanity, then surely there is an analogy between my relationship with my wife and my relationships with adolescents. But it became clear to me that when I applied to my marriage the same principles of relational influence I was trying to develop with kids, my wife saw my efforts as meaningless or even hurtful.
I had to recognize that sharing in the suffering humanity of these adolescents had been secondary to my desire to influence them toward some other end. It took the deep suffering of these adolescents in Los Angeles to alert me to the fact that, though we might call our youth ministry "relational," it fails to be so if we have another end in mind for our relationship than being with and for each other.
SENSING THE PROBLEM
It was then no surprise to me when I heard some voices in youth ministry making a call for us to move beyond a relational ministry to something they called "post-relational ministry." It sounded interesting; yet the argument, when presented, made no sense to me. They were calling us to concern ourselves with community practices more than relationships. But community itself is a network of relationships, and surely focusing on community practices would not solve the issues I faced with the likes of Jeff and Javier. Besides, my wife would have been even more frustrated with me if I had focused my attention on my own listening skills or dressed up our "date night" but still had been unwilling to really share her situation.
It was also odd that these ministry voices seemed to portray relational ministry as a projection of modernity, thinking that by adding a post to relational they were freeing it from the scandal of modernity. Yet, as any good postmodern theorist will tell you, the turn from modernity to postmodernity (or whatever you want to call the milieu in which we now find ourselves) is characterized by an acknowledgement of our relational interconnections, whether based in physics, culture and economy, psychology, or theology. Therefore, they couldn't possibly be calling youth ministry to move into truly post (i.e., after) relational ministry, right? They surely weren't calling us to do ministry without relationships, were they?
Rather, what I believe these voices wished to say-and what my own ministry experience most definitely did say-was that youth ministry needed to rethink what it really believed about relationships.
What I believe is needed is not a post-relational ministry but a truly relational relational ministry-a relational ministry that is truly incarnational by being truly relational.
It may be that we owe a great many adolescents (and now adults) an apology. We may have talked about wanting to be in relationship with them, but upon deeper reflection it became clear we were more concerned about influencing them. We cared more about getting them saved, baptized, confirmed, or involved in positive activities than about being truly with them in the deepest joys and sufferings of their lives.
Of course it would be way too simple (and wrong) to say that every adult-adolescent relationship there ever was in youth ministry has been more about influencing adolescents than deeply being with them. We all can probably think of relationships we have had with a few adolescents that have been truly relational relationships-that were sincerely about being together in the mess of life. The problem, however, is that when it comes to the history and theology of relational youth ministry (the way we learn about it and seek to practice it), relationships were used for what sociologists call instrumental purposes.
What I mean is we are often taught, and therefore teach others, that relationships are the key to ministry because they are tools. We say that if this tool is used correctly, it can provide us with the leverage we need to influence adolescents in the direction we desire. (And it doesn't sound as bad when we say that what we desire to influence them toward is "a relationship with God.")
But is influence really what relationships are for? Is this really what the incarnation is about? I am certain (from the experience of trying) that my wife would not stand for my viewing our relationship as a tool for me to get what I desire from her. And by extension, I have trouble believing that God sent Jesus because he was the most effective tool to get us to do what God wants.
So how did relational youth ministry become the way we do things? And why does it use the incarnation as a model for how to influence people?
A LITTLE HISTORY
Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, is often credited with the creation of relational youth ministry. Of course, pastors and missionaries for decades, centuries, and maybe even millennia have discussed the importance of relationally entering into the geographical place where one is in ministry. But Rayburn's relationship focus came in the wake of unique cultural changes. Whereas pastors and missionaries previously were either already within or became part of the local context by moving in and sharing in its life, the youth worker of the middle twentieth century could no longer do this.
In the years leading up to Rayburn's ministry, adolescence had become a life stage experienced by all Westerners somewhere between the ages of 13 and 18. This stage of life came with a distinct culture originally created from the fact that teenagers spent most of their meaningful hours of the day no longer with the family working but with their peers learning.
In the halls of the high school, adolescence became a distinct culture in America, with its own clothing, music, food, and activities. Adults were excluded from this culture simply by being older than 18 and no longer in high school. Most parents feared this new distinct youth culture, worrying about its effects on their children. But it was not only the youth culture that pushed parents into fear but also larger cultural realities such as World War II, the Cold War, consumerism, and secularization. America was changing in the wake of modernization, and adolescents were now cut free from their parents to have their own experiences and opinions of these changes.
It was during a seminary internship that Rayburn was pointed toward this strange new culture. His supervising pastor asserted, "I'm not particularly worried about the kids who are in. They're safe, and as far as they're concerned, I don't need your services. To you I entrust the crowd of teenagers who stay away from church. The center of your widespread parish will be the local high school."
After a few failed attempts at starting Bible clubs on the high school campus, Rayburn decided the only way to get kids to participate in his program was by inviting them personally. Approaching adolescents in the hallways, Rayburn would start up a conversation about music, sports, or fashion (the pillars of the distinct youth culture). As he did this, gradually a relationship would form. He knew their names and their likes and dislikes, among other things. After such conversations Rayburn would invite kids to come to his Club meeting, and to his surprise, they would. They not only came but brought their friends as well. Rayburn had put his finger on a brand-new pulse: The world of the American adolescent was constructed around self-chosen relationships, and if Rayburn could himself enter into relationships with adolescents, he could "earn or win the right" to influence them toward participation in his ministry or his faith. In a time when parents, teachers, and church leaders were afraid of the new influences their youth were exposed to on a daily basis, the idea of using relationships to influence adolescents toward positive things instead was a natural fit.
This idea of influence ran so deep in Rayburn and Young Life's early thought that it became an organizational technique to first seek out the most popular kids in a high school. The belief was that by winning their allegiance, adolescents with less popularity would be drawn like a magnet to the place and commitments of the most popular.
Excerpted from Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root Copyright © 2009 by Andrew Root. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Chapter 1 What Relational Youth Ministry Is Not 13
Chapter 2 Why Relational Youth Ministry Can't Be about Influence 29
Chapter 3 Relational Ministry as Place-Sharing 49
Chapter 4 The Place-Sharer as Incarnate 65
Chapter 5 The Place-Sharer as Crucified 77
Chapter 6 The Place-Sharer as Resurrected 95
Chapter 7 Place-Sharing as God's Presence 109
Chapter 8 The Shape of Faithful Place-Sharing 117
Chapter 9 Thoughts about What Place-Sharing Might Look Like in Your Ministry Context 135
Posted December 6, 2011
This is a MUST read for anyone involved in the life of a tween, pre-teen, or teenager. I might go as far as saying it's a MUST read for anyone involved in the life of a church. Andrew Root does a remarkable job of defining the role of the youth worker - both paid and volunteer. Relational youth ministry is all about being present in the lives of kids - it's no different than having a relationship with anyone else. No special knowledge is required, just a willingness to be open to sharing life together.I highly recommend this book to all people involved in congregational life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 30, 2010
This is a MUST read for anyone involved in the life of a tween, pre-teen, or teenager. I might go as far as saying it's a MUST read for anyone involved in the life of a church. Andrew Root does a remarkable job of defining the role of the youth worker - both paid and volunteer. Relational youth ministry is all about being present in the lives of kids - it's no different than having a relationship with anyone else. No special knowledge is required, just a willingness to be open to sharing life together.
I highly recommend this book to all people involved in congregational life.