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Relational Youth Ministry

In conversation with Dr. Andrew Root: "Relationships aren’t a means to an end, but the end itself".

‘Relational’ has been a buzz word in youth ministry for the past few decades. Emerging in the last Century through the leadership of Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life, this philosophy of ministry seeks to communicate Jesus’ love through a simple method: building relationships with young people by which they can experience the love of God. Where churches and youth work had been operating under a paradigm of ‘come to us’, a revolution began: the gospel must be taken to and shared with young people where they are.

As a seminary intern, Rayburn was sent into the local high school to attempt to reach young people who had never had contact with the Church. He found that as he started to talk to them about music, sport or fashion relationships would be built. This was the foundation from which he could then personally invite them to church events, or youth group meetings. He could ‘earn the right’ to invite them along, and to influence them towards participation in his faith. This idea of influence ran so deep in Rayban’s thoughts that it became a hallmark of the organisation he went on to found, Young Life; he would seek out the most popular kids in high school and, after building a relationship with them, would encourage them to attend youth ministry events.

The problem with such an approach, according to Dr Andrew Root, is that the relationship is not an end in itself, but a pathway to another goal. In these scenarios, youth workers are fully justified in dropping relationships in which they haven’t seen the fruit of their ‘influence’, and beginning new ones once young people have successfully been ‘influenced’ into their ministries. Root is an advocate of relational youth ministry, but relational youth ministry of a different kind – in which the relationship itself is the place in which God can meet young people, not a means through which young people are influenced. Premier Youthwork’s Jamie Cutteridge caught up with him to hear more.

JC: What is relational youth ministry, for you?

AR: I’ve been working on this project for quite a long time and thinking about what relationships actually are in the context of youth ministry. My own journey is of being a youth worker and really struggling with the question: what actually is relationship? It feels to me that the English language doesn’t help us very much and that we fall into the trap of using the word ‘relationship’ for a lot of different things. I can say that I have a relationship with a product, like Apple, and I love my iPhone and my computer…that’s one kind of relationship. There’s another kind of relationship that a mother has with her new-born baby. I think too often we’re not reflective about what we actually mean when we say ‘relationship’. As a word that we throw around it can have a large breadth to it and what it can mean. When I was a youth worker I was struggling with questions about what we were actually about and what we were doing in the context of our relationships with young people. What were our relationships with young people actually for? The big breakthrough for me, that I still hold to, is that relationships aren’t actually a tool for ministry. In an American context, that’s how we’ve often seen it - that in a more secularised age, we need our relationships to be the tool or the mechanism that gets young people into the Church, engaged in the youth programme or to hear the gospel. What I’ve been trying to explore is how relationships don’t become a means to another end, but are actually the end itself; the relationship actually becomes the location where God meets young people. The youth worker shouldn’t be a relational youth worker just to get kids to certain ends, but actually the relationship in the midst of being with them is a place where Jesus Christ encounters us.

JC: Have your thoughts on this developed over the years?

AR: For the last 20 years, our thinking has been a bit like the movie Inception. The whole point of the movie is that Leonardo DiCaprio’s got a crew and they go inside a machine that goes inside people’s heads. They get offered a large sum of money and the objective is not to go in and steal an idea, but to actually implant an idea.

We’ve been captivated in ministry by this idea of relationships because we’ve had the sense that we need to do an ‘Inception’. We’ve defined people as individuals who are their interests. People are interested in so many other things than going to church or going to youth group. It becomes an incredible pastoral task if your job is to transform people’s interests. If people are interested in football instead of going to church, or going to the pub instead of to youth group, the relationship has become the way to do an ‘Inception’. You become close enough with these people that you can use the relationship to implant a new interest into their subconscious that they didn’t have before. They weren’t interested in church, but if you can be in relationship with them and befriend them, then you can convert their interests. Part of the danger of that is that, like in the movie, if at any point people realise that you’re not really there for them, but that the relationship is a device to get them to do something else, then they will revolt against it.

The way I’ve framed it is that too often we’ve seen relationships as a way of influencing people towards an end. I’m trying to stand in opposition to that and say that I don’t think relationships and ministry are for inceptions or for influencing people towards an end, but actually about participating in each other’s lives as a testimony to a God who participates in our lives. I guess at a certain level using relationship as inceptions has been successful, but it’s only been successful because we’ve turned Christianity into an idea. It’s been the best way to convert people towards the idea. But if Christianity is really fundamentally about a person and an encounter with Jesus, then I think it has obscured the depth of the gospel rather than helped it, in that our living with and for each other as an end in itself is maybe the way we encounter the person-hood of Jesus Christ.

There are challenges with this; if it’s just about being together and not influencing towards an end, where does evangelism and proclamation of the gospel come in? The odd thing is that if we make it all about influence and turn Christianity into an idea then we lose the living person of Jesus Christ.

JC: Are there challenges to implementing this kind of youth ministry?

AR: As I talk to youth ministry people around the world, part of the struggle is that they get it and they’d like to move in that direction, but the problem is that the people supervising them and paying their salaries feel very differently about it. ‘We have you here and we’re paying you to get young people committed to the idea of Christianity. It’s great that you have all these ideas, but actually can you just put together a flashy youth programme for us?’ To develop beyond that way of thinking there really has to be a theological conversation about what the point of youth ministry is. We haven’t really had that conversation in North America in a broad sense, so the undercurrent will always be towards becoming the sales reps for the Christian idea instead of helping to create spaces where young generations can participate in the life of the community.

In the American context we fall into two traps. One is that we think of youth ministry as a technology that can solve our problems, like problems of secularism or young people who are just bored of the church, or taking on immoral behaviours. So, youth ministry becomes a technology that solves these problems: if you just have a good youth programme you can get kids engaged in the church and kids will make good decisions. I think that’s an ugly ditch. The other ugly ditch is the idea that youth ministry is about getting theology into kids’ heads. Youth ministry is just to teach them the tradition and then they’ll know the doctrine and then everything will be ok because we’ll be doing what we’re supposed to be doing. I guess I want to push beyond those two extremes and think about what the ‘theological’ means. What does it mean to share in young people’s experience of the theological act? This connects the relational ministry thesis with theological elements, as the relational ministry thesis of place sharing, of sharing in the life of the other, becomes the locus or centre of where theology happens and where the theological can be transformational. 

If we make youth work all about influence and turn Christianity into an idea we lose the living person of Jesus Christ  

JC: The idea of a theology of youth ministry is one that you, more than anyone else in Western thinking, have been trying to push forward. You’ve spoken a lot in the past about the idea of crises leading us to think theologically. Do you think youth ministry has to hit that crisis point in order for us to move in that direction?

AR: That’s a really good question…Yes, I think so. Maybe in the American context we’re getting there. We’re so anxious about millennials and social scientists are saying that there’s the rise of the ‘nones’: the demographic who are ticking ‘none’ in the variables of studies about which religious affiliation they have. Everybody is pretty anxious.

When I think of my own theological perspective, for me crisis is actually important. I probably have overplayed that in my theological work, but what’s essentially important to me, and I’ll guess what I’ll hit at in my keynote at the Youth Work Summit, is the importance of embracing the depth of experience that young people, and all people, have. The crisis that is going on with us right now is probably unhelpful and leads to anxiety that pushes us to look for functional mechanisms to fix people rather than sharing in the depth of their humanity. I think the crisis that we need is to see the concrete humanity of each other and create spaces for people to articulate their experience.

One of the stories that I’ll definitely share at the Summit is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a letter he wrote to a friend of his. There’s a boy who comes to his flat to drop something off from his parents, and the boy is usually quite exuberant and upbeat, too wild to sit down in class. But on this occasion, he comes in to see Bonhoeffer and is quite sad and down, and Bonhoeffer just tends to his personhood. The boy starts crying. It soon comes out that he’s crying because his three year-old German Shepherd dog has just died. Dietrich shares in this experience and the crisis of this boy who has lost his dog. Eventually, the boy asks Bonhoeffer if he will see his dog in heaven. Dietrich basically has to do some theological thinking about what’s happening and how he should answer the question next to the boy’s concrete experience. So, I think that’s what I want to mean when I talk about crisis. Are we willing to attend to the depth of our experience and seek for Jesus Christ next to our experience? For me, that makes the theological very different from theology. Theology is just trying to get doctrine inside of kid’s heads. The theological is this relational dynamic of sharing the place of young people and seeking for the questions, but also seeking for the experience of the living Christ to come to us as we share in each other’s humanity through the crisis of ‘what does it mean to be living?’ Or, it could be the great joys of the mysteries of being alive too, but it’s this depth of experience that I’m after - that I think youth ministry is fairly open to, where other parts of the church aren’t and I think where youth ministry can be informative to the broader Church. How do we attend to lived experience as a way in to really rich and deep encounters with the living Christ?

JC: Do you think that relational thinking will stay at the heart of youth ministry for the next 20 years, or will we find some other paradigm to step into?

AR: I think there will be new paradigms. The question we’re confronted with is whether a certain relational theology is still the place where we encounter the revelation of Jesus Christ. Maybe in some traditions this will become more sacramental or maybe we’ll become more about proclamation or preaching sermons to kids. I don’t necessarily see that happening. But, the question ultimately is whether relational youth work a model or is it a way of imagining the encounter with the revelation of Jesus Christ? That’s ultimately what my project is about. I’m not all that for relational youth work as a model of ministry or a strategy of how to do youth ministry, but I am really interested in relationships as the locus of where it is that Jesus Christ encounters us or becomes the locus or revelation itself. One of the main pushes in my own youth work is to try and help youth workers think where it is for them that Jesus Christ encounters young people. Youth ministry mustn’t fall into this non-denominational American understanding of youth ministry that’s fun and has a rock band. Maybe that’s ok, but how do the practices that you do connect with your understanding of where it is that Jesus Christ actually encounters us? So, I’m trying to do away with the concept of using relationships as a strategy for doing ministry and rather as a place where Jesus Christ encounters us.

FURTHER READING by Andrew Root:

Relationships Unfiltered

The Relational Pastor

The Theological Turn in youth Ministry

Dr. Andrew Root will be speaking at this year’s Youth Work Summit Intensive, a day of deep reflection into the topic of relational youth work for youth work practitioners. For more information and to book into the event, visit youthworksummit.com



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