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.
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 chairperson, 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 three years for Young Life in suburban Minnesota, and I understood the power and potential of influencing adolescents through my relationship with them.
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.
But how could I influence them? I knew how to do the classic relational or incarnational youth ministry; I had been trained by Young Life, had youth ministry degrees, and had read all the most important books on relational youth work, but it seemed in this context that such perspectives didn’t work. I did as I had been taught; I met these adolescents in their own location and sought to start conversations with them around things they liked.
But when you approach a kid you know while he is talking with his friends, and say, “Hey what’s up?” and his response is literally, “Get the f&%k 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 young people when they return your favor of a burger and a ride by tagging your car windows with rival gang signs of the territory you will have to drive back through after dropping them off at home? How do you influence young people who refuse your care, but nevertheless continue to ask for it with their constant and consistent presence? This 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 they are successful? Faithful? Or simply worthwhile?
And what do you say to the 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 that I desired for them. Their deep wounds of poverty, abuse, abandonment, and violence kept them from trusting me and the desires I had for them.
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 association it became clear that we were more concerned about influencing them. We cared more about getting them saved or confirmed or involved in positive activities than we cared about being truly with them in the deepest joys and sufferings of their lives.
What I mean is that we are often taught, and therefore teach others that relationships are the key to ministry because they are a tool. 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 towards 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 me seeing 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. Maybe a more honest theological understanding of the incarnation is to assert that God entered our foreign world not to convince or save it but to love it even to the point of death. God so loved the world and those in it that God choose to bear its deepest, darkest sufferings so that God might love it fully. In this perspective salvation is not being convinced of a certain perspective, but coming to recognize that we have been deeply loved and so are given the power to live as children of God, children of love. This is salvation! This means that relational youth ministry is not about convincing adolescents by influencing them, but it is about loving them by being with them in the messiness of their lives. It is about suffering with them. This might make you very uncomfortable; you might be thinking, “I just want to be a volunteer, I’m busy, I don’t want to suffer with kids, I don’t even know what that means.” As scary as this approach sounds, you may find that this stance is more freeing and humanizing not only to kids but also to you than expecting that as a volunteer, part-time youth director, or overworked youth pastor you are to influence kids.
The incarnation, as we’ve said, is not about influencing humanity, but about being with humanity in the fullest. It is about God giving God’s self so that humanity again can belong (be in relationship) with God. But we must remember that the incarnation leads to the crucifixion, revealing that broken belonging (broken relationship) can only be repaired by taking on suffering. Therefore, restored community can only be found by going through suffering.
The problem, then, with a relational youth ministry of influence is that it cannot suffer. Influence has no room to suffer; it is too busy trying to make a case for a position beyond suffering. The person who wants to influence an adolescent is not as concerned with living with and alongside the adolescent in his or her deep sufferings as he or she is with the adolescent getting over them and accepting something beyond them. The influencer is stepping into God’s role of preserving and determining the eternal status of the adolescent, rather than entering into life, and suffering, fully with the young person.
But to ignore the adolescent’s suffering, or to minimize it, is to ignore the full humanity of the adolescent, and also to ignore the suffering God who bears our suffering so that we might be with God. This, simply put, is God’s call for all of us as ministers to and with young people.
Andrew Root is associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary. He is the author of The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (with Kenda Creasy Dean, IVP, 2011), The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being (Baker Academic, 2010), Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (IVP, 2007) and Relationships Unfiltered (Zondervan/YS, 2009). He earned a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary.