When I started in youth ministry, the primary approach to youth ministry in the local church was an approach borrowed from the successful parachurch ministry Young Life. Young Life founder Jim Rayburn drew upon the incarnational ministry of Christ as the biblical/theological foundation of what became “relational youth ministry.” I am a product of it. My relationship with my first youth pastor started with time he spent on my turf – doing what YL would call “contact work”: attending my baseball games, taking me out for a Dr. Pepper, and generally just hanging out with me. Over time, the Lord opened my eyes to the truth of the Gospel and I became a Christ-follower. Eventually, I even followed God’s call into student ministry and employed a similar relational/incarnational approach.
In Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation, Root challenges us to consider our motivation behind relational ministry. Root contends that typically the motivation is influence. “I have realized,” writes Root, “that a youth ministry of influence has very little to do with the incarnation. The incarnation is about a God who desires to be with us so fully that God becomes one of us in order to join us in the darkness of our personal and corporate hells.” Root invites youth pastors, youth workers and parents to consider the transformative impact of the unconditional relationship itself. Rather than seeing relationships with teens as a tool for “cultural leverage (getting adolescents to believe or obey),” Root sees them as “the concrete location of God’s action in the world.” For Root, “the incarnation is not about influence but accompaniment. It is not about getting us right but bearing what is wrong with us, so that we might find that we are only right in the embrace of a God who loves so much to be with us!” To advance this thesis, Root borrows the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which asks the questions: Who is Jesus Christ? Where is Jesus Christ? What then shall we do? Root notes a correlation between Bonhoeffer’s three theological questions and Ross Langmead’s (The Word Made Flesh: Towards an Incarnational Missiology) threefold understanding of incarnational mission: Jesus as a pattern for mission, participation in the presence of Jesus, and joining God’s mission of enfleshment. Dr. Root makes a compelling case that youth pastors, youth workers and parents of youth should see relationships as “place-sharing” rather than as leverage for personal influence. “Just as Jesus incarnate, crucified and resurrected was fully our place-sharer, so we too, as Jesus’ disciples, must ourselves become place-sharers, suffering with and for young people.”
Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry left me with a lot to think about and digest. I found the book to be very much in the vein of Kenda Creasy Dean’s influential book The Godbearing Life. Like I said, I came to Christ (as did literally millions of Christian young people in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s) through a more instrumental type of relational ministry – relationships that served the purpose of influence. Yet, I believe that Root, Dean, Christian Smith and others are tapping into a deeper relational hunger in students today that instrumental relationships cannot satiate. And I also believe that today’s teenagers are more cynical and more sensitive to ulterior motives behind relationships with adults than I was as a teenager in the 70s. This is where relational youth ministry rightly demands to be revisited.