Having explored 5 Reasons To Say No To Program-Driven Ministry, I think it is only fitting to offer an alternative. I’m now going to offer five reasons to approach ministry as a more relational endeavor than a programmatic one.
1. Relational ministry is personal. One of the great things about a relationship between two people is that the relationship can only be experienced by the two involved. It is a unique, beautiful, and organic expression of Christ’s love for us. When I was 16 and developed a relationship with my high school English teacher, I was blessed because in the smallness of our relationship, I experienced his raw, broken humanity, and he experienced mine. We got to know each other well, and our relationship took on a life of its own, and that life was and continues to be experienced only by me and him. That reality has left an indelible mark on my understanding of God’s love for humanity. While God’s love for humanity is universally true, it is specifically experienced. This is what we attest to in our relationships with others.
2. Relational ministry is a ministry for everyone. The great thing about relational ministry is that the only credential you need is a birth certificate. If you are a human person, then you are capable of engaging in relational ministry. By opening your humanity and experience to another person and by allowing them to open their humanity and experience to you, relational ministry occurs. Since everyone is capable of entering into relationships and meeting Christ within that context, we become less reliant on a single person (like a charismatic, connectable youth director, for example) to “keep our young people in the Church.” With everyone bearing the load of this ministry, that brings me to my next point.
3. Relational ministry is sustainable. Since relational ministry is the work of the entire Church, then this frees the youth director to think of ways in which she can facilitate relationships between young people and adults. Instead of running around, desperately trying to make connections with young people herself, the youth director can bring other adults into the ministry and not be so prone to burnout. If all people in a congregation embrace their roles as relational ministers, then youth ministry can be sustained indefinitely. The youth director, like any other adult in the congregation, is then able to invest in journeying closely alongside 3 or 4 young people. This might beg the question, though, of why a church should have a youth director at all. My thought is that the youth director should know enough about the young people in the church and enough about the adults in the church to be a functional relational ministry “matchmaker.” In this way, every young person is taken care of, and the ministry of such a congregation will not only thrive, but it will last.
4. Relational ministry is eternal. When I say it will last, I mean that it will last eternally. Unlike programs, relationships do not have to end upon graduation. While many do (and this is clearly the non-eternal part of relationships), I think we do injustice to relationships when we fail to understand that when we open our humanity to one another, we meet Christ concretely within the context of that relationship. In Orthodoxy, we confess, “Christ is in our midst,” but we fail to act as though we believe this when we concentrate our efforts on developing programs, curricula, and other things by which we well-meaningly intend to convince our young people about the Faith of the Fathers. As we enter into relationship with one another, however, we transcend the temporal nature of this world and touch the eternal hands of Christ in our midst. Relationships are a mystery for this reason, for in entering into them, we enter somehow into the eternal mystery of the person of Jesus Christ (“Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Mt. 18:20)
5. Relational ministry trains minds. If program-driven ministry is highly programmer-oriented, then relational ministry is highly other-oriented. If we step away from program-driven ministry and enter into relational ministry, we make room for young people to struggle openly with their questions, doubts, concerns, fears, and desires. In doing so, we can discuss these things with our young people and challenge their thinking much more effectively. Rather than simply conveying the message of “Get with the program,” we offer a sort of training ground for young people to learn how to dialogue about their Faith in a way that is constructive and non-threatening. Within the intimate context of relationship, these young people will develop the capacity to think critically and clearly when they are later faced with something that, in their youth, they simply had been told not to do. We need to be focused not on simply instructing our young people about what is and what isn’t Christian-y, and we must focus more on training young people to begin thinking Christianly. Relational ministry allows this to happen.
Don’t get me wrong. I certainly think that programs have their place. I would say that programs and relational ministry can be compared to baseball stadiums and baseball games. The baseball stadium is a place that has been set aside to give room for the baseball game to occur. So with programs, we must remember that they are the place in which relational ministry ought to occur. When we wonder why our young people are leaving the baseball stadiums, however, the answer isn’t simply to build more baseball stadiums. The answer is to offer them games. It is, after all, the game that is compelling, and not the stadium (although, some stadiums are much more appealing than others). But let’s not get confused and focus on the stadiums of our programs; instead, let’s get more intentional about entering into the beautiful, eternal, small game of relationship.