Moving Toward Relational Ministry

In case you missed this post on my personal blog, here it is for you now.

I have had a lot of time lately to think about a right approach to ministry. One of the big problems that we face is that we have become too reliant on the use of programs. We need to reclaim the smallness of the Gospel and the world of discipleship. We need to abandon the idea that we are going to “influence” kids. They aren’t looking for “good influences” any more than they are looking for “bad influences.” With so many voices competing for their attention in their social settings and in the commercial world, we cannot simply assume that since our voice is “reasonable” they will hear us. Rather, we must abandon the idea of influencing them at all and enter relationship for the sake of relationship and remember that the community of Christ is the concrete context in which the Holy Spirit moves, and ultimately, it is the Spirit of God, not us nor our programs, that causes transformation and has influence on the hearts and minds of people.

Our call must be to enter into the crypts of young people’s hearts and to invite them into ours. We are to share suffering with each other, for this is what the Lord Jesus does. He shares our life and offers us his. His teachings are not abstractions nor can they be separated from who he is. When we teach our children about the Christian life, we must remember that these things are not abstractions, but they are (or ought to be) inextricably bound to our lives. This is the same reason for the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous in asking recovering addicts to participate in the struggles and suffering of less experienced recovering addicts. They are able to speak to the life of a recovering addict precisely because they know it from the inside. So, too, Christ speaks to us from his experience of the divine and human life. His word is him.

If we are to encourage young people to embrace their lives as Christians and to take hold of the things to which they are called, then we must be prepared to open our own lives to them and share our own struggles and joys. This is different than sharing our piety and our teachings; we are simply sharing life with young people, and this is the path to true Christian discipleship. We don’t learn to be Christians by being told to practice the Christian virtues and to avoid sinning anymore than we learn to swim by being told to paddle hard and to avoid drowning. We need someone to get in the water with us and to hold us as we struggle to stay afloat. There is safety in the struggle of learning to swim at the hands of a patient teacher; so, too, there must be safety in the struggle of learning the Christian life at the hands of patient mentor.

This does not necessitate a perfect teacher, but it demands the hard work of sharing life with teens. In these moments, we can share the things that excite us and that move us, inviting young people to “come and see.” However, this must be seen as different than influencing teens; we are simply opening up our own hopes and sufferings in the context of relationship. Is not this the core of the Gospel message anyway? When does Jesus or the apostles tell people, “Go and see.” It is not this way, but rather, it is an invitation into a shared experience. “Come with me, and let us see what it is that Christ has for us.” It is true that the Lord commissions his apostles at the end of Matthew, but he does so with the end idea being to “make disciples,” and disciples are defined by their proximity to one who disciples them.

Ministry is no great puzzle to be solved. It is, however, a simple mystery to enter. We need to share our lives and hearts with people. In a postmodern world, this is the only thing that moves souls. Modernism’s pedagogy of (more or less) “See this the way I see it” has been replaced by a pedagogy that asks, “How do you experience this thing that I see, and how can my perspective be shaped by yours?” With shows like American Idol and Survivor where viewers can vote to make the show they want; with websites like Facebook and YouTube where users comment on the lives of others; with applications like Instagram and Twitter where subscribers update the world on the present happenings of life, the Church must respond to the participatory inclination of many of these young people who engage such things. Young people crave community and dialogue, not simple regurgitation of Church creeds and moralistic platitudes. We must offer a forum for true knowledge of the other, and this forum must be small, immediate, and authentic.

One of the great things about postmodernity is that it suggests that every story matters. The flaw of this, however, is based in the assumption that each story marks its own truth and reality. With the abandonment of the metanarrative (that is, one, large unifying narrative of human existence), the only mark of truth becomes the individual experience. Where Christianity must counter this attack on Reality is by showing that each story matters while also fitting squarely within the Grand Metanarrative of God’s love for his people; I (and St Irenaeus) would probably title this story The Recapitulation of All Things. Survivor, Facebook, and Instagram are all desperate pleas to be noticed and have lives affirmed; yes, you matter, and to prove it, I’m going to take the time to comment on your status. The Church must not criticize this movement in the souls of her young people. Rather, it must affirm that each young person does matter and that she fits within the larger framework of the Lord’s Metanarrative. But this takes work.

Too often, we convey the message to our young people that what matters is their attendance, their adherence to a lesson that is being taught, their obedience to authority, etc. This must stop if we are to reach the postmodern young people (after all, postmodernity isn’t going anywhere simply by wishing it away). We must stop the insistence that kids “show up.” We must stop insisting that they “get something out of it.” We must simply slow down and say, “You matter, and I am here for the journey. Even if you screw up everything. Even if you never quit sleeping around. Even if you never stop using drugs. You are not alone, and I will never forsake you.”

Is it any wonder that so many of us feel forsaken by God when our fellow humans (frequently those who speak about the eternal love of God) forsake us in our folly? I would suggest that it is not. We learn about God from others. We learn that the grace of God is big enough to handle us by how our fellow persons experience and externalize that all-encompassing, sufficient grace. Our relationships are the concrete context of Christ’s presence in this world, and we must begin taking this seriously.

[Much thanks to Dr. Andrew Root as his works Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry and Relationships Unfiltered have shaped much of my thinking about ministry.]

Image sources: http://cyberlens.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/friendship.jpg




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3 responses to “Moving Toward Relational Ministry

  1. Instead of focusing on influencing our kids, we should work more on how we can get them to have a closer relationship with God.

    • Thank you so much for reading and for your comment!

      I like where you’re headed with that, but I still think that amounts to a different kind of influence. My thought is that as we enter into relationship with young people and leave our influencing thoughts at the door (“If I can just get this kid to stop/do/believe/hope for this or that…”) in order to spend time knowing and suffering with these young people, the restorative and healing presence of God will manifest itself in the relationship.

      But I definitely agree that we want these young people to come to know the Lord. I just don’t know that there are as many “how’s” to it as we might expect or try to discover.

      I highly recommend reading Andrew Root’s _Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry_ or _Relationships Unfiltered_ if you would like to see how this manifests itself more practically. Both of these books are excellent.

  2. Pingback: 5 Reasons To Say No To Program-Driven Ministry | southern california deanery youth ministry

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