Entertaining Relationships

I enjoyed a wonderful week of worship, learning, voting and (re)connecting with friends and colleagues at the 2011 General Assembly in Nashville, TN.  On the heels of that busy time, I traveled to Montgomery Bell State Park (just outside Nashville) for the 2011 Disciples Youth Ministry Network (DYMN)  gathering.  Thankfully, the three day event was designed for continuing education, networking, and much needed relaxation/re-creation. The weekend promised to engage theology, leadership, and best practices in youth ministry without ignoring our needs for rest, friendship, and worship.

Dr Andrew Root is in the Olson Baalson chair as Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, USA. He writes and researches in areas of theology and youth ministry.

So far, it has delivered.  Our keynoter, Dr. Andy Root, is an easy going, delightfully intelligent, theologically rich, sociologically nuanced, and engaging presenter.  He has a conversational, story-telling style that invites careful, critical reflection.

As his latest book indicates, “relationships” are a significant focus of our reflection.  We have looked at how social-cultural shifts have changed the face of youth ministry over the last 100 years  (and more), especially with respect to how youth relate to peers, parents, and youth workers.   Specific concern is with the “fragmentation of life” emerging from the modern specialization of life-worlds:  economic, political, domestic, social, religious, etc.  Each domain has grown its own logic and ethos.  In our world today, we often experience these domains as competing and mutually exclusive, thereby fragmenting our “selves” between various spheres of activity (“I’m not the same person at work that I am at home”). Youth live in this context like the rest of us.

Beyond diagnosing “the situation”, we are working toward a constructive vision of “relational youth ministry” in which relationships (“being-with” and “being-for”) are the primary focus of youth workers.  This requires a shift in thinking from dominant (internalized) forms of “technical reason” (techne) to what we might call (with Paul Tillich–my move, not Root’s) ontological reason.  For Root, technical reason is a means-ends logic that instrumentalizes persons.  Youth are not treated as an end-in-themselves, rather a particular outcome (some moral behavior, dogmatic belief, or spiritual practice) is a third thing sought outside the relationship between youth and youth worker. Youth are bent toward that goal, poked and prodded to go somewhere without proper concern for who they are as they are.  Relationships can be highlighted in this construal, but only as a means to another end (“go have ice cream with Sarah so she’ll show up to bible study”).  In this version of relational ministry, relationships can be (and are often designed to be) entertaining, but they lack depth.

Ontological reason is more holistic in that it takes into account the whole person (beyond the promise or challenge of reaching some benchmark), making the person an end-in-itself.  Patient, attentive, “suffering-with” characterize a youth ministry in which the relationship itself (as accompaniment) is primary.  In this trajectory, youth are valued independently from their achievements or even (apparent) pliability (what we might call incarnating a relational posture of “grace by faith”).  Youth who are not moving quickly or easily to desired ends (whether it is bible reading/knowledge, middle class decorum, or a certain social status) are not discarded or ignored (as so often happens with results-driven programs), but given the same space to be loved, listened to, and accompanied as any other youth.

This whole project is grounded Christologically in the suffering companionship of Christ and the Trinitarian perichoretic character of God (differentiated, self-giving love).  More explicitly, youth persons are taken as an “end-in-themselves” precisely because God lovingly took up humanity as en end-in-itself in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  God first and foremost “dwelled-with” humanity.

This is an incomplete narrative in that we will be looking at 4 shapes of relational ministry that will help us translate what we’ve discussed so far into action.  How can we intentionally incarnate a relational posture of “grace by faith” in our ministry settings?  How can we lovingly accompany our youth?

Questions for me remain about the relationship between persons (youth) as “ends-in-themselves” and some (theologically construed) telos or purpose.  In other words, I believe firmly that “suffering-with” and accompanying youth is an essential (maybe even primary) step in walking the long, winding road of youth ministry.  Do we then discard all other forms of reasoning, including the “technical”?

My hunch is that technical reasoning is not be abandoned, but needs to be reframed and subordinated to theologically considered goals, like accompaniment.  Still, sanctification remains a transformative journey that involves going somewhere.  I suspect the key is seeing the transformative thrust that begins with and finds renewal in “being-with” and “being-for.”

Behind this reflection is a simple sense that life (including the lives of youth) is to be both respected (as an end-in-itself) and enhanced (moved toward the good).  This is a delicate, ever-challenging endeavor that youth ministers encounter in particular ways.  Thanks to Andy for helping us entertain relationships in a fresh way; opening our eyes to important issues and offering us beacons of understanding with which to navigate  anew the choppy, exciting waters of youth mininistry.

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