My mind-bending immersion in the theology and practice of youth ministry took a wicked turn this morning. To recap, on Thursday and Friday I was in a two-day course at the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza on the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study. This study identified 44 "faith assets" of congregations noted for nurturing mature faith in young people. I was blown away by this study, impressed by its talk of the practices (assets) of exemplary youth ministry congregations. I had some critiques, but overall I was extremely impressed.
But then I heard Andy Root, professor of youth ministry at Luther Seminary (and former neighbor and colleague of my wife's in Princeton Theological Seminary's PhD program) speak about "relational ministry." In a 60-minute tour de force taking us on a tour of the history of Christian Education, youth ministry, Christian theology and the structure of family systems, Andy described how relationships in youth ministry had become means to an end of getting youth to do something – to come to church, to make moral decisions, to choose God. Relationships in this old paradigm of relational youth ministry are functional, intended to get the youth to do something. But no matter how commendable such goals might be, forming relationships for the purpose of getting somebody to do something is manipulative. As Andy said, "you can't be in relationship with someone you're trying to fix."
Stop right there. At this moment my head popped – the sound of a paradigm shifting (again – there's been lots of that happening this weekend). Whereas on Thursday and Friday I was learning about the characteristics of youth ministry designed to nurture mature faith in the lives of young people, I heard from Andy that it is unethical to get into a relationship designed to influence the behavior of the other. Ministry is not about influencing people to do X, Y or Z. And though I'm not going to equate the Exemplary Youth Ministry Study's paradigm of ministry assets that nurture (influence?) faith in the lives of young people with Andy Root's critiques of relationships intended to influence people to do something, I suddenly felt a conflict between these two paradigms – if not a direct conflict, perhaps an indirect. On the one hand is ministry whose goal is to achieve something in young people – mature faith. On the other hand is ministry of relationships whose goal is to be with and be faithful to the other.
Relationships are not a means. They are the beginning and the end and the ministry itself. Ministry is not about getting kids to do something, but being with them wherever they are.
And so I asked Andy to finish this sentence: The goal of youth ministry is ______. Andy's reply, "The goal of youth ministry is to encounter the action of God."
This was a one-hour workshop, and I'm not entirely sure how it all works. But I'm fascinated and intrigued by a dramatically different paradigm than that which I saw earlier in the weekend. In fact, some of what I heard from Andy today sounded much like the ministry of accompaniment model that some missionaries use, and like the ministry of companionship that I was trained in while serving as a resident hospital chaplain.
Next step: read Andy's book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation.
I have a day and a half remaining here at the Extravaganza. It'll be fine with me if I don't undergo any more paradigm shifts. Two in one weekend is enough for me.