Entering the Full Humanity of Adolescents with Andrew Root
Relational youth ministry arises out of place sharing rather than patterns of influence.
J. Michael Feazell: Thanks for being with us. You wrote an article called “A Call to See and Be Near,” and in it you said, “Too often, relational youth ministry avoids suffering and therefore lacks the boldness and bravery to enter into the full humanity of adolescents.” What does it look like “to enter into the full humanity of adolescents”?
Andrew Root: That article is an excerpt from this book, Relationships Unfiltered (that’s the shameless plug). I think it has two broad forms that exist. I’m often asked, “What will this look like, how do I do this?” I’m always very uncomfortable to say too much because I want to remind everyone that context always matters. Your contextual location will set the tones for how you do things. I’m no expert to tell anyone in their own context, which they know much better than I do, how to do something. I see my job as only presenting some ideas that might help people think about what they’re doing.
I think there are two broad points that give some of this some shape. One is…I think our objective is to correspond to reality with young people. Another way to say that is to take Luther’s statement in the Heidelberg Disputation, where he says one of the points of the Christian, one of the objectives of the Christian, is “to call a thing what it is.” Relational ministry has this element to it, that part of the heart of it is “to call a thing what it is” — to see a young person’s reality and be able to speak and call it what it is — to say “this is incredibly difficult,” or “you’re really good at this.”
Maybe the best analogy or story that goes along with this comes from the British comedy About a Boy. It’s this movie about two individuals, Will, who is this young adult, maybe in his late 30s, who is played by Hugh Grant, and there’s this junior-high-aged boy named Marcus. Marcus is this odd eccentric kid who’s been raised by his British hippie mother. Will, played by Hugh Grant, is this incredibly self-centered dude. His whole life is really about pleasing himself. He meets Marcus when he is out on a date with one of Marcus’s mother’s friends because Marcus’s mother is feeling blue.
When they return to Marcus’s flat, they realize that his mother has attempted to commit suicide. She’s lying on the floor and had vomited. Luckily, she doesn’t die, they get her to the hospital. But for some reason, Marcus decides that he’s going to start showing up at Will’s apartment. So he shows up the first day, and Will is not happy to see Marcus, but Marcus wants to come in. Slowly, day after day, Marcus starts showing up at Will’s apartment. They spend about a half an hour, 45 minutes together watching a British game show, and then Marcus leaves. But he keeps showing up.
The scene starts where Will is very reluctant to have Marcus come into his house, until days later, in this kind of montage way they’re telling the story, he’s opening the door and expecting Marcus to show up. As the scene unfolds, you hear inside of Marcus’s head. He says, “After a while, Will felt like he had to ask me serious questions. I know all he wanted to do was watch Zena Princess Warrior, but he decided he had to ask me a serious question.”
So Will turns to Marcus and says, “So how are things going at home then?” Marcus kind of stoically says, “Oh, fine. Thanks for asking.” Then he says, “Well, is that still bothering you then?” (Referring to his mother). Then we hear inside Marcus’s head, and Marcus says, “It’s still bothering me. That’s why I come here every day after school instead of going home.” Then we hear outside of his head, audibly, he says, “A bit when I think about it.”
Will turns to him, this self-centered guy who has invited this kid into his life, turns to him and in this great compassion and empathy he looks at him and then shakes his head and swears. He says the F word and just shakes his head. Then you hear again as Marcus is leaving the flat, you hear him say inside his head, he says, “I don’t know why Will swore like that, but it made me feel good. It made me feel like I wasn’t so pathetic for getting so scared.”
I think part of faithful relational ministry, that’s place-sharing, is being able to be close enough to kids to say, that’s a terrible thing. And being able to call a thing what it is. I think it’s a way that we really join in relationship, is to be able to call a thing what it is.
But there’s a second element to it as well: we not only have to call a thing what it is and be able to say, bleeping hell this is hard, but also be able to say nevertheless, even in the dark shadow of this reality, the tomb is empty.
A couple of springs back, my wife’s grandfather had passed away. It was right on a Sunday morning when my wife was getting ready to go to church. We had known that he was fading and that he would die soon, but we got a call on Sunday morning that he had passed away. My wife knew about that, so she was fairly stoic about it, so she grabbed our son and got him in the car, and we headed off to church.
But about halfway to church it hit her that he was gone and that she wouldn’t see her grandfather again. She started to tear up and cry in the front seat. Our son was behind her in his car seat. After a while she noticed in the rearview mirror that he was looking at her. She said, “Owen, I’m sorry that I’m crying. I’m sad.” He said, “Why?” He was about 2, maybe 3 years old, probably 3 years old. “Why?” would just spill from his lips upon any question he would ask. But this “why” seemed to have significance to it.
She said, “I’m sad because my grandpa died, and I’m not going to be able to see him again.” We kept on driving, and as I got off the freeway, he was very quiet and pensive, kind of looking out the window. As we got to the first light, he said, “But mommy, I have a secret.” She said, “What’s the secret?” “The secret is that someday Jesus is coming back and you and your grandpa will be together again. Jesus is coming back and death will be no more.”
There’s something between these two things, of being able to say bleeping hell, and I have a secret — it’s where we live out the faithfulness of relational ministry. We’re in connection with young people. We call a thing what it is. This must be incredibly hard to have to deal with not having any friends, or feeling like these rumors are destroying your life, or to wonder if your parent’s marriage is going to make it. Or to have your dreams about what you want for yourself, to find them implode when your test scores come back, or when you get cut from a team. To be able to say this is incredibly difficult.
But also to whisper, and whisper it as a secret…I don’t mean it’s a secret where we want to keep it from people, but it’s a secret in the sense that it’s so beautiful and so profound and so rich — this idea that God is overcoming death with life — it’s so wonderful that it shakes the very foundations of the universe. We have to whisper it because it connects with the core of our humanity so much.
It’s living between these two things. Being able to call a thing what it is, and I have a secret — nevertheless the tomb is empty. Living out of those two inclinations, those two stances, is a way that we faithfully live with and for young people, and really live with and for each other.
JMF: What is it about us as adults that makes us feel such an urge to attempt to control what an adolescent thinks by what we say and how we say it? It’s as though we want to give an impression of invulnerability on our part… We think we can control what a child or a kid will think, or be, by telling them the thing that we want them to do, or the thing we want them to think, from some kind of imperial bench looking down on them to tell them how it really is.
AR: Right. I think it’s out of fear. We fear that if we’re not in control, then we don’t make a good case for the gospel, which is counter to the biblical picture we received from Jesus, particularly about what the gospel is… It always comes in weak, broken forms. It’s like a mustard seed, or it’s like a woman who sweeps her whole house looking for a coin, or it’s like a father who sees his son on the horizon and rushes out and throws off his cloak to embrace his lost son. It’s about all these broken forms.
We tend to think that if…and this is just the lens we’ve been given in our cultural context, that “might makes right” or powerfulness is what sells; maybe it’s part of the consumer culture that we exist in, the material culture we exist in. But there’s something counter to that in the gospel, which is that God comes to us in frail and weak ways. In a baby born in a manger to a 15-year-old girl who’s existing under the thumb of Roman rule, and then this God chooses, in the person of Jesus Christ, to show us the full picture of who this God is by going to a cross outside the city to be neglected and destroyed by death.
We tend to want to control young people because we fear that if we show weakness, then what will become of them? They’ll surely deny the faith or not have a place for the church in their lives unless we give it a nice spin and we make it look shiny and good as opposed to talking about the fact that Christianity is this commitment to a God who comes to us in the frail humanity of Jesus Christ, that goes through death for the sake of life. There’s something unique about that narrative in Christianity that should change the way we interact with the world and engage the world.
The reason we have such a hard time doing it is that we fear that weakness will lead them away from where we desire for them to go. But at the very core of who we are, what we want more than anything is to be with them — that’s what we want from our children. That’s what we’re all yearning for — is to be with and have someone be for us. I think we get stuck in thinking that we all have to make something of ourselves. How can young people make something of themselves if we show ourselves as vulnerable?
JMF: It seems like in our desire to push them, that we actually harm the relationship. Our efforts to influence drive them away from us instead of drawing them in. We lose the influence we want through the effort to exercise the influence.
AR: Yeah, I tell my students all the time, “You cannot get a relationship through judgment.” There are very few people who will ever have a friendship when someone comes up and says, “I just wanted to tell you, you are a very ugly person” or, “You dress like you’re from three decades earlier” or, “Your whole disposition repulses me.” Usually a relationship does not start very well that way.
But once you have a relationship, it does demand judgment, or it does demand certain assertions. My wife wouldn’t love me unless she said things to me like, “Because I love you, I have to tell you, do you know you talk more than you listen?” Or, “When you say things like that, it is belittling to me.” The fabric of our relationship is contingent on her saying those things to me. It deepens our relationship.
But too often adults (maybe it’s this generation gap that you’ve mentioned in an earlier session) we come into this relationship saying, these kids need to be made right. Instead of seeing them for who they are in their humanity and then joining in relationship… And there are things that need to be said, like “You can’t do these things” or “These thing will hurt you.”
We tend to lead off with the judgment. We may not intend to, but it’s often interpreted that way. I don’t want to say that we never say anything to kids like, “You know what? You need to finish high school.” Or, “You need to think about showering before you go to a job interview.” Those are all valuable things that we would want our friends to say to us, but the key is, are they our friend, or is there a relationship there of love and mutuality and connection that invites us to share things and to share life this way?
The way relationships function, at least in my own experience, is that there has to be kind of an equal pace at going at depths. This happened to me in college all the time, it’s why my dating record in college was so poor, because I would go out on a date with a young woman and then I would want to take the relationship deeper than she would want to, and all of a sudden the relationship was over, because I had forced a level of intimacy or connection that she wasn’t ready for, and no relationship can live under those strictures. But when relationships function the best is where people go at a level, and it’s mutual.
Often in youth ministry we meet kids and then we try to get them “deep” right away, instead of sharing their lives and trusting that in being together and being with each other and sharing the importance of the gospel in my own life, that there’s a level of shared life that will bring us to a deeper level. But too often we think it’s our job to get them here, and then drive the relationship deeper. There’s many kids who say, “These people are weird” Or, “This is just uncomfortable.” Or, “They don’t see me, they see where I need to go.” That’s an important element.
JMF: Isn’t that partly a function of having a number of kids assigned to you, as it were? The kids become a job, a project, and you have to get through so many, and you’ve got a place where you want them to be, as it were. You want them to be moral and you want them to make a commitment. It isn’t like you’ve got the patience or the time to invest in letting each one develop into the relationship that will, in effect, bring them where they need to be.
AR: Yeah. This gets back to the specialization thing we talked about earlier — I don’t think that one paid youth worker and her two or three volunteers can be place-sharers with 35 kids in their youth group. It’s impossible. If we are about sharing in the yearning and brokenness, the joy and the suffering of young people…then if it’s going to be both open and closed, then you can’t do this with 20 kids, if it’s just you or maybe one other person.
This is a congregational approach. You’re right that one of the reasons we tend to default toward influencing them toward some end is because we think, “I have 15 kids here and they all seem to need more time.” It’s even worse, because once one class graduates, there’s another class going in, and it can feel like this incredible burden. That’s why I don’t think there’s such a thing as an incarnational or a fully relational youth worker, but there are communities that are incarnational. There may be a few people who do some of that action, but it takes a congregation.
We can only be place-sharers with three or four kids at the most. The truth is that one paid youth worker cannot be a place-sharer with…unless your youth group is three or four kids. But every congregation has the resources in its own life to have adults be place-sharers with the young people that they have, and even more young people they have in their community. It becomes about a congregation and not a youth ministry, or even worse, a youth worker.
That does mean that the paid youth worker has to change the way she thinks about herself. It’s no longer your job to be the pastor to these kids, but you are pastor to this whole congregation that advocates for these kids. That means you have to do certain work to accrue relational capital with the young people in the youth group, but also in the adults. Usually when we interview youth workers, we want to know, do the kids like him or her, do they like this person? That’s important. But it’s just as important that other adults in the congregation are willing to be led by this person or to enter into a partnership of ministry with this person.
If this person is good with the younger populations of people but the other people in the congregation, the older people, don’t trust this person, then their ministry becomes only about them, and we’ll always default then into patterns of influence instead of patterns of place-sharing, and we’ll tend to live out of more of our knee-jerk need, than out of this theological commitment to a God who comes to us in Jesus Christ and this Trinitarian element that we’ve been trying to point to.
JMF: Isn’t that true across the board in any ministry of the church that it becomes real in its context within the whole congregation, as opposed to a segmented narrow approach to just “meet the needs” as it were, the perceived needs, of seniors ministry, or a young adults ministry, or a singles ministry? When everyone can be part of everything, it works a lot better.
AR: Yeah. This always makes my students uncomfortable, but youth ministry doesn’t really exist in the sense that it’s not a biblical theme, it’s not a theological commitment, it’s a reality that’s determined by the way our society is structured. As soon as the high school doesn’t exist anymore, MTV doesn’t exist, there’s really no reason for youth ministry. Youth ministry exists because we put over 90 percent of people in their teen years in a government institution and have them spend most of their days in a peer-driven institution, and then there’s a whole marketing infrastructure that sells things to them in these niche markets.
You know, 150, 200 years ago, there was no such thing as youth ministry. Your young people were near you. Youth ministry exists because of the way culture has constructed itself. It doesn’t exist as a thing. Too often we’ve fallen into the trap of seeing it as this thing, and then we perpetuate certain activities and actions that we think a youth worker would do or a youth ministry should do. But the truth is, it isn’t a thing. Ministry is human-person-to-human-person, through the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.
We fall into that trap that youth ministry is this particular thing, and then we give all sorts of different “bubbles” of this — like you said, there’s a senior ministry and there’s a young adult ministry, and there’s the “mothers with three kids who like bubble gum” ministry or something. You can segment this into all sorts of different groups. I think it does tend to be problematic and lead us away from this core commitment … This is about a community of faith who seeks God in the frailty of our humanity.
JMF: In your article, “A New Generation Demands New Categories for Theology and Ministry,” you wrote, “As it has been documented, most don’t hate or despise the church, they just don’t care. And they don’t care because the categories that they use to make meaning are not the categories we are using to do theology and ministry. Our categories no longer match their reality, no longer have congruence with their habits. We must do theology and ministry in new categories if we hope it will mean anything to a younger generation.” What are these categories that they have, that we’re not sharing?
AR: In that article you can find online, I look at this pop artist, Lily Allen, and this song she has called The Fear. She says some interesting things in it where she discards these categories that the church and theology have tended to live in, which is right and wrong, and connected to that saint and sinner. She has this very provocative line in the song where she says, “I’m not a saint and I’m not a sinner, but all is cool as long as I’m getting thinner,” which shows — at least the way I interpreted it — she’s not going to live in these old categories, but that there’s something else she’s trying to find meaning and purpose in.
My argument, as you read, is that these categories have changed, in that instead of young people trying to figure out “am I good or am I bad?” that they recognize, especially in a post-modern context, that that’s really a hard thing to define — that you can exist in one of those things. But the new category that we haven’t yet dwelt enough on, and she enters into this in her chorus, is that she asks this question, “Am I real? Is there anything real here?” It’s a question of ontology. Do I have any being, and is there anything solid that I exist in? Her fear isn’t that she’s bad or that she’s a sinner, it’s that she doesn’t exist at all.
There’s this element of the early Reformation theology that goes back to Luther, which is dwelling on these questions of the ontological significance of Jesus Christ for us. It’s asked these huge questions of where does God encounter us, and how does God encounter us?
For Luther — and Calvin picks this up in his own way — but it’s really the God on the cross — that’s where God encounters us. Luther would always love to use this phrase that Moltmann picked up for his book in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s called The Crucified God. Luther wanted us to recognize that it’s God on the cross who is being crucified — that God, in God’s self, is going through death. Moltmann would push this in his work to talk about how the Trinity goes through death on the cross — that the Father, that the Son is overtaken and experiences negation and the Father understands what it’s like to have the Father’s heart ripped out from the Father as he loses the one he loves, to the abyss of death.
My argument in this article is that the church hasn’t dwelt enough and formulated practices of ministry that reflect on this question of “Am I real?” “How do I navigate life in a way that makes my existence feel like it stands on anything solid at all, because I feel like things are slipping away?”
Part of my argument is that it’s not that young people don’t like the church or don’t think there’s any value in it, they just don’t think it has anything meaningful to say. It’s still talking about being right or being wrong, it’s still talking about saint and sinner categories instead of talking about them through this ontological framework, which is when the saint and sinner dynamic becomes much more significant — that we’re both saint and sinner simultaneously, but we’re caught between these two realities. God, in Jesus Christ, enters into despair and death so that we’re never alone in it again, and so that turns it, so that from death comes life.
JMF: What does that mean for a congregation’s approach for young people in the church and those they want to reach?
AR: It means, ultimately, being people who are willing to confront and articulate those places in our lives that we find to be places of yearning and brokenness — our preaching and our teaching and our life together should mean something, and it should mean something up against those raw places of our life.
Part of the issue why young people have these benign relationships with the church is because they don’t think it means anything. It doesn’t matter to them. So the place for us to start is to be willing to dwell in our own lives at those places of yearning and of brokenness and try to construct theology around those.
JMF: So that gets back to what we were talking about earlier — that of sharing the place and learning how to listen to the story and to share stories, our story, with young people.