Andrew Root, Real Relationships in Youth Ministry

Andrew RootAndrew Root, Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, received a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2005.

Dr. Root explains the difference between influence and place-sharing in youth ministry.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Last time we were together, we were talking about place-sharing versus influence in terms of how we relate to young people. What is the difference?

Andrew Root: That’s the point of both books, is to try to draw that contrast. Last time I tried to argue that we’ve tended to see youth ministry as for influence, to try to influence kids toward some end. The reimagining of it is to think of it as place-sharing, which is a concept that I stole from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer wanted to make this argument that the way we really experience God is as our place-sharer, and he said in his Ethics, “Just as a good politician is for her people, a good teacher is for his students, and a good father is for his children, so Jesus Christ is for us. Jesus Christ shares our place.”

I think we’ve tended to see youth ministry as trying to influence kids toward some end, as opposed to sharing their place. When we think of influence, we get the whole understanding of the Incarnation all mixed up. We tend to think the incarnation happened to influence us toward some end, as opposed to sharing our place.

The story I often tell is… every Christmas Eve we go to my grandmother’s house, and as soon as dinner is done, and the coffee is brewing, and the Christmas cookies come out, we all move from the table to the couches. Often, my grandma will leave the party and she’ll come back with the folded piece of newspaper. It’s the story that I’m sure many have heard. It’s the Paul Harvey story about the birds.

The story goes that there’s this man who refuses to go to church on Christmas Eve. He’s basically done with his faith, he doesn’t believe it anymore, and it’s a cold, cold, bitter cold night. He’s not doing it. He is going to stay home. He’s going to actually enjoy his Christmas Eve. So he sees his family all off to church and he lays down on the couch to have this wonderful Christmas Eve. He kind of laughs to himself thinking how much smarter he is as he looks out his window and it’s so cold.

About halfway though his night, he looks outside some window and he sees there are some birds. He gets very concerned that if he doesn’t do something for these birds, they’re going to die. I mean, it is a cold, bitter cold night, and they won’t make it through the night if he doesn’t do something. So he gets his hat, and his gloves, and his boots on, and he goes outside and he opens his barn door and tries to shoo these birds into the barn.

But he’s too big, and he’s too scary, and the birds don’t understand him, so they jump away. He tries again to shoo them in, but they just won’t go. So he gets some birdseed and tries to make a trail, but it just isn’t happening. He’s frustrated because he knows if he doesn’t get these birds into the barn, that they’re not going to make it through the night, that they’re going to die. He tries one more time to shoo them in, but it just isn’t working.

In pure frustration he says, “If only, if only I could become a bird, then they wouldn’t be scared of me and I could lead them into the barn, and they would be safe.” Just as he says that, the church bells ring, he falls on his knees, and for the first time he understands the meaning of Christmas.

Every year my grandma will fold that newspaper up, and wipe a tear from her eye, and lean back in satisfaction. I always think it, but I never say it. I always think, “Grandma, that’s a great story. I can see why you love that so much, but it’s not the incarnation.”

I think the church has developed an understanding that the Incarnation isn’t for simply getting us in the barn, but actually sharing our place. We need a God who doesn’t just come close to us, to lead us into some place so we’re okay, but we need a God who actually shares our hell with us, who bears the cold night with us.

So what I’m after is trying to develop a theology for youth ministry that can bear the dark night with kids. One that can enter into their lives at its most frigid points and be with and for them in the confession that Jesus Christ is with and for us, born from that eternal relationship of the Father being for the Son as the Son is for the Father. That’s what I’m after when we talk about place-sharing, of trying to do ministry that’s faithful to this theological assertion that God is with and for us in Jesus Christ sharing our place all the way to hell for the sake of life.

JMF: It’s significant, it seems, as you were telling that story, when Jesus says, “I am the way” and “I am the life,” that’s different from saying “follow me and I’ll take you to a new place that’s better than this.”

AR: That’s a key element that I’m hoping to push forward in these books, is that it’s something about persons, and Jesus calls us to his person to find life inside of his person, which is a reflection in our relationship with Jesus. As he calls us he says, “Come to me,” or “I am the life,” or “I am the vine and you are the branches.” It is a manifestation of the relationship he has with the Father, and he calls us then to live near his person.

So my argument is that when we live in relationships that are human-person-to-human-person, where we actually share in each other’s lives, that that is a reflection and a way of living into the inner reality of God’s own life and God’s own love from the Father to the Son. I think there is something about human-person-to-human-person.

Usually, we tend to think about our ministries as pastor or youth worker to kids or to other people, and we tend to find ourselves in that specialized role, “I’m the youth pastor.” I think that adolescents don’t need youth pastors in their lives. They don’t need youth workers. They need human beings. They need people who will have a relationship with them. They don’t need a specialized someone who knows all this information — that can actually keep them at a distance from their life.

What young people need is human beings to be in relationship with. Too often we get stuck in these specialized forms of action that keep us from being human with them. What we’re really after is being human alongside and with young people as Jesus Christ is human with and for us.

JMF: How does that look? What is the difference between having a relationship with someone and sharing-place with them and being there with them in sharing the humanity? What does that look like?

AR: It plays out in a couple different ways. One of the interesting elements of doing a relational ministry of influence, if we get stuck in that rut, is that influence really can’t suffer with young people. It’s either got another agenda that it needs to go to, so it so quickly wipes away adolescent suffering, or tells adolescents, “Don’t worry about that,” or, “If you pray about that, that will all go away,” or else, even more diabolical, it uses suffering as another carrot that says, “Look, I can suffer with you, so you should listen to me and let me lead you to where you need to go.” But it can’t really suffer with and for young people.

I was at a conference a few years back. It was a unique conference because it brought together some academics, it brought together some paid professional youth workers, some publishers, as well as a number of volunteers, were in this room. It was a conference where they were laying out the findings to a study that they had done. I don’t know if it was number four…one of the points was that relationships really mattered, that relationships were really important.

After the presenter said this, a man, probably in his early 30s, raised his hand and he invited him to talk. He was a volunteer at his church and he said, “I get it. I get that relationships are really important, but relationships can be really hurtful, too.”

He went on to explain: “When I was in high school, my parents were going through a really messy divorce and it was really difficult for me. I don’t know if it was in the midst of the chaos or what have you, but I found myself attracted to some Buddhist literature. It was something about the meditation that calmed all the chaos that was going on in my life. I started to read it, and I was just interested in it, but I started to read it.”

“My youth worker came up to me and said, ‘You know what? You better not read that stuff. That’s a false religion, that stuff is corrupt. It’s my job as your youth worker to make sure you make the right choices and stay faithful to Jesus Christ, so you better not do that anymore.’”

So he said, “I heard him, and we were close, but there was something about it that I kept reading. My life was so chaotic, I just kept reading. He warned me one more time, ‘You better not do that.’ Sure enough, after two or three months, he stopped calling me. I didn’t talk to him for most of the rest of my high school years.”

His point was, he said, “I see that relationships can be really powerful, but relationships can be really hurtful as well.” In that story what happens is you have a youth worker who confuses their ministry. It isn’t about sharing in a young person’s life, but influencing them toward some end. When a young person can’t conform to the agenda that the youth worker wants them to go, they feel justified in cutting the relationship loose, where I think imagining our relational ministry as place-sharing calls to be faithful to the young person in the situation.

So the depressed girl that we have in our youth group, if we’re trying to influence her, the objective of our ministry is to get her over her depression. But if the objective is to share her place, then we confess that only God can heal her. Only God can come near to her and heal her broken humanity, and we’re called to join her in her suffering. Often part of the problem with seeing our ministries as influence is, it can’t suffer, and therefore it lacks some reflection of who God is for us in Jesus Christ, which is to take on our suffering, to take on death in its fullest, and then break that by being overtaken by death in the resurrection.

JMF: Isn’t it hard to de-link, or unhook, from the sense of need to influence and fix?

AR: It is really hard. It’s incredibly difficult. That’s the whole specialization that we fall into. It’s common in our culture. If you drop your computer, usually you’ll have to go to a specialist to fix it. Or if something’s not working on your computer, there’s a different specialist that runs the software and another one that works with the hardware. We’re used to specialization, and I think youth ministry has fallen into that.

We hear this all the time when we invite other adults in the congregation to volunteer, to participate in the youth group or to participate in confirmation or something, and I hear them say, “I did that ten years ago,” or, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” and sometimes you’ll even hear them say, “That’s what we paid you to do.” What that means is “You’re the one who’s specialized. You received the specialized training to do this.”

Often the real problem of youth ministry is that it tends to let the church off the hook. We hire someone who does ministry with our children, therefore we don’t have to. A better way of looking at the youth worker or even the paid youth pastor is not as the one who does the ministry, but someone who equips and is trained to equip the rest of the congregation to do ministry with their own children.

That’s where we get hooked, is that we think, “It’s my job as a specialist to influence kids, therefore when I have my end-of-the-year evaluation, what will I point to as having done a good job?” It is a full paradigm shift in how we think about ministry. My point is to try to embed that in our theological commitments more than simply pragmatism of, “what will work and how do we get it to work and try to really drive toward.” What does it mean to be faithful to who God is?

JMF: Don’t we do the same thing with our children? Isn’t our goal usually to influence them? We feel like we have a duty to influence them. How does that affect relationship when you are continually looking for getting the kids fixed and getting them to do the right thing in a direct way that we’ll always approach it as parents? I suppose it’s somewhat rhetorical, but don’t we accomplish more when we try to share their place as opposed to just the right-handed force of forced compliance?

AR: I think so. We all can probably point to people in our lives who have been meaningful to us and that we really changed in relationship with them, and it’s often been because they shared our place, more than they demanded that we conform to something. All relationships do influence. So it isn’t to say that influence isn’t found anywhere, even in authentic real relationships, but the question is, what’s the driving force?

My wife and I didn’t decide to have our son because I thought, “You know what? I hate having to go find the remote. It would be great to have a little kid that I could get to go find the remote for me.” Or, “I’m sick of unloading the dishwasher, so what I need is a child to unload the dishwasher for me.” Or even maybe more close to home for some of us, “What I need is to have a son that can do all the things that I didn’t do. I need to make him into what I wasn’t. I need to get him to an Ivy League school, I need to…” That becomes diabolical parenting.

This reflects to our Trinitarian commitments that God chooses to create out of God’s own inner love. It’s out of desire to be with and for father-to-son that God creates something. Barth beautifully says that the Trinity exists in a relationship before creation even exists. God creates out of the place-sharing, in many ways, of the Trinity itself. That the Trinity desires to be with and for itself and out of the abundance of that love, it creates.

In the same way, in the best of marriages, we have children out of the reality of our love for one another. Once our children exist, we put certain demands on them. We say things like “We need you to do this.” But even those rules function best within the relationship, when we say, “You can’t act that way because you are my boy. You belong to me. You’re mine and I love you,” as opposed to, “If you want to belong, if you want to have a place here, then you better get on board or else you need to find somewhere else to be.”

We all have experiences where we’ve heard similar things, but there is something about place-sharing that we often fall into the trap of this kind of individualized competitive culture where we think that our job is to influence our young people instead of being with and for them.

JMF: Let me ask you this from what you’ve experienced in youth ministry: Studies have shown that parents have far less influence on their kids than they think they do, that it’s peers who actually have the influence on one another. Is that, in part, or largely perhaps, because peers are, by nature, place-sharing with one another?

AR: That’s a great question. I’m going to take a step back and try to answer it sociologically a little bit. There’s been some great work done by a British sociologist named Anthony Giddens. One of Anthony Giddens’s essential arguments for what’s happened in late modernity in our time is he argues that all relationships have become what he calls pure. He calls it the pure relationship. I’ve kind of redefined that a little bit and called it the self-chosen relationship.

His argument is that sometime in the mid-century and moving on into our own time into late modernity, that all of our relationships are really self-chosen, that for most of human history you were given these people, whether it was in a village or in a religious group. You lived with these people, like it or hate it, because you were bound to these people, and if you wanted to survive, you needed these people.

Because of the operations of modernization moving into globalization, we’re free. You know, at 15, 16, 17… You see this in Los Angeles all the time, a 15-year-old from the Midwest decides, “I hate my family. I’m moving to LA, and I’m going to be an actor.” The idea that you can choose to do that, is a new cultural phenomenon. Couple that with the high school, the creation of the high school, where young people are spending most of their meaningful hours in a day with their peers, as opposed to working in a business or working the land with their uncles and their parents. Now they’re in a peer-government institution.

The argument that I try to make in the first half of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry is that the task of the adolescent becomes formulating relationships in this self-chosen manner, and they’re free to choose those however they want to choose them, there’s no tradition or family expectations anymore, for the most part. You’re completely up to you to formulate your needed intimate relationships.

Young people’s whole lives are organized around trying to construct meaningful relationships with themselves. Their friends, some of their closest friends maybe do become place-sharers. There’s also this incredibly rich tapestry of power going on in a high school campus where they’re defining each other as cool or un-cool and all these things are happening.

It makes great sense that we would talk about relational ministry and youth ministry because young people, their whole lives, are trying to seek out relationships in these self-chosen arenas where all the relationships they have to choose for themselves. That is a driving force for them — they’re always trying to figure out “who are these people? Should I love these people? Should I hate these people?”

Parents do influence young people, their own children, in a great manner. But what young people will self-report, whether it’s true…and I think there’s always debate between sociologists of how much parents actually do influence their young people or how much they do impact them. But if you ask young people to self-report what’s the most important thing in their life, they will say their friends. That’s because they’re trying to work out who they are and where they belong in the midst of this realm of self-chosen relationships.

JMF: Is that good or bad? {laughing}

AR: It is. {laughing} It just is. There’s no way to change that. If we see it as the way it is, what it does mean is, we can’t just simply wipe relational ministry off the map. Hence the titles of my books, Relationships Unfiltered or Revisiting Relational Ministry. I think there’s good reason for us to say we can’t do away with relational ministry. Because of the way the culture is constructed, young people are all about relationships.

But it does mean that we have to be intentional, and I would add intentional theologically, in asking what is a relationship and what is a relationship for? That is the task of those of us who are thinking about youth ministry. What do we mean when we say relationship? That’s one of the things that we’ve talked about earlier. My assertion would be that it just is, and that we need to enter into that reality.

JMF: Getting back to the difference between place-sharing and influencing, and we were talking about what it looks like to place-share with a young person or even with others who are adults, how does that look from the perspective of…let’s say you’re not a youth worker, but you’re a member of the church and you want to have a decent relationship with young people in church, what do you do?

AR: We tend to over-think it. We’re talking about the core of our humanity in many eyes, and it’s almost too bad that we have to think, “How can we have authentic real relationships with our young people?”

JMF: From the time I was a teenager, the big word then was generation gap. It was clear that there was a barrier between the adult world and the teen world, and no one knew quite how to bridge that.

AR: We do over-think it. You ask the question, if you’re just a member of a congregation and you want to be in relationship with young people, what does that look like, what does that mean? This may sound over simplistic, but it’s being yourself with them. That means inviting them into our lives.

Usually what we think the objective of our relational ministry is, we usually think our goal is to get the young person to open up to us. So often we carpet-bomb them with questions. “So, tell me, how’s school? How’s home? How’s reading your Bible going? Who are you dating?” We keep asking these questions. If you’ve spent any time with a 15-year-old boy, you know you get one answer, maybe two, which is a yes or no and a grunt. That’s about the best you can get.

I think it’s the other way around. I think the objective for us is not to get them to open up to us and therefore we can say, “I’m good at getting 16-year-olds to open up to me; therefore I’m good at youth ministry.” The objective is the other way. I think the goal is to get for us to open our lives up to them, to invite them to come near to us and watch as we live our lives. Watch as we struggle with having to bury one of our parents or raising our own children. I hope we can talk a little bit about…

There are boundaries within that, and I don’t mean being radically open so you have no freedom in the midst of that, but it’s saying, “Come close to me, live near to me, hear my story and let me hear yours.” Usually we think it’s the other way around. Your job as the volunteer or as a paid youth worker is to get the kids to open up and to share something. I think there’s real power when we’ll open our lives up to young people.

It’s no wonder we see so many young people leaving the church after high school graduation and not coming back ever, or coming back in their late 30s, because they’ve never really experienced an adult living out their faith. They’ve never experienced a faith community living out its faith. They’ve experienced a youth ministry and they’ve experienced volunteers who are trying to be volunteers, trying to be youth ministry people and not human beings in their frailty and their suffering and their joy seeking God within great doubt and great hope.

JMF: With my own children that’s exactly the complaint. As teenagers they would say, “Why do those people have to pry about everything? Why do they have to come up and be so pushy and won’t leave you alone?” It makes them not want to come back, and they don’t want to have to keep putting up with that. So you do your best to try to make excuses for people who behave that way and don’t know any other way to approach a kid. But it’s a problem, because it does turn them off to church, not just my kids, but their friends, too, experienced the same kind of thing at church.

We have a minute or two left, let’s talk about the boundaries for a second.

AR: The element we often miss when we formulate relationships, especially in the context of ministry, is that relationships (to be a relationship) have to be, as Bonhoeffer has said, both open and closed. We usually think that a good youth worker or a good relational minister is someone who is radically open. But it’s just as important that we learn how to be closed and be able to say things like, “I’ve just had enough,” or, “I’m on vacation,” or, “How about you call me when the sun’s up. I know you just broke up with your boyfriend and you were dating for a whole two days and this is really hard for you, but can you call me when the sun’s up?”

Maybe a story would help if we have time for it. When I was new in ministry, I was invited over to this ministry partner’s house. This person that I was going to be in ministry with invited me over for dinner, and I went over and was sitting in the kitchen waiting for the meal to be ready and watching his wife hurry the meal ready and get their kids ready for dinner, and all of a sudden the doorbell rang.

My ministry partner went to the door and then he shut the door behind him and he was gone. I stood there for a few minutes and I was too young and too stupid to ask his wife if she needed any help, so I just stood there with my Coke in my hand and just watched her. Finally dinner was ready and we sat down, and we ate pasta and had a salad, and he still hadn’t returned. He went to the door and just disappeared. Ice cream was being put on the table for dessert when he finally came back in.

I thought something must be terribly wrong. So about halfway through the meal I asked his wife, “Where’s your husband? What’s happened?” She said, “I’m sure the guys stopped by.” I thought, the guys? Maybe he’s got a gambling problem, the mob stopped by.

She says, “Oh, the guys from his Bible study.” She mentioned that this happens quite often. When he came back in the door, having missed the whole meal, I asked him (assuming that one of the kids must have been suicidal for him to be gone with a guest over for the whole meal), “Is everything okay?”

He said, “Yeah, everything’s fine,” and he gave me this look, like he was trying to teach me something, and he said, “That’s relational ministry for you. It just isn’t nine to five.” As he said that, I looked at his wife and his kids who were ravaged and tired, and I thought, this is relational ministry? That you leave your guest, you leave your family? He had mentioned that this happens a few times a week that these kids stop by.

The more I thought about it, I realized that I don’t think that’s relational ministry. What was happening is when he went to the door and spent most of his evenings outside with these kids, he wasn’t a human being to those kids, he was a jungle gym. They would come over, and he would hang out with them, and they’d have something to do.

But if he would have just even once in a while went to the door and said, “Guys, great to see you, glad you stopped by, but I’m having dinner with my family right now.” Or, “It’s story time and I’m reading my kids a story,” he all of a sudden becomes more than a youth worker. Now he’s a human being who calls them into their own authentic humanity to be in relationship with. He becomes somebody really interesting to be in a relationship with.

But when he spends every night outside with them neglecting his own family where he’s radically open to them without being closed, well then, he’s just a commodity that they can consume. I don’t think young people need youth worker commodities. I don’t even think they need youth ministries. I think they need people who will be in relationship with them. If he would have gone to the door and said, “Guys, great to see you, but I’ll catch up with you tomorrow at school, I’ve got some other things going on,” he becomes a person to be in relationship with. I think that’s what young people need.GCS offers online master's degrees.

Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2019, 2:41 PM