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  /  Resources   /  Relationships in Youth Ministry

Relationships in Youth Ministry with Andrew Root

Dr. Root discusses the importance of building relationships in youth ministry.

J. Michael Feazell: Our guest today is Dr. Andrew Root. Thanks for joining us today.

AR: It’s a pleasure to be here.

JMF: We have a lot to talk about. Youth ministry is a dynamic area, and you have some challenging things to say that are significant for facing what the church is up against in today’s world. I wanted to read from page 15 of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, your first book: “Ministry, then, is not about ‘using’ relationships to get individuals to accept a ‘third thing,’ whether that be conservative politics, moral behaviors, or even the gospel message. Rather, ministry is about connection, one to another, about sharing in suffering and joy, about persons meeting persons with no pretense or secret motives.” What are you driving at here?

AR: The whole book, as you mentioned, revolves around that point. That point was born in my own experience. It was right around this area, in a church here in southern California that I was invited to be part of a youth ministry. It was at a large Presbyterian church, kind of a classic youth ministry.

One Wednesday night, for no particular reason, some kids from the neighborhood that surrounded the church showed up on the church steps. The church saw this as serendipitous and a wonderful opportunity. So not knowing what to do or how to do ministry with these young people, they decided to throw money at the problem, which probably happens too often in churches, and I was the benefactor of that. It became my job.

I was hired to bridge these two worlds, between the kind of classic youth ministry and the church kids, and then the kids in the neighborhood. I was invited to be part of this and to take this job because I had worked for Young Life and supposedly knew what I was doing when it came to building relationships with young people. It took myself and the team of people that I worked with about two or three weeks to realize we had no idea what we were doing.

We had been taught, and we had read all sorts of youth ministry literature, and we had done a lot of youth ministry, and we were some of the best, smartest, good-looking youth workers that we knew about. It took us, again, like two weeks to realize we had no clue what we were doing.

We had been taught that all you had to do was try to be friends with these kids and that kids wanted relationships with adults, and that through your relationship with a young person, you could lead them into the church or to accept Jesus or to avoid immoral behavior, or that there would be a way that you could use your relationship to get young people somewhere positive, somewhere good.

The kids we were working with that showed up on the church steps this night were not so easy to influence. They had this incredibly genius way (that was slightly diabolical) of keeping adults at a distance. We would get close to them, and they had a way of either questioning our sexuality or questioning our motives or assuming that we would make a scene, that we were going to do something to them.

It became difficult to figure out “how do you do ministry?” We had been told that all you had to do was build a relationship with kids and they would come, and these kids were pushing us away. I would go and visit these kids at their public school campus, and kids that I had known for months and they had spent time at our church, I would come up to them and they would say, “Get the F away from me,” and swear in our face. This was not the kind of youth ministry I was taught was supposed to happen. These kids were supposed to want to be with me.

So I started to question, “How do you actually go about doing this?” You take a kid out for a Coke and a burger and you drive them home into their neighborhood and the fog has condensed on your window and right before you drop them off, they write rival gang signs on it so when you turn around and drive back through their neighborhood, your life is put in danger. How are you supposed to do ministry with a group of kids like this? How are you supposed to do it when they seem to refuse your ministry, but nevertheless continue to ask for it by showing up every week? And showing up at 4:00 for something that starts at 7:00, and stay till 11:30 or 12:00.

It was in the middle of a fight with my wife that I realized that I had problems. I realized I had problems in more ways than one, but particularly I had problems in my conception of ministry. We were newly married, and my wife was going through a crisis in her family of origin. That was difficult for her as she tried to kind of figure out what was going on and who she was, in the midst of this family chaos.

We had spent a lot of nights just talking about issues. She would talk about how hard this was as her family was in the midst of transition. I always had this great way of reframing her problem for her. She would say things like, “This is really hard.” I would say, “Don’t think about it like that. What if we think about it like this?” Or she would say, “I hate when this happens and I feel that it just grieves me that this is all changed…” I would say, “There are futures before us. We don’t have to worry about this. Let’s just move on, let’s think about something better than this.”

Finally, after me reframing all of her issues, she finally stopped me and said, “Would you just seriously, just stop.” She said these words. In her frustration she said, “Don’t you know that relationships are not about fixing things? Would you stop trying to fix me and just be with me? And if you can’t be with me, nothing will get better anyhow. So stop trying to fix my problems and just be with me.” I realized when she said that, not only did I have a lot to learn about being a young husband, but I also realized that that’s exactly what I was doing in my ministry.

These kids who lacked the middle-class decorum that the kids had when I worked in suburban Saint Paul, Minnesota, they lacked that, so they could simply say, “get away from me.” They knew that I had an agenda for the relationship. Maybe it was a good agenda, maybe it was good for them, but my ministry wasn’t essentially about them. It was about where I could take them. Maybe some of the things were really good. Keeping them in church, helping them to understand who Jesus Christ is, those are all great things, but they had the sense that it was happening outside of our actual relationship.

So you mentioned “the third thing.” That’s something that I’ve taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his first book, Sanctorum Communio, he has this beautiful phrase where he says, “When we encounter the neighbor, God is there.” He says, “There’s not a third thing. There’s no third thing. There’s just me and you or I and thou, and Jesus Christ becomes present there, not outside of that.”

Often in youth ministry the objective has been to use our relationship with young people to get to some third thing. So what I try to do in the book is just re-imagine what it would be to think about ministry (and it’s really all ministry, and not just youth ministry), to think about ministry in this idea that there’s no third thing. That somewhere in the midst of really encountering another person, God becomes concretely present with them then.

JMF: Isn’t that true in any relationship? As a church, isn’t that how we tend to think about almost all of our relationships outside of the church? That it’s a means to an end. We get to know people, we draw them into the sphere of the church in some way, through some project or whatever, but we really have a hidden agenda.

We have an ulterior motive. A good motive, perhaps, of presenting the gospel to them, but nonetheless, it’s an ulterior motive. The friendship is for that sake. Almost like an insurance-salesman approach or something, rather than friendship, relationship being an end in itself. Is there something to be said for that in terms of who Christ is in us and in them?

AR: I think that is true. When I go around the world and the country talking about this, you’ll have people say, “We always have agendas.” You can’t strip yourself from an agenda. That’s true. We are kind of socially located, and we have our own hermeneutical location that we take into relationships. But there is a difference, and I think you’re hitting on it.

This reminds me of what American sociologist Peter Berger talks about. Peter Berger talks about that somewhere after industrialization and into modernization, we as people started to take what he calls “technical rationality” into the way we formulated and constructed our day-to-day relationships. We spent so much time working in institutions that tend to make decisions on people through their bureaucracy and in very technical forms.

For instance, I grew up in a community that a lot of employees from 3M lived in. (3M, the people who make your post-it notes and your tape.) One year, 3M decided that they could save a lot of money if they laid people off who were over 55 and hired people at entry level, that they would lose very little productivity but gain a lot of money. So a lot of people in the little suburb that I grew up in, they were laid off during this period. A lot of my friends’ parents were. 3M is making that decision, they don’t necessarily care about the people, but they make that decision technically. In a realm of technical rationality, it makes sense for them, for their ultimate goal, which is the bottom line of making money, to lay people off who are over 55.

Berger’s point is that we live in those realities for so long that they start to filter into how we organize the rest of our relationships. We start to say things like, “Honey, I still really do love you, but for the bottom line of my happiness, this marriage really isn’t working out.” Or we look at our friendships and say, “I really do care about this person, we share this history, but I just can’t do this relationship anymore because it’s not letting me become this self-fulfilled person.”

I think that’s filtered into the church as well, that we tend to make decisions about ministry in the technical realm. We tend to use technical rationality to make decisions about how we go about doing ministry, how we think about the ministry of God. I think that there’s a different logic, than this technical rationality that we often fall into when we think about ministry.

JMF: That’s exactly the opposite of what real Christian life, Christian ministry is all about, isn’t it?

AR: I think so. The core theological element that I’m working from in the book is this Trinitarian element that God the Father and Jesus the Son are in eternal relationship with each other. That relationship isn’t built around this kind of technical rationality, but it’s built in a whole desire to be with and for each other.

If you look at Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II, he will talk about the Spirit as the very essence, the very reality of the Father and the Son’s relationship. Too often in the church, we use our relationships as the means to another end, as opposed to seeing our relationships as a way of living into this inner reality of a relationship that’s going on between God the Father and God the Son that we’re invited into through the Spirit.

That’s the element that I’m trying to work out in that sense of “What if our relationships in ministry (in a broken metaphor) reflect this eternal relationship that’s going on between the Father and the Son?”

JMF: You’ve use the term “real relational, relational youth ministry,” and is that what you’re…

AR: There was an article that was written probably five or six years ago, that was trying to talk about a post-relational youth ministry. It was a fair article that was trying to show some of the pitfalls of relational ministry, but I tried to reframe that and make the argument that we hadn’t really talked about a truly relational “relational youth ministry,” that our relationships in “relational ministry” had tended to be means to another end. They had been for influence, to influence kids in some direction, and they have yet to reflect (maybe in this broken way, but in a real way) the inner life of God that we’re called into, this eternal relationship that goes on between the Father and the Son that we’re invited into through the Spirit.

JMF: There are a couple of ways I want to go right now. One is to take a different gear and talk about your assessment of the TV show Lost, but let’s save that for the moment and get back to these young people you were working with. You saw that you had to do things differently, so what started to happen then?

AR: We tried to live this out, but as you mentioned, it’s hard in a congregation, and you run into all these conflicts. It was very interesting to watch this church wrestle with this issue. To the church’s credit, they had raised money, they had seen this opportunity to do ministry with these young people from their neighborhood, they had hired me, and we worked hard at it. They started this ministry in full blessing of the church, that we want to reach out to these kids. We really want to build relationships with them.

But what happened is: it started to become costly, and it became costly in ways that a lot of churches experience, but in very profound ways when you’re experiencing them. Like your building being tagged, like mothers who are waiting to pick up their daughters from church are noticing kids from the neighborhood doing things behind the church building that would make anyone uncomfortable, when drugs are being sold before Wednesday night program.

Quickly the church’s mantra changed from “We want to do ministry to these kids” to “These kids need to act better. They don’t deserve to be here until they can show that they can act better.” We worked at that for a while, but it became very difficult, and I lacked a lot of power to bring any change in the midst of that system.

My wife and I had an opportunity to travel, and when we came back, I had a school year before I was going to start my doctoral work, so I took a job at a non-profit organization very close to here doing gang prevention counseling. It was my job to go into four public schools a week (this was before the California economy had imploded and there was money available and they were giving grants to these non-profits to go in and do gang prevention). It was my job to go into these four schools and to meet with kids who either were in a gang, a family member was in a gang, or had just been manifesting gang-like behavior. They had been caught tagging their school, or they had threatened their teacher with a pencil, or they had done something that was at risk.

I would go into these schools, and often it was either the principal or the guidance counselor who would give me the folder to one of these kids. It would often come with something like, “Here’s Jacob, and Jacob just came to us. He was in an orphanage for a while because he watched his father beat his mother with a wrench on their front lawn.” Or, “Here’s Sally, and Sally’s dad just got out of jail and from as far as we know, he comes back every other week to do his laundry and to beat them up.” These horrific stories of loss and pain. And that was just what the school counselor could tell me.

So I would meet with this student, and we’d sit in some little dusty back corner of a public school, some little book storage area where the school could find a place to put a table and two chairs. I realized quickly, as they would tell me these stories, that there was nothing I could do. The story that the school counselor or principal would tell me that was horrific in and of itself was just the tip of the iceberg. After a while they would tell me these stories, and they were just heart-wrenching.

I knew that there was nothing I could do. There were certain actions I could take, make people aware of certain things, but I couldn’t change the fact that this was the family they grew up in, that this was the situation that had happened to them. I realized quickly that all I could do was for one hour, once a week, when I would meet with them, was to share in their hell with them. So I did that. I did that from reading the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and reading some of the Trinitarian elements of Karl Barth, and even some of the early Jurgen Moltmann, and I decided that what I would do was for one hour once a week, I would share in their hell with them.

An interesting thing happened. I would haul in this bag of “Connect Four” and checkers and these board games, and I would set them on the table. The kids loved it, because they would get to leave class to play checkers with me or play some board game with me. But we started to share our stories together, and they would share their story with me, and I would share mine with them, and for one hour once a week we would share deeply in each other’s life.

There was transformation that actually happened in them. There wasn’t this radical transformation that they didn’t have all these issues that had been nipping at their heels for their whole life, that didn’t go away. But there was this real way that something powerful happened where we would share in each other’s lives, that God was present in the midst of that. I was allowed to speak deeply into their lives.

But instead of saying things like, “You can’t do that because God wouldn’t like that, or because that would make you a bad boy or a bad girl,” I could start speaking into their lives in a much more powerful way. I could say, You can’t do that because that will hurt you, and if that hurts you, that will hurt me, because I’m your friend, and you can’t do that because I’m your friend.” Or, “When I see that attitude that you have, I wonder about that, not because I want you to be better, but because I want to be in relationship with you, and that could be problematic to multiple relationships that you have.”

The light bulb that went on for me is that there is something in the midst of just sharing each other’s suffering and joy that there’s a concrete way that God is present in the midst of that, that I’ve tried to theologically develop through these two books.

JMF: You never had any other opportunity to be with those kids or any other influence in their lives other than these one-hour meetings?

AR: That’s correct. Maybe I would see them once in a while in the hallways, but for the most part it was that one hour once a week. I was constrained by the school, and I was constrained by the job that I worked in, but there was something that powerfully happened when we were able to share our suffering with each other.

I tried to make that mutual. I would try…keeping a boundary…that I think is important, that hopefully we can talk about as we go on, but I also shared my own story with them. There was something powerful for them to hear my story and to participate in my story.

JMF: Did you have any way of knowing what kind of impact your time together was having on them?

AR: That’s a great question, and there’s two kind of rationalities that I think can operate in that. In the rationality of influence, there was no way I could know. In many ways I was a failure, because these kids went back to their same situation, and I’m sure some of them are in jail now. The kids we worked with in the congregation, we don’t know what happened to many of them. A lot of them were in eighth grade and they went into ninth grade and got jumped into gangs. From the rationality of influence, it was a failure. We don’t have any trophies to show for it.

But in the rationality of place-sharing, of trying to do relational ministry as being with and being for, as God is with and for us, I don’t know if it was successful, but I believe it was faithful, in that we were faithful to their humanity. In being a gang prevention counselor, I felt like I was faithful to their humanity.

Was there radical change in their lives? I don’t know. I don’t know if I can see that, but I do trust that something powerful happened in that one hour a week, that they knew that they were not alone. If in the dark universe that they existed in, at least there was someone for one hour once a week who was with them. That reflects the fullness of the gospel and the fullness of a God who becomes incarnate to share our place in its full brokenness and its full darkness, to share with us so deeply that we’re never alone again. Though we still often live in darkness, we’re never alone.

So I don’t know if it was successful, but I know that it was faithful. In youth ministry particularly, we fall into this trap of looking at success too often. It’s a vocational hazard, because you have young people who are, 12, 13,14,15, and they’re making these jumps in our societal structures to go to college or to decide for careers or to fall in love and get married, so there does seem to be this trajectory of progress that’s going on.

But too often youth ministry has fallen into the trap that believes that our job is to make kids successful or help kids be successful, and then we judge our ministries by how many trophies we have. I don’t know if that’s a true reflection of God’s own ministry in the world as incarnate, crucified, and resurrected in the person of Jesus Christ. We would do better to think of ourselves and think of our relationships as “How can we be faithful both to the young person before us as well as to this God who has revealed God’s self in Jesus Christ?” How can we be faithful to that, as opposed to how can we be successful?

JMF: All of that is compelling, because there’s got to be a way to measure success in this in order for us to know whether this project is worthwhile or accomplishing anything. It’s like the need to ask that question, and find an assessment tool of some kind, is so overpowering that we lose the gospel itself, because when it comes to our Christian lives, don’t we do the same thing? We’re looking for God to fix things. We think answered prayer means getting me out of whatever situation is a problem for me or what I perceive as a problem.

But isn’t that how Christ meets us, just the sense of knowing we’re not alone? Meeting us in our loneliness, in our void, in our darkness, and bringing light, because we’re operating with faith (which is evidence of things not seen, according to Hebrews), we’re looking for a restoration that isn’t going to take place in this lifetime. It takes place only in the sense of place-sharing, Christ sharing our place, not in the sense of our circumstances necessarily changing, which can be, in itself, a source of frustration, because we’re expecting or looking for something different.

Don’t we look for that, because in our preaching and teaching we often build a sense of expecting that? It carries over into youth ministry in the sense you’re describing so well of “We want to see kids be more moral. We want them not to make the same mistakes we made, or not to pursue things that are going to cause them trouble.” The whole sense across our Christian lives of just being there, like your wife told you, as opposed to trying to make everybody be good and not make mistakes…it seems like you’re talking about something that’s a big iceberg that needs exploring.

AR: One of the things that your questioning points to that’s helpful for me is maybe to boil it down. The thing that we haven’t dwelled in enough is this question “Where is God? Where do we encounter God?” Which is one of the central elements of a Trinitarian theology, is that God encounters us, and God reveals God’s self. As God reveals God’s self in Jesus Christ, we’re taken into this Trinitarian reality.

So I’ll tell you this story, which I think is the trap that we often fall into in ministry. My son is four, moving toward five, and he’s a great little existential philosopher and theologian, probably because I’ve terribly warped him. One night I was putting him to bed, it’s my job to put him to bed, and it’s right before I go and watch TV when I put him to bed, so I’m always trying to hustle him off to bed so I can go and relax in front of the TV.

One night I was putting him to bed and he said he was scared, and he was scared that there was a nightmare in his closet. I had told him, “You don’t need to be afraid of this. There’s no nightmare in your closet. Jesus is with you. You don’t need to be scared, because Jesus is with you.” And he said, “No, no no no no no there’s a nightmare in my closet. I’m scared of this.”

I said, “Owen, you don’t have to be scared, there’s no nightmare in your closet.” I opened the door and turned on the light, and he was satisfied that there was no nightmare in his closet, but as soon as I turned out the lights and shut the door, he says, “It’s back! The nightmare’s back in my closet.”

I said, “You can pray to Jesus and it will be okay. Jesus will be here with you and you don’t have to be afraid.” So we prayed for a little bit, and he said, “But where is Jesus?” I said, “Jesus is here. If you pray, Jesus will be here.” “But I don’t see Jesus. Where is Jesus?” I said, “He’s here with you.” “But I’m scared. There’s a nightmare in my closet, and where is Jesus?”

Now I’m starting to say, “If you pray, Jesus will be here and you don’t have to be afraid and Jesus will keep you from bad things happening.” I’m starting to doubt myself as I’m saying this. But then, in earnest desire to comprehend something, he says, “But I don’t see Jesus and I’m scared. Where is Jesus?” Then in the profundity of a four-year-old he says, “Jesus is not here. Jesus is not here.” I said some prayer and left, and I kind of satisfied him so he wasn’t crying anymore, but that is really the question: “Where is Jesus?”

Kids often live with nightmares in their closet. We all do. Often we want to say “Jesus is here, and if you pray to Jesus then the nightmare will go away.” One of the theological elements that I’m trying to develop more and more is: How do we answer this question, where is Jesus? Or, where is God? There’s something in this story of this God who becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ that reflects to us the full life of God as Trinitarian. That God becomes present next to darkness, next to brokenness, next to pain.

Too often in youth ministry, we see shiny happy kids as the sign that our ministries are going well. They become the sign of authentic adolescent faith, kids for whom things are going pretty well. I don’t want to belittle those kids, but often it perpetuates this idea that to be a Christian means that you have it together. It leads us away from this question of where is God?

Where is this God of the cross found? Where is this God who cries out to his Father on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and hears nothing. Where is this God? If our models of great adolescent faith are just the shiny happy kids, then what about all those kids who know that question deep in their being? But the church never helps them articulate it.

Christian Smith has done this study, the National Study on Youth and Religion, that Soul-Searching came out of. This book has been quite famous about teenage religiosity and faith. One of the overwhelming findings of that book was simply that kids don’t know anything about their faith. They know very little about any of the theological elements of their faith. They can barely articulate what it means to find Jesus.

I wonder if the reason is because it doesn’t matter to those kids? Those kids often are the shiny happy kids that things are going well for, and we point to them as the models of good adolescent faith, but they don’t need to, as Anselm would say, really dig into “faith-seeking understanding” because things are unfolding okay for them.

JMF: For now.

AR: Exactly. Which is the real disservice we do to them, because they go to college, they go into young adulthood, and then things don’t go right for them.

JMF: [And they become] totally disillusioned.

AR: They don’t have a theological lens to see their reality where God is present in it. So one of the theological elements I’m trying to work out for youth ministry and ministry for the church in general is: how do we answer this question, where is God? I think there’s a deeply Trinitarian element about that. But it’s also this assertion that God encounters us in darkness, in brokenness, in yearning, because God is reflected to us in Jesus Christ on the cross.

About Andrew Root

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