Note about the format: Throughout this review I used text from the book to introduce a new idea. The quoted text will be in bold.
My family was a water skiing family growing up in South Texas. Almost every weekend we would go out to ski on a small man-made lake. When teaching me how to ski, my sister would tell me, “Just pull on the rope when the boat takes off and don’t let go. You’ll pop right up.” If you’ve ever learned how to water ski, you know that it’s not that simple. It takes a lot of different muscles working and usually a lot of time being dragged through the water on your face before you get up for the first time.
Andrew Root, like many of us who work with youth, feels like we’ve been sold some false information about relationships in youth ministry: Just care for kids and love God, and kids will show up and be transformed. It’s not that this isn’t decent advice — it’s just incredibly over-simplified. Root is an advocate for the fact that relationships with youth (with everyone) are complicated. Check out this video to get a deeper look at his perspective on how popular youth ministry culture has undersold the complexity of relationships:
What is the point of our relationships with kids? And how do we know when these relationships are successful? Faithful? Or simply worthwhile?
Andrew Root has spent much of his writing career digging into questions he expounds upon in his book Relationships Unfiltered: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation.
Root explores the common youth ministry philosophy that the best way to get students to ________ is through relationships. Depending on your denomination, convictions, church, or program, the ________ is going to be different, but the fact that you’ll be using a relationship as a tool to influence doesn’t change.
If the goal of the relationship is growth, commitment, and conversion, eventually I am completely justified in abandoning the relationship. I can say to an adolescent through words or actions, “Let’s face it, this isn’t working. I’m moving on to someone more receptive to my efforts (i.e. easier to influence).”
Now all this influence bashing isn’t to say there is no influencing involved in true relationships… My wife and my close friends have influenced me greatly, and parents influence their children more than anyone else. Yet, what must be seen is that these relationships were not built around the desire to influence the other, but were constructed around the desire to know, love and be with the other.
Root explains that, simply put, motives matter. To serve youth as long as they serve our purposes is shallow. It’s shallow because once a student serves his purpose by going through our program or we find that we can’t fit them into our program, he can be discarded.
Exploring the implications of using relationships to influence carries throughout much of the book. The book begins with criticism of this model based on influence and slowly unfolds to reveal positive statements about how we can show who youth are in Christ through relationships instead of trying to make them into who we’d like them to be.
The theology of being in relationships with youth that Root promotes is called ‘place-sharing’ which was developed by the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
A relational youth ministry of place-sharing argues that our relationships — where we truly see other persons and share their place — are the location of God’s presence in the world. So…if asked, “Where is God?” we would answer that God is found in our relationships.
Place-sharing is not about getting young people to conform to our world, but to understand their world and how it’s impacting their person.
Because God is present in our relationships, because we show Christ by entering into someone else’s world, our need to use our relationships for any other purpose is taken away.
This is our entry point as Lutherans to present our theology of the Holy Spirit being active through His Word. It’s through His Word that God is present –where God speaks, where God acts. Relationships for us are not tools to deliver God’s Word, but the natural place for the Word to be proclaimed for teaching,rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
Once we have a relationship it is vital, if the relationship is to be real, we judge and confront each other. I say it to my students this way: “You cannot form a relationship through judgment, but once you have a relationship, the relationship is dependent on you confronting and judging each other.”
Bonhoeffer writes in his book Life Together that a man can stand alone and confess to God and be absolved of His sin — but this is a rare thing. We do need others to speak into our lives. What Root’s book does is awaken us to the ‘why’ of our relationships. Why would we want to hang out with students at their high schools for lunch? We know that relationships are key — but why? When we separate our motives from God’s motives in relationships — we do suffer. When we separate our speaking into the lives of youth from God’s Word — we suffer.
The real art of practicing relational youth ministry, then, is not about dropping everything to be with kids; more profoundly, it’s about being open and closed alongside them. As a volunteer or a new youth worker, it’s not your job to be radically open with young people; it’s your job to be a healthy and whole person who’s able to both identify with them and be different from them. When recruiting adults to be in the lives of adolescents, I look for those who can live out of this balance more than anything else.
Passages such as the one above are refreshing . Root presents the idea that part of being a whole person is being a person who is ‘closed.’ This means that there are some areas of your life that you don’t have to completely open up to those you minister to. You don’t have to open up your family time, your personal struggles, your alone time with God.
As vague as a job description can be from a church, knowing how ‘open’ to be with a youth is much more so. If a child is struggling with being gossiped about at school, do you answer her phone call during dinner? If you’ve been struggling to get confirmations from students on an upcoming retreat, do you check your e-mail during your one night alone with your husband? Root reminds us that relationships are as much about being ‘closed’ as -they are about being ‘open.’
By your willingness to be with adolescents and to share their place, you are — in your very being and acting — witnessing to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected God who shares their place in Jesus Christ. There will be moments to speak of the hope we have and the One who calls us to suffer their realities, but the call is first to join God in sharing their place.
Root is passionate about reminding us that relationships are complex and being in complex relationships is hard. He defines incarnational ministry by reminding us that relationships can be painful. By sticking through the hard times with youth, by being present in and through the suffering, we show something about God’s love. Here we have opportunities to share the Gospel.
“I remember when I was in youth group we did so many fun things together; I loved it, and I’m sad that my kids aren’t getting that.”…Too often it feels like parents and congregational leadership judge successful youth ministries by the number of kids and how much those legions of adolescents enjoy (are having fun in) those youth groups and their activities.
If you’re called to move toward a relational ministry of place-sharing and beyond the treadmill of influence, then you’ll have to be able to make a theological argument for such a change. This is why we’ve taken so much time examining place-sharing theologically.
These quotes reveal the heart of the argument and Root’s passion for the change that he prescribes, but they also reveal the moving target of his audience. Many comments in the book seem to be targeted at the typical youth minister who is fed up with too much programming and not at the volunteer helping out in a youth ministry program. This book also isn’t free from theological terms that might need further explanation before dropping this book in the lap of a typical youth ministry volunteer.
To really get into the discussion of moving the youth ministry into the life of the congregation would take another book, but it must be said if our goal is to really enter the lives of adolescents and share their place; it will take a congregation and its adults to open their own lives and invite young people to join them.
My greatest criticism of Relationships Unfiltered (which isn’t really a criticism at all) is that I wanted to be reading the book that Root describes above. I was sold on Root’s philosophy from his first book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, and I wanted to go deeper, not stay at the same level. This book is a good entry point into Root’s philosophy of relational youth ministry, and for that it’s a worthwhile read.