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Post-Relational Youth Ministry
For many years as a youth worker, I lived with a considerable amount of guilt. Hardly a week went by when I didn't think about what I believed I needed to be doing but was not. My training had been in the context of Young Life. Young Life pioneered and had considerable success with the incarnational model of youth ministry. I first saw this model powerfully in action in the life of my own youth minister. My guilt stemmed from a self-expectation that I needed to spend a massive amount of my time building individual relationships with young people outside the church. Since I wasn't doing that, I felt I wasn't being an effective youth pastor. At times I thought of myself as a failure and that it was only a matter of time before I'd be exposed and lose my job. In reality, within a few years our ministry was consistently reaching the unchurched and growing rapidly. While I'd learned something valuable from the incarnational model, the path I chose was different and yet still effective.
Incarnational youth ministry, or relational ministry as it became known, emerged in the middle of the last century through the visionary leadership of Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life. This philosophy of ministry seeks to communicate Jesus' love simply by building relationships with young people through which they can experience the love of God. Students have the chance to see firsthand the reality of Christ in the lives of leaders who reach out to them in a personal way. When Rayburn introduced this concept, it revolutionized youth ministry, because churches and various parachurch organizations had been working under a "come to us" paradigm.
Rayburn's Young Life said we must take the gospel to teenagers; share it with them through our lives first and then through our words. The incarnational model birthed the idea of contact work. This consisted of being seen, making conversation with young people, and spending one-on-one time with them in their environments. We were taught that if we built relationships with the natural leaders in a school, we could reach the crowds that followed them. Through these key relationships, entire segments of a population in a school would be reached with the gospel. The formula was simple: relationships over time produce ministry. Within this incarnational model, everything revolves around the relationship between youth worker and the student.
The Modernist Worldview
The context of Jim Rayburn's pioneering work in relational ministry was post- WWII America. Emerging from the cultural revolutions of the 1500s, the Enlightenment worldview, and the modern era, the modernity of the mid-20th century was a combination of rugged individualism and consumerism. As consumerism exploded, the "me" generation was born and an adolescent subculture emerged. The individual, consuming, autonomous knower was considered the center of the universe.
Within a few decades, many progressive churches responded with entertainment as a means to reach this consumer/seeker. Adolescence as we know it was recognized as a reality that the church must address, but it was Rayburn who connected the dots to realize that personal relationships mattered most in youth work. The success of Young Life led the Church to follow this model, which cemented the supremacy of relational ministry. In reality though, the relational model may reflect a modernist worldview more than a biblical one.
The challenge of relational youth ministry as it has evolved is that it's almost entirely dependent on the one-to-one relationship between student and adult. Relationships are the means to attract students to Jesus and then show them what he's like. Essentially, students are meant to see Jesus in and through the adult youth leader. This model of youth ministry is so pervasive that its practice and theology are somewhat of a sacred cow among youth workers. Rayburn's innovation was brilliant and crucial in the development of youth ministry that was relevant to 20th century culture. However, as our culture shifts and we continue to practice youth work in this fashion, we're seeing the limitations of relational ministry.
What if we're shy? (Is youth work only for the extroverted?) What if a young person doesn't relate to us or understand us very well? What if we're trying to raise a family and don't have enough hours in a week to go see football games, shuttle our own children to their activities, and actually get our work done?
If the process through which young people are led to Christ is based solely on that one personal relationship with the youth worker, we're in troubleif for no other reason than the frequency with which youth ministers change jobs.
The heart of incarnational theology is that God became human in order to communicate on our level and reveal the holy to us. We need to enter the world of teenagers to share the gospel with them just as God entered our world.
The scriptural basis for relational youth work is that we seek to follow the pattern of Jesus who built relationships with his disciples and revealed himself to them. Relationships are the essential glue for ministry, yet many have missed the fact that Jesus himself built a community of followers.
Jesus was capable of fully revealing the true nature of God. We as imperfect humans are not. What we see emerging from the book of Acts onward is that the key players in the church were more concerned with building up the body of believers. Acts 2 alone would suggest that the popular practice of relational youth work isn't enough. We need to build relationships that lead to communities of believers.
Jesus is present where the church gathers and community exists. The reality is that young people will see Jesus more in a group than in one relationship. Hence we see Jesus' final recorded prayer in John 17 that emphasizes the unity and community of believers.
Perhaps the relational model's emphasis on individual relationships was the result of a cultural context and a less-than-full understanding of incarnational ministry.
From Programs to People
Jim Rayburn was revolutionary in the field. His paradigm shift was to move people's thinking about youth work from programs to people. This is a tremendous boost for youth ministry as it's clearly more like the ministry of Jesus. However, the paradigm needs to shift further.
There are theological questions with relational youth ministry not because Rayburn was wrong, but simply because he didn't go far enough. It's time to move beyond just one aspect of the ministry of Jesus (the incarnation) and embrace a theology that learns from the entire life and ministry of Jesus, the New Testament church, and the church of the last 2000 years.
Perhaps we need to shift our thinking away from simply relational youth work and towards ecclesiological youth work.
An Incomplete Picture
Relational ministry in its popular practice is incomplete simply because communities of faith more authentically incarnate the Gospel than individuals do. God exists in community. God doesn't just have relationships; the Holy Trinity is a communal relationship.
Genesis 1:27 suggests that being created in the image of God means we're created to be in community. Remember, it wasn't good for Adam to be alone; the reflection of God's image in the garden was to become a community.
And it's not just an Old Testament idea. The New Testament Church is radically called to be a communal representation of the living God. Scripture calls us to be "the body of Christ" (Romans 12; Ephesians 4) and teaches that our task in ministry is to build up the body.
In his book Created for Community, Stanley Grenz suggests "…the ideal for humankind does not focus on solitary persons, but on persons-in-community. God intends that we reflect the divine nature in our lives. This is only possible as we move out of our isolation and into godly relationships with others."
As effective and necessary as one-onone relational youth work is, practiced alone it falls woefully short of a Biblical understanding of ministry. Moving beyond relational youth ministry means that we focus as much on bringing young people into an authentic community of faith as we do "meeting them where they're at."
We still need to meet students on their turf, and we must continue to build relationships. However, that's just the beginning of our work and not the end. So what, then, should our role as youth workers be if our goal is to cultivate an authentic community of faith?
Belonging Is Bigger than Relationship
I was talking with a friend named Erin who is recovering from an addiction to heroin. She told me that the place she felt most loved and accepted in her life was at her first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. At that meeting the other people touched her, supported her, and loved her for who she was. In that meeting she found hope. Here were other people who would walk with her down a frightening road no matter what happened. She knew that in this place she was safe. After hearing this I was floored and thought, "Why isn't this a description of our experience of church?"
We're created to need relationships. We can't live without them. Babies who aren't held will die. Prisoners who are left in solitary confinement eventually go insane. God created us with an innate need for relational connection. Why then do we find our students and perhaps ourselves surrounded by friends, yet still feeling alone? Why do our students consistently jump into unhealthy relationships, cliques, and other places that never satisfy? The reason perhaps is that while most teenagers have friends to hang out with, what they desire is something much deeper. Relationships can be a dime a dozen, but belonging is priceless.
The idea that we need belonging is not new. Abraham Maslow noted in his work Motivation and Personality that the need for belonging is so important, it's only trumped by the need for shelter, food, and safety. Joe Myers in his book Search to Belong contends that, "People are trying to find their place in the world not in individualist ways but in ways that connect. They are searching for…a place to belong. They are searching for family."
In Randy Frazee's The Connecting Church, Francis Schaeffer recognizes the desperate importance of a Christian community that generates belonging when he notes that, "Our relationship with each other is the criterion the world uses to judge whether our message is truthful. Christian community is the ultimate apologetic."
Furthermore, the artistic voices of our youth culture are crying out for more than just relationships. The chorus of Linkin Park's "Somewhere to Belong" cries:
I wanna heal, I wanna feel what
The question isn't whether or not Linkin Park, Joe Myers, Abraham Maslow, and Francis Schaeffer are onto something new. The question is, what is the church doing about this cry of the culture?
This is a reality present everywhere we go and is why relational youth ministry cannot have only a healthy one-on-one relationship as its end. We must move on to growing authentic communities of faith who aren't only incarnating the gospel. We need to provide a place for all who are thirsty to drink from living water, a place where they belong. If we don't, are we ignoring those who are crying out for God?
The Future Is Old
Moving beyond relational youth work is really an old idea; it's simply a call to be the church. The church is the radical alternative community that is the presence of Christ on this earth. As we minister to teenagers, we believe we must settle for nothing less than this as our purpose. The church isn't the entertaining youth program that makes God fun. Nor is it the really cool adult with whom to have a relationship. It's a people movement. It's a community of belonging. It's a transformative force on our culture and in our world. It's a place to belong and be changed into the likeness of Almighty God.
We sell the church short if we conclude that it's simply a web of relationships. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us "not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." We must not lose the communal aspect of our faith. In fact, we need to cultivate it.
Too often we've settled for youth work that caters to Western consumerism by simply entertaining teenagers. Much youth work has been influenced by modern individualism involving only one-onone relational ministry. To move beyond this we must ask ourselves:
How would your practice of relational ministry need to change for a teenager to describe your youth group in the same way that Erin described her NA meeting?
Are our ministries inviting and challenging young people to follow Jesus authentically, or does it teach them to consume a program?
Is our approach overly focused on the individual?
Is community an afterthought in our ministry? Does it function only to make those already connected feel more comfortable?
If I have to leave this situation, what will happen to the faith of these teens?
How can I grow and focus on our sense of belonging without adding more to my schedule and sacrificing my family and myself?
These are questions we must honestly wrestle with if we want to move toward ecclesiological youth work. The relational model was an incredible blessing and a revolutionary way of approaching youth ministry, but we cannot stop there. It seems the call to ecclesiological youth work is a call to grow together with other people, to live differentlynot just compulsively drive ourselves into the ground as youth workers trying to attend every school event.
Our experiences of living this way in youth ministry have generated an amazing amount of freedom and hope in our lives. Ecclesiological youth work respects and learns from the Church of the past and pushes into what it means to be the Church of today.
Let's not let Jim Rayburn be the last innovator of youth work. Let us never believe that we've arrived. Instead, let us press on together into the new revolution and discover what our God, who is in community, has for us beyond youth work as we now know it.
Dave Wright has been in full time youth ministry for over 18 years and is currently the Coordinator for Youth Ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
Dixon Kinser is the Director of Youth Discipleship at St. Bartholomew's Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
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