Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation
By Andrew Root
Review by Jonathan Taylor
In his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation, Andrew Root traces the historical development of age-specific ministry to youth, demonstrating particularly how relational ministry has come to be the dominant form of youth ministry in America. His clear and concise recap reminds us that age-specific ministry to youth is a relatively new phenomenon in the Church.
Root holds that, in America, forces such as doctrinal conflicts in the church, changes in family life, the rise of a high school culture, and the growth and success of para-church ministries focusing on youth have all pushed the evangelical church to adapt in various ways to address the changes.
Relationships: A Means to an End?
Through it all, youth workers have emphasized relational ministry as fundamental to their work. While Root wouldn’t take issue with relational ministry, he suggests that we don’t have a shared understanding of the definition or purpose of “relationship.” He studied “successful” church youth ministries and found that often relationships had become tools to influence youth toward certain moral behaviors or particular theological beliefs, or to insulate them from perceived dangers in the culture around them.
It is an often repeated youth ministry adage that “relationship is the avenue to influence.” In order to influence, ministry becomes more and more pragmatic in its methods, more prone toward trying to appeal to large numbers through entertainment and exciting programs.
|Root studied “successful” church youth ministries and found that often relationships had become tools to influence youth toward certain moral behaviors or particular theological beliefs.|
For the sake of preaching the gospel, there may be some validity for doing what we can to attract large numbers, Root contends, but a ministry that relies on appealing to and attracting the masses assumes that regeneration and the hard and sometimes messy work of sanctification are sociological phenomena. They are not. They are the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in individual hearts. That work is often—even usually—mediated through authentic relationships rooted, through thick and thin, in the gospel.
God’s Presence in Relationships
It is the sort of pragmatic view of influence and relationships that Root pushes us to reconsider. He suggests, rightly I believe, that relationships are the place of God’s presence. Incarnational ministry is about experiencing the transforming and renewing presence of Christ, with relationship with and obedience to Him as its goal.
To unpack this as it relates to youth ministry, Root uses the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his rubric: 1) Who is Jesus Christ, 2) Where is Jesus Christ, and 3) What then shall we do? Root gives the reader a thorough introduction to Bonhoeffer. Indeed, the reader comes away with appreciation for how Bonhoeffer wrestled with biblical teaching and what his own relationship with Christ meant for the actions he would take in opposition to Hitler’s Third Reich.
But where Root falls short—and to me it is a significant shortcoming—is that he locates his “theology of incarnation” in Bonhoeffer and not directly in Scripture. Scriptural references are sparse and he doesn’t treat biblical passages directly or in-depth. He points us to a theology of incarnation, but as compelling as Bonhoeffer can be, dealing head-on with the Bible is much more compelling.
Shepherding Individual Hearts
There are a number of good takeaways from Root’s book that challenge our motivations and methods in any kind of ministry, but particularly in youth ministry. Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry is useful in pushing us to consider the shortcomings of a pragmatic ministry model that focuses on herding and influencing the masses, and the blessings of a model that values shepherding individual hearts in living in the gospel.
Another takeaway is that Root addresses youth ministry in America, which, in the language of cross-cultural research, is a “low-context culture” in regard to relationships—in other words, American relationships tend to be more open and available, but not always as close or tight-knit. An American concept of “relationship” will not translate in much of the world. As a result, anyone engaging in cross-cultural youth ministry does well to operate out of a biblically-founded theology of incarnation.
Jonathan Taylor is an MTW missionary serving with Global Youth & Family Ministry (GYFM). For more about GYFM visit gyfm.org.