Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry…Part 1

Over the next few days, I intend to present a review, reflection, and response to Andrew Root’s book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. This book was the result of his PHD dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary (I think) and while it is highly academic, much can be learned about practical youth ministry from his research and discoveries.


I am glad to find out that Zondervan has contracted Andrew to rewrite a “layman’s” version of the book, for I feared that many of the concepts presented were too advanced for your average youth leaders. Not to say that most people cannot sit down, read, and understand this book, but this would not be a book to pick up for a quick read about how to better relate to your students. (The cover may be a bit misleading). This is a highly intellectual and profound look into the history and theology of relational ministry from the truth of the incarnation.

Here are my thoughts on Part 1

In Andrew Root’s groundbreaking book about relational youth ministry, he articulates some wonderful discoveries through thorough reading and research into the incarnation of Jesus. Regarding these discoveries, he writes that “the incarnation was not a model or example, but was the very power of God present in human form among us today.”  Additionally, he reminds us that “Jesus Christ is concretely present to us in our relational lives, in our person-to-person encounters, in the I and you. ”

Root argues that ministry is about “connection, one to another, about sharing in suffering and joy, about persons meeting persons with no pretense or secret motives. It is about shared life, confessing Christ not outside the relationship but within it.”

The deficiency of modern youth ministry is that it has caused youth pastors to see relationships in a goal-oriented rather than a companionship-oriented fashion (which Root argues is more faithful to a theology of the incarnation.

In part one, Andrew does an excellent job outlining and detailing the history of adolescence and youth ministry in America. With each new generation of students, the “goals” of youth ministry changed from reinforcing Christian commitment to protecting young people from the treats of culture. Following in the wake of big event youth rallies, youth ministry transitioned into a “relational” form of influence.

Leaders such as Jim Rayburn of Young Life discovered that by his relational contact with adolescents he could “win the right” of their participation in his event. As Root notes, “by being in relationship with adolescents, Rayburn formed a strategy for helping them come into personal relationships with Jesus Christ. Rayburn’s approach to youth ministry was essentially a missionary effort by Christian adults to win uncommitted high school students to a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”

However, this approach to youth ministry seems to be lacking and no longer working in many contexts. Youth pastors back in the day used this form of relational youth ministry as a pattern for ministry, since it appeared that was what Jesus did. Root argues for seeing the theology and implications behind the incarnation as the basis for authentic relational ministry as opposed to relationships based upon influence.

Relationships with agendas, conditions, or attachments must change.

Here is the big question:

What if your only agenda is to see this one particular student come to know Jesus?

Is that such a bad agenda?

Some may argue against Root and claim that as “Christian” youth workers, that must be our only agenda..and we should run with that agenda and platform like seasoned politicians.

Here’s the problem.  Kids today see right through agendas and do not by into the “relationship of influence” model that so many of today’s youth pastors still subscribe to.

And here’s why:  What if this student never comes to know Jesus? What happens then?

Does your friendship and relationship change?  Will you shake the dust off your hands and be done with that one student and move onto the next?

Or take this example:

I recently met a young freshman in high school who came up to me and said, “Dan I am not interested in God, spiritual things, or church and you can’t convince me otherwise.  I am not going to change my mind on this either, so don’t bother trying.”

(I really liked this kid…what authenticity and attitude!)

So…do I then not bother with him  or invest in his life

Or do I say something like the following: (which I actually did say)

“Good man, I don’t care that you don’t care.. I just want to get to know you.”

You should have seen the look on his face…and you know what, he still comes each week.

(personally I do think he cares…certainly enough to attend a youth group at a church!)

In fact, Root’s research showed that the majority of youth pastors polled ultimately believed their main goal and purpose was to influence students toward making a decision about salvation.

One youth leader stood out as the anomaly. He explained that relational ministry must be built on unconditional love, with the hope that adolescents themselves would become incarnational agents who engaged the world with compassion and care.

Not a bad definition!

The question of course, is how does that all play out in a local setting with students?

In his conclusion to Part 1, Root writes, “relationships have been used for cultural leverage (getting adolescents to believe or obey) rather than as the concrete location of God’s action in the world”.

“Youth ministry of influence has very little to do with the incarnation…the incarnation is not about influence but accompaniment.”

“Christ calls me into self-giving, suffering love for the adolescent, with no pretense or agenda.”

So the question beckons us then…how do we do this in youth ministry?

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my review on his Part 2!

Closing quote for reflection:

“Ministry is not about helping these kids be better Christians; it is about helping them be what God created them to be-human”.


6 thoughts on “Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry…Part 1

  1. “What if your only agenda is to see this one particular student come to know Jesus?”
    What if your only agenda was to be the presence of Christ to this person?
    What if your only agenda was to be a source of grace in the student’s life?
    Whether or not the student ever came “to know Jesus”. Whatever definition that may carry.
    I really didn’t get much from Root’s book, but I am glad you are doing this review. It helps me evaluate my own responses to the book. Thanks.

    Thanks for the response.
    I really appreciated your questions about agenda and tend to agree with your thoughts.
    Let me know your thoughts to my review of part 2 and let’s continue this conversation

  2. I had the privilege of taking a class from Andrew Root this past summer and it has in many ways continued to transform the way I look at and practice ministry.

    With the exception of a few other classes, I have rarely met someone so convinced about the importance of incarnational ministry that they have moved from relationships as goals to relationships for relationships sake.

    Wonderful insights and I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on his book.

    Here are a couple of blog posts I wrote about the course I took from Andrew Root and how it has shaped my ministry.

    Jason, I looked at your posts and enjoyed them very much. Thank you. It must have been a great experience to learn under Andrew and I am excited to know how you have been influenced by him. Let me know what you are up to these days and how those classes have changed/altered your approach or philosophy to ministry.

  3. Good thoughts thus far. I’ve been deeply influenced by Root’s and look forward to more.

    FYI, his PhD was done at Princeton.

    Thanks for the clarification and the feedback. I hope to learn more from you about how your philosophy and ministry has been changed by his book. Any practical applications resulting from your reading?

  4. Pingback: Sunday Shares: 13 December 2008 | Jon Jolly: My Life & Youth Work

  5. I am currently reading Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry and volunteer in a youth ministry where “influence” is the buzz word. I’ll post more after I finish.

  6. Pingback: Relationships Unfiltered « Emerging youth’s Weblog

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