Zondervan was kind enough to send me Andrew Root’s second book, Relationships Unfiltered, and I am glad they did. I am not sure what the official release date was or is, but if you have not picked up this book, you will want to. Author and former youth pastor Tony Jones writes, “Relationships Unfiltered is the single most important youth ministry book in a generation.”
A quick summary: This is a revised version of Root’s first masterpiece, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. I wrote an extensive three part review of that book and have included the links below.
While the first book was soaked in theological ideas and seminary language, this book appears to be written for a more general audience. Not to say that others could not read or benefit from his first book, but Relationships Unfiltered is a perfect blend of stories, reflections, Scriptural interpretation, and practical approaches that can benefit anyone in youth ministry. Besides, any book that mentions some of my favorite movies has to be worth the read. In this book Root uses analogies and excerpts from such films as About a Boy, Good Will Hunting, Little Miss Sunshine, Freedom Writers, and I Heart
The subtitle of the book is “Help for youth workers, volunteers, and parents on creating authentic relationships. ”
I would love to have my parents and volunteers read this book and discuss together how we can implement Root’s ideas about what real incarnational ministry can and should resemble in our lives and community.
Enough of the introduction…let me provide a brief overview and synopsis of the content.
Root begins from a place within. His own experiences (both as a husband and youth leader) lead him to question the methods and beliefs commonly ascribed to by many in youth ministry. He came to the conclusion that his approach to youth ministry was that of influence. His goal had been to build relationships with students so to influence them towards some end. He writes, “but my desire to influence them was keeping me from really being with them-in a truly relational way.”
He further confesses, “We cared more about getting them saved, baptized, confirmed, or involved in positive activities than about being truly with them in the deepest joys and sufferings of their lives.”
Rather then entering into their lives, he had simplified his role to “fixing” students. Of course, the problem is that students are smart and savvy, and see straight through that, dont’ they?
As youth workers, we may think that having an agenda for our students is a good and necessary thing, especially if the agenda is to lead them to Christ. Once again, the problem arises when our students don’t agree that the agenda is such a good thing, thus spoiling or preventing relationships to deepen.
Root continues by making a strong case why relational youth ministry cannot be about influence. Without giving away too much, a basic premise is that we cannot act or be perceived as sales reps for God and salvation. No one likes people who attempt to start a friendship with you, only to then try to sell you on a business pitch. Anyone been in that situation before? As adults, we see through that and often end up resenting those “friends”, so why would our students think differently of us if that becomes our approach?
Root asks a bold question to youth workers, “Do we have a ‘point’ going into a relationship that dictates the direction of the relationship and overshadows our ability to truly be with and for a young person, learning real need?”
Andrew believes, and rightly so, that relationships in ministry are not pathways to quick decisions. Rather, they are invitations to share life (all of life, its good and bad) together. “At its core, relational youth ministry is about being with students in the midst of the all-too-common (and tragic) feeling of being alone. ”
Root moves on to examine the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (whom I love) to help further understand relational youth ministry as place sharing. He really develops this theme in his first book, and if you are a Bonhoeffer fan, you should read it.
Place sharing means “to suffer with” and “stand in” for the full person of the adolescent. It was and is what Jesus does for humanity. It is represented as community in the essence of the Trinity. Root spends a few chapters diving in theologically and showing how place sharing fits into the nature and role of Christ as Incarnate, Crucified, and Resurrected.
To be incarnate in youth ministry has little to do with magnetism, little to do with your ability to attract adolescents with your aura of cool. But is has everything to do with gently entering the lives of adolescents as we invite them to enter our own.” That is what Root calls authentic place sharing.
The incarnation claims that God is among is, God is with us, and God is for us. It proclaims we are free– free to be human, free to love one another, and free to love God as God made us, human.”
Since our world is full of brokenness and suffering, the fact that Jesus entered into human history and experienced pain and death can give us hope. Bonhoeffer wrote “Only a suffering God can help.” Youth ministry is not about fixing students suffering, but about being brave enough to see it and live with it in hope; to see it, to name it, and then to respectfully enter it and to share in their journeys.
“When suffering is shared, often its power to strangle is broken. The power of suffering to determine our destiny is broken when suffering is shared in relationships.”
“Relational ministry in the shape of the resurrected Christ is to live and love in the now” This enables us and our students to live fully present in this world, but also to have hope. “What makes us different from non-Christians is that we live fully in a fallen world of death and loss and nevertheless hope in God’s promises won and witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Our job, as youth workers, is to hope with them as we suffer with them.” What a great statement!
“When we assert that God is present in Jesus Christ in relationship (not in where we take the relationship), we are free, because God’s presence is not dependent upon us- it’s already a reality.
“Our call is simply to be with youth, to share their place, to see them as they are as we invite them to see us as we are, and is so doing confess that Jesus is present between and with us. We don’t have to do or be anything other than our authentic human selves.”
In order to truly be human, we must be both real and open with students, as well as closed when necessary. We put our lives on display, but in a real way that fits into our personality, family, and basic realities of existence. Let’s be honest, being open and available to students 24-7 is not healthy or realistic, yet why do so many new youth pastors attempt to do that?
What are we saying about the value of rest, privacy, family, and our own interests? We need to be ourselves and share that authenticity with our students. They will respect us more for it in the long run, and ultimately the lessons we exemplify will be far more sustainable.
Root concludes with some practical approaches and ideas depicting what place sharing might look like in your ministry context. I especially appreciated the story about a small group of leaders and students who meet at a church. As often happens, the students seemed disengaged and hyper active. Yet, when the time came for group prayer, the students shared personal requests and prayed for each other with sincerity.
Root writes, “There in that nondescript room that lacked flat-screen TV’s, video projectors, and a platform stage that the leadership seemed to covet as marks of success and relevance, adults were sprinkled throughout, sitting with kids, touching and smiling at those who spoke, nodding with them as they expressed their fears and brokenness into the life of the community.”
To me, that is youth ministry at its core. It’s not about what we have to offer, it’s about entering fully into the real lives of real students. Here in the northeast, we do youth ministry out of what we have, not what we want. I am glad Andrew shared this particular story as a hallmark of success, because in many viewpoints (by comparison) no one would take notice of that small raggamuffin group of people sharing life together.
I will conclude my review with some key concepts and a few final statements that spoke into my heart and ministry.
Practical Actions for Youth Workers:
Be a relational matchmaker
recruit and serve volunteer leaders
communicate with parents
share the vision
pass on the faith through doubt and struggle
include students in your life
A section that especially challenged me to critically think about my own youth ministry was a set of questions proposed.
Root articulates that if our ministry is about personal influence, then these are the type of questions we are focussed on:
How can we get kids to come? How can we do the most cutting edge ministry? How can I do a good job and be esteemed?
However, if we are able to shift from a ministry of influence towards a ministry of place sharing, the questions shift from “How” to “Who”
Who are these young people and what is impacting them? Who I am alongside them? Who is this God we serve, and who is God calling us to be and be with?
These questions left my mind spinning, as I contemplated my ministry and realized just how often I ask myself and leaders the first set of questions, and how seldom I am asking the second set. Relational youth ministry is not easy. It is easy trying to “fix” my students and make them believe and behave the right way. That way, I can show them off to the elders of my church and don’t have to deal with the drama and struggles of teen life.
However, true youth ministry means getting involved in the mess and not avoiding or ignoring it.
Is it easier to look the other way? Yes.
It is more presentable and manageable to not have the addicted, abused, and depressed in your group? Of course.
Let’s face it, they often complicate things. But isn’t that how real life is anyways? No one has it together, and to promote that kind of message to today’s students, I think does more harm than good. Yes, Jesus can and does heal our brokenness and we should celebrate that when it happens, but it usually does not happen overnight.
After I read this book I uttered a simple prayer that God would stir my heart and make me more sensitive and compassionate to students in need. I don’t want my youth group to be a place where students feel they have to hide their doubts, anger, and issues.
Just this week, a girl opened up in our small group about cutting herself and contemplating suicide, another stood in court to testify to sexual abuse in her family, another is battling sexual addiction, one is threatening to overdose on pills, and the list goes on. Just last night, a number of students opened up about major issues going on at home. Tears were being poured out like offerings and I witnessed other students (who have gone through similar struggles) rise up and pray for those in need. It was truly a magnificent and powerful occasion.
In years past, I would have almost prayed that these students simply not show up each week (problem solved). Now, I want these students in my group. I want to hear their stories and enter in their pain. I want to pray with and for them and to give them hope. I prayed just the other week that God would give me more compassion and opportunities to enter into the lives of students. Be careful what you pray for!
My prayer is that my life and ministry will celebrate brokenness and hurting students and I will not run away from issues, rather enter into them with compassion, faith, hope, and love.