504 Java Profile

504 Java Profile
Two of my favorite things

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On Youth Ministry and Influence

I am attending an annual conference of youth ministers called METRO youth ministers, pretty much guys from the largest churches in our world. I was humbled and honored to be asked to address them in a devotional.  Each of the ministries that they shepherd has a minimum of five hundred students involved and some have thousands.  The theme of the meeting is "Influence" and to look around the room at these people--my friends--I am blown away in terms of the impact that these men and women are having on lives of students across the country and in a couple of cases around the world.

I often think of influence in terms of legacy, replication, generational discipleship and so forth.  It seems intuitive that we should leave a mark of influence.  But should influence be the primary goal of our relationships with students?  Not according to a relatively recent book by Andrew Root.  He challenged the notion of relational ministry as we have practiced it in our culture.  The book is entitled, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation.

Root recasts relational ministry as an opportunity not to influence the influence-rs but to stand with and for those in need. He implies that a motivation by a youth minister to influence a student through relationship is a faulty one.  True relational youth ministry shaped by the incarnation is a commitment to enter into the life and maybe suffering of students with no other agenda.

In Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, Root explores the prevailing youth ministry model for evangelicals, showing how American culture has influenced our understanding of the incarnation. He draws from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose work with German youth in troubled times shaped his own understanding of how Jesus intersects our relationships.

His point is well taken, but I believe he is off base on at least a couple of things.  I look around this room and see very busy people.  It is a worthy admonition to "live in the moment" and not see students as numbers or pieces to move around the game board. Each student has a story and a soul and a future.  Relationally speaking, some of the stories are messy and require careful attention.  I admit that as we get busier in ministry on such a large scale that it is easy to hear someone without really listening because the mind has moved on to the next task.

But to say that relational ministry that desires to have influence is invalid or somehow less than a "relationship that connotes presence devoid of agenda or further goal" is going too far.  Students should be challenged, exhorted, encouraged, to be more like leaders, more like missionaries, more like critical thinkers--more like Jesus and that sounds like influence to me.  I often say in class that "your influence always trumps your liberty" as Jesus had harsh words for anyone who would cause a little one to stumble. As a teacher, parent or youth minister, we relate to students in a way that helps them move towards spiritual maturity.  

I am fine with the idea that we celebrate the influence of youth ministers as they help students become.  I agree that we should not base our "like" or "don't like" on whether a student is progressing towards goals, but Jesus seemed very intentional in His conversations with disciples.  He seemed to have an agenda that they become more kingdom minded and less earthly minded. He seemed to be urging first and twenty-first century disciples to live lives counter to the culture in which they lived or live.

I'm okay with influence as a goal. Dr. Root gives an important takeaway that we shouldn't barter our affection in relationship.  However, I think I will examine my motives and try to influence as many as I can to think, act and be like Jesus.