I have had a couple of people ask me questions that go something like this: “But, isn’t every ministry essentially manipulative?” and another couple of people asking me if manipulation itself is a bad thing, or if it could be used as a good thing in our youth ministries.
I’m still a bit sore from my experiences a few weeks back, so I’ll try and take my time in exploring these questions, for this blog post I’ll concentrate on the first question, and at a later date I’ll start exploring the second question (which would most likely define what I mean by manipulative). I’m not going to attempt to answer it all in one hit, so don’t expect this to be a major dissertation, not tonight anyhow.
The truth is that I don’t believe that any youth ministry should be manipulative in any way, however I’m also of the opinion that (almost) every youth ministry I’ve witnessed has been manipulative in some way or form.
Let’s face it, the very second that we put an outcome to a relationship we’re being manipulative. When we decide that we’re in relationship with this bunch of young people in order to help them stop participating in graffiti, or when we enter into relationship with a kid with ADHD with the idea that they may become better behaved, or when we minister with a bunch of teens who are children of our congregation in order to see them become christian leaders. It’s the addition of that third place that is manipulative. Some people may have a go at me and suggest that this is inevitable, or that it’s not really that bad to have these outcomes, these third places as goals, but I have one serious question to ask when they do.
Since when has it been so hard to love someone unconditionally, without any outcome other than that relationship in mind? Has it become so ingrained into our ministry models that a purpose has to be attached? When did we start to strategise our relationships so as to get the most out of them?
It’s a hard question for many of us, for all of us, we’ve somehow lost the ability just to love without any conditions, any presuppositions, or any underlining reason for that relationship to exist. We live in a world where everyone seems to be after something, isn’t that just life?
And my wondering continues towards my theology of Youth Ministry, and my understanding of a truly incarnational model, one that takes seriously the ministry that Jesus lived out and demonstrated.
The incarnational model that we’re being sold in missional circles is one that says something like “find a group of people that you have a heart for, and become a part of that community, entering into it, living within it, being someone who moves intentionally into it so as to bring them to Christ”.
And the issue I have with the model is that intention, that there’s still a reason for the ministry, behind the relationship and many still try to figure out their success and failure against that reason or purpose, (has teh community become more inviting, have they become christian, have they asked me about God, have they become less at risk?).
I probably wouldn’t have as much of an issue if we were to be able to name the reason and be honest with ourselves, but we’re so stuck up in believing that it’s incarnational, it’s what Jesus did that we seem too scared or ignorant to name it.
You see, as far as my reading of the scripture goes is that God just wanted to be with us so much that he put flesh on and joined our lives. There wasn’t really a reason to the incarnation, no ulterior motive except for the beauty and the needing of that relationship. God loved, God came.
And I wonder how many people reading this will ask me about God’s intention for salvation, and, whilst I may have some questions about our own notion of salvation (did we add salvation to Christ’s work and purpose because we’re too uncomfortable with the idea that God just wanted to be with us?) I’d be quick to point out that noone was expected to do anything in the story, Christ did it all without any expectations from us.
I’ve recently been reading Andrew Root‘s book “Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation” it’s a great book for people who are starting to think about how they would like to live out their youth ministry, it puts a lot of questions towards our current models (and the models of old). One of the things he says is:
I hit rock bottom; my relational ministry was not working and could not work as it was presented to me by my Young Life mentors. It was during this time, through reading the theological writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great human twentieth-century theologian and martyr, that I discovered the incarnation was not a model or example, but it was the very power of God present in human form among us today. I discovered that Jesus Christ is concretely present to us in our relational lives, in our person-to-person encounters, in the I and you. there s no “Third Thing”, no “end” to which the relationship should lead. Bonhoeffer’s theology alerted me to the possibility that the relationship is the “end.” It is the place where Christ is present, the place where the adolescent (and I for that matter) encounter Christ.”
I know that most people I meet who are in youth ministry say that they are in the ministry because they love, or that they have a heart for the kids, and I believe them. I just wish that more of them would end it there and not continue the sentence with and bringing them to a mature faith in Christ, or some other “third place”.
And I hear you say, but this is a CHRISTIAN ministry after-all, and I ask when did i being Christian make it ok to be having an ulterior motive? When did being Christian allow our relationships to be manipulative?
More and more I wonder how our fragmented communities just need people who love, without any condition, no third place, no rhyme or reason behind their mad love. How our communities need people who are oh so overpowered by the realisation of Christ in their lives that they are over flowing with the need to connect, to be in relationship with the young people around them.
I think that’s where I’m heading with the idea that it should be possible, I hope it’s possible for a youth ministry, for all youth ministries to be manipulation free, if our communities begin to realise what Andrew Root writes in his introduction to his book:
Ministry is not about helping these kids be better Christians (personal edit: or can I add more mature people / not gang members / future leaders / worship leaders / ministers / more polite…); it is about helping them be what God created them to be… human.
And, I believe that as we enter into these types of relationships we’re reminded the same thing. Our openness to the other, our genuine, unconditional, all embracing, non manipulative, connected relationships remind us of who God has created us to be.
to be continued…