By Matt Cleaver Most youth workers are probably familiar with the practice of “relational youth ministry.” They believe that relationships with adolescents are where the bulk of real ministry happens. Most youth workers will say that relationships are indispensable in youth ministry because relationships are the means by which they earn the right to influence the life of a teenager towards the end of a relationship with Jesus Christ. Luther Seminary Professor Andrew Root thinks this popular explanation for relational youth ministry is theologically unsubstantiated. In fact, he calls it nothing less than a way of practicing docetism.
In Root’s first book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation, he not only argues a thesis that will force the majority of youth ministries to rethink the whole way they go about ministry, but he also forges a new genre in the seemingly overcrowded field of youth ministry books.
Drawing from research conducted while a doctoral student at Princeton Theological Seminary, Root found that in youth ministries, “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.” This popular strategy of ministry is often touted as incarnational, because this seems to be the way in which Jesus conducted ministry. Root goes on to say,
I have realized that a youth ministry of influence has very little to do with the incarnation…. God became human to be with and for us, not simply to influence us toward this or that end. (This would actually be there heresy of docetism, which believed that Jesus only appeared to be human in order to influence us.)… The incarnation is not about influence but accompaniment.
For the bulk of the book, Root forges a new genre in the niche of youth ministry literature as he constructs a theological treatise for robust incarnational youth ministry, drawing almost exclusively from the theology of Lutheran pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He seeks to answer three questions and show their relevance to youth ministry: Who is Jesus Christ?; Where is Jesus Christ?; What then shall we do?
Root does not simply leave his method to intellectual theological arguments, but gives us a final chapter on what this might look like in real youth ministries. His suggestions and theological insights, if taken to heart, really do have the potential to change youth ministry as we know it.
While reading the book, I came to the realization that, to my knowledge, there is no youth ministry book that is as theologically deep and rich as Root’s. Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster’s book The Godbearing Life is the only work close to Root’s in nature, but even it does not probe the depths of a particular theological subject like Root’s. In my estimation, Root’s book will be noted as being the first in a line of theological books written specifically for the context of youth ministry. With the publication of this book, a new (and needed) genre has been birthed.
A word of caution for those seeking to read the book: Root does not “dumb-down” his theological language and tone in order to reach a wide audience. Those who are not familiar with theological reading will likely have a difficult time making it through the center section of the book. However, in this case the effort is worth the result.
This is truly a must-read book. Root’s gift to the youth ministry community is not only in the content he provides, but also in modeling for us what it looks like to think theologically about youth ministry. Taking both to heart will change for the better the way you do and think about youth ministry.