I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something and it’s actually been reinforced by the Youth Work Summit and it’s this: how do you find a way out of the tension that truly postmodern relational youth ministry brings? Let me explain what I mean by that.

Relational youth ministry isn’t new, many of us have been saying for years that youth ministry should be about the relationships with young people and not about activities or programs. Attractional youth ministry is losing ground and I think that’s a good thing.

Are we misusing relationships?

But postmodern relational youth ministry takes it a step further than just putting relationships at the core of your youth ministry. There’s a paradigm shift happening where relationships aren’t a means anymore to a higher cause, but a goal in itself. That shift is caused by a deep unease about how we’ve been using relationships in youth ministry. In his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, Andrew Root argues that as youth workers, we’ve been building relationships with young people under false pretenses. Our goal hasn’t been the relationship, but evangelism, discipleship, sanctification or whatever we call it.

At the core, we’re not in it for the relationship itself, but for the higher cause we’re working towards. Mark Oestreicher (Marko) also mentions this in his new book A Beautiful Mess:

“Many of us have been using relationship building as a manipulative tool to coerce teenagers into our desired outcome.”

As youth workers, we are often purpose driven, goal oriented in some way. That’s why we have a mission statement, a vision, a strategic plan…we want to see young people come to Christ, We want to see them grow spiritually. We want them to invite their friends to outreach activities or services. We long to see them live a more holy life. But if our only goal in building relationships with teens is this, are we being true and authentic? We’re (mis)using relationships it seems.


Are relationships enough?

But here’s the other side: is it enough to ‘just’ build relationships with young people without any other agenda or higher goals? How then can we reach our Biblical goal of spreading the gospel? Is it enough to just be present in the lives of young people and so let our light shine, perhaps more indirectly than we would want? Can we still call it a youth ministry, a Christian youth ministry when building relationships is ‘all’ we do?

That’s the tension in truly postmodern relational youth ministry that I’m talking about. That’s the tension that I haven’t yet found a definitive answer to, a satisfactory way out of. If youth ministry becomes purely about relationships, then where is God. Sue, we bring Him with us as He lives in us, but don’t we need to do more, say more, be more intentional?

A great example of a relational project without direct higher goals is the listening project in a borough of London, I interviewed youth worker Rebecca Hamer about (she also shared something about the power of listening on the Youth Work Summit). ‘All’ the do is listen to young people in a structrured way and then reflect back to them. There’s no evangelism, no sharing of the gospel, no invitations to church. They’re satisfied with being a positive change in the lives of these young people. It’s a classic case of sowing…and praying that the God of the harvest will finish it.

Pure postmodern relational youth ministry is a completely different approach. It requires more of a long term vision and above all the faith and confidence that God will finish what we start. But there’s a tension in it that still makes me feel uncomfortable…but then again, I am very goal oriented by nature so it really doesn’t come natural to me.

How do you feel about this tension? Can you be content with ‘just’ building relationships or do you have another approach? I’d love to hear your thoughts!