BUIES CREEK -- Perhaps the greatest task for young people as they grow into adulthood is answering the question: “Who am I?,” Andrew Root said during the Campbell Divinity School’s Reavis Ministry Lectures he delivered Tuesday in Butler Chapel.
Throughout most of history, young people answered that question -- and formed their identities -- based on two building blocks: their abilities and skills, and their love or commitments over time. Sigmund Freud, after all, proclaimed healthy people are the ones who can work and love, Root said.
But that’s no more, added Root, the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and the author of nearly a dozen books, including his most recent “The Relational Pastor.”
In today’s technology-rich world of constant movement, identity’s building blocks of work and love have become less stable and have “melted,” Root said. In their place have risen two new building blocks that help form identity: consumption and self-gratifying intimacy. In other words, he said, “we use what we buy to define who we are . . . and we seek electric feelings of closeness.”
This transition from work to consumption and love to intimacy allows people to change their identities or redefine themselves quickly and often. The dark side of this? People find themselves in a habitual pattern of addiction to try to understand who they are and answer the question “Who am I?” based on instant gratification. “While [consumption and intimacy] are attractive, they dissipate and leave you wanting all the time,” he said.
Many church leaders have tried to adapt to the cultural shifts by wrapping their youth ministries in consumption and intimacy, Root said. For example, he said, think of some of today’s Christian music, or the merchandise associated with the WWJD campaign.
Though there can be some value to this, he said, “I wonder … if the way to help young people have faith is not to adapt our methods to consumption and intimacy but to actually help them wrestle with God . . . [and] to create spaces where our young people can bring their disturbing questions and wrestle with them.
“Maybe what it means to be one of the followers of Jesus is to be one who actually wrestles with God,” he added.
How can youth ministers and youth workers create an environment and build a ministry that encourages youth to wrestle with God? That was Root’s focus during the afternoon session of the Reavis lectures. His answer: “Maybe the relationship is the ministry itself.”
But because of cultural shifts and today’s cultural realities, youth ministers can fall into the trap of seeing relationships merely as a means to an end – as a tool to lead youth to the place where they want them to go and to get them to do what they want them to do. “Where we want them to go may be good, but what matters is the end and not the kid,” Root said.
Youth ministers, consequently, can get caught up in trying to fix the problems of youth rather than representing the fullness of the activity of God by being with them. “The call of the ministry . . . is to not solve the problem but to join them. . . to embrace and share in the experience, to share in the questions, to dwell with them in their deepest questions,” he said. “Stop trying to fix [them], and just be with [them].”
Instead of thinking of relational ministry as for influence, think of it as for place-sharing, Root said, drawing on the words of 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Just as a good politician is for people, a good father is for children, so Jesus Christ is for us,” Root said. “Jesus Christ shared our place. Jesus Christ is found with and for us. . . .
“We (youth ministers) often feel pressure to get kids on the bus; but to just join them in the God-forsaken place and share with them, maybe that is what youth ministry is about first and foremost – to find kids in God-forsaken places and be there with them,” Root added.
“What does it take to move from despair to reconciliation? Someone who is there, who shares their place and who manifests the fullness of the presence of Christ.”
About the Reavis Lecture Series: L.B. and Mabel Reavis established the L.B. and Mabel Reavis Professorship and Scholarship program at Campbell University in 1991 to promote the ministries of evangelism and church growth. Funding from the program supports the Reavis Lecture Series, which brings distinguished scholars and Christian leaders to campus each year to speak on topics related to evangelism and church growth.
-- Article by Cherry Crayton, digital content coordinator