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By Andrew Root and Erik Leafblad

 A beloved father facing the possibility of brain tumors. A youth pastor who acted as an advocate when it seemed no one else was. A youth mentor who regularly, consistently met with you to discuss all manner of questions. A grandmother who helped raise you while your parents lived in another country. A youth pastor who became a balm amidst family heartache and struggle. A brother. A friend. A parent. A mentor. We interviewed 16 different college students, and listened attentively to their stories of significant relationships, embedded within their life-story. With each interview conducted, the long-known truism of youth ministry was confirmed: relationships matter.

Nothing is particularly noteworthy about such an observation. Time and again relationships are held up as the core of youth ministry. When young people speak of the meaningfulness of youth group, or their local church, they often point to a relationship as the primary reason for their faith. As young people continue to drift away from the church, relationships are often stressed as the most pragmatic and strategic response. And, given the range of research across the social sciences where the positive impact relationships with coaches, mentors, teachers, neighbors, and youth workers have on young people, such focus seems warranted. By investing the church’s relational capital in young people, perhaps a strong enough tether can be forged to keep young people engaged in the life of the congregation, and ultimately in faith.

While recognizing the warrant of such projects, our project pursued a different aim, while still focusing on relationships. Stated simply, our interest is in transformation. Certainly the strategies and programs related to young people staying in the church are also concerned with transformation. Yet, the more focused on functional questions of participation and how to capture young people’s attention these projects become, the further one moves from the language of transformation. Functional questions of participation miss the richness of the relationship, the communion that lies at the heart of people sharing life together. And so, we seek to focus attention on articulating theologically why relationships have the impact they do, looking for a connection to the joy that seems to come along with meaningful relationships.

Going into our research we contended that joy and transformation were integrally related. Joy is itself dependent on relationships. It depends on connection with another human person, connection which might even move to a deeper space of communion. Joy finds its center in the union of human persons. Joy comes through relationships which can be described as transformational. This makes joy a spiritual reality more than any state of feeling or developmental process. Joy houses itself in our narratives, in our stories, finding its fullest expression through the presence of another person. This is what makes relationships transformational, theological and spiritual. This is a transformative spirituality of joy.

To begin, a transformative spirituality of joy resides in stories, and so it has to start with the telling of stories. Joy emerges from the coming together of human persons in community, in shared space where stories are held together. Theologically this is how humans connect with one another spirit-to-spirit, and the story is how something so richly embodied in relationship finds expression. When we invite young people to embrace and be embraced by another, when we embrace the young people in our midst, there is a profound experience of communion that generates a new story. To narrate these relationships is to relive them, to let them be the fabric not only of one’s experience, but also to reflect how God encounters them in and through relationship.

Take, for instance, Sarah. She described an enduring struggle with her sibling’s mental illness, and how her youth pastor cared deeply for her, embracing her and her family’s struggle. In narrating the story, Sarah began to gravitate to a metaphor of healing during our interview. She had not necessarily reflected on this experience in this way, but in sharing her story it became a powerful theological metaphor. As Sarah narrated this story she bore witness to the transformation that occurred within the context of the relationship, and this insight carried a certain heightened sense of meaning. It allowed her to further narrate her own presence as a healing presence to her sibling, who continues to struggle. The language of story that Sarah utilized drew us all into a richer account of relationship between her and her youth pastor, and even her family. The richness was one of ongoing joy, even amidst hardship. The narrative was open, a story to be encountered even for us as interviewers.

So, in a spirituality of joy we turn to narrative not to illustrate, but to invite. The story becomes an extension of the person who shares it, an invitation to be encountered. In sharing, one is invited to experience something of the communion we ourselves experienced, and so the narrative opens into deeper communion as it is shared. It becomes a space for participation in the reality of God to which it points. Again, take Sarah: the healing communion between Sarah and her youth pastor cannot simply be designated by the word “healing.” In fact, it can’t be designated at all, but must be expressed, unpacked, and this is why story is so crucial. The narrative of healing enacts the healing to which it refers, so that even within a research interview it becomes a moment of rich and profound relationship.

Stories do not always confirm our assumptions. In fact, when we enter into relationship with others, we generally find ourselves disrupted. One of the interesting and persistent findings from our interviews was that those who were more willing to deal with the ambiguity, complexity, and mystery of their lives found a deeper well from which to draw as they narrated their experiences and relationships. Their stories were often unresolved, but open to even more discovery. Theologically this has to do with how God acts. God shows up in the space of loss in our lives, where what we think will be, often isn’t. And, we know this when someone enters that place of loss or negation with us.

Negation and loss on its own are disruptive, and these experiences demand attention because they bring to the surface our own finitude and contingency, as well as recognition of not being in control. This is not unrelated to how we looked at story earlier. Nearly everyone we interviewed identified some experience of loss or negation as an important part of their relationship. The person who was so meaningful to them met them in their loss. Differences emerged, though, in how they were able to talk about those experiences. Those who opted for flattened language like, “I guess, God is still in control,” or “God must have a reason for this,” were unable to actually talk at length beyond these phrases. Trite clichés took the place of narrative richness, and theological propositions the place of theological depth. This flattened language was hard to engage, so it was difficult to see how the relationship might actually be transformational, since it only seemed to affirm simplistic ideas, or the “right” theological statement. The relationship, which is always richer and fuller, was lost in pop theological exactitude.

Ironically, the focus on negation came to us by observing its opposite where in one interview affirmation was central. Certainly, any relationship should not seek to manufacture loss or negation, and we need validation and affirmation. Yet, one interview in particular stood out for the manner in which the relationship was described as one of almost constant affirmation. Joe described his youth director as someone who constantly planned trips, events, series, etc. to meet Joe’s felt sense of needs. When pressed to detail experiences arising from these trips and programs, very little emerged. Joe described a functional, well-oiled ministry machine, and a relationship with his youth director in which she was the purveyor of those goods. Very little, it seemed, was designed to invite young people to face their own limits, their own negation. In fact, much of the ministry seemed bent on doing exactly the opposite, affirming all the felt needs of students to keep them engaged. Joe even describes his faith as a “relationship with the church,” so that any talk of God redounds back to talk of church programming.

This is not to minimize Joe’s experience, nor to suggest there are no tangible goods in creating spaces for welcoming togetherness and friendship. Certainly Joe’s relationship with his youth pastor was important, but did it open into an experience of shared personhood through which transformation might arise? Could it, without giving attention to the experience of negation? When the ministry seems set up to only affirm, the disruptive aspect of transformative spirituality, leading to joy, is muted. One is not forced to encounter anything other than one’s own felt needs, and thus the absence of experiences of negation leads almost inexorably to church maintenance, programmatic emphasis, and ministry that placates young people. By orienting ministry around affirmation, the youth worker herself likely feels constantly on call, unable to attend to her own finitude and dependence upon others. Since joy is a dependent reality rooted in relationships the likelihood of her own joy in ministry seems slim. Speculative as such a conclusion might be, the high incidence of pastoral burnout may be related to this ministerial orientation. Tending to the transformational ground of experiences of negation may not only prove transformational for the person to whom one is ministering, but may cultivate fertile ground for transforming ministry, where the minister’s own finitude can be encountered and embraced. Hence, practicing ministerial presence by tending to the experiences of negation cannot only be thought of as a “best practice” of ministry. Rather, it suggests something theological in that it may be seen as mutually transformative, and thus a space of God’s ministry foremost.

This is, in the end, the point. Not retention of young people for our churches. Not to offer relationships as a failsafe against risky behaviors. But to encounter the rich and deeply meaningful stories of God’s ministry in the lives of our young people. To discover the joy that transforms in the space of shared relationship with our young people. To discover the God who encounters them, and us, in our ministry.

The research for this essay was funded by the Sir John Templeton grant Joy, Adolescents, faith and Flourishing at the Center for Faith and Culture At Yale Divinity School.

About the Author: Andrew Root and Erik Leafblad

Andrew Root (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is the Carrie Olson Baalson associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. A former Young Life staff worker, he has served in churches and social service agencies as a youth outreach associate and a gang prevention counselor.

Dr. Andrew Root is the Carrie Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, USA. He writes and researches in areas of theology and youth ministry. His most recent books are Christopraxis (Fortress Press, 2014) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker, 2014).

The post A Transformative Spirituality of Joy appeared first on Kindred Youth Ministry.

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Growing up, the table was always a big deal in my house. We rarely missed dinner together around the table. My parents, usually my mom, cooked a meal while the rest of us set the table and prepared for the food about to be shared.

My friends got to experience this sacred time as we had an open table. If my friends were around, they joined in the festivities. They helped set the table, prayed with us, ate my mom’s food, shared stories, and usually read Scripture with us. Most of these friends didn’t know Jesus. They came for the food and the kindness of a family in the neighborhood. Jesus was just a part of the deal.

The Welcome of the Table

One kid in particular came to my home almost every night. His name was Mikey. He wore baseball caps everyday and liked to fight with me. I don’t mean he liked to argue. He liked to physically fight with me. He was small but I was smaller. I was probably the only kid he could wrestle to the ground.

As youth leaders, we must begin to practice hospitality. We must open up our homes and prepare or buy a meal for our students. We need to commit to take time to share the table and take the posture of one who listens and not the one who has all the answers.

Mikey spent a few years growing up around our table. He would wait on our porch until we got home just so he could break bread with us. He was with my parents so much that he eventually started referring to my dad as his dad. He wouldn’t call him Mr. Penn or Brad. He simply called him Dad. Mikey became family around the table. He became a son and a sibling and he got a mom and a dad.

Jesus was part of the table at our home. When Mikey and others ate with us they didn’t just see how a healthy family functions. They experienced the presence of Christ and the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Around the table in our home, forgiveness and grace were offered. Family was made and expanded as kids were adopted into a new kind of family belonging to a different kind of kingdom.

I shouldn’t be as surprised by the power of the shared table as I am. Sharing the table was the way of Jesus and the way he sends his disciples into the world on mission. We read in Luke 10 that Jesus sends out His disciples two by two. They are to enter a town and find a place to eat and remain there, doing ministry there. The mission the disciples are sent on is a mission around the table.

Presence Around The Table

I believe that around the table we experience the presence of Jesus in ways we don’t fully understand.

In Luke 24, two disciples walk to Emmaus with the risen Jesus. In their grief, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus—that is, until he shares a meal with them. When Jesus shares the table with these two disciples, their eyes are opened and they experience the presence of the risen Lord. Before his death, Jesus had ben present with his followers at the table countless times. At this moment around the table, his disciples experienced his presence again.

Inviting Students to the Table

When we share meals with our students we aren’t simply sharing food. We are opening space for our students to experience the presence of Christ with us. As we break bread, we are sharing in eucharistic moments that remind us of the body broken and blood shed for us. The community being formed around the table is a community formed around the person and work of Jesus. He is present with us. We must discern that presence and draw students into his presence.

The shared table isn’t static. It is a dynamic event that begins with the sacrament of communion and extends into shared tables wherever Christians gather. Theologian David Fitch writes of extending the table in this way: “around the Lord’s Table, we learn to tend to the real presence of Christ at the Table. We learn the right postures which enable us to get out of our own way, tend to what Christ is doing, and cooperate. Then, what happens here around the Lord’s Table at worship on Sunday, carries over into all our other meals in our homes, neighborhoods, third places, etc.”1

In this act of discerning and extending Christ’s presence, the table becomes a place of mission. Those who know Jesus and those who do not—both experience his presence in and through the community formed around the table. The presence of Jesus is extended into new locations as we share tables in our homes, neighborhoods, and cities.

Practice Hospitality: Share the Table

As youth leaders, we must begin to practice hospitality. We must open up our homes and prepare or buy a meal for our students. We need to commit to take time to share the table and take the posture of one who listens and not the one who has all the answers.

From this posture we can pay attention to what Jesus is up to and then encourage our students and families to extend this presence and practice into every table they find themselves at. In doing this, we take the mundane table and transform it into a location for forming communities that join God on his mission in the world.

May we be a people of the table, welcoming students and parents to shared meals, and offering the peace and reconciliation found only in God’s kingdom.

About the Author: Jeremy Penn

Jeremy Penn serves as the college and young adult minister at Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, FL. He earned an MA in Theological Studies from Talbot School of Theology. He is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Fuller Theological Seminary that focuses on The Church and Post-Christendom. Jeremy and his wife, Crystal, have a daughter, Riley, and a son, Phoenix.

The post Communities, Mission, and a Shared Table appeared first on Kindred Youth Ministry.

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