The high school and even the police had given up on James. He cut school most of the time but his mother excused him. He and his friends drank at James’ place, but got into no overt trouble. James pretty much held his widowed mother hostage and monitored her phone calls. Her pastor couldn’t get a word out of the boy. But a youth worker began spending time with James, who responded with one full sentence when his woodwork in the home was complimented. Gradually a relationship grew, and the youth worker was able to suggest some radical changes in the home that no one else had thought possible.
It’s become cliché to say that effective youth work must be relational-after the pattern of Jesus Christ’s Incarnation. It is therefore important to unpack the term (incarnational youth ministry) to be very clear about this topic talking and how to train others effectively. Dictionaries define relationships as connections between people. Effective youth workers take time-lots of it-to enter the peer and private worlds of young people. Slowly, connections are made between an adult from the adult world and a young person who lives in a particular part of the youth culture. It is the decline of relationships and primary groups that make relational youth work so important in urban society.
Traditional society was comprised of face-to-face groups. Children and youth grew up in an extended family, clan, village, or town. Nurturing relationships allowed children the time to develop an integrated sense of self, a coherent value system, and a secure place in society. Bustling urban society has torn children often from the nurturing and self-integration of traditional family systems and cultures. It has hurried them into pseudo-maturity. Their inner lives tend to be compartmentalized as their surrounding systems of influence are also fragmented. Too often their homes, schools, and places of worship are not characterized by face-to-face relationships. Instead, young people experience adults in their lives operating according to specific functions without intimate relationships and without a real interest in the whole of their lives. Many who have left home for the city, or who have passed from traditional to urban society, lament the loss of primary groups.
Sociologists have equated primary groups with face-to-face groups. Charles Horton Cooley was one of the first (“Social Organization,” 1909:23) to describe primary groups:
By primary groups I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in several senses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideas of the individual. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one’s very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group. Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a ‘we;’ it involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification for which ‘we’ is the natural expressions. One lives in the feeling of the whole and finds the chief aims of his will in that feeling.
For many teenagers today, school, police, church, even the home, and certainly the media, are secondary groups in their lives. Their peer groups are the only significant and reliable face-to-face or primary group in their lives. More and more they are relying on digital or virtual connections.
Some youth workers try to influence teenagers on the basis of what we might call “a secondary style of relationship” or a strictly functional relationship. To have a lasting influence on young persons, to teach them anything really significant for their lives, one must enter the personal world and establish a relationship characterized by trust and respect.
A highly respected youth worker in England describes the necessity of relationships this way (Pete Ward’s “Youth Culture and the Gospel,” 1992:49):
Starting a youthwork project is really tough when you don’t know any young people. In fact, most adults have very little contact with young people and this can be a real barrier to overcome…The answer of course is that if we want to get to know young people then we will have to go where they hang out….More often than not relationships can be formed with young people in very easy and casual ways.
A current practical theologian and professor of youth ministries (Andrew Root of Luther Seminary, MN) has taken aim at a clichéd use of incarnational, relational youth ministry. He’s been frustrated by the way youth “technicians,” rather than true ministers, have used the idea of forming relationships (particularly with “key kids”) as a means to an end which ends up offering relationships with strings attached. His books (Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation and Relationships Unfiltered) condemn finding and relating to youth in order to get them into a program or even to consider the faith. He emphasizes our need to “enter the often painful space” that teenagers can occupy. The climax of the Incarnation was the Cross, and we, too, are challenged to get close enough to share the sufferings of young people-in mutual hope through the Cross.
An effective teacher or youth leader almost bonds in a familial way to become a trusted mentor. They may become a second father or mother, big sister or brother, uncle or aunt in a way that begins to replace the lost and needed extended family (but never to “replace”). In the security of a positive primary relationships, young lives can blossom, hurts can be healed, and dreams restored.
Most relationships are not permanent, but effective relationships cannot be superficial. There is a rhythm of relationships among peers and between youth and leaders. Dave VanDuesen (Dare Mighty Things) and his staff have developed manuals for youthful mentoring which describe the five stages of a relationship in these steps:
Forming. Initial contact may bring a high degree of anxiety and uncertainty. Testing may check out the possibilities of trust and commitment. Mutual interests may be explored by both parties for several weeks.
Norming. Relationships need, not only mutual interests, but a common language and commonly shared experiences. In this second stage, trust is built as both individuals find points of connection with one another. “Yes-and-No” conversations will give way to deeper discussions of meaningful issues over a period of four months or so.
Storming. Such explorations of meaning and values, identities, and boundaries are bound to bring sensitive differences. A young person may back off and regress, not only in this relationship, but in their general social behavior as well. Youth workers or mentors may be tempted to write the relationship off as a failure under such circumstances. But this is usually a critical storm that must be weathered. Out of apparent rejection, failure, and even hostility, come “teachable moments” of great opportunity. Experiential educationists (like the staff of Outward Bound, La Vida, etc.) are experts in seeing difficulty, danger, and failure as excellent learning situations. Relationships may struggle through this phase for several months or more.
Performing. Relationships bloom when trust allows both persons to work on solving a common problem. Both find comfort and security in their relationship. It usually takes a year for this kind of trust to develop, and the relationship may go on for many more months or even years. The closer the relationship, the more necessary it probably is for it to end…at least for a time…so the young person can push off and prove him- or herself as an individual.
Mourning (Morning). In some cases, particularly with youth-at-risk, there may be an end or hiatus in the relationship. In other cases, this stage marks the end of a particular style of the relationship, for instance moving from being “a leader” of a young person to being friends as the younger person has gotten a job or gone off to college. It may also represent a transition from “formal” mentoring to a more natural and casual “informal” mentoring. Whether this stage represents the end of a one-year mentoring program or high school graduation, it is important that terminations are marked by discussion and some kind of celebration. Where terminations are “processed,” mourning is manageable and turns into “morning” for both parties.
The most important things young people look for in relationships with adults are respect, genuineness, caring, trustworthiness, ideals or commitment, and passion. Humility and a sense of humor bring healthy relief to the stress of relationships.
Youthful growth needs positive peer support and caring mentors. Such relationships supply not only basic human needs for love, significance and belonging, but they also allow for real learning and change while fostering dreams and goals.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. What impresses you most in this article? What questions about it or disagreements with it do you have?
2. Illustrate one principle from this article with a positive experience you had in relationship with an adult and with a younger person.
3. Show how a principle of this article was missed or violated by you and by one of your teachers, leaders, parents, or another adult.
4. On what skills of relating do you need to work? How can you do so?
5. Do you feel able to help someone desiring, but feeling unable, to relate better with young people? How would you go about this training?
1. While relationships are basic to all stages of life, they become particularly important to teenagers. It is in their relationships that they achieve their new sense of self-image and identity as well as practice adult life situations. The new self-consciousness of teenagers make them keen critics of any “phoniness” in relationships.
2. Almost all significant learning and change, positive or negative, take place in youthful relationships or primary groups.
3. No youth work can start with programs; it must begin with relationships.
4. We relate to others as we relate to ourselves. Problems in our relationships often point to unresolved problems within.