Youth Ministry As Manipulation

Seen bouncing around the internet at the moment are a series of posts by Darren at Digital Orthodoxy about youth ministry and manipulation. It’s worth reading back through them but the one I think summarises the rest the best is Manipulative Youth Ministries 3.0 (and where all the quotes below are from). It’s quite easy to read the various posts and think “oh my word, he’s clearly wrong on the whole point of Jesus coming” and therefore dismiss it out of hand, but I found that as I’ve re-read what Darren’s written I’ve found I agree with where I think he’s coming from even if I really don’t like the direction he’s going to. His criticism does have a certain validity to it, so not wanting to ignore the assessment of our location just because the suggested future directions are towards a sharp cliff edge, here is a response.

His starting place is that any manipulation in youth ministry is a bad thing. Then he has two points, the first one is all ministry that has intentionality is manipulation (which is effectively all ministry); the second point is that the incarnation shows us another model. I have issues with those two point’s but his basis is valid. This is how he words it:

It’s not best practice to be manipulative, it just isn’t, no matter how important you think your mission is, or the need to reach out to young people in order to turn them to faith.”

I recognise there is a debate to be had there, but I’m just going to step out and agree with that as a statement; I think it holds up with the Bible, but I’m not going to explore that here and now because it’s his two main points that I want to deal with.

So the first point Darren makes, any ministry that has any intentionality attached to it is manipulative, which, as every ministry pretty much has intention behind it, is every ministry. That’s a fairly stunning statement to make but that’s what he is saying:

Let’s face it, the very second that we put an outcome to a relationship we’re being manipulative. When we decide that we’re in relationship with this bunch of young people in order to help them stop participating in graffiti, or when we enter into relationship with a kid with ADHD with the idea that they may become better behaved, or when we minister with a bunch of teens who are children of our congregation in order to see them become christian leaders. It’s the addition of that third place that is manipulative.

What the argument seems to be here is this: You’re making a relationship with a young person, but you’re not doing it for the sake of the relationship, you’re doing it for the sake of some other reason. This therefore is manipulative; you’re lying about the relationship.

I don’t think this is fair, or right. It presents itself in a “She’s All That”[1] model. The relationship exists solely for some sneaky purpose and then can be cast away when the mission is done. Obviously in some ministry this is the case, but I hope no-one is arguing that that’s a particularly awesome model. But what if instead the basis for the relationship is love, and any intention for that relationship is driven out of a love for that person, then surely that’s not manipulation? To use one of the examples above, if I love this kid with ADHD then I will want to see them be better behaved, because that’ll make them happier and it’ll make my joy for them grow. Now this presupposes that we love those who we enter into relationship with first so our intentions for them arise out of that love, the problem with this is that we frequently, as youth workers, enter into a relationship with young people that starts with us being given a job description and a few days latter actually meeting them. But then we have to preach to ourselves that Christ has called us to love these young people, and we have to try and get our head and our hearts around the practicalities of loving them.

So, that’s where I stake my first disagreement. You can be intentional inside of a relationship with a young person and not be manipulative. Heck, I’d take it a step further and say you can be persuasive inside of a relationship with a young person, as long as you’re honest with them. I don’t think you can say to a young person, “because I love you my intention is for you to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and believe in it, but I’m not going to try to persuade you it’s true because I don’t want to unduly influence you” without being a patronising moron.

The second point, and my second disagreement comes over what exactly the incarnation teaches us about how we should do youth ministry. Now, a slight aside is going to follow before we get to what Darren has to say. Incarnational youth ministry is one of my pet bug-bears2 and has been for some time. This is what I wrote in an essay in 2005 on the subject:

If you’ve got hundreds of young people coming along to an after school club but you aren’t getting them anywhere near Christ then what you need is either firm faith that you’re “sowing the seeds” for the imminent revival that will magically convert them all or, if you’re not a Pentecostal3, some way of making your work valid so you can feel like you’re doing something valuable for the Kingdom of God. Enter incarnational youth ministry. The incarnational model of youth work ministry states that Christian youth work… brings a unique value to youth work in that Christian youth workers represent Christ to the young people, somehow acting almost as sacraments, communicating the presence of God to the young people through their presence.

In short, the incarnational model of youth ministry attempts evangelism by osmosis. This is destined to fail unless you redefine what it means to succeed in evangelism (alas, a task that has been done very frequently lately). Darren’s model, which we’re about to see, is just another explosion of the incarnational model of youth ministry and a wondering of how it can be repaired.

So this is what he has to say:

And my wondering continues towards my theology of Youth Ministry, and my understanding of a truly incarnational model, one that takes seriously the ministry that Jesus lived out and demonstrated.

The incarnational model that we’re being sold in missional circles is one that says something like “find a group of people that you have a heart for, and become a part of that community, entering into it, living within it, being someone who moves intentionally into it so as to bring them to Christ”.

And the issue I have with the model is that intention, that there’s still a reason for the ministry, behind the relationship and many still try to figure out their success and failure against that reason or purpose, (has teh community become more inviting, have they become christian, have they asked me about God, have they become less at risk?).

And a paragraph later:

You see, as far as my reading of the scripture goes is that God just wanted to be with us so much that he put flesh on and joined our lives. There wasn’t really a reason to the incarnation, no ulterior motive except for the beauty and the needing of that relationship. God loved, God came.

As I’ve already mentioned and as Darren pre-empts in the next paragraph, the conservative evangelicals (or even the not-so conservative evangelicals) reading this are going to say “uh, I think you’ve forgotten Salvation there”. And they’d be right. God loved, God came, God died, God saved. Yes God loves us so much that He wants to be in relationship with us, after all, look at the Garden of Eden pre-fall. There is God walking with Adam. But when Christ comes down He doesn’t just come to hang out with people, He comes to save them so that they can be with Him in heaven. They will be His people and He will be their God. I don’t want to labour this point, because in a sense, if you disagree on it, there is only so far any communication about how we do ministry can go, but this is the quote Jesus opens his ministry with in Luke’s Gospel.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

Jesus has intentionality, He comes to proclaim good news, to recover sight, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. He has a mission. He comes to save. And I don’t want to practice a ministry model where I undermine that God needed to die for me and I don’t follow in His example.

1 You know, High School Chick Flick in which Freddie Prinze Jr. decides to try and woo Rachael Leigh Cook to win a bet, and then he falls in love with her and they live happily after some bumpy paths ever after? No?

2 Like an Ewok but less marketable. Also rubbish at killing Stormtroopers.

3 I’d like to think I’ve matured enough that if I wrote this today I’d remove the cheap stab at Pentecostalism, not least because I’m a firm believer that revivals happen. But the point that sometimes we excuse the lack of results as “sowing the seeds” for later, and that that excuse is just that, still stands.