The Starting Point of Ministry Networking
The starting point of youth ministry networking is subtle but important. Exclusively Evangelical partnerships usually don't run into many problems in this regard--their problems arise more in praxis than foundation. Evangelical youth ministry almost always starts with "reaching" teenagers and so that makes sense as a starting point for meeting as a network. The goal is to be more effective at reaching _____. As an evangelical, I've had no problem navigating from this point but as a mainline youth worker (yes, I'm an evangelical mainliner. Who knew?) I have become keenly aware of the implicit issues within this presupposition.
Even for networks which don't seek to exclude mainline youth workers, the goal of collaborative evangelical ministry (i.e. reaching teenagers) is the assumed starting point. The problem is that it is an exclusive starting point. The desire to network must go beyond the objective to “reach teenagers…” A mainline youth worker—just as in need of support and just as connected to teenagers as an evangelical—might have trouble seeing how networking with evangelicals will be effective in their context.
My own desire to network (which has developed into an outright passion) did not start with the question “how can I 'reach' students?” it started with a need for support, not in broader community outreach but in ministry to the lives and families of the students in my church family… my evangelical mission came second. So perhaps a better starting point for a more ecumenical networking vision might simply be to support one another in our local church/ministry settings toward the prospect (but not the starting point) of collaborative ministry. In other words, what if built in to our gathering was not the eventual expectation of synchronized work but the simple invitation to come and find space for dialogue, prayer, support, and even help. Start with the question, what can we do together? Rather than, what can we do together? Also, start with, what can we do together? rather than, what can't we do together? We can pray, build relationships, and share with one another. Perhaps we can’t “reach” teenagers together in the same way but we can do something because we are “better together" when we simply are together.
Networking takes a healthy level of pastoral attentiveness to the spectrum of ecclesiological expression. The best networks will be open networks. The networks which display the Body of Christ most profoundly and thereby set the best example for students will be networks where progressive mainline youth workers, Roman Catholics, and conservative evangelicals are praying with and building relationship around the common ground of love for God and hope in Jesus Christ. Our starting point will determine whether or not this will be a possibility. Where we begin, the direction with which we begin, will send us toward or away from this endeavor.