The Relational Basis for Ministry

Has it been long since you stopped and thought about the basis of Christian ministry? Perhaps you're currently involved in some type of ministry. Perhaps you have a "mission statement." Maybe it sounds something like, "to transform lives for the gospel" or "to bring people to Jesus Christ" or "to inspire in all persons a love for Christ..." If you just google it, you'll see that the spectrum of church mission statements throughout the United States is dominated by notions of transformation, influence, service, and evangelism. These are all good things but do they - should they - constitute the true basis for Christian ministry?

I think if we were pressed further, most of us would agree - Christ is the basis of Christian ministry. If our ministry is not, in some way, a participation in the ministry of Jesus, then it's not Christian ministry. That's how we came up with those mission statements in the first place, isn't it? Some looked at what Jesus did and determined to do the same kind of stuff. Others looked at what Jesus did, what Jesus accomplished, and decided that we should be about telling people about it, bringing people to faith in this amazing Jesus who takes away sin and liberates the oppressed. But I've got to push a little further... it can't just be about what Jesus did, can it?

It has to be about who Jesus was, it has to be about what we're talking about when we're talking about Jesus... because, in the end, everything Jesus did, he did it as Jesus. I've got to ask the question; if we focus on Jesus actions without focusing on Jesus, do we risk something? Do we risk not only putting the cart before the horse but also excluding something (or someone) that Jesus' ministry was all about? In the end, even Jesus' ministry had a basis... and if our ministry is going to be about Jesus' ministry, the basis of our ministry has got to be about the basis of Jesus' ministry.

When we talk about Jesus, we're talking about incarnation. When we're talking about incarnation, we're talking about humanity - in the depths of its frailty, even the frailty of torture on the cross - being taken up into the very being and life of God. When, through Jesus, God took humanity into the being of God, God took everything that's human without exclusion. God assumed it all so that God could redeem it all. The assuming precedes the redeeming.

The assumption of humanity into the being of God, I would argue, is the basis of Jesus' ministry. It was from this basis that Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. It was from this basis that he confronted the authorities which opposed the dignity of humanity. It was from this basis that Jesus healed and cast out demons and performed his signs of the kingdom of God. It is in the assumption of humanity into the being of God that humanity is justified. And this basis for Jesus' ministry, fundamentally, is a relational category. Categorically speaking, relationships are the basis for Jesus' ministry. This is categorical because it is not contingent upon anything else. It is so without regard for the expectation of success, influence, transformation, conversion, or anything else. Jesus, according to this basis, ministers to everyone, even if they are destined to reject him (even his enemies). He is successful in this ministry of relationship, regardless of whether the relationship is successful at getting its object from point A to point B, regardless of whether or not they decide to push him outside the city gates and hang him from a tree.

Relationship is the basis of ministry, but too often we switch the order. Ministry becomes the basis of our relationships. We relate to them not in order to enter their suffering but only in order to rescue them from it. We relate with people in order to fulfill our mission statement, to influence them, to bring them to Jesus. When we do not succeed in converting them or relieving their suffering, we have no choice but to look at our ministry as failure. Relationships become a means to an end, not the end of our means, not the basis of our ministry as it is the basis of Jesus' ministry. As Andrew Root writes, "We have deeply wanted our ministry to be relational, but not for the sake of persons, for the sake of the ministry, for the sake of bringing success to our initiatives... The point of our ministry isn't relationships...but how the relationship wins us influence" (The Relational Pastor, 17).

The best evidence of the categorical relational basis for ministry is revealed when we re-frame the question. Instead of asking what, when we ask who is the basis of Jesus' ministry, the answer comes fairly quickly. Where and with whom was Jesus' ministry? Well, it was on the cross, it was with the crucified.

Jurgen Moltmann writes, "Jesus' gospel points us clearly to 'the poor.'" He continues,
"...On earth the kingdom of God begins with the poor, the sick, and the lepers, the outcasts who are excluded from normal society. ...If the poor, the sick, and the rejected are called 'blessed,' then they are not objects of Christian charity, generosity, and love. They are rather first of all fellow members of the kingdom (Matt. 5:3) and 'brothers' of the Son of man, who will judge the world (Matt. 25:31 ff). They must be respected for their dignity, honor, and worth; therefore they are subjects in the kingdom of God, not the objects of our sympathy [or ministry]. Every act of help is preceded by our fellowship [relationship] in common, and every act of caring has its origins in Christian friendship." (Hope for the Church, 24-25)
That's a long quote, but it's too good not to employ at length.

If you're in Youth Ministry, ask yourself the question... which kids do you go after? Assume you knew, from the start, that a kid would never become a Christian, would never be "fixed," and would never become a spiritual superstar... could you actually articulate a good reason to minister to them? Or are the real bases for your ministry those kids who are gonna 'make it'? Would you be a failure in your ministry if none of your kids ever said the sinners' prayer or learned to read their Bible every day?

Youth Ministry has little familiarity, perhaps less than many other pastoral vocations, with the kind of ministry that doesn't expect success. We are used to having clear objectives about what we want our kids to learn and what we want them to become. We have a clear sense of failure when we do not reach our objectives (I know this sense from experience). We're not as regular in hospital and hospice visits as are our Senior Pastor colleagues, so we have little framework for what we might think of as hopeless ministry, ministry like that of Mother Teresa. Without any hope of being "effective" or influential, holding the fragile bodies of people who were being swallowed by death right before her eyes, Mother Teresa simply loved. The basis of her ministry was indeed the very people from whom nothing could be expected. Effectiveness was a second thought at best. Relationship, for the sake of relationship, for the sake of encountering God in the humanity of others, is the only Christian basis for ministry. Every act of ministry is preceded by this kind of relationship and this kind of relationship is presupposed in every act of ministry.

Because their humanity has been taken up into the being and life of God, adolescents are subjects in the kingdom, not objects of evangelism or even service. Relationships must be the basis of our ministry, not a tool for it. Our Youth Ministries need to be about cultivating the kind of community where humanity is embraced in mutuality and in its most frail forms, where authentic relationships are valued and elevated over spiritual super-stardom, and where true ministry is oriented toward those from whom nothing is expected in return, except the blessing of their humanity. What must distinguish our ministries is not the results we bring but the love and relationships we share--where caring happens not between a subject and an object, but between persons who are mutual subjects of God's kingdom. As Root has said, "the church, then, should be the oddest of communities in our world, the oddest group of people. A community of people whose life is constructed around sharing each other's suffering for purposes of encountering the God of the cross" (The Promise of Despair, 121). Rather than elevating our own results and building "effectiveness" into our DNA, we should cherish our weakest and our least successful members. We should teach those committed to their faith, those 'success stories' of our ministries, to discover God by valuing those who are not so spiritual, not so sure about their faith, and particularly those who are suffering. If ministry is about relationships, then " is between two persons, two subjects, who are on the way together. Who cares for who is not yet determined..." (Moltmann, 131). In Moltmann's words, "Where this mutual caring occurs nothing less than communion with Christ takes place" (132).  The basis for ministry must be Christ, not contingent upon the expectation of success.

If the crucified Christ is the basis of our ministry, then we're free to love in relationship for the sake of relationship... even if it means failure and irrelevance.