An infected person with a glowing green hand touches others who then contract glowing green hands, and who each pass along the glowing green infection to another and then another. This is often how we believe suffering operates. We implicitly assume it’s passed on like an infection, like the green hand.
Youth ministry has historically been constructed around fun and entertainment, assuming we need these things to get young people to come and participate. If they come and participate we can get them to become members of the church, to have faith, to be responsible, that is, to do what we want them to do. In youth ministry we have often seen our relationships as tools for positive influence. But this may prevent us from being with adolescents in their raw human existence, in the midst of their suffering for an identity, in the midst of suffering broken families, disappointment and fear. We might assume, because youth ministry has tried to be an influential commercial for Christian faith, that any suffering from one will infect the group. In other words: Don’t have the depressed kid come on the trip or she’ll infect the group with her suffering. Don’t ask him about the divorce of his parents because what then would I say? Don’t put two and two together that your most committed leader may be the victim of abuse because that may remind you of your own past.
Too often relational youth ministry avoids suffering, and therefore lacks the boldness and bravery to enter into the full humanity of adolescents. But suffering doesn’t work like the glowing green hand of infection. When suffering is shared, often its power to strangle is broken. Things may remain painful and difficult, but when we’re no longer alone, suffering feels (and is) no longer life-threatening. The power of suffering to determine our destiny is broken when suffering is shared in relationship. We may then argue that the heart of relational youth ministry is actually shared suffering.
I experienced the power of shared suffering on a faculty retreat. One of my colleagues was invited to preach to the 35 other faculty members present. She’d had a very difficult prior year. In the middle of her sermon, the struggle of her year became too much, and she broke out in tears, something not done, and unfortunately not appreciated, in academic theological faculties. As her emotions spilled forth, I noticed my own body language. I found myself immediately turning my shoulder as if to deflect her emotion, and then putting my head down, staring at the table, as if to hide from her feelings. Recognizing my own avoidance, I lifted my head and looked at my colleagues. Almost everyone was looking down, revealing in their body language that they too were trying to shield themselves.
I forced myself to look at her, to enter into her pain rather than fear it. I knew my colleagues and I were avoiding her emotions because we feared that in getting too close to her suffering we may ourselves be strangled by her and our own suffering. But in forcing myself to look at her, something strange and beautiful happened. Her suffering didn’t threaten me but simply (and yet profoundly) revealed her person to me. I saw her as she was and found myself connected to her. Witnessing her suffering, I wasn’t infected with a green hand but bound to her in relationship through her suffering.
And this is the call of a relational youth ministry. It is the call to see and be near, to share in the suffering, aware that it won’t destroy you, for you have been claimed by the One who has overcome all suffering by suffering the cross.
But there is another element to this as well; we are called not only to suffer with adolescents but also suffer from them. I wonder if one of the reasons classic congregational youth ministries have little to say about at-risk adolescents and children living in difficult contexts is because we have yet to understand that a major element of our vocation is to suffer. Relational ministry is about more than suffering with adolescents; it also includes suffering from adolescents. This doesn’t mean we’re called to be wet blankets or punching bags unwilling to confront teenagers. But it does mean we’re willing to stand with adolescents even when they test our commitment with words and actions that sting.
There is a youth ministry urban legend that at a leadership meeting the paid, professional youth worker was encouraging her volunteer leaders to take the initiative to contact and meet with one kid this week. A little reluctant, but willing, the leaders accepted the challenge. The next week all returned to the meeting upbeat, filled with stories of successful encounters. As the meeting began the leader asked each volunteer to talk about the kids they contacted and what happened. The first volunteer shared that he met with Sam, a fun-loving junior who was outgoing, talkative, interesting, and came from a family where it was expected he’d handle himself with maturity in the presence of adults. After the first report a murmur spread through the group, and the spirit of excitement was sucked from the room and replaced by a feeling of embarrassed uneasiness as the group one by one admitted they too had met with Sam. Each leader had picked the one kid who was the most fun and easiest to be with. You could hardly blame them; given the choice I’d rather spend time with a Sam than an Adam, the six-foot tall eighth grader who often welcomed my presence on his school campus with a punch in the arm, repeated grunts to my questions, and a departing insult about my clothes or hair. If my goal were influence, it would be much smarter to spend my limited resources on the Sams of the world than on the Adams. Sams not only seem to be influenced by my presence, but they also make me feel good about what I am doing.
Spending time with Adams, on the other hand, is always an invitation to suffering. Relational ministry with Adams is painful; Adams have learned it’s easier to hurt others before they hurt you. And if my goal is to influence Adam, I’m in for a long, painful journey (one that any smart person would abandon without delay), and I’ll more than likely give up on him before I’m given the privilege of suffering him, of seeing his beautifully broken humanity. And if I’m unwilling to suffer Adam then I’m unable to suffer with him.
If I had not been willing to suffer Adam’s actions and attitudes as I did, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to listen late one Wednesday night on the steps of our church building as with odd lucidness he articulated the pain he carried over being abandoned by his father. Without suffering from Adam, I would have missed an ocean of pain under the crust of anger, rigidness and aggression. But seeing Adam as a suffering child whose suffering has been taken up and shared (i.e., borne) by God, I can be with and for Adam as Christ is with and for me. I can bear the suffering he inflicts on me, knowing that in bearing (and confronting) it, I’m sharing his place. And there I am participating in the ministry of God.