Relationships Unfiltered: Help for Youth Workers, Volunteers, and Parents on Creating Authentic Relationships by Andrew Root is a condensed and popularized version of his groundbreaking first book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (read my review here). Just a look at the subtitles reveals the shift in emphasis in this second book. While Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry billed itself as a way for youth workers to develop a theology of incarnation, Relationships Unfiltered is touted as a practical book that will provide help for volunteers and parents to develop relationships with teenagers. For those who were fans of the first book, you may be worried that this second book is full of fluff and doesn’t have as much theological prowess as that original work.
You will likely be surprised. Although the book is obviously shorter than Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry (148 pages versus 221 pages, and the new book even has larger font ), the new book is still primarily a theological examination of relational youth ministry. Root has used more popular language and used a more casual tone, but the basic thesis and argument of this new book is identical to the first (which is why I am not really addressing the thesis of the book in this review; read my review of Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry for a summary of his thesis in both books). Just as his first book forged a new genre in the niche of youth ministry literature by deeply probing a single theological topic, this book may be the first popular level youth ministry book that seeks to ground its argument in theology. Most youth ministry books for laypeople do not contain as much theology as this one.
In my mind, this is the book that every small group leader and mentor needs to read. I have said before, and this book confirms it, that although youth ministry is not easy, it is not complicated, either. In fact, it is fairly simple. It has to do with loving Jesus and loving teenagers. What Root does in this book is tell us what it looks like to love teenagers: focus on the who instead of the how. Root says that the first questions for youth leaders is not How do we get kids to church? or How can we influence kids to be better Christians, but the first questions should always begin with who: Who is this teenager in my small group? Who are the marginalized in our community? Who is Jesus Christ in the lives of these students? Root says that How? questions do not properly attend to the humanity of the individual and instead focus on method. Root argues persuasively against this by grounding his approach in the theology of the incarnation.
For small churches with only a handful (or even less!) of teenagers, this book is good news! If Root is right, that means that the small church of 50 people with 2-3 teenagers is equipped to do youth ministry just as well as a larger church with full-time staff and buckets of volunteers. Success is not grounded in results, but in the relationships that can be built between loving adults and the teenagers in their midst. Surely any and all churches are able to pay attention to and value whatever teens are among them.
All that being said, this book is quite difficult for me to review. As someone who read, and enjoyed, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, it is hard for me to project how this book will be received by its intended audience, especially volunteers and parents. Some may find it impractical and still very dense theologically for their taste. Root repeatedly talks about the “mystery” of “the other” and “sharing in another’s humanity” all over the place and without a whole lot of explanation, especially early in the book. My fear is that people unfamiliar with such language will see it as superfluous or confusing, while in actuality is really drives his whole thesis. Perhaps more explanation of terminology like this earlier in the book would help the layperson unexposed to such language.
The real test for me will be how my volunteers respond to this book. When that happens, I will likely report back. Until then, I think this book is worth the risk. Buy it for your volunteers, parents, and mentors. Even if the book is a bit confusing, it will push them to think theologically about their method of doing youth ministry and likely challenge conventional wisdom. There are even discussion questions at the end of each chapter to guide groups as they reconsider their approach to ministry. Any time you get people talking theology, that is a good thing. And if this book does anything well, it is talking theology.
I would welcome your comments if you have read this book or if you have given it to volunteers or parents. What feedback have you received? If you have reviewed the book on your blog, feel free to post a link in the comments section.