Empathy and sharing as transformation

The Relational Pastor, part 2

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11,12, 13, 1415.

Dr. Andrew Root
In this series of posts, we're exploring Andrew Root's book, The Relational Pastor: Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves. As we saw in part 1, his thesis is that relationship is the goal of Christian ministry given that humans are relational beings, having been created by the tri-personal, relational God in his image. This being so, it is in and through relationship that we encounter the God-man Jesus Christ from whose humanity we receive our true personhood (our "new humanity" in Christ). For that reason, Root insists that in ministry (as in all of life), relationships should be viewed as ends in themselves, not mere means to some other end (see p19). In unpacking this thesis, Root emphasizes two vital and related concepts: empathy and sharing as transformation.


Empathy is vital in effective ministry because it is by and through empathy that we relate deeply and authentically with others. Through emphatic relating we encounter the humanity of another (and of ourselves) in union with Jesus Christ who as fully God and fully human mediates all human-to-human, and human-to-God relationships.

A key here is to understand that our personhood is defined by and bound up in relationship. Scripture teaches us that we are "persons-in-relationship"--created by God, in his tri-personal image. Root describes this trinitarian anthropology:
Personhood, as opposed to individualism, sees relationship with others as the very ontological structure of humanity. Or to say it in a less jargon-y way, personhood claims that we are our relationships" (p18).
Sadly, the hyper-individualistic, non-personal cultures of our Western world tend to negate the possibility of true empathy, which, though innate in our God-given humanity, is often snuffed out in our fallen, individualistic mindset. Our proclivity for valuing the production of "things" and the achievement of non-personal goals tends to negate empathy and thus undermines opportunities for deep, other-centered relationship. As Root notes, quoting Jeremy Rifkin, "Turning relationships into efficient means to advance productive ends destroys the empathic spirit" (p20).

You'll probably agree that this individualistic spirit is a common problem in many churches where meeting certain goals related to "nickels and noses" (money and attendance) become more important than truly empathic relationship. This is unfortunate because, as Root emphasizes, ministry is fundamentally about relationship.

Sharing as transformation

Of course, we want to see people's lives transformed. Isn't that a worthy goal? Yes it is, but as Root notes, true and lasting transformation is not an end in itself, rather it is the byproduct of genuine life-on-life sharing (relationship). "The personal, empathic encounter possesses the power to bring forth transformation.... Personal encounter is transformation" (p20).

The reality is that we are not able to know even ourselves except through relationship with others. To be deeply known by another as we come to know them is to be transformed. Jesus alluded to this relational dynamic in John 15:1-8 in describing himself as "the vine" and his followers as "the branches." As we are deeply related (connected) to him (as we "remain" or "abide" in him), we are transformed in and by the relationship itself. In relationship with Jesus, we share in his personhood and as a result, our own is transformed.

In a community of people connected to Christ, he is manifestly present ("where two or three are gathered in my name I am there among them"--Mat 18:20), and his presence transforms us in and through those community relationships (p21). Christian ministry thus is fundamentally not about what the community "does" but about what it "is" together:
...Sharing deeply in the lives of others, for no other reason than to be with and for them as Jesus Christ is with us and for us as the one who is incarnate, taking on two natures in one person" (p21). 
Thus we must let go of any conception of Christian ministry that sees relationship "as a means to something else." Of course, this rails against certain notions and strategies that are popular in evangelical circles including "relational evangelism" (sometimes called "friendship evangelism") where believers are encouraged to build relationships (friendships) with non-believers for the purpose of gaining their trust so that when it is gained they can lead the new friend to Christ. Thus the purpose of the relationship is not the relationship itself but another end--in this case the friend's conversion.

Some, of course, might object, "Isn't conversion a good end--a laudable purpose? Yes, of course--we all rejoice with the angels in heaven in the conversion of a sinner. But we need to understand that it is in and through relationship that lives are transformed, not in merely getting someone we have befriended to pray the sinners prayer. This is why Jesus, and his followers after him, emphasized disciple-making (a life-on-life, relational concept) rather than mere "decisions for Christ" (a transactional concept).

Next time in this series, we'll define Christian ministry in greater depth. I think it needs some re-defining--perhaps radically so. You be the judge. Stay tuned.