Ministry as place sharing with Jesus

The Relational Pastor, part 4

For other posts in this series, click on a number: 1, 2, 3, 5, 67, 8, 9, 10, 11, 1213, 1415.

In The Relational Pastor, Andrew Root defines Christian ministry as place sharing. This post explores that definition, which sets the stage for the rest of his book.

It's common, these days, for Evangelical authors to urge Christians to practice ministry in a way that is "incarnational" or "relational" (terms often used synonymously). Their exhortation to us is to, "do ministry like Jesus."

Though it's laudable to want to be like Jesus and do ministry like he would, the reality is that we can't actually be "incarnational" like Jesus. Why? Because as the one and only incarnate Son of God, he is the unique God-man who, alone, is fully God and fully human. This being so, it's more accurate for us to refer to our ministry as our sharing in the incarnate ministry that Jesus is doing, through the Holy Spirit, within our world.

"But what," you might be asking, "is the nature of Jesus' ongoing ministry?" Root answers this important question by referring to Jesus' ministry as "place sharing." As the High Priest who shares in our humanity, Jesus shares the "place" of all people. This dynamic, ongoing relationship--this union that is leading into communion--is his ministry. It then follows that our ministry as followers of Jesus is about sharing with Jesus in his ongoing place sharing. Given this definition of Christian ministry, pastoral ministry is about facilitating that sharing:
Pastoral ministry [is about]... facilitating personal encounter, of setting a space for people to be in relationships not of individualized self-help but of human person to human person. Relationships in ministry cannot be for the purpose of influencing people... because such motivation of influence blinds us from personhood. The other person becomes a problem to solve, something to fix, someone to win loyalty and resources from rather than another to encounter, a person to see and be with and for" (pp45-46).   
"But," some might object, "aren't we, as ministers supposed to influence people in the right direction--don't we want to help them make good decisions, including deciding to put their trust in Jesus?" Root responds by noting a fundamental problem:
[Relationalistic influence] makes a fetish of the individual... [it assumes] that people are bound only to their own will, and as long as they can will (think) correctly then they can be whole. But...people are more than their will; people are their relationships. Personhood demands that the other see me, and see me not as a will that decides, not as someone to get to a program or a church, but as a human being bound to others in love and fear. Personhood demands that I see the other as mystery to encounter, and not as a will to mold through influence (p46).
Root's view of ministry is grounded in his Trinitarian theology and anthropology--his understanding that God being tri-personal, is relational and that we humans, created in God's image, are fundamentally relational: beings-in-relation. This being so, real participation in the actual ministry of Jesus must be fundamentally relational. Root comments:
In and through personhood, people, according to Paul, are drawn into union with Christ's own person, where Jesus' person become bound to their own person ("I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" [Gal 2:20 NIV]). Ministry... [therefore is] about sharing, sharing our person with and for each other as God, in Jesus, shares God's own person in the incarnation (p47).
Sadly, so much of ministry in the modern era is about individualism and consumerism. Shaped by these cultural forces (see part 3 in this series), pastors tend to see their role as to "win the loyalty of individuals." But is that our actual calling? Root says "no"--he sees a pastor's calling as that of opening spaces for real encounter with Jesus, and thus with one another, through the various aspects of pastoral ministry: preaching, liturgy, study, fellowship, etc.

Seeing ministry as principally about influencing others springs from a false view of humanity, namely that people are merely their interests. But the truth revealed in the person of Jesus, is that we humans, created in God's image, are our relationships.

If we wrongly define humans as their interests, then ministry will be about seeking to influence those interests. Believing that people choose one church above another because it meets their interests, we will see our role as influencing their decision. It then follows that we will see relationships as means for influencing those decisions. Our ministry goal becomes that of seeking to convert people's interests.

In contrast, place sharing ministry is about seeing the conversion of the person. And because the person is person in relationship, relationship is not a tool for accomplishing some other end (such as influencing the person's choices); sharing in relationship is the ministry.

Ministry as influence sees people as objects and thus focuses on their wants, whereas ministry as place sharing sees people as relational beings and focuses on their needs. Root gives the example of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37):
The good Samaritan is good because he sees a person in need; he is lying beaten, his need cannot be missed. For the priest and Levite the beaten man is an object, an object that threatens their most securely held interests; they want to stay safe and stay religiously pure. The Samaritan acts for this other in need, to the threat of his own interest, he risks his safety and shares his money in response to the need of the other, who has become a person to him, become another he is bound to .... 
The Samaritan is called into a relationship of persons, a relationship where the Samaritan shares the place of the beaten man, not because he wants to change the loyalties of the beaten man's interest but because the Samaritan sees the beaten man's person by participating in his need. Seeing the beaten man's need, the Samaritan sees a person and responds to his person by sharing in his suffering, by sharing his resources, by sharing his place (p52).
When we see people as individual objects and ministry as trying to influence their decisions, it is nearly impossible for us to see people for who they truly are: persons in relationship. Root comments:
I am arguing that sharing in the need of others is how we participate in personhood, even... how we participate in the life of Christ. Yet sharing as cooperation of mutual participation is nearly impossible when individualism has become full-blown... Cooperation demands we see the person, that we share in their place to the point of at least indwelling their expressed need (p53).
How would a ministry that views ministry as place sharing rather then mere influencing look different than so many ministries that have arisen in our individualistic, consumeristic, modern era? Root answers that it would focus on providing "space" where people would be helped to encounter one another "by sharing in each other's need." Such spaces are "places to become persons one-to-another, to confess their need and to be known, to dwell in and with one another" (p54).

Of course, many ministries focused on individual influence refer to themselves as "relational" or "incarnational." But true place sharing ministry is about "encountering persons, not to win loyalty to objects (whether church, program, or religious perspective)...[but] to share in another's place, to dwell one with another" (p54).

As Root points out, theologically speaking, relationship means to "indwell," to spiritually share in. But seeking merely to influence another person, is far from this idea of indwelling/place sharing:
The minute we seek to use the relationship as a tool people are no longer persons but have become objects (or projects) that we seek to influence to a new interest. We cannot share, to the point of indwelling, an object, for objects have no need, no mystery of yearnings that shares their spirit (p55).
Next time we'll look in more detail at Root's understanding of the nature of the human person and how that informs the nature of authentic, place sharing ministry. Stay tuned.