IVP - Online Pulpit - Relational Ministry, the Pastor, and Inception

May 1, 2013

Relational Ministry, the Pastor, and Inception

by Andrew Root

I have the hardest time turning the channel when it is on; I always watch even just a few minutes before reminding myself that I’ve seen it dozens of times. I can’t help it—I just find the Christopher Nolan movie Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio captivating.

I’m sure nearly everyone reading this blog has seen it; it was a smash hit during the summer of 2010. It is a movie about spies that have the technology to enter your dreams so they can extract your idea or secrets. Using a machine, DiCaprio, the lead sexy spy, can enter, say, a CEO’s dreams, seeking to discover the future plans for a business and then take the information and sell it to rivals. The movie has so many creative layers of psychology, consciousness, philosophy and espionage that it keeps my remote trigger thumb from moving past it.

Yet the real hook of the plot surrounds a distinct step outside the regular opportunities for these spies. DiCaprio and his team are actually asked to go inside another man’s dreams not to extract information but implant it, to do what they call an inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character encourages DiCaprio to pass, reminding him that an inception is of great difficulty, for if in any way the dreaming individual feels him- or herself being manipulated, the person’s consciousness will revolt and the mission will be lost. Yet Dicaprio has his own reasons (which I won’t divulge) to take this risky step of inception.

Pastoral ministry lacks the technology to do dream espionage, though we sometimes imagine that it would be great if we could enter our people’s consciousness to drop in new ideas—ideas like coming to church, reading the Bible, giving a tithe or more. The truth is that we often see people as independent self-enclosed conscious beings. We tend to see people as individuals, and individualism defines people as their interests. In other words, we tend to assume that people are what they are interested in. Especially in a consumer society, we act as though people are what they want.

But of course this makes pastoral ministry particularly difficult, for people are interested in so many things that have very little to do with church. People seem more interested in the NFL than Sunday morning worship, gossip magazines than the Bible, beach vacations than tithing. We assume that people are their interests, and it is despairing for pastoral ministry to have to admit that people seem uninterested.

So what do we do to convert people’s interest? To implant in their consciousness new wants? While pastoral ministry hasn’t developed the technology to jump into dreams, we have formed the ministerial technology that we believe has the power to enter people’s consciousness and convert their interests and wants. This ministerial technology is relationships.

We’ve imagined relationships as the device that can help us enter another person’s consciousness and replace one interest with another. People aren’t interested in going to church, but if we get relational with them we can implant the new idea of church membership or religious devotion. We’ve used relationship as the technology to convert people’s interest, doing our own inception by using the relationship to implant an idea that wasn’t there before. It is relationship, as ministerial function (technology), that weakens another’s consciousness so the pastor can incept a new interest within it.

I know this may sound overly dramatic, but we’ve tended to talk about relationships in ministry with this technological language of means-to-ends. It is relationships (means) that convert (ends); it is relationships (means) that grow churches (ends). Pastoral ministry then uses relationship (as means-end technology) to encounter people for the sake of inception. We’re told to take on relational dispositions (like knowing names, stories, etc.) not really for the sake of sharing in people’s lives but so we can use a relationship as a doorway into their consciousness to incept a new idea within it. And maybe the biggest problem with such a ministerial perspective is that it turns Jesus into an idea we’re called to incept into someone’s mind as opposed to the living One who encounters us in and through relationship itself (but to get further into this conversation you’ll have to read The Relational Pastor).

If it is not obvious already, there are great problems with this. Just like in the movie, if the person senses the inception, he or she will revolt against it. And this has happened often in ministry. In using relationships as the technology to convert people’s interest—to influence them toward the wants we have for them—if in any way they sense that our relationship with them is not for them (not to be with them and to share in their humanity) they will revolt, feeling manipulated and used … feeling (and legitimately so) that something dehumanizing and impersonal was done to them, and done in the name of ministry.

It is my desire, and the reason I wrote The Relational Pastor, to challenge such a technological, inception-like view of relationships in ministry. In the book I try to push us past such risky (and theologically bankrupt) perspectives of (relational) ministry. And I want to convince you that relationships in ministry are not for inceptions but for sharing in each other lives as a way of sharing in Christ. I want us to see relationships not as the technological function of converting people’s consciousness but as the very location of Jesus’ presence in the world. Relationships are not ministerial technology to get to the ends we want; they are the sanctuary of sharing in each other as the way of sharing in God (Matthew 25).

The time has come, and many of us feel that we need a deeper conception of relationship in the context of the ministry of pastors and churches. The Relational Pastor seeks to take some strides in this direction.

6218.jpgAndrew Root (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is in the Baalson Olson Chair as associate professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN). A former Young Life staffworker, he has served in churches and social service agencies as a youth outreach associate and a gang prevention counselor.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at May 1, 2013 9:27 AM Bookmark and Share


As a clergy person who has been at this for awhile I have seen this narrowing of relationships to either common interest friendships (shared politics, hobbies, sports, or service - for some this service angle alone defines the church) or as a means to some other end usually seen as much greater. For some reason I remember 'flirty fishing' which is what the Moonies (or some other cult) called using one's sex appeal to attract potential converts. As Andy rightly says friendships are ends in themselves and should be honored as such. I remember hearing Bono tell about how he deliberately asked the one member of U-2 who was not Christian to be his Best Man at his Wedding. Bono wanted his non Christian friend to know their relationship was not a means to something else, even him becoming a Christian. Sadly I've had members of churches I've served who were cultivated by religious outreach teams and after a period of intense relationship building, when they refused to formally join the new group, were dropped like hot potatoes. I am trying in my own walk of faith to not do this and to maintain friendships with folks who do not share my religious or political interests or point of view. But it is hard! When you are seen as a "professional" folks assume you are using relationships as technology to convert their interests (Andy's phrase). Truthfully when we are in a genuine friendship both persons are vulnerable to having their interests converted or subverted! That is what my relationship with Jesus Christ is constantly doing to me.

Comment by: Larry Sexe at May 1, 2013 5:37 PM

Nice job, Andrew. Will purchase your book.

Comment by: Scott Johnson at May 1, 2013 6:43 PM

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