This summer I was asked to give a short talk for a youth ministry conference. The topic: Warmth, Challenge, and Grace.
These weren’t randomly selected words from Heidi’s stewpot of relational health. These words were the words that came up again and again in a research study conducted by the researchers and youth ministry experts of the denomination I belong to, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It fascinates me to no end that the same words I research in my own Biblical studies in regard to relational health came up in wide and various ways out of the mouths of many young adults across the nation and the world.
You can find some tools about warmth, challenge, and grace here. These tools are written by much more knowledgeable people than I:
You can find the research itself here:
It helps to start with some definitions. What is warmth? What is challenge? And what is grace? (This part is from my brain, utilizing the research.)
Warmth: Related to kindness and affection, includes a basic awareness of people and their needs; invitation involved in warmth, it welcomes people in deeper
Challenge: wrestling with the hard stuff of life, welcoming questions and struggles, willingness to open conversations that are uncomfortable
Grace: forgiveness in Jesus for myself and extended to others; grace allows room for falls and failures, expects them even, because through them is the only way to forgiveness; admitting my own imperfections so others can wrestle and find grace for their own
These three things put together and stirred up, the research tells us, create an environment ripe for relationships to grow and flourish … and that includes our relationship with God. God provides us with warmth. God provides us with challenge. God provides us with grace.
How do we grow these things more intentionally in our places and spaces? How do we get out of the way so the warmth, challenge, and grace of God can rush into our lives and the lives of those around us in His mighty flowing stream of love and life?
I’d like to talk about three considerations of relational spaces that I think will help us understand this concept of getting warmth, challenge, and grace into them. This blog is both theological and practical. I’ll give you some big thoughts on what relational spaces are and then we’ll break it down into some practical ideas to introduce for building relational spaces. Keep in mind, everyone’s context is different. The big thoughts will apply to everyone and hopefully you’ll grab one or two practical ideas that fit your context.
First, relational spaces move with people.
This takes our definition of spaces and turns it on its head. We want to build a space and have people come into it. By definition however, the space is in the relationship, the relationship is not in the space. Whoa. Let’s stop and say that another way … while a building should have places that make it easier for people to be relational — to talk, to meet, to laugh, to cry — the building is not what creates warmth or challenge or grace. Buildings and lawns and houses and community centers — all spaces — are only a platform. It is the people who gather there that actually make the space what it is, not benches and chairs, not coffee or cocktails, not lectures or conversation starters. It is the people who bring someone back to the relationship time and again. It is the people that keep anyone connected, and the Person of the Holy Spirit inside of each of us that gathers and unites for a purpose or even a conversation.
So, we can build spaces, but those spaces need to be flexible. This flexibility helps us consciously and unconsciously identify the real space God works in: His people. We go where people are. We eat where people eat and work where people work. We cannot confine relationships to one location, or those relationships wither in serving the location, rather than one another.
Next, there is a visible realm to relational spaces.
We do need to ask ourselves questions like:
What seating and other items are available to make people feel comfortable?
What do people need? Are they tired? Do they want to dance?
What colors are overwhelming and what colors bring warmth?
What is here that makes people want to stay? Not makes me want to stay, but makes other people want to stay?
What signs and pictures bring encouragement or discouragement?
How agenda-ed is this space? Are we trying to “sell” something here and how might that impact the space?
In asking questions like these, we are trying to open up a space to two things that are involved in warmth, challenge, and grace:
We want a place of acceptance.
We want a place of wrestling.
If we don’t allow a space for these two things to happen, we aren’t creating a relational space — we’re creating just a space. Relationship might happen in that space, because some people bring acceptance there and allow for wrestling there, but we can also intentionally make spaces where we make it physically easier to listen to each other, ask questions of one another, tarry in conversation, eat something together, or share tears and laughter.
Last, there is an invisible realm to relational spaces.
God in His goodness fills us with His Spirit and in this we can create relational spaces that invite wrestling with life and the Word of God, spaces which bring kindness and compassion to others around topics we might even disagree with – that’s grace-based acceptance, wrapping truth up in love. I can set up all the cushy chairs I want, but if I’m not ready to love, it means nothing. If I can build mahogany shelves and stock them with relational games and fancy coffee machines and all the good creamer in the world, but have not love, I’m nothing but a clanging gong or rusty cymbal. I have to allow God to root out from within me what I want people to look like, to separate that from what God is doing, and to just love. God’s love will bring warmth. God’s love will surely challenge us and those we meet and everyone all around us. God’s love is always grace, grace, and more grace. It’s life and forgiveness in Jesus, but it also gives the space for someone to say “No, thank you,” to life and forgiveness in Jesus. He is working invisibly. We can be aware and attune to it, seeking and searching Him in these spaces; we can also let ourselves be used and directed to new and different spaces to build relationships; we can even also say, “No, thank you,” to relationships that hinder, hurt, or add shame to our lives. This too is God’s work, that we turn back to Him again and again in the invisible realm to understand that which we see in the visible realm of our spaces and relationships.
Walk out there, friends. Walk out into darkness. Walk out into brokenness. Build places for acceptance and wrestling in your spaces, and go take those spaces out where the people are. Warmth, challenge, and grace – let the relational space building begin. How do you do it? Where do you see it? Tell us in the comments and let’s build some relational spaces together.
Up Next: The Mystery of God
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