Mark Yaconelli has released his long awaited a book titled contemplative youth ministry.
It is a wonderful book.
If you are involved in youth ministry you should get it.
Actually, I think you should get it and read it if you are in any kind of leadership in church.
This isn’t really another model to buy off the shelf, nor is it the latest quick fix solution (which is a good thing because probably the last thing we need is a quick fix solution). It goes much deeper than that.
He has found the time to answer a handful of the questions that I sent him re his latest book Contemplative Youth Ministry, a special thanks to Mark for providing these answers and the book, which I think offers a lot to the international dialogue on youth ministry
a) you, and many others have come under some suspicion from a number of people who compare contemplative approaches to prayer with eastern mysticism citing it as non-christian, how have you engaged with these people and criticisms? (note that i think many of their questions are unfortunately coming from what I’m calling a western mysticism that is based around a blessing theological view of ministry and prayer)
Mark: I’ve faced questions like this for ten years. People continue to post websites attacking me on this issue…what amazes me is that I’ve never been contacted by any of these people. How can they be Christians and not confront me, hold me accountable, if they really think I’m doing something that’s destructive to Christians?
In answer to your question. It’s difficult for people to recognize that silence is neutral. Silence is a human capacity that can be good, bad or trivial. If a Buddhist monk stood on a street corner and began preaching about Buddhism would we call him a Christian because he was using the traditional Christian practice of “preaching?” Some people feel that because contemplative prayer invites silence, stillness, and meditation that it somehow makes you part of another religion. The important thing to focus on in any Christian practice (even preaching or teaching or studying or other traditional Christian practices) is the “intention” and “attention” of the person practicing. In Christian forms of contemplative prayer we draw our attention to the God of Jesus Christ. Our intention is to make ourselves as vulnerable as we can be to the God of Jesus Christ. Jesus is concerned with the direction of our hearts. The practices themselves can be used for good or bad (look at the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. They were highly moral people who new their scriptures and yet their hearts were closed to the presence of God.) Jesus continually goes off in solitude and silence to commune with God. We are told in the some to “meditate on our beds at night” and to “Be still and know.” Any growing relationship with God requires not only our activity and words but also a willingness to listen and watch and wait. This is contemplative prayer, a willingness to listen to the One who names and claims us.
b) how long in the making was this book?
Mark: I first began writing this book in 1998. I wrote five chapters between 1998-99 and then realized I didn’t know enough. In 2001, I wrote another three chapters. I submitted all of these chapters to publishers in 2004 to secure a contract. Once I had a book contract I set the book aside for six months. Then during a year long sabbatical with my family I sat down to write and the book flowed out in three months. I used only 1 chapter from my original writings in 1998, 99 and 2001. I’m glad I waited. If I’d used earlier chapters the book would’ve been much more eager about scoring points for contemplation and demeaning other approaches to the Christian life.
c) what’s the most important lesson that you’ve learnt from the process of working on this project?
Mark: One of the most significant things I’ve learned is that people don’t feel like they have permission to be spiritual leaders, spiritual guides. The calling that ministers feel is to know God, commune with God and then accompany the Holy Spirit in helping other people to awaken to the presence and love of God. As people begin to serve in the ministry, this calling is somehow set aside. People suddenly feel that their job is to administrate programs, engage in psychological counseling and learn how to become good educators. They set aside their calling to be spiritual guides and seek to become family counselors, efficient administrators and teachers. These are good skills and roles to play in ministry, but they aren’t the central calling.
The central calling is to be a spiritual guide. To be a spiritual guide you need to spend regular time in the Spirit. You need time in solitude, in prayer, in study. You need to know how to listen, how to see the work of God in the midst of chaos or routine. You need to be vulnerable to suffering and have a keen ear for spiritual restlessness. There are different skills, different forms of study and preparation when you see yourself as a spiritual guide. In my work with churches I had pastors and youth leaders keep journals of their experience in integrating contemplative prayer and ministry. As I read their journals the one word that kept popping up was “permission.” I feel like I’ve finally been given permission to be a spiritual leader.
d) do you think that program based resources like those from youth specialties may have had an effect of encouraging people from a more contemplative based ministry to one that is continually program based? Do you think it’d be helpful to go back on a number of program based resources to write up a contemplative ministry resource for them all?
Mark: One of the misunderstandings of contemplative youth ministry is that the goal is to make kids candle-loving monks. Prayer, solitude and silence are necessary for a Christian life but the results of prayer and listening is that we know better how to act, how to engage, how to serve and befriend others. In one church that I worked with as the adult leaders spent more time listening and waiting on God in the midst of young people what they began to discern was that their kids were over scheduled, stressed out, and burdened with expectations. Through prayer and listening they began to hear that the best way to communicate the life and freedom of Jesus was to let-go of some of the heavy times of Bible study and worship and instead take the kids bowling.
So. Do we need to throw out the old fun and games approach to youth ministry? I would say “no.” We need to be more discerning of when fun and games are needed, when silence and prayer are needed, when teaching and study is needed. We need to be more attentive to the spirit so that our programs are more responsive to the needs of youth and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. What helps us to be attentive to God and young people. For me, I’ve found that listening forms of prayer, in the community of others, helps us to be more discerning of God’s call and leading. That’s contemplative youth ministry.
e) if you were to help a church put together a job specification for a youth pastor/worker, how would it look when using some of the themes and ideas formed in your book?
Mark: Here’s what comes to me off the top of my head…
In interviewing people for a youth ministry position I’d ask people questions like:
What is it about youth ministry that brings you life?
What is it about youth ministry that drains you?
How do you hope to nurture your soul in the midst of this ministry?
What do think the souls of young people need in order to be nurtured?
Describe your prayer life?
What kinds of support do you need to engage in this ministry?
What is your image of God as you engage this ministry?
Then I would create a job description (if it were a full-time position) that would require the youth ministry to take one day a week for Sabbath (prayer, reading, solitude, silence, walks outside, good food with friends, etc.). I’d also ask the youth worker to meet regularly with a spiritual director or other spiritual mentor. Someone who the youth director could talk to about their spiritual life and ministry.
f) one of the things i’m really interested in is how your book continually suggests people to develop ministries that are contextual, that form out of a community of young people rather than mimicking those ministries of other churches, in part i was hearing a similar thing to that of emerging-type-churches who are trying to do a similar process. do you think that the contemplative approach to ym could also be transferred to a contemplative approach to ministry, and how much do you think things would need to change to do so?
Mark: Yes. What we discovered in our research was a contemplative approach to ministry. It just happens that our study and my background is in youth ministry, but the principles, practices and processes can transfer to any form of ministry.
g) if you were to put together a mix tape of your favourite 10 songs to listen to while driving what would they be?
Mark: I’m not good with song titles…but it would include music from Iron and Wine, Ryan Adams, Son Volt, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Stephen Grapally (sp?), and maybe the early Police records.
h) if you were to put together a list of the 5 most helpful texts in your ministry with young people what would they be?
Mark: Psalm 139
Baptism stories from Mark and Luke,
Luke 15 parables
John 15 (particularly verse 15)
1 John 4 (particularly 7-21)
Did I go over my allotted verses?
i) what makes you anxious?
Mark: My children. The find everything that is unhealed in me and draw it to the surface. Every time I return home from leading a retreat and feel like I’ve got some spiritual mojo…all I need to do is step into my house and encounter my three, beautiful children and within moments I’m human, anxious, upset, unsettled and uncertain of my own skills as a parent.
j) what are you currently reading?
Mark: The Dark Night of the Soul by Gerald May. God Laughs and Plays by David James Duncan and Hidden Oregon Where Vacations Meet Adventures (We’re planning our vacation).
Interview provided by Darren Wright