An encouraging trend in youth ministry over the last 5-10 years has been the growth of contemplative practices in youth ministry. one of the real pioneers in this in the usa has been Mark Yaconelli who developed and ran the youth ministry and spirituality project for 7 years. the question he wanted to explore was what would happen if you took youth groups in a range of denominations and worked to introduce them to ways of contemplative prayer. would this have any transformative effect? the results were dramatic… youth ministers and young people that learned how to pray were transformed.
Mark has written a book contemplative youth ministry (which has just been published in the uk) in which he shares his insights and approach. it is a wonderful book. if you are involved in youth ministry you must get it. i actually 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 as the latest quick fix solution which is probably the last thing we need. it goes much deeper than that.
Mark says that
Contemplation is being with god within the reality of the present moment. contemplation is about presence. it’s about attentiveness, opening our heart’s eye to god, ourselves, and others. contemplation is an attitude of the heart, an all embracing hospitality to what is…
And so contemplative youth ministry is simply being with god, and learning to be attentive to god’s presence in the lives of young people. mark suggests that youth ministry needs to slow down.
i have observed too many churches and youth ministries who embody a sense of urgency that communicates a god who is either a relentless taskmaster or completely incompetent… this is the endless parade of duded up rock stars, hyperactive activities, word heavy programmes… there is a tangible sense that god must be dressed up or hidden behind high energy music, and charismatic speakers. our churches and ministries seem to be deathly afraid of any kind of downtime. all silence and stillness is eradicated for fear that young people might find god disappointing, boring or absent. it’s as if our church and ministry leaders have an anxious suspicion that god has left the building and so they stall with jabbering words and meaningless activities in the hope that the crowd won’t become restless. in contrast jesus isn’t afraid of doubts, or downtime or disappointment or boredom – in fact i might even claim that he finds doubt, boredom and disappointment critical to spiritual growth! … jesus asks us to stop, he invites us to come away to quiet and deserted places. he asks us to be still and know. he calls us to take a moment to do nothing. he calls us to turn our attention away from our anxiety and busyness and just simply notice the work god is already doing.
The book is full of encouraging stories and it’s very practical. as well as outlining some specific practices of prayer mark suggests how to help a church start from scratch to build a youth team, help that team learn to practise discerning god’s presence and voice in their midst, and then to begin to introduce that attentiveness to god’s presence with the young people. this includes a simple outline for running meetings mark devised called a liturgy of discernment that looks very easy to use but shifts the emphasis of planning quite significantly. the last section uses a threefold approach taken from spiritual direction as a framework for working with young people – noticing (helping young people become aware of their experience of god), naming (helping them find a language to describe it), and nurturing (helping young people develop practices that deepen their understanding and relationship with god). the journey is as much about us changing and learning to pray and be attentive as it is about the young people.
If you think this is a consumer choice or personality type thing i.e. your young people won’t be into it, don’t dismiss it so quickly. it’s really not about stopping having fun and just engaging in prayer and being serious all of a sudden…
The purpose of integrating contemplative presence in youth ministry is not to form kids into monks, nor is it to make us experts in contemplative prayer – it is to deepen our (youth and adults) awareness of god and others and self so that we might become fully alive.
What is encouraging about the stories and process that mark used in the youth ministry and spirituality project and written about here is that the churches that used this are not your uber cool ones. they sound like bog standard denominational set ups, in some cases with no youth ministry to speak of. and from the descriptions those with a call to get involved with young people don’t need to be young and cool themselves.
This complements other books such as Tony Jones Soul Shaper, Jenny Baker and Moya Ratanyake’s Tune In Chill Out and Kenda Creasy Dean’s Practising Passion. together these are opening up a very hopeful way forward for youth ministry. i think it especially opens up very hopeful possibilities for youth ministry in traditional and denominational settings. it has sometimes felt as though the only way offered to do radical stuff with young people has been to get them into charismatic worship where they experience god. that is transformative for some groups but problematic for others. there are lots of traditions and groups of young people for whom that just isn’t what they are looking for or going to get into or it cuts them off from their tradition. it may also be for more charismatic groups that this will open up whole new possibilities as well.
This book review was written by Jonny Baker: Contemplative Youth Ministry