“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Anyone who is or has been involved in sports, music, drama, and other skill-related activities can appreciate Paul’s reference to discipline. The athlete or musician knows it takes discipline to make progress in a chosen competition. Some have natural ability and strong passion for the field in which they wish to succeed, but all of us recognize the roll of discipline in practices and rehearsals in order to achieve a higher level of competence.
Most of us will also agree that relationships likewise require discipline and cultivation in order to mature into deep, meaningful, lasting connections. These images of sports, music, drama, and relationships are particularly helpful in understanding the role of discipline as we walk with teens and their spiritual lives.
“Practicing” spiritual discipline is a good way to put it since we can expect to improve with practice, we can expect a level of comfort in time and with repeated use, and we can expect a degree of satisfaction and improved strength because of it. After developing routines, the disciplines may not seem so out of the ordinary, but we also know that we will never “arrive”. The practice of spiritual disciplines will always be a work in progress.
Paul’s comments and use of the athletic metaphor for practicing discipline demonstrate that we stand on solid biblical ground in teaching spiritual disciplines to our teens.
Martin Luther, in a letter to his long-time friend and barber, Peter Beskendorf, advocates the practice of spiritual disciplines. He encourages Master Peter the Barber by sharing his own practices. His key “tools” are his “little psalter,” the Ten Commandments, The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and prayer. “I take my little psalter,… I say quietly to myself… the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and… some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.” Luther further offers some interesting instructions on prayer posture as well: “Kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes toward heaven and speak or think…” In his practice, Luther then unpacks each Commandment or petition of The Lord’s Prayer, using each as a source for further prayer. By elaborating on each portion he avoided the human tendency to recite by rote without much thought, which he referred to as “idle chatter and prattle”. Thus Luther demonstrates that the teaching of spiritual disciplines is a solid Lutheran theological practice.
As researchers observe adolescents, they often report an increased interest in spiritual themes and the desire by young people to experience the spiritual life and engage in the ancient practices. In 2004 the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted a study called “Spirituality of Higher Eduction.” This significant and on-going research identified that the 112,000 college freshmen observed “show a high interest in spiritual matters.” Yet they also learned that a “vast majority perceived distinct differences between spirituality and religion”. The researchers distinguished spirituality as “an integral, ‘everyday’ part of one’s life that encourages ’emotions feeling’ and ‘individual connection’ to ‘an intelligible something larger than yourself’. They define religion as focusing more on ‘group concerns’ and ‘doctrinal points’ and involving a place of worship’.”
Pastor Dan Kimball has been working in the Santa Cruz area trying to reach the adolescent crowd growing up in a postmodern culture. He has been able to identify and apply effectively some of his observations, writing, “The basis of learning has shifted from logic and rational, systematic thought to the realm of experience. People increasingly long for the mystical and the spiritual rather than the evidential and facts-based faith of modern soil.”
These teenagers and young adults nurtured in the emerging culture express an innate desire to be spiritual. Some of these teens are mixing various practices from many sources, Christian and even other religions. Misguided as they seem, it is a symptom of the divinely established desire to be spiritual. A phrase commonly attributed to Blaise Pascal, the 17th century Christian philosopher, seems to capture what is happening, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.”
Some teens, and their numbers are on the rise, are dusting off and learning about the traditional spiritual practices forgotten in recent generations. This renewed interest in the disciplines and the desire to experience their spiritual life appear to coincide with the commonly identified characteristic of the postmodern movement. While there may be much to be critical about in this Western development, we can celebrate and respond positively to the collective desire for greater spiritual development. And we are seeing the church respond positively by producing resources such as books, curriculum, seminars, empirical research, and websites. Many are beginning to teach and mentor young people in developing spiritually disciplined lives.
There has been an observable increase in published books and curriculum for youth ministry on the subject of spiritual practices by Youth Specialties, one of the largest youth ministry resource publishers. Interactive websites available to teens and adults are showing up on the Internet regularly, articles are being written in Christian magazines, e-zines (such as www.youthESource.com) and journals. A brief bibliography of resources suitable for the adult who wants to introduce these practices to their teens is available at the end of this article to assist in negotiating the growing body of information on this subject.
Disciplining oneself to attend to a maturing relationship with the Lord has been a solid practice encouraged in the Scriptures and by Dr. Martin Luther. Youth growing up in a postmodern culture are not only open to experiencing a greater spiritual life, they are craving it! Publishers and Internet resource providers are responding by developing resources to teach and guide young people in the development of spiritual disciplines.
While these ancient practices have been useful tools for God’s people for centuries, and we celebrate their renaissance, two words of caution must also be offered.
The practice of spiritual disciplines does not make God like us more. He has loved us perfectly, even long before we knew Him (Jer. 1:5, Rom. 5:8-10). Out of His great love and grace for us He has accomplished everything necessary for us to be with Him eternally in Christ (Jn. 19:30, Eph. 3:10-12). Once the child of God is born again through baptism, the child will feed and grow strong through the blessings wrought by the exercising of disciplines.
Secondly, as redeemed, sinful humans we have a propensity to develop pride in our achievements. There is a temptation to use the spiritual disciplines as a source of sinful pride drawing attention to ourselves (Matt. 6:1-8). Regular practice of sincere confession and forgiveness (a spiritual discipline!) can help keep this temptation in check.
As noted above, there is a growing body of resources available for teens, adults and families to draw upon which train and equip for the practice of spiritual disciplines. Four are highlighted here and more referenced in the following list of resources.
The modern classic on spiritual disciplines is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. It was first published in the early days of the current revival. Foster explains 12 traditional disciplines in three categories: inward disciplines, outward disciplines, and corporate disciplines. This is a foundational book for understanding and practicing the spiritual tools.
Ms. Helen Neinast has developed a useful instrument for learning and teaching about the spiritual life in her monograph Method X Spiritual Types Discussion Guide. In this resource, students first take a spiritual type inventory of 25 questions. They then learn which of the four types with which they most closely align. The remaining four sessions help the students understand and cultivate spiritual aspects of their relationship with God, with others, and their vocation in community. This five-session curriculum is interesting and useful for developing a spiritual language, discussion topics related to the spiritual life, and directing youth toward prayer practices which support their spiritual types. It is an inexpensive resource and is downloadable from The Upper Room.
A third resource available for the youth leader who wants to help teens develop spiritual practices is Soul Shaper by Tony Jones. Pastor Jones is an experienced youth and young adult minister. He and Youth Specialties have teamed up to produce a resource which introduces 16 ancient practices. Each chapter contains sections on the history of the practices, a theological explanation, general guidelines for the application of the discipline, and thoughts on how each practice might be applied for youth ministry. Not only does Jones bring youth ministry experience to this resource, he also brings a wealth of practice in each discipline and application for youth to put them into practice.
Lastly is a hot-off-the-press resource by Concordia Publishing House. This curriculum is Light of Life and it comes with “A Personal Journey of Prayer and Meditation on the Gospel of John”. The fine folks at CPH have heard the cry for Lutheran resources on prayer and meditation and have responded with this lectio divina format which can be used with teens and adults wanting to cultivate the practices of reading Scripture, contemplation, prayer, and meditation.
The way to introduce and train our young people in the area of spiritual practices is to do it with them, learning together along the journey. If one waits until he or she is an expert in these areas, many teens’ paths will lead them away from the Lord. Our relationship with the Eternal Lord is responsive to discipline, to regular attention to practicing the things which enhance one’s walk with Him.
Bodies will decay, minds will slow down, but the spirit will live forever in Christ. Help give our youth regular and routine attention to their spiritual practices so that they can mature into spiritually giant adults.
Want to try lectio divina with your group? Check out this resource: Lectio Divina, Psalm 73.
Some Resources on Teaching Spiritual Disciplines
Jones, Tony. Soul Shaper. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2003.
Light of Life: A Personal Journey of Prayer and Meditation on the Gospel of John. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010.
Luther, Martin. A Simple Way to Pray. <http://www.hope-aurora.org/docs/ASimpleWaytoPray.pdf> (accessed 5 June 2010). Thank you to Hope Lutheran Church for making this useful document available.
Neinast, Helen. Method X Spiritual Types Discussion Guide. Available from http://www.upperroom.org/methodx/default.asp; Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 2003.
Yaconelli, Mark. Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2006.
Yaconelli, Mark. Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2008.