Review: Contemplative Youth Ministry

Before you read Contemplative Youth Ministry, you need to know something about the pronunciation of the title.  I know that it looks easy enough.  Contemplate, Contemplation, contemplative, the accent on the first syllable, right?  Well, it is debatable.  Many people hold that the actual pronunciation is kən-tĕm’plə-tĭv which is really just a fancy way of telling you to accent the second (“tem”) syllable rather than the first.  I’m telling you this because if you read the book, you are going to want to talk about the book.  And when you talk about it, you don’t want to sound like you haven’t been to school since hieroglyphics were the standard form of writing.  Then again, maybe pronunciation is just one of my pet peeves.

Learning the pronunciation is just the beginning of the battle.  This book by Mark Yaconelli is filled with sweeping ideas and challenges that have been making youth ministers, leaders, and volunteers scratch their heads and wonder about their own ministries.  Am I failing my youth?  Am I just adding something else on their plate without actually giving them the gospel?  Should I really just shut up and be silent?

As I first began to read this book, I felt slightly overwhelmed that I would never be able to fully integrate all of Yaconelli’s great ideas into my junior high ministry.  How could the words of the descendant of youth ministry’s dynastic legacy, Mike Yaconelli, possibly apply to my run-of-the-mill ministry?  I was convinced the buzz about the book was just the result of a star-struck audience still mourning the elder’s loss.  Yet, as I read I found something vulnerable and approachable about his writing, his process, his story that superseded any inflated buzz surrounding the book.

Yaconelli meets the average youth minister where they are at: frustrated with flat relationships, embittered by the busy distracted lives most teenagers live, and tired of thinking about seventy ways to use tennis balls at a youth night.    He empathizes with the reader not in shallow anecdotal terms, but with real situations that he badgered up to the point of no return.  In some ways, through Yaconelli’s insights into his drudges and woes, the book reads like a biographical “my life in youth ministry up until now” story.  Woven into the tale are teachings on the culture of parents and teens and the potential impact of contemplative prayer in their lives.

The first chapters of the book drive through what many youth workers already know:  parents are overwrought in fear that their youth might turn out badly.  Kids become club sport maniacs and bad-grade-a-phobes to compensate.  They are pummeled by media all of the time and the concept of quiet is nearing obsolete in mindset of modern American teenagers.  Youth leaders aren’t immune to the anxiety of the times.  Yaconelli lays everything on the table when he admits his people-pleasing complex.  He says “the focus of my ministry wasnt God’s love, but rather, my own anxieties and expectations, and those of all the other adults in the church.  And the kids could smell it.”  In a moment of desperation, he landed at a renewal retreat held at a former convent and was introduced to contemplative prayer.  The remainder of the book delves into its application to youth ministry.

If you don’t know anything about contemplative prayer and are looking for an easy introduction, this book will fit the bill quite well.  Interwoven into the teachings on the two basic types of contemplative prayer (Lectio Divina and the centering prayer) are small practice sessions that you are encouraged to do while reading.  If you read this while curled up in a comfortable reading chair at home like I did, this works well.  If you read this in a crowded coffee house, you might feel a little hokey closing your eyes and breathing deep for a few minutes.  Whatever you do, I encourage you to follow his instructions (at least a little bit) and get quiet.  You can’t learn about what he writes about unless you actually try it and you can’t try to teach youth about contemplative prayer if you haven’t done it yourself.

Contemplative prayer isn’t something developed by Buddhist monks seeking zen.  The mainstay of contemplative prayer, Lectio Divina, is an ancient church tradition dating back to the monastic traditions of early Christianity.  The Benedictine monks began practicing Lectio Divina during the eight hours of prayer in the fifth century, though it was developed sometime around 220 AD.  Monks and devout Christians have been practicing Lectio Divina and its simplified forms, often called centering prayer, ever since.  Yet, only recently has this ancient practice come fashionable.

Is it just fashionable, waiting for some other great idea to dethrone it?  Or is this more than just a fad?

The only way to know is to try it out.  And I did.  I have a small group of junior high students that gather for fellowship, fun, Bible study, and prayer every other week.  They unknowingly served as guinea pigs.  I’ve found that no matter how much I have pulled teeth for participation or yanked ears to focus attention during bible study time, prayer time has taken on a life of its own.  Kaleb could jump on couches during fellowship, sing all through bible study, and dance in his seat during reading, but when we turn down the lights, light the candles, and open our Bibles to the mediation verse, he quiets down.  He told me once that he really liked prayer time because he never experiences God like that otherwise.  Solemnity is something today’s youth just don’t get a chance to experience.  His actions and his words tell me that this isn’t a fad that will pass like no fear t-shirts and tight-rolled jeans.

Yaconelli spends a lot of time digging into the concepts behind contemplative prayer.  After a while you will feel like you get the idea and you don’t need to re-read it seven more times.    He promotes an all or nothing approach.  He wants you to integrate contemplative prayer into every minutia of youth ministry practice.  This might not be possible for you, but please, follow the old adage and don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

Take a little time and pull from the book what will fit in your ministry. Yaconelli’s push is for you to teach your youth how to pray, how to experience the God of our Salvation.  If you are tired of loud, in your face youth ministry, this book suggests a different look at the spiritual journey of youth.  If you have been working at integrating contemplative ideas into your youth ministry but have struggled to make them relevant to youth, this book is chockful of practical churches’ experiences.  Even if you think you’ve got youth ministry under control (hah!), this book is still a must-read.  We all need to be challenged to be better listeners of both our youth and the Almighty.

Published February 1, 2007

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