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Ancient-Future Youth Ministry
group magazine: July-August, 1999

A revolutionary approach to youth ministry that’s so cutting-edge it’s...orthodox
by Mark Yaconelli
It’s Sunday just after 5 p.m. in the youth room at Sleepy Hollow Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo, California. Seven adults are sitting around a “Christ-candle” in the youth room. There’s no talking, no laughter. For 10 minutes, the only noise is the sound of their breathing.
These volunteer youth workers are using an ancient Christian practice, the Ignatian Awareness Examen,1 to meditate on the previous week’s youth group meeting. They’re asking God to show them moments when the group was open to God and moments when the group seemed blocked. They are listening...
Now it’s 7 p.m.—one hour into the night’s youth group gathering. There are 18 senior highers and five adults sitting in a candlelit sanctuary. A gold cross stands on a table. At the front of the room, two young people strum guitars and lead the singing. They’re chanting the “Jesus Prayer,” an ancient meditative practice rooted in the Eastern Orthodox Church: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.” Over and over they sing; some close their eyes, voices silent. They are listening...
Thirty minutes later an adult leader has just finished leading a discussion on Philippians 2. Young people and adults are scattered across the sanctuary; some are sitting, others lie across the pews, still others sprawl on the floor with their heads resting on folded hands. The adult leader is telling kids about “Lectio Divina,”2 a form of biblical prayer practiced in the monastic tradition. He opens his Bible and reads a text. He reads it again. He reads it a third time. Silence. They are listening...
Unorthodox? Actually, it’s more like ultra-orthodox. At Sleepy Hollow, we’ve paired some standard youth ministry activities—a meal, games, and announcements—with the dust-covered Christian practices of silence, solitude, and meditative prayer. They seem out of place in a modern world dominated by over-dubs, quick-splice images, and faster hard drives. It’s a return to Sabbath-time, to God’s speed, to the slow and spacious places of the heart where kids can encounter the loving Presence of the ever-patient Christ. This is a pre-modern youth ministry; and it’s not just a California thing.
Youth groups in Connecticut, Alabama, West Virginia, and Indiana are immersed in similar practices—fasting, Centering Prayer,3 journaling, praying using guided meditations, and taking contemplative walks. The central aim of these practices is to pay attention to God by listening, watching, and waiting.
How did these churches get involved in pre-modern ministry? In the fall of 1997, the Lilly Endowment funded a ministry experiment called the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project. San Francisco Theological Seminary and Youth Specialties sponsored the project in 16 churches representing many denominations across the country. These churches committed to help develop, test, and spread a contemplative approach to youth ministry.
By contemplative, I mean practices that invite a deeper awareness of God’s presence. Our hope is to explore what youth ministry looks like when we anchor our programs, religious instruction, and mentoring relationships in a commitment to consistently dwell in God’s presence.
Today’s popular youth ministry models are creative, dynamic, and fun. Yet something’s missing. In a typical youth group, how many kids actually encounter the resurrected Christ? Does our focus on youth directors, curricula, and programs crowd out opportunities for kids to experience God? I think a youth program is effective only when it offers kids the space, tools, and time to encounter God’s transforming love.
We so often invite kids to live their lives in Christ through our words and lesson plans, but we rarely find ways for them to actually practice this life. They need us to equip them with the skills to develop a transforming intimacy with God.
We don’t need another ministry model; we need a different kind of church—a church that’s rooted in loving God and others, in contemplation and action, in prayer and justice. The YMSP approach to youth ministry pushes for a return to God-awareness in Christian formation by inviting everyone involved in the ministry to listen to God. To make the shift, we ask participating churches to commit to building...
1. A community of disciples—Growing adults tend to invite growth in young people. But kids need more than a few growing youth workers in their lives—they need a growing church community. Effective adolescent spiritual development requires the whole congregation, so we ask YMSP churches to form ministry teams by calling together eight to 10 diverse adults who represent their congregations. Teams meet for spiritual formation through practices that encourage a deeper awareness of God’s activity in their lives. Team members are called to be “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries” (I Corinthians 4:1) as they reach out to young people.
2. A liturgy for discernment—YMSP ministry teams understand they’re called to practice the presence of God among young people, but how? We developed a “liturgy” and asked them to use it before or after their weekly youth group meetings.
We encourage teams to primarily attend to God’s presence when they meet, then design programs and ministry strategies out of this attentiveness. The liturgy includes:
--Ritual. Whether it’s lighting a candle or singing a song, the team acknowledges that it’s gathered in Christ’s presence.
--Check-in. The team takes a few minutes for each person to tell about his or her activities and concerns.
--Community check-in. Team members offer affirmations or concerns about the ministry that are left over from the previous gathering.
--Practice. Team members practice Lectio Divina or the Ignatian Awareness Examen to focus their attention on God’s work in their lives and in the life of the ministry.
--Question. The team then asks itself this question: “Given what we’ve prayed about and shared, what is God’s calling for us this week?”
--Planning. Every other week the team works on long-term plans rather than answering the “question.”
--Closing. Team members offer prayers of intercession or gratitude as they seek a deeper intimacy with Christ.
3. Contemplative exercises. We ask YMSP churches to help young people engage in spiritual exercises at each youth gathering or event. We want them to give teenagers the space, time, tools, and encouragement to directly place themselves before God. We’ve taught YMSP participants classical prayer exercises such as Lectio Divina, the Awareness Examen, Centering Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and others. In addition, we encourage them to use modern forms of Christian contemplation such as poetry, drawing, painting, sculpting, music, and other creative pursuits.
We also emphasize traditional spiritual disciplines such as silence, solitude, fasting, and prayer. We ask churches to integrate these exercises into the regular rhythm of their youth group meetings, Sunday school classes, and events. They are to augment, not replace, basic youth ministry practices such as Bible study, service, and worship.
Every month our 16 participating churches send us reports describing how they’ve experienced this approach to youth ministry. And throughout the year we visit these churches to better understand the project’s impact. Now, just 17 months into the experiment, we’re seeing far-reaching results...
1. A drop in youth minister burn out—Youth ministry is notorious for burning out its workers. By inviting ministers to focus on God rather than their own abilities, they’re feeling more nurtured in their work.
One part-time youth director in inner city Omaha, Nebraska, says the prayer exercises have kept him in the ministry. Another youth minister in Eugene, Oregon, says she feels more nourished and supported in her work now that an intentional spiritual community is helping her lead the youth program. “I was on the verge of burn out and didn’t realize it,” she says. “This approach helped me to take myself out of the middle of the ministry and instead focus on the work of the Spirit.” And a volunteer youth worker in Denver, Colorado, says, “I have an even greater sense of peace about God’s calling on my life. I’m now, thankfully, forced to trust God and the church, rather than rely only on my own abilities.”
2. Young people eager to learn spiritual practices—Ten teenagers and adults at my church in San Anselmo, California, called each other every night during Lent to pray over the day and discern how God was at work in their lives. And five other young people embarked on a 40-day fast from TV, gossip, particular foods, and certain entertainment devices in an attempt to remove spiritual distractions from their lives.
The middle schoolers at a Valparaiso, Indiana, church report that Lectio Divina was the most powerful element in their confirmation training. In Bayport, Minnesota, high schoolers serving at an outdoor clean-up project periodically paused in silence to notice how God was present in their work. Some later said it was one of the most powerful days of their lives. Silent, listening prayer has now become a regular part of their activities.
Youth ministers from all 16 test congregations report that middle school and senior high kids are hungry to encounter God directly and eager to learn contemplative spiritual practices.
3. Greater discernment and impact in programming—All 16 churches say their youth ministry programming is now more intentional and responsive to God. The “liturgy for discernment” has helped ministry teams develop strategies and activities out of prayer rather than ministry fads or shocking statistics.
A youth leader in Portland, Oregon, says his team discovered during a prayer session that “our young people were seeking to explore how the Christian faith spoke to suffering.” At my church, youth leaders discerned that most of our best ministry happened during snack time. So we refocused the whole program from a fun-and-games model to simply gathering around tables over a meal. Ministry team members in a southern Indiana church say it’s now clear to them that their calling is to love kids face-to-face, and that makes them less anxious about planning activities.
4. Churchwide renewal—Almost all churches in the project have 10 to 20 adults serving three to five hours a week in the youth ministry. Lay people from all 16 congregations say they’ve grown spiritually through their involvement. An adult leader in Breckenridge, Colorado, says team meetings have helped her see “a thousand blessings in each day.” A lay leader at my church in San Anselmo says the middle school ministry has become a spiritual discipline to her. A youth director in Tulsa, Oklahoma, says, “For the first time it feels as if we’re really being the church.”
Five of the 16 participating churches say the project has sparked spiritual renewal not just in their youth ministries but in the entire congregation. Adults involved in YMSP youth ministry programs have transported the spiritual practices they’ve learned into other church responsibilities such as worship, leadership boards, and adult discipleship groups. A pastor from Indiana says, “Our youth ministry is now showing the whole congregation how we are called to be the church—listening and trusting God, together, in community.”
With another 18 months left in the project, we’re still learning what it means to draw young people into direct experiences with God. Classic spiritual exercises have given us the tools and the space to recognize God’s work in our lives, our ministries, and our congregations. It’s changing all of us. As Jen Butler, an associate pastor in Oregon, says, “We shouldn’t be surprised it’s working so well. It’s kind of a no-brainer. If you make the space, the spirit will come.”
Our continuing challenge is to have the courage, trust, patience, and perseverance to set aside that holy space—to invite young people to listen with us for that still, small voice that brings life in abundance.4
Mark Yaconelli is co-director of The Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project, an adjunct professor of youth ministries at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and a veteran youth minister in San Anselmo, California.
1 In the Ignatian Awareness Examen, a meditative prayer technique, participants consider what happened during a defined period of time (a youth group meeting, for example) while asking God to reveal “openings” (moments of grace) and “blocks” (moments of brokenness). After the prayer time, we ask YMSP leadership teams to spend 15 minutes talking about their insights.
2 In this adaptation of Lectio Divina, an ancient form of biblical meditation, you hear a Scripture passage several times while listening for a word or phrase that seems to address you. Then you repeat or meditate on this word or phrase as you try to discover how the word might connect to your life. Finally, you tell God what you’ve learned as you rest in his presence.
3 Centering Prayer is a way of using a “sacred word” such as Lord, Abba, Father, or Jesus to focus attention on God and yield to his influence and action. After settling in a quiet place, say the word as an invitation to God’s presence. Whenever distracting thoughts enter your mind, repeat the word to refocus. End the prayer time with two or three minutes of additional silence.
Finding the gospel in literature
by Lorraine Montanari
I’m a high school English teacher in the largest public school in Virginia. For years I’ve searched for a way to introduce the gospel to my students and still keep my job. I mainly teach 12th-grade English, and my curriculum mandates that I teach British and Western literature. And that’s just where God has opened a door to the gospel.
Kids have questions about the origin of man, the creation of the universe, the afterlife, and God. John Milton’s Paradise Lost addresses all these questions, and more. But almost any classic work of fiction that focuses on the hard questions of life and death, the immortality of the soul, or the salvation of man will work. And don’t overlook poems —kids today have a strong respect for poetry and are eager to learn from it. Point them to William Wordsworth’s Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood or Samuel Coleridge’s ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The key to capturing kids’ interest in these great works of fiction is to tweak them with questions. For example, before we begin reading Paradise Lost, I ask students questions such as: “Where does evil come from in the world? What does Satan look like, and where does he reside? If God is supposed to be good, how could he send anyone to hell? Eve ate the apple first—does that somehow explain why women have struggled to gain equal rights for so long?” When we dig into Wordsworth’s poem, I ask: “What’s the source of our soul? We all know how the body and mind are created, but how did our soul enter into existence?”
At the end of the year, when I ask teenagers to tell what piece of literature influenced them the most, they almost always choose Paradise Lost. Many say they’re surprised to learn that the Bible offers relevant answers for their everyday lives. Kids who would never crack a Bible feel drawn to it through the power of great storytelling. n
Lorraine Montanari is a public school teacher in Virginia.
Five of the 16 participating churches say the project has sparked spiritual renewal not just in their youth ministry but in the entire congregation.

4 For more information on the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project, call (415) 258-6500, send an e-mail to or visit San Francisco Theological Seminary’s Web site at http://www. and click on “Programs & Resources.”

copyright 2007 group publishing, inc.