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Contemplative Youth Ministry: Listening to God together

Where else in their multitasking 24/7 lives can youth find loving adults who join them in meaningful prayer, silence, and conversation to connect with God? A feature story exploring what makes an effective youth ministry program.

You know there’s got to be more to youth ministry than paintball, pancake breakfasts, pizza, and pop. But how do you get to the more?

Dan Haugh, pastor of student ministries at Bedford Community Church in metro New York, looks back on his first five years of youth ministry and says, “They could come, learn, laugh, connect—and we loved that. Then they would go home, and we would hope they would come back.”

There were enough “lightbulb moments” that he knew youth were learning about God. Yet, as each weekly meeting ended, Haugh says, “I wasn’t as confident that they were connecting with God.”

A few years ago he began introducing contemplative practices such as centering prayer and lectio divina. “It’s been transformative. Every student is different, so what God says to them and how he ministers to them is unique for each person. But I see the difference in their eyes when they leave,” he says.

Contemplative practices are countercultural

About once a month, Bedford Community’s senior high youth group now includes a 10- or 15-minute contemplative practice—before, during, or after the lesson. Sometimes students do an awareness exam or meditate on a Bible passage. “Sometimes we have self-guided yet directed times of prayer, with students engaged corporately or individually,” Haugh says.

Three or four times a year the entire two hours center on contemplative practice, such as creative prayer experiences that engage all the senses or include drawing, finger painting, sculpting, and journaling.

For himself, Haugh has set aside silent time with God for a decade, ever since going on retreat as part of a college class on Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. “Those three days were so formative that I’ve scheduled retreat times every year since,” he says.

But he describes himself as blown away by how much students look forward to contemplative experiences. “At first it was strange for many of them. They came into a calming, quiet atmosphere and we had a prayer of just rest. They told us, ‘We found peace,’ and ‘This is giving us strength.’

Practicing how to rest in God’s love, meditate on God’s word, and grow in grace together is countercultural in Bedford Hills, a wealthy Westchester County community.

“There’s so much pressure put on these kids to not just do well but to excel, join more than enough clubs, and get into the Ivy League schools. The average income here is $220,000, so they have this financial stress of living up to expectations and having what everyone else has. Many parents even in our church buy into that culture. These contemplative practices help ground our students,” Haugh says.

Rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition

About two-thirds of Bedford Community youth group members come from families that don’t go to church or go to another church. “In local bookstores, the biggest sections are on spirituality, new age movements, and different religions. Many parents and students are very into spiritual things, not necessarily Christian.

“We make sure all our practices are biblically-focused and Christ-centered. We tell our students we’re not doing something new. We’re looking at the history and rich traditions of our faith and doing what Christians have been doing for centuries and still do in different parts of the world.

“We make clear that contemplation is not self-help or ‘tapping into the spirit within you.’ We encourage students to say things like ‘Holy Spirit, hear me now.’ We focus on Christ and rely on the Holy Spirit to illuminate our understanding,” he explains.

One of his favorite youth ministry books, Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus by Mark Yaconelli, describes contemplation as being with God within the reality of the present moment. The book’s central idea is that sharing the Christian faith with young people requires becoming comfortable with and attentive to God, ourselves, and others.

“We love young people when we see them with the eyes of Jesus; seeing them as they are, not as the culture judges them to be or as we wish them to be,” Haugh writes in his review of Contemplative Youth Ministry. Meanwhile, he and the other leaders seek to be authentic and transparent as they share stories and prayer concerns with youth.

Experience, reflection, action

Haugh and those who work with him begin contemplative elements by inviting youth “into a transcendent moment not with ‘the divine’ but with the true God, the Triune God. Then when students are done, we have community time or small groups where they discuss their experiences. If they have questions, leaders are prepared to engage,” he explains.

Yaconelli’s book offers creative questions and exercises to help youth notice, name, and nurture an awareness of God’s presence. In some settings, keeping silent for only ten or 15 seconds is a big step. “As our youth ministry becomes infused with contemplative prayer and awareness, the effect is not more prayer and silence; instead what begins to emerge is authentic action,” he writes.

Haugh plans each contemplative experience with a theme that leads to action. Leaders and students ask each other, “What did you learn from this? How will this change you, your life, your attitudes, or your actions?”

A lesson on being God’s stewards on earth led students to choose practical ways to care for the earth at home or school.

A recent evening of Bible readings and prayer stations on giving their all to God made a big impact. “Students looked at how they spend their time on a daily and weekly basis and realized they haven’t made God a priority. They committed to make worship, prayer, church attendance, serving, or whatever a higher priority. Others realized that the money they have comes from God. Some made donations that night or committed to sponsor children through Compassion International,” Haugh says.

Not just for introverts

Since beginning contemplative practices Haugh has seen an increase in students who read the Bible, attend worship, become interested in missions, or get involved with a church when they go to college.

And it’s not just introverts who thrive on becoming more attune to God’s presence. “When we go out on a mission or service trip, introverts don’t want to pray with new people. Once they do it, they say, ‘That was good for me. I’m glad I did that.’ The same thing happens when we ask extraverts to focus on spiritual disciplines and inward practices,” Haugh says.

Alaina Kleinbeck agrees with Yaconelli and Haugh that many kinds of kids benefit from slowing down to be with God. Kleinbeck is director of Christian education for junior high and small groups ministries at Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Charles, Missouri. In her YouthESource review of Contemplative Youth Ministry, she wrote about a hyperactive young teen who can’t focus during fellowship, singing, or Bible study.

“But when we turn down the lights, light the candles, and open our Bibles to the meditation verse, he quiets down. He told me once that he really liked prayer time because he never experiences God like that otherwise… 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,” Kleinbeck wrote.

Learn More

Read and discuss Mark Yaconelli’s books Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of JesusGrowing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry, and Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray. Yaconelli describes Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion as “one of my foundational books in developing contemplative youth ministry.”

This Digital Orthodoxy interview with Yaconelli addresses concerns that some churches have about contemplative practices. He says that pastors and youth workers who integrate contemplative practices into ministry report realizing that their central calling is not to be counselors, teachers, or administrators but to be spiritual leaders who “know how to listen, how to see the work of God in the midst of chaos and routine.”

Yaconelli now works with Triptykos as part of the new Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology. “We see ourselves much like Doctors Without Borders—except we're Soul Doctors Without Borders—doing spiritual work with people who are disheartened, broken, disconnected, and in need of spiritual connection and healing. Our first event was in Zimbabwe,” he says.

If you think of urban and contemplative as mutually exclusive, then try these ideas from Fuller Youth Institute for doing an urban contemplative retreat. Use tips on setting up creative prayer stations. Learn from three youth workers who discuss how their understanding of prayer has changed.

Catholic youth in the U.S., Orthodox youth in Albania, university students in Algeria, war refugees from Burundi, and young visitors to the ecumenical Taize community in France all use ancient Christian prayer practices to strengthen their faith.

Start a Discussion

Include contemplative practices in youth ministry and worship:

  • Yaconelli writes that contemplative prayer can help us discern when we’re acting out of “anxiety, pride, or neediness, rather than the truth and patience of God.” Describe a discovery or next step you’ve made after a time of listening to God through prayer or Scripture.
  • How might your youth ministry change if your leaders included times of silence, contemplative prayer, or lectio divina in planning sessions or youth group meetings? What first step might you make toward trying this?
  • In what ways do your worship services help worshipers deepen their awareness of God, others, and themselves so that they live with more love towards those not like them?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to include contemplative practices into your youth ministry—or worship or church leadership?

  • If you noticed that your youth ministry was more about imparting the correct knowledge than relating to youth the way Jesus related to people—what caught your attention? And what did you begin to do differently?
  • Youth in many churches feel tremendously pressed for time. What has worked best for you to acknowledge this stress and yet help youth practice the presence of Jesus?