Review: Growing Souls By Mark Yaconelli

January 11th, 2010

By Matt Cleaver Think of words usually associated with monastic spiritual journeys: candles, silence, calm, discernment, Sabbath, meditation, and prayer.  Now think of these words in the context of youth ministry. 

If you thought that the two don’t go together (or laughed out loud), then Mark Yaconelli has something to say to you.  His latest book,Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry, shares stories, experiences, conversations, and insights from the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP), an initiative by the San Francisco Theological Seminary that Yaconelli co-founded in 1996.


The project’s mission statement says that it seeks to “foster Christian communities that are attentive to God’s presence, discerning of the Spirit, and that accompany young people on the way of Jesus.”  This is a follow up to Yaconelli’s 2006 book, Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus. 


Growing Souls is concerned with presenting some of the data gathered from the YMSP.  However, don’t expect to find charts, graphs, and words like standard deviation lining the pages.  Instead, Yaconelli and his co-authors tell the stories of some of the congregations and individuals who participated in the YMSP.  Part one of the book describes the YMSP's philosophy, approach, theology, and the “charter” which is a summary of the principles that were discovered in churches that practiced contemplative youth ministry.

In part two, readers are taken on journeys to four different churches that participated in the YMSP and we learn how this sort of approach played out in the various ministries. The congregations come from non-denominational, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Lutheran traditions.  The story of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church in Washington State is one of the most perceptive chapters.  In their youth ministry, the adult leaders of Lake Chelan had been transformed by spiritual practices in their own lives and sought to ingrain these practices into the youth.

Much to their disappointment, they were met with fierce opposition from the students. 

Eventually, they scrapped their idea for a spiritual visionary retreat for the group and built their youth program around regular nights at the local bowling alley.  But simply because the group spent a lot of time bowling does not mean that their contemplative approach was a failure. Instead, “a contemplative approach to youth ministry does not entail teaching youth to become contemplatives. It entails a leadership team committed to a contemplative process of its own that enables its members to see ways of crafting programmatic action that authentically participates with God in nurturing life and faith in young people.” 

The way in which bowling served as a communal anchor for the group was an authentic way of acting within the context of Lake Chelan.  To have forced the spiritual retreat that the adults originally desired would have been a misuse of the contemplative approach to youth ministry. 

The last section of the book contains two chapters, one set of interviews with adults involved in the YMSP and another set with students.  These chapters show a lot of the struggle and joy that accompanies such an approach to ministry.  These were two of the most insightful chapters the book had to offer and would be of great help to ministries hoping to establish a similar approach to ministry. 

I must confess that I really expected to love this book, but instead I was surprisingly disappointed.  In my opinion, Yaconelli’s first book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, was a groundbreaking book.  Growing Souls simply continues to tell some of the stories behind the first book, but it loses a lot of the impact that was present within Contemplative Youth Ministry.  Without a doubt, I would recommend that every youth minister must read Contemplative Youth Minsistry, but I can’t say the same for Growing Souls.  Growing Souls is well-written and helpful to those who want to probe deeper into a contemplative youth ministry approach, but it is not a must-read book.  If you have the time and desire, the book is worth your time.  Otherwise, focus your energy elsewhere. 


This book, and everything we review is available in the YMX Bookstore.  



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