Spirituality and Youth Ministry: What Are We Doing?

Shaun Sass
October 9th, 2009


It was clear the couple was in distress. For weeks they'd left urgent messages asking for an appointment. “We have a situation that has arisen in our youth ministry and we need to talk to someone.” They took a day off from work, drove five hours to the seminary, and after thanking me profusely for the meeting, sat holding hands as they told me their story. They were happily married. They'd raised four kids. They'd spent over 25 years doing youth ministry in the Presbyterian Church. They were tired of the same “fun and games” programs. They went on a spiritual formation retreat at a youth ministry conference and had been inspired to develop a new method of youth ministry.

“We decided to create more of a spirituality kind of youth ministry. We designed a prayer room and started a contemplative worship service for youth with candles and chants from the monastery in Taizé, France.” They continued to attend spiritual retreats and learned various prayer styles and spiritual exercises. “We just felt so nurtured that we started sharing these new spiritual practices with our youth. The youth loved the new ministry approach and so did we.”

Then came time for the church's annual youth-led worship service. “The kids were excited to share all this cool stuff we were doing in youth group. So when we led the Sunday service we had candles everywhere and this beautiful icon of Jesus displayed on the communion table. We led the congregation in Christian chants, and instead of a spoken sermon, one of our students led a silent meditation and then invited the congregation to walk a labyrinth we purchased from a youth ministry catalog. People loved it.”

They paused and looked at one another. Here was the problem: “After the service the senior pastor asked us into his office. He wasn't mad or anything but he just looked at us and said that what we had led wasn't a Presbyterian worship service. He told us he wasn't sure it was even Protestant. He then explained that Protestants don't use images of God and that it's really not considered worship in the Protestant tradition if there isn't preaching. He then asked if we knew a biblical justification for the labyrinth. We really couldn't respond.”

They paused and stared at me for a moment. Then the wife spoke up, “Can you please tell us what we're doing?

The Rise of Spirituality

Ten years ago I began work at San Francisco Theological Seminary exploring the integration of youth ministry and Christian spirituality. At that time “spirituality” was a common word within the culture but was still mostly absent from the field of youth ministry. If you look at youth ministry catalogs from the early '90s you won't find books on prayer or spiritual practices or products promising to nurture kids' souls. Nor would you find youth events promising to help kids “experience” Jesus. Ten years ago you would've been hard pressed to find a labyrinth or even a candle in a youth room.

In 1996, when I began leading spiritual retreats for youth leaders, I spent most teaching sessions answering questions regarding whether or not “spirituality” was satanic. I even had a Christian radio broadcaster call me for an interview concerning whether or not there was even such a thing as “Christian spirituality.” She was certain that spirituality was something invented by the New Age movement. In 1997, when I offered to lead a workshop entitled “Contemplative Youth Ministry” at a national youth ministry gathering, I was told the title needed to be changed because either people wouldn't understand it or would think it was Buddhist. Taizé music, lectio divina, and spiritual direction were all viewed with suspicion and regarded as a return to ancient pagan practices.

We've come a long way, baby. Now youth ministry conferences and catalogs offer labyrinths kits, scented prayer candles, and journals with orthodox icons on the cover and quotes from classics (usually dead people) like Hildegard of Bingen. Now the heading above the youth ministry section in my recent copy of the Zondervan publishing catalog announces, “Help Youth Contemplate!” (Of course only evangelicals would put an exclamation mark after “contemplate”). Now you can't spend more than ten minutes at a youth ministry conference without someone saying, “Well, my spiritual director told me….”

Despite the rise and popularity of spirituality within youth ministry the question brought to me by the concerned youth ministry couple still persists, “What are we doing?”

What Is Spirituality?

In The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation, pastor and author Keith Beasley-Topliffe writes, “Every generation must discover for itself that experience of God and a living relationship with God are more important in our lives than knowledge about God.” The current spirituality movement is engaged in this exploration of what it means to live the Good News in communion with Jesus. Many of us grew up within a Christian culture that preached a “personal relationship with Jesus,” yet focused on beliefs (doctrinal correctness and defending one's faith), morality (sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll) and emotionality (praise music and charismatic speakers) with little or no space given for actually experiencing the reality of our relationship with Christ.

The revived interest in spirituality is motivated by a desire to experience God (with all of the consolation, desolation, and ambiguity) as a necessary aspect of Christian living. It's a recovery of the mystical dimension of the Christian life. Although it may appear to be a recent phenomenon, there's nothing new about spirituality. Christians have always been concerned with spiritual living, living within the Spirit of Jesus. Its popularity in recent years, however, comes largely in reaction to 19th century forms of Christian faith that deemphasized the experiential or mystical aspects of the Christian life. Spiritual retreats, spiritual directors, prayer practices, and the use of labyrinths emerged from primal yearnings for intimacy with God and solidarity with other human beings.

Spirituality seeks to remind us of the nearness of God, our relatedness to Christ, and the inspiration (in-spiriting) of the Holy Spirit—all of which empower us for acts of mercy, justice, and peace in the world. It concerns the way we organize our lives in light of our desire for God and commitment to share Christ's compassion for others. It encompasses how we eat, play, socialize, consume, and spend our time. It's the heart of Christian discipleship.

Discerning Spirits

For those of us in youth ministry who are tired of frumpy old “religion” with its pews, hymnals, committees, and denominational meetings, spirituality can feel like a more faithful alternative. After all, spirituality is about being with God, living in communion with Jesus, and participating in the works of the Holy Spirit. But is spirituality a “higher,” uncontaminated means to God? Does the integration of spirituality into youth ministry—with its scented candles, prayer practices, and emphasis on “being” with God—result in kids who are closer to Jesus and his way of love? Are all things labeled “spirituality” really of God? To put it more crassly, what's the difference between our candle-lit youth rooms and the Pottery Barn showroom?

Perhaps now that youth ministers are beginning to embrace this notion of spirituality, the next step is to discern what kind of spirituality we have. The Scriptures tell us there are many spirits at work in the world. As spirituality becomes more prevalent in youth ministry, we must learn to “test the spirits” and distinguish between the spirituality of the marketplace culture versus the spirituality of Jesus. The vital question brought to me by the youth ministry couple (“What are we doing?”) needs to be asked more frequently by youth ministers, pastors, and Christian marketers. As I watch the rise in spirituality books, practices, and events, it's apparent there's an uncritical acceptance by many of all things “spiritual” without the awareness that “spirituality” is just as vulnerable to the spirit of Mammon as it is to the spirit of Jesus. Here are three distinctions (there are many more) that may be helpful to those of us in youth ministry who seek a deeper awareness and integration of Christian spirituality.

Relationship versus Self-Reliance

The spirituality of Jesus is demonstrated by a life lived in loving relationship. It's the active desire to love God and others as we love ourselves. There are two aspects of this relationship.

The first, most commonly associated with spirituality, concerns our relationship with God. Christian spirituality requires living in a way that seeks greater awareness of and receptivity to God's love and empowerment. It's life lived in greater openness to Christ's offer of friendship (John 15:14-15).

Many of us engaged in Christian spirituality recognize the deep hunger among Christians to experience God. This hunger is what has prompted the increase in spiritual retreats and events designed to help young people and adults encounter God. These spiritual encounters can be wonderfully inspiring and healing; yet the spirituality of Jesus seeks a more constant relationship with God.

A spirituality of relationship means attending to our lives with God even when our experiences in prayer and spiritual activity are dry. In youth ministry this means we need to engage young people in consistent practices of attending to God within a community of faith so that students can feel the boredom and agitation that's part of life with God as well as the moments of deep spiritual enlightenment. In this way young people can recognize that relationship with God requires the same consistency needed in any real, ongoing relationship.

The second aspect of a spirituality of relationship concerns our interactions with others. This is often ignored in discussions about spirituality. However, just as Jesus was never satisfied to remain on mountaintops and places of retreat, so we, as friends of Jesus, seek greater awareness of and connection to all of God's creatures— the Palestinian immigrant and the suburban developer. Christian spirituality seeks an increasing intimacy with God and others. In fact, Scripture often suggests that unless we're seeking to share the suffering of others, our prayer lives will become illusory and self-centered.

In contrast, the spirituality of the marketplace is a spirituality of self-reliance. This is the “pull-yourself-up-by-yourown- boot-straps” spirituality—the way of life represented by the scribes and Pharisees. This is a utilitarian spirituality that trusts that the spiritual life comes from our own hard work and study. In the secular culture this is epitomized by the infomercial hosted by the sculpted and serene yoga instructor who is obviously a spiritual master because he's in such good physical shape and is flexible enough to clean his ear with his pinky toe.

Those of us attracted to this image of spirituality thrive on words like “discipline” and “practice.” We're inspired by stories of saints who fasted, slept in caves, and crawled on broken shale to chapel. This is macho spirituality, a spirituality of perfection. If we're not careful, we may begin to notice that our interest in spirituality, our engagement in spiritual direction, our spiritual books, and our prayer lives are more about proving our spiritual worthiness than learning to live in greater vulnerability with God and the people and situations we encounter in daily life.

Poverty versus Possessiveness

The spirituality of Jesus is a spirituality of poverty. It's life lived with a growing acceptance that we are finite, broken, and in need of love. It's living into the reality that there's no possession or experience that can satisfy our longing for God. A spirituality of poverty means trusting that our naked desire for God is enough.

It's a life that doesn't rely on possessions or accomplishments or even spiritual experiences, but is a spirituality of repentance, a life that continually turns to God for guidance and care. It's a life that seeks simplicity and sacrifice in order to release all that might stand between ourselves and God, ourselves and the suffering of others. Every spiritual exercise, retreat, or discipline is an exercise in repentance, a letting go of all that we cling to in order to be open and available to God. This is the “downward mobility” of Jesus that Henri Nouwen described. It's living the way of the cross, an increasing willingness to be emptied of everything that impedes our love for God and our solidarity with other people (Philippians 2).

In contrast, the spirituality of the marketplace is a spirituality of possessiveness. It's a spirituality of accumulation that asserts the belief that human beings increase their worth through material goods. In North America, where we express who we are by what we buy, it's easy to believe that being spiritual means consuming spiritual products. Meditative CDs, books by ancient saints, cruciform jewelry, and aromatherapy candles all seek to communicate to ourselves and others that we are, indeed, spiritual. What we may not realize, however, is that our sacred purchases expose the influence of the market culture and its spirituality of consumption.

Marketplace spirituality asserts that our truest identity is that of consumer, and that buying and accumulating is how God is mediated and faith expressed. Perhaps the best example of this is the use of labyrinths in youth ministry. A labyrinth can be a powerful tool in helping young people deepen their awareness and experience of God, yet the increase in youth groups devoting funds to possess and promote their individual labyrinths can sometimes feed the same hollow appetite for materialism that the market economy depends upon. Sadly, spiritual stuff is profitable, so Christian businesses, sometimes innocently, continue to promote the conviction that buying spiritual products brings us closer to God.

Engagement versus Escape

The spirituality of Jesus takes place in the ordinary, not the otherworldly. While lecturing at Regent College, author and pastor Eugene Peterson was asked to define Christian spirituality. He replied, “Spirituality is going to the mailbox to get your mail.” I like this definition. What Peterson, I believe, was trying to communicate is that spirituality isn't concerned solely with prayer and blissful experiences. Spirituality is about how we live our daily lives: how we pick up the mail, eat dinner, and tuck our children in at night. In this way Christian spirituality is more concerned with the mundane than the mysterious.

This means that if we want to grow in faith, we need to pay less attention to our religious accomplishments and more attention to our home life. Our kitchen, our child's school, the grocery store, and the church parking lot is where Christian spirituality takes place as much as or more than at the retreat center. This reality means that the spiritual life is often filled with anxiety (the student who gets lost on a night hike), agitation (a young person who continually disrupts Sunday school), and discomfort (the homeless people who sleep near the church), as much as peace, healing, and comfort.

In contrast, the spirituality of the marketplace is a spirituality of escape. It's a spirituality of bliss. In this image, Christian spirituality is reduced to a tonic for the anxieties of modern living. This is spa-tuality. Feeling tired and stressed-out? Getting snippy with the kids? It's time for a spirituality retreat. Solitary strolls by the ocean, quiet nights in prayer, and meditative massage all promise an escape from the drudgery of ordinary Christian living. In this image, spirituality is limited to spiritual things—prayer, worship, and solitude with God. Cleaning house, administrative paperwork, and van rides appear to be lesser activities, distractions from the spiritual life that God intended.

This form of spirituality ignores the fact that Jesus spent most of his life fully engaged in very ordinary circumstances (eating, walking, sleeping, conversing). In many ways his witness of God's love is most powerful in these ordinary activities. A spirituality of engagement means that we seek to be open and present to God in all areas of life, not just those designated as “spiritual.”

Spirituality in Youth Ministry

Spirituality is a needed corrective within youth ministry. How can we share God's love if we don't take regular time to let God love and empower us? How can young people trust our words about God if they're not given the time and space to encounter God? Silence, prayer exercises, candles, and labyrinths can be helpful to young people and adults in noticing God's presence within and among us. Yet, our spiritual exercises and experiences can be distracting and deceptive if they're not grounded in the spirituality of Jesus. As adults responsible for the spiritual formation of young people, we must discern the spirits within our spirituality programs.

If we trust that Christian spirituality is about relationships rather than selfreliance, then perhaps we need to spend as much time nurturing friendships and increasing the diversity of people within our youth programs as we do in prayer. If we believe that Christian spirituality is about poverty rather than possessiveness, then we can repent from forms of youth ministry that rely on mystical props and exotic outings and trust more in the presence of God. If we believe that Christian spirituality is about engagement rather than escape, hopefully we can have confidence that the ordinary tasks within our ministries will be enough to convey the Gospel.

As St. Francis once said, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words.” Perhaps God's love is best expressed in how we greet kids, how we drive the church van, how we spend our money, and how we are in friendships and interactions with parents. Spirituality is much more than how we pray; it's about the life from which we pray.

What are we doing? We're doing the same thing we do in all of our endeavors in youth ministry—we're trying to help kids follow in the way of Jesus. The hope of youth ministry isn't that young people will become more spiritual—it's that young people will become more open and available to the presence of Jesus and his ways of compassion.

What we need to ask within our spiritual, conventional, or postmodern ministries is whether or not we're helping young people and adults grow more committed in their relationships with God and others. Is the spiritual life we're promoting consistent with the life of Jesus? Are the fruits of the spiritual exercises and practices we offer young people in harmony with the fruits of the Spirit that Paul outlines (Galatians 5)? Is there greater generosity, kindness, patience, love, joy, and self-discipline as a result of these experiences? These are the questions we need to consider in order to help discern what we, as youth ministers, are doing to accompany young people on the way of Jesus.

Shaun Sass

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