Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus
by Mark Yaconelli
I received this book as a Christmas gift from a gentleman in my church (a Sunday School co-teacher, to be exact) this past December. At the time, I had only recently become aware of the Emergent/Emerging Church and the role that contemplative spirituality plays for some people within that movement. Interestingly, I reciprocated his gift with a seven-volume set of sermons written and delivered by Martin Luther during the years 1532-1534. Nothing like exposing our philosophical/theological positions! Modernism (or earlier) vs. postmodernism in the same classroom. Suffice it to say, our discussions can be quite thought provoking…but I digress.
This book was a real challenge for me for a number of reasons. First, it wasn’t the best starting point for learning about the Emergent/Emerging Church, the whole point of my Church/Christian reading list for 2008. It didn’t define terms like “emergent,” “emerging,” or “spiritual formation,” vocabulary that is common to discussions of this rapidly growing trend within Christianity. In fact, the movement wasn’t even mentioned. Instead, Mr. Yaconelli discussed the use of Lectio Divina, the Ignatian Examen, and centering prayer, making this the kind of book that youth ministers/workers (or pastors) could use to guide the implementation of worship and praxis once a congregation had embraced the contemplative path. Of course, the poor choice of a study starting point isn’t the fault of Contemplative Spirituality; that is my fault for reading the first book that dropped into my lap. To begin a study of the Emergent/Emerging Church (which, as I stated, was my intention), I would start instead with Stories of Emergence by Mark Yaconelli or They Like Jesus But Not the Church by Dan Kimball. Those books do a much better job of explaining how the Church leaders who are espousing these ideas came to hold their beliefs, why they feel the Church desperately needs to embrace a different (more postmodern) philosophy, and what exactly postmodern non-Christians (the primary target audience of the Emergent/Emerging Church movement) don’t like about the Church.
Second, the author came across as very anti-parent/anti-family, although this was everywhere implied but never explicitly stated. For example, in the introduction, while addressing “those of us who seek to share faith with youth” (remember, this book was written for youth ministers/workers, not parents), Mr. Yaconelli stated the following (emphasis mine):
We don’t know how to be with our kids. We know how to entertain them, market to them, test them, and statistically measure them. But we’ve forgotten how to be with them.Who has forgotten, parents or youth ministers? And, again, in a chapter on teen angst and adult anxiety, the author said:
We worry about the young people in our care. We don’t know what they look at on the Internet. We can’t keep up with the electronic gadgets they play with. We’ve never heard of the bands or celebrities they talk about. We don’t know what they do after school. We’re unaware of the subject or codes in their e-mail conversations.Does this paragraph not describe the concerns that parents have for their children (or should have for their children)? Yet, Mr. Yaconelli doesn’t prompt parents to move into these anxieties. No, instead, he says the following, admittedly not about parents directly but certainly about the world inhabited by children, a world that includes both parents and family:
…youth are being raised in a culture of people who no longer live from the center of their lives.And then later:
This book is born of my hope to provide every young person with a handful of adults who incarnate the love, compassion, and presence of Jesus…I pray that our churches might be filled with adults willing to move beyond words and ministry programs --- adults willing to take the time to seek out the young people in their communities, to sit with them, to listen to them. May every congregation be filled with adults who view the young people in their lives and communities with the eyes of Jesus, beholding in each and every one of them a unique revelation of the presence of God.Again, does this paragraph not describe the type of relationship that exists (or at least should exist) between parents and teens? Yet, Mr. Yaconelli doesn’t mention parents at all. Instead, he leaves the reader with the impression that parents are part of that “culture of people who no longer live from the center of their lives,” that group of people who do not “incarnate the love, compassion, and presence of Jesus.” Instead, Mr. Yaconelli says that youth workers and people at church are the adults who should be interacting with teens per their spirituality. Again, why does the author not prompt parents to fill this role, especially when Scripture so clearly states that it is their responsibility?
These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. --- Deuteronomy 6:6-7Please note: I do understand that many children are without a consistent parental presence in their lives for a variety of reasons. But wouldn’t it be better, in the long run, if youth ministers worked to bring parents back into the lives of children instead of consistently attempting to replace parents with other adults (assuming, of course, that the parental influence is neither dangerous nor unhealthy) or consistently assuming that children (especially teens) don’t wish to interact with their parents?
Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it. --- Proverbs 22:6
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. --- Ephesians 6:4
Third, the general tone of the book struck me as replete with a negative view of modern culture --- the speed of life, the pressures of the world, a lack of fulfillment, etc. For example, in chapter five, I found this narrative:
Imagine a woman sitting on the front porch at the end of the day, calling to her husband inside the house, and saying, “Work was so draining today. I couldn’t wait to get home. Come sit next to me on the porch.” The husband then comes to the doorway and replies, “Isn’t it interesting how work takes up so much of our lives. I mean, here is this activity that we have to engage in to pay the bills; an activity that we hope will be satisfying at some level. Yet at the end of the day, we feel like we’ve been, as you say, ‘drained.’ Like something has been taken away from us or maybe we’ve given a part of ourselves that we now notice is missing. It’s like we leave our true selves at work and…Granted, in the book, the point Mr. Yaconelli made with this example was that the husband missed the point about sitting with his wife and, instead, stood in the doorway and yakked about his philosophy of work. My point in using it as an example is that the passage typifies the sad perspective of everyday life that seems to permeate the book. Here are some other examples:
…we’ve become “dispirited.” We live narrow lives. We tend to act as if we’re nothing more than our roles and our jobs.Well, to answer these last few questions, I haven’t stopped doing any of those things and I am forty-six years old! I sing everyday in the shower and every week at church. I often dance around my house to old music and am desperately trying to get my husband to take a ballroom dancing class. Oh, and allow me to tell you this story…about silence:
…the burned-out life of materialism that deadens spirits and kills creativity.
Do you know how to become yourself despite the constant messages telling you that you’re lacking? Do you know how to keep from becoming overwhelmed by the pain and suffering in the world? Do you know how to find a home, a place of welcome and relationship? Can you tell me how to stay hopeful and creative in a world obsessed with violence, death, and conformity? Do you know where I can offer my gifts meaningfully in a world that feels consumed with trivia? How do I stay alive? How do I remain open to God and others when so many people seem closed, distant, and angry?
…as any parent knows, domestic life can quickly make anyone fatigued and cranky.
Where in your life did you stop singing? Where in your life did you stop dancing? Where in your life did you stop telling stories? Where in your life did you stop listening to silence?
My mother taught me how to listen to and appreciate silence by taking me out into the countryside of southern Minnesota on a cold winter evening so I could “listen” to snow. This was either in December 1973 or January 1974. One night, when the temperature was well below zero, my entire family climbed into our Chevy station wagon and drove into the farm country west of my hometown, parking alongside one of the rural truck routes, in order to see a comet. Our science teacher had heard about Comet Kohoutek and had encouraged all of us to view it if possible. While waiting for this astronomical wonder to appear, my mother asked us all to stop talking so we could listen to the snow skim across the cornfields, cornfields that were lying dormant with nothing but the yellow-brown stubble of dead plants peeking out from under a blanket of frozen, white precipitation. I can still see all of us, sitting there, shivering in the cold green car, gazing up at the stars, searching for the comet and “listening” to the snow. What a memory.Ok, getting back to reality. Lest you think I found nothing at all redeeming in Contemplative Spirituality, I must admit I was intrigued by the advice that Mr. Yaconelli gave on how to conduct meetings and call volunteers. Being the co-coordinator of a homeschool support group, I am always looking for more effective ways to connect with volunteers and “do business,” so to speak. Dubbed “the discernment approach,” the process employed by Mr. Yaconelli prompts those in authority to put their managerial tasks back under the authority of the Lord (rather than under their own authority) and to wait on His direction, all while receiving input/feedback from the group they are charged with directing, be it a congregation, a support group, or a book club. The idea of actively and intentionally engaging in conversation with God while planning activities and prioritizing tasks for any group is a reminder we all can use now and again. I know it prompted me to rethink how I do some of my work.
Overall, I cannot say I enjoyed this book. I disagreed with much of the philosophy and theology embraced by Mr. Yaconelli. That said, however, I would recommend it for those who are searching for a way to walk more deliberately and actively with the Lord in their decision-making process, whether at church or in their private lives. To read more about this book, to read additional reviews, or to purchase a copy, visit this page on Amazon.com.
Somewhat helpful. Plush Duck Rating: *****