Mystical Youth Ministry
by Gary E. Gilley
Ministering to young people has never been easy and that is certainly true today. How are we to engage over-stimulated teenagers with the truth of God’s Word without boring them to tears? God’s people have contemplated this question since the invention of the teenager!
Many programmes and philosophies have come and gone. Some appear successful for a time only to fade away when more carefully analysed or a new generation becomes immune to current techniques.
Take the once-popular youth rallies sponsored by parachurch organisations such as Youth for Christ. Proponents point to the large turnouts and obvious interest generated. Opponents wonder if all they did was to give youth a taste for entertainment rather than substance in Christian matters.
More recently Willow Creek modelled a fad in which young adults were separated from over-thirties. Dedicated buildings, different music and teaching formats with specially trained leaders allowed for almost total separation of the young from older adults.
But Willow Creek abandoned this once-flourishing approach in the face of mounting evidence that such ministries neither changed the lives of the youth nor integrated them into the adult body of the church as they grew older.
In this article, I examine yet another powerful fad now making the rounds of Evangelical churches – ‘mystical youth ministry’. This philosophy is promoted by Youth Specialties which, through its literature, seminars and conferences, impacts the lives of tens of thousands of young people and their leaders.
I shall consider specially Mark Yaconelli’s recent book Contemplative youth ministry; Practising the presence of Jesus (hereafter ‘Y’) – published jointly by Youth Specialties and Zondervan – which propagates an approach to youth work based on Roman Catholic mystical practices from the Middle Ages.
An idea is born
As so often happens, Yaconelli’s ideas were born out of frustration. He learned first hand about mysticism from his father, the late Mike Yaconelli, founder and long-time leader of Youth Specialties. But Yaconelli mysticism goes well beyond his father’s.
He participated in the ‘Program in Christian Spirituality’ and received a diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary – perhaps the leading seminary in the country for mystical studies.
He co-founded and co-directed a seven -year study called ‘Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project’ from 1997 to 2004. And he has drunk deeply at the wells of classical mysticism.
He writes, ‘In recent years there has been a rediscovery of the significance of presence within the Christian life. Locked away within ancient books, monastic communities, and the lives of individual praying Christians is a deep concern for presence … Contemplation is about presence’ (Y, p.23).
Yaconelli’s incentive for all this was his concern over weak youth programmes which, he says, ‘appeal to kids’ propensity for fun and recreation … It’s the ministry of excitement; discipleship through fun culture-friendly Christian-lite events’ (Y p.45).
Mike King, in his very similar book Presence-centered youth ministry (hereafter ‘King’) writes, ‘The notion of youth workers as entertainers and program directors must give way to youth workers as authentic shepherds, spiritual guides with a holy anointing to lead youth into the presence of God’.1
Yaconelli and King identify a genuine problem, but do they have the right solution? Their answer is a mystically-oriented youth ministry centred on contemplative prayer. We begin to sense a problem when Yaconelli quotes Roman Catholic mystic Thomas Keating, saying, ‘Contemplative prayer is the opening of mind and heart – our whole being – to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words and emotions’ (Y, p.82).
Yaconelli is advocating a type of prayer not found in Scripture. Biblical prayer is rational. It uses the mind and words and often involves the emotions. Contemplative prayer is super-rational – it ‘relies not on words, study, and reason, but on silence, prayer [the contemplative variety] and imagination’ (Y, p.56). While no such prayer is encouraged in Scripture, it is the heart and soul of classical mysticism.
The goal of mystical-oriented youth ministry is to share with young people ‘the idea of sacred space, a thin place where heaven and earth meet, where God’s presence is so real that the place and encounter take on profound sacredness’ (King, p.87).
What are the mechanics of contemplative prayer? Let Yaconelli speak for himself:
‘Take a moment to set down this book and simply become aware of your surroundings. Allow your eyes to receive the light, colours, and shapes around you without seeking to “do” anything with what you see. Then gently close your eyes and turn your awareness to your ears. Allow yourself to receive the sounds and noises around you without judgment. Then take a moment to become aware of your body. Beginning with the top of your head, allow a gentle attention to move down your body to the soles of your feet. Allow yourself to notice places of tension or pain without passing judgment. Can you compassionately receive your physical self? Spend a few moments allowing your body, just as it is, to breathe and rest in the presence of God. When you’re ready, take a moment to direct your attention toward God. Quietly turn your awareness to the presence of God within all that you see, all that you hear, and all that you feel’ (Y, p.81).
Of course, no such directives are ever found in Scripture – but they are typical of Eastern mystical religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as medieval Roman Catholic mysticism.
‘Christian’ mystics have tried numerous ways to connect with God. Mike King prescribes virtually every practice ever invented by Catholicism – sacred spaces ‘where God’s presence is real’; labyrinths; stations of the cross; incense; icons; respiratory prayers; the Jesus prayer; prayer ropes; making the sign of the cross; daily offices; lectio divina; crucifixes; and confession to a priest.
While Yaconelli would no doubt agree with this, he emphasises two main practices. The first is lectio divina (Latin for ‘holy reading’), an increasingly popular method of ‘Bible reading’ in mystical and emergent circles.
Yaconelli is careful to tell us, ‘When we engage in lectio divina, we are not seeking to read the Bible for knowledge or instruction (although both of those may come), nor are we seeking the escape of a good story. Instead we come to the words of the Bible seeking to be with God’ (Y, p.85).
Ken Boa, another promoter of mystical Christianity, explains that lectio divina involves four movements 2:
Firstly, reading. ‘Since lectio divina engages the whole person, your bodily posture is important. A seated position that is erect but not tense or slouched is best … Remember that unlike ordinary reading, in lectio you are seeking to be shaped by the Word more than informed by the Word’.
Secondly, meditation. ‘Meditation is a spiritual work of holy desire and an interior invitation for the Spirit to pray and speak within us (Romans 8:26-27) … Meditation will do you little good if you try to control the outcome’.
Thirdly, prayer. Boa informs us that ‘Oratio [prayer] is a time for participation in the interpenetrating subjectivity of the Trinity through prolonged mutual presence and growing identification with the life of Christ’.
Fourthly, contemplation. To most Christians meditation describes deep thinking and analysis using our rational minds – and some may call this ‘contemplation’.
But in mystical circles contemplation is something quite different. It is ‘a theological grace that cannot be reduced to logical, psychological, or aesthetic categories … It is best for us to stop talking and “listen to Him” in simple and loving attentiveness. In this strange and holy land we must remove the sandals of our ideas, constructs and inclinations, and quietly listen for the voice of God’.
Yaconelli tells us that one technique to help in this process is take a word or phrase (in essence a mantra) and ‘repeat it to yourself, allowing the rest of the text to fall away. As you prayerfully repeat it, different thoughts, feelings, and images may arise … [we can] pray ourselves empty … [and] sink into God beneath all your thoughts and feelings’ (Y, p.86).
This fourth and final aspect of lectio divina overlaps with the second way Yaconelli tries to connect with God, which is centring prayer – sometimes known as contemplative prayer or breath prayer.
This method of prayer is based on the fourteenth-century classic of mystical theology, The cloud of unknowing. ‘In this tradition’, says Boa, ‘the invocation of the name of the Lord Jesus is used to create a state of receptivity and interior recollection of the presence of God’.
Biblical prayer is vocal, mental, rational, thoughtful and reflective, but contemplative prayer is wordless, mysterious, silent and devoid of feelings, mental images and concepts – and even the ability to meditate. Boa explains, ‘This is a discipline of silence, of loss of control, of abandoning the attempt to analyse and intellectualise, and of developing the intuitive faculties’ (Boa, p.21).
Yaconelli asserts that ‘in centring prayer we remove the temptation to spend our prayer time in thought and study’ (Y, p.88) and the best way to do that is by using a mantra. ‘Before you begin in prayer, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to be with God … Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal a word that is suitable for you. Examples include Jesus, Lord, Abba, Love, Mercy, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Shalom, and Amen’.
King offers his own version of this – what he calls respiratory prayers, which ‘are usually said in association with the breathing rhythm’ (King, p.122). In what he calls the ‘Jesus Prayer’ he gives these instructions: ‘With the inhale, pray the first part, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God”. With the exhale, pray the second part, “have mercy on me, a sinner”.’
No scriptural basis
These men assure us that centring prayer can be traced back to ‘the very beginnings of Christianity’. But when Yaconelli footnotes this statement he takes us back to the ‘Desert Fathers and Mothers’ of Roman Catholicism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not to the very beginnings of Christianity.
There were, in fact, mystics prior to the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation of this period but they were few and mysticism certainly was not a mainstream Christian practice. And when we examine the true ‘beginnings of Christianity’ as recorded in the New Testament, nothing resembling centring prayer can be found.
The only proof-texts Boa offers for contemplative prayer are Matthew 17:4-5, where the Father said, ‘This is my beloved Son with whom I am pleased; listen to him’, and Psalm 37:7: ‘Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him’.
Yaconelli’s only attempt to find a scriptural basis is a misrepresentation of Romans 8:26 – ‘Yet God often communicates [with us] in sighs too deep for words’. None of these verses speak of anything remotely resembling contemplative prayer.
The path of mysticism
Yaconelli, Youth Specialties, Zondervan and a horde of others want to take our young people down this path. Incredibly, some Christian ministries are introducing mysticism to small children.
NavPress, the publishing arm of the Navigators, produced a curriculum aimed at children ages 7 to 12 entitled Pray Kids! Issue 25 is devoted to contemplative prayer. One article recommends praying the Lectio Divina and tells the children to ‘be still before God. Get a picture of a sunset in your mind or something else he has made that amazes you. Wait quietly to let him tell you about himself’.
Our children are now being led by a once respectable ministry down the path of mysticism.
Yaconelli supplies an appendix showing the supposed superiority of contemplative youth ministry over other approaches. He stereotypes biblically-oriented youth ministries as complacent, conforming, dogmatic, indoctrinating, regurgitating and institutional.
On the other hand he claims that contemplative-oriented youth ministry is loving, informed, the way of Jesus, reflective, and seeking the living God.
Sounds great, but contemplative youth ministry fails one very important test – the test of Scripture.
1. Mike King, Presence-centered youth ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2006) p.25.
2. Kenneth Boa, The Trinity, a Journal (NavPress, 2001) p.13.