During the 2000s, youth ministry became increasingly enamored with contemplative practices. Many ministries traded disco balls, comfy couches, and messy games for candles, centering prayer, and a little lectio divina. Now, roughly a decade into this renaissance in spiritual practices, the glow has faded and many youth ministers are dusting off the mothballed games-and-glam approach while packing away the coffee, candles, and contemplation.
Has the contemplative approach to communicating the gospel been found wanting? In actuality, I’d suggest that despite dripping a lot of candle wax on the youth room carpet, many ministries that “went contemplative” never fully understood nor embraced the approach.
The aim of contemplative youth ministry is to “be attentive to God’s presence, discerning of the Spirit,” as a community that accompanies “young people on the way of Jesus.” No candles required.
The contemplative approach borrows generously from Christian monastics and mystics. Rather than placing emphasis on the actions of the teacher skilled in educational method, the contemplative approach casts the youth leader as the abbot charged with fostering an environment for listening to God. In monastic tradition, the role of the abbot is not primarily to impart knowledge, but to structure the life of the community for times of listening to God and one another in various forms of contemplative prayer, worship, dialogue, and action. Compare this to many forms of youth ministry in which the youth minister is perceived to function as both cruise ship recreation director and master teacher imparting the gospel and applying biblical truth to the lives of youth—a tall order to be sure.
The contemplative approach puts the focus on the work of the Holy Spirit as the teacher who speaks, guides, and forms us while we abide in God’s presence. The role of the youth worker is to alleviate distractions and anxiety, in order to allow the community to rest in God, listen to God, and follow God together.
In this approach, creating space for God becomes a main task of youth ministry. Ensuring that there are times of gathering as Christians for prayer and discernment away from the distraction of the world, but always sent back to the world, is central. Thus, while some other approaches are primarily concerned with applying biblical truth to young lives, or helping youth interpret their lives in light of the gospel story, the contemplative approach is concerned with helping youth be attentive to God. “We move away from anxious concern with creating entertaining programming or doctrinally sound instruction and toward a peaceful and prayerful attention to God’s presence in the lives of young persons.”
In this approach, the structure of youth meetings then becomes set by a “liturgy of discernment” designed to lead the group together toward shared space for discerning God’s voice and call. It is likely that such a liturgy will include times of silence, rest, meditation on scripture, reflection, and discussion of what God is showing, revealing, and doing. The liturgy often employs a host of historical spiritual practices from a variety of Christian traditions such as Ignatian awareness examen, lectio divina, centering prayer, Jesus prayer, and simple silence.
Far from banishing fun and craziness from youth ministry, Mark Yaconelli advocates for including in times of ministry anything that effectively opens youth to discerning the call of God. He writes specifically about one youth group that needed times of bowling together regularly in order to reduce anxiety and distractions and allow them to focus on God in their times of discernment together. The point is that the youth minister as abbot doesn’t include such times merely as a way to attract youth; rather, they’re included in order to properly structure the Sabbath rhythm of work, play, and rest and allow young people to be present and attentive to God.
For Further Reading:
Mark Yaconelli, Growing Souls
Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry
Mike King, Presence-Centered Youth Ministry
 Michael Hryniuk ,“The Journey of the Beloved: A Theology of Youth Ministry,” in Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry, edited by Mark Yaconelli.
 Michael Hryniuk ,“The Journey of the Beloved: A Theology of Youth Ministry,” in Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry, edited by Mark Yaconelli, 78
 Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry (Zondervan, 2006).
Click the links below to read the series in its entirety:
Communicating the Gospel to Youth: A Youth Ministry Course in a Nutshell
- Instructional Approach
- Community of Faith Approach
- Interpretive Approach
- Developmental Approach
- Liberation Approach
- Contemplative Approach
Andrew Zirschky (Ph.D. Princeton Seminary) is the Academic Director at the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Youth Ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary. He has more than 20 years of youth ministry experience. His book Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected But Alone Generation is available through Abingdon Press.