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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 18–25 

Youth Encountering God

Abram Bergen

“I feel I have not been connected to you lately. I feel I have been caught up in a life of sin, and I want to say that today was the first day I felt close to you again and I just wanted to say thanks for the time together and I hope there is more to come.”

Ancient prayer practices need to become an essential aspect of ministry to youth in Mennonite congregations.

“It is so hard to make you the centre right now and I wish that wasn’t true. Through this labyrinth, I relearned what a supporter, friend, guide and Creator you are. Forgive me for putting you on the backburner while my problems, my stresses, my social life went before. You are such an important part of my life and I am so lucky to have the opportunity to get to know you because of my church, family and friends. Please help me to turn to you when I’m hurt, upset, stressed and happy as well. Please help me to remember this labyrinth and what it’s taught me. Please let this inspire me to turn to you more.”

“God, really, you are all that matters. Nothing else. Help me remember this. Help me know you and keep faith in you. Help me grow. Help me be strong. Live in me. Live through me.” {19}
“You’re awesome. I look around me and all I see is what you’ve created. Amazing. I love and thank you for all this.”

“I don’t know how I could possibly express in words the peace and humbleness I felt on this journey. Letting go of my fears and troubles, getting rid of the burdens so I could be myself in God. I have never in my life been so at peace with myself. Thank you, Lord, for all this. I love you with all my heart, soul and mind. Yours forever in Christ.”

The above entries were written by different junior and senior high youth of my home congregation in Winnipeg, Manitoba, while in a “lock-in” experience during November 2001. The resource we used was The Prayer Path: A Christ-Centered Labyrinth Experience. 1 The labyrinth is an ancient prayer practice designed to bring persons into a personal encounter with God. It is a journey of prayer with three main parts to it: (1) the inward journey—letting go of the barriers and busyness that stand between us and God; (2) the middle of the labyrinth—meeting God, centering on God, reflecting on God’s truth and love, contemplating in quietness, and (3) the outward journey—taking the message received from God and integrating it into daily life. 2

A POSTMODERN CULTURE

More than ever, young people are seeking to encounter God. A postmodern mind-set has created a desire in the younger generation to experience things firsthand rather than simply be told what to believe and how to live. It is not enough for them to believe God exists, to learn about God, or to hear about other people’s encounters with God. They want to experience the presence of God and know God on a personal level.

In the Modern age, knowledge and reason led to truth. Apologetics were used to argue the truth of the Bible. In the Postmodern age, thinking is no longer linear (if A and B, then C), but multifaceted. In order for something to be true, it has to be experienced and relevant. Truth is no longer objective, absolute, and transcendent. Instead, truth has become subjective and a matter of personal preference. No consensus exists with respect to truth. Individualism pervades, and people define truth according to their experiences within the context of their particular community or group.

Christianity is one of many truths out there. The notion of absolute moral truth has been replaced by a relativistic view of right and wrong. {20} Something may be considered morally right if it works. Tolerance has become an important value, and diversity is celebrated. Little significance is placed on success, perfection, or the destination. Meaning is found in the journey, in experiences that are authentic and real.

In a 2000 survey, seventy-three percent of teens surveyed claimed they believed in God, while thirty-six percent said they had felt the presence of God or a higher power. 3 An ongoing concern for church leaders is that only twenty-one percent claimed to receive enjoyment from organized religion. 4 How would youths’ experience of the church or religion be different if they could know God on a personal level?

In the past, the Protestant church has emphasized the importance of right doctrine and ethics. Personal experiences were suspect for being too subjective and unreliable. Emotionalism was not to be trusted since intensity of feelings dissipates, and emotions are thus deemed as having no enduring value.

In order to reach youth, we must begin with their context and needs. Starting where they are and with methods they are receptive to can lead them to discovering and living the truths of the gospel. Is there a way for youth to encounter God, to become open to the truth of God, and to become personally transformed by the power of that experience?

A NEW PARADIGM EMERGES

Through the Youth Ministry Spirituality Project, Mark Yaconelli and colleagues have found a way to bring youth into God’s presence by introducing them to ancient Christian practices of silence, solitude, and meditative prayer. This new paradigm emerged from happenstance and necessity. Mark was serving a congregation as their “charismatic” youth leader. For three years he had been working seventy to eighty hours per week, running a dynamic, entertainment-driven youth program. On the verge of burnout, a friend suggested he attend a spiritual formation retreat led by Morton Kelsey. After three days of silence, prayer practices, and biblical meditation, his life was changed. He was overwhelmed by God’s love and acceptance and felt that his ministry could not remain as it was.

Mark became convinced of two things. First, that the starting point in youth ministry is to provide the space, time, and tools for teens to encounter God rather than focus on excitement and fun. Without a personal experience with God, Mark believes that the biblical teaching and dynamic programs carry little faith-shaping power. Second, Mark realized that adults are in no position to assist youth in their encounter with God unless they themselves are meeting God regularly in prayer and {21} meditation. In the spiritual realm, it is impossible for adults to take youth places where they have not been. 5

As a result, the central focus of Mark’s youth ministry changed. He began by inviting adults to become a spiritual community, to share their lives and open themselves to the Spirit of God. Through prayer practices, they were able to focus on what God was doing in the world and discern how they could become part of that ministry. More time was spent aligning themselves with the purposes of God than organizing exciting “crowd breakers” and dynamic programming ideas.

Soon youth were asking God to reveal to them moments of grace through the Awareness Examine, a meditative prayer technique developed by St. Ignatius, a bishop in the early church. Participants are invited to think back over a specific period of time (e.g., a day or a week), and become aware of the times when God’s love and grace were experienced as well as times when they was blocked. Awareness of being distant from God, and other times moving toward God, makes it possible to savor the blessings and learn about what had blocked God’s love from their lives.

Lectio Divina became a form of biblical meditation that opened youth to hear what God was saying to them through the reading of the Scriptures. In this practice, a passage of Scripture (usually a short passage) is read two or three times in an unhurried way. During the first reading, participants are asked to listen for a word or phrase that “disturbs” or “compels” and are instructed to repeat this word or phrase to themselves. During the second and third readings, participants reflect on how this word or phrase connects to their lives. After the readings and reflections, individuals are invited to share with each other what they have discovered.

Other prayer practices included repeating a “centering prayer” in a rhythmic way (e.g., “Be still and know that I am God”), going on a prayer walk while repeating a specific prayer, or participating in a guided meditation where participants imagine themselves in a biblical story.

The results were dramatic. Young people began to notice how God was present with them in their daily lives and in the problems that surrounded them. They started to get involved with problems that came into their consciousness and joined with God in responding to those needs. Youth leaders felt nourished and supported through these practices and were less prone to burnout. They began to trust God and the church rather than rely only on their own abilities. Many who had considered leaving their ministry responsibilities decided to stay. Congregations who adopted this approach experienced spiritual renewal, not only {22} among the youth, but also in the entire congregation as those involved in youth ministry transported these prayer practices into other areas of their involvement. 6

WHAT ABOUT MENNONITE THEOLOGY?

The prayer practices of silence, solitude, and contemplation grew out of the desert tradition of the fourth and fifth centuries. Many Christians fled to the desert to escape the conforming temptations of the world and to allow their hearts and minds to be shaped by the will of God. Through the spiritual disciplines that were developed, they encountered God and opened themselves to God’s transforming power.

Monasticism emerged from the desert tradition, and these practices became accessible to priests and acceptable in the church. The art of spiritual direction was refined and its practice formalized. Spiritual guides sought to teach spiritual disciplines through individual relationships. In the medieval church, monasticism became the spiritual ideal for persons of faith. Growing to fullness in Christ through constant devotion to God became a vocation for a minority of committed men and women who joined religious orders.

The Reformation changed the religious elitism of the medieval church. The Bible was translated into the vernacular and became accessible to the average person. Spiritual disciplines were also brought into the reach of everyone. Discipleship became a central emphasis in the Anabaptist understanding of the Christian faith. Following Christ was a response to the love and mercy shown by God and needed to be shaped and nurtured by the spirituality of the community.

ANABAPTISM AND PIETISM

According to Peter Erb, the most significant influence on Anabaptist Spirituality since the Reformation came late in the eighteenth century through the Pietist movement. This religious development stressed an experientially-oriented faith which included a new birth, repentance for sins, and an active devotional life. 7 Was there affinity to this movement due to Menno Simons’ emphasis on conversion and personal piety over two centuries earlier? Or was it a corrective to the strong discipleship emphasis of early Anabaptism, which directed the believer outward to a world of service and neglected development of inner spiritual resources?

Major differences surfaced between Anabaptism and Pietism. First, Anabaptists believed that new birth and inner transformation should not remain an end in itself—it had to be expressed in a life of love and service. Second, they rejected an individualistically-oriented theology in {23} favor of a communal one. An individual needed to decide personally whether to submit to the rule of Christ. Once that initial decision was made, the faith community was expected to provide the resources for holy living.

MENNONITES AND THE NEW PARADIGM

Prayer practices, as they are being revived through the Youth Ministry Spirituality Project, are indeed compatible with a Mennonite/Anabaptist spirituality. Not only so, but they need to become an essential aspect of ministry to youth and their families in Mennonite congregations for the following three reasons. First, discipleship requires a constant nurturing of the inner spirit. Without such attention, internal resources are depleted and burnout is inevitable. Working for peace and justice, serving others, and reaching out to those who are not in relationship with God are demanding and exhausting initiatives. Without an intentional, ongoing connection with God, actions simply remain “our efforts” rather than what God is doing through us. Spirituality requires a constant aligning of our spirit with God’s Spirit so that our engagement in service and mission remain aligned with God’s intention. The extent and effectiveness of outward-directed discipleship is proportional to the depth of our inner resources and our connectedness to God’s Spirit.

Second, spiritual practices are holistic. They appeal not only to intellectual or emotional capacities but encourage participants to make their whole beings available to God. In Lectio Divina the mind is engaged when the text is read, and the listener is also encouraged to open his or her heart to what God is saying through the text. The labyrinth prayer path engages the body as well as the mind and heart. Mennonites have always been concerned about being holistic and not compartmentalizing life. Spiritual practices that enable the integration of life and faith should be welcome in the Mennonite church.

Third, present culture saturates everyone with many life-negating and contradictory messages. A consensus of values and ethics no longer exists. The media has become an all-pervasive force in the lives of all, and has been particularly confusing and even damaging to the younger generation. Mennonite youth have become part of mainstream culture and are as vulnerable to the influences of present culture as are other teens in Canadian and U.S. society. The cohesiveness and influence of community life has been eroded, and Mennonite families are experiencing much stress. 8 In the noise and busyness that pervades life and pressures Mennonite Christians into the world’s mold, the voice of God is frequently drowned out. For those who wish to live God-centered lives, {24} it becomes important to slow down, become silent and listen to that “still small voice” in order that life might be shaped by God’s voice rather than the voices of our culture.

CONCLUSION

Postmodern culture has created a need for truth to be experienced and not simply learned abstractly. Youth have a renewed interest in the spiritual, in having authentic encounters with a living God in order to fill some of the spiritual voids they know are there. Prayer practices can make Christian faith relevant by creating the space and place for a personal relationship with God to be nurtured. These prayer practices bring Christian tradition and orthodox faith into the lives of a generation who are skeptical of formal religion. They have the potential of leading teens into an understanding of this timeless truth that has been passed down for many centuries. Through guidance they can be lead to discover the absolute truth claims of the gospel and realize their relevance.

Prayer practices keep God at the center of youth ministry. In the final analysis, youth ministry is not about organizing great events or even about attracting large numbers of youth to events that do not bring them closer to God. It is about learning what God is already doing in the world and joining in that ministry. It is about aligning our spirits with God’s Spirit so that youth and adults become more like Christ in their thoughts, desires, and actions.

In order to keep these prayer practices congruent with Mennonite faith and practice, two things are necessary. First, it is important to ensure that these experiences not become ends in themselves but lead to a deeper life of discipleship and faithfulness to God. Nurturing a vertical connection with God is primary for Christian spirituality. Without such an ongoing connection, the spirituality fostered might become anything but Christian, even to the extent that it remains essentially self-serving. Yet it is vital that a personal connection with God lead to a life of discipleship that includes ethical living, striving for peace and justice, reaching out to others with the gospel, and serving humanity.

Second, while there are personal dimensions to these prayer practices, all individualistic experiences must be balanced with communal sharing and discernment. Personal encounters with God and insights received during times of silence and meditation must be tested within the faith community: processed with other youth and adults who are also being attentive to the work of the Spirit in their lives.

In addition, all congregations need to remember that engaging youth in these prayer practices will be effective insofar as these practices are {25} part of the ongoing life and discipline of the entire congregation. Someone has said, “A dead hen does not hatch live chicks.” If adults who work with youth are not growing as a vibrant faith community, they will not be able to lead youth into a vibrant relationship with God. However, when youth and adults together remain focused on God and are nurtured by God’s Spirit and encouraged by one another, lives will be transformed in ways we may not expect or imagine.

NOTES

  1. The Prayer Path: A Christ-Centered Labyrinth Experience (Loveland, CO: Group, 2001).
  2. Ibid., Leaders’ Guide, 12.
  3. Reginald W. Bibby, Canada’s Teens: Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow (Toronto, ON: Stoddart, 2001), 195.
  4. Ibid., 118.
  5. Mark Yaconelli, “Youth Ministry: A Contemplative Approach,” Christian Century, 21-28 April 1999, 451-52.
  6. Mark Yaconelli, “Ancient-Future Youth Ministry,” Group 25 (July/August 1999): 37-38.
  7. Peter C. Erb, “Anabaptist Spirituality,” in Protestant Spiritual Traditions, ed. Frank C. Senn (New York: Paulist, 1986), 50-51.
  8. Leo Driedger and Abe Bergen, “Roots and Wings: The Emergence of Mennonite Teens,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 13 (1995): 157.
Abram Bergen is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and teaches youth ministry courses there. For the past eleven years he has been involved in youth ministry for the General Conference Mennonite Church.

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