Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray
Mark Yaconelli. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 288 pages.
For most people, living in today’s North American society means embracing a fast-paced lifestyle in which they are constantly bombarded by entertainment, activities, and technology. Adolescents are no exception; if anything, the world of a typical teenager moves at an even faster rate than that of most adults. As churches attempt to reach into the world of young people, their programs tend to reflect the consumerist culture that their youth are coming from. Youth events filled with fun activities and the latest technology is only one of the ways youth ministry attempts to draw in the youth culture. However, in Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray, Mark Yaconelli suggests that an action-packed approach is not what youth are looking for. His book explores a different way of looking at youth ministry and paints a counter-cultural picture of how to reach out to youth. His book promises to be compelling, inspiring, and challenging, even for the most experienced youth worker.
The book is based on the conviction that youth are yearning for space in which to slow down, that they are hungry for quiet and intimate encounters with God but do not know how to make them happen. Downtime comes as a response to Yaconelli’s perception of this longing among young people and focuses on how youth leaders and youth ministries can draw adolescents into a lifestyle of contemplation, reflection, and rest. He suggests that it is through engaging with God in prayer that people are able to most fully discover God in the deepest parts of their being. As Yaconelli states early in his introduction, “Downtime is a book about tending the life of prayer within young people.” For youth leaders who have a genuine desire to see the lives of young people transformed and who are willing to allow their own souls to be changed, this book is a must-read.
In the first three chapters, Yaconelli offers his views on “downtime” and prayer, the mystery that comes along with engaging youth with the Spirit of God, and what it means to walk alongside young people and lead them into prayer. These chapters beautifully blend theological and practical insights as they present the thoughts and testimonies of both the author and other sources, including young people. In the remaining chapters, Yaconelli outlines seventeen different ways of approaching prayer in a contemplative way, touching on everything from the timeless practice of Lectio Divina to the age-old prayer of the Awareness Examen. Yaconelli shows how every aspect of our lives, from eating to sleeping, can be handed over to God and transformed into a time of prayer. By using personal stories and presenting practical ways of engaging in different prayer practices, Yaconelli demonstrates how youth events can become sacred spaces that encourage youth to slow down and become fully present to their Creator.
Downtime is unique among other youth resource books in addressing the need to know God’s presence as it exists both within youth and their leaders. Yaconelli stresses that in order to lead youth into a deeper relationship with Jesus, leaders must be equally persistent in tending their own souls. This emphasis addresses one of the universal challenges to those in leadership—Practice what you preach. The first three chapters of the book point youth leaders in the direction of nurturing prayer first within themselves, and each of the following prayer practices are framed by the importance of implementing them in their own lives before introducing them to youth. This aspect of Downtime moves it from a surface level resource book to one that can, if leaders let it, be transformative of their own souls.
Mark Yaconelli has opened wide some exciting new doors when it comes to engaging youth with prayer. However, his direct and unbridled passion for implementing a contemplative approach that has transformed many youth ministries may, at the same time, turns others away. Yaconelli suggests that in a busy world, youth need silence, empty space, quiet prayer, and holy moments facilitated by things such as candles and Taize music. The question remains how to move young people from the whirlwind of their lives to the slow rhythm of contemplation that Yaconelli presents. Perhaps the first step toward that end is simply for a church to be willing to step out in faith and invite their youth to engage in a new kind of prayer. Maybe all that youth need is the space and permission to stop.
Teenage Christians are overflowing with the creative and dynamic energy of the Spirit of God, but Yaconelli is certainly right when he says that the only way they will be able to fully tap into that Spirit is through a life of prayer. His book will challenge, convict, and inspire youth leaders to work towards recognizing the beauty of Christ within their teenagers and to seek new ways of creating space for it to grow and develop. Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray should find its way onto every youth leader’s bookshelf.