Episode II: Spiritual Disciplines and My Agenda.
The question many youth workers are now asking is can the spiritual disciplines help to bring depth to youth ministry? Do these disciplines help to provide better “mirrors” or at least clean some of the smudges off of our present ones? Prior to jumping headfirst into an answer to this question (which would not be uncharacteristic for a youth minister) a few preliminary definitions and clarifications should be offered.
What are Spiritual Disciplines?
In his book entitled Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald Whitney states “The Spiritual Disciplines are those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since Biblical times” (pg 17).
“Christian practices are the means through which Christians seek to respond to God’s invitations of love. They are the habits, disciplines, and patterns of life through which Christians seek communion with Christ and solidarity with others. Just as Paul invites the Ephesians to be “imitators of God,” Christian practices are the way in which Christians seek to imitate the intentions and patterns of Jesus Christ” (Chap Clark and others in Starting Right: Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry).
“Spiritual disciplines are practices that help us consciously to develop the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like an artist who wishes to develop painting skills, or an athlete who desires a strong and flexible body for the game, a person of faith freely chooses to adopt certain life patterns, habits, and commitments in order to grow spiritually” (Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life).
As with any word, phrase or handle that gains widespread popularity, the very term “spiritual disciplines” may soon begin to cause groans from those who are tired of hearing reference to what some believe is simply the next fad in pop-Christianity. However, as these definitions suggest, we are simply referring to the practices which become, or fail to become, a part of our life with God. In fact, the shift in emphasis may not be reflecting a search for new content, but rather an acknowledgement of the inadequate depth to which we have taken the current content. “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond the surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm” (Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline).
“We seek to come inside or under God’s Spirit – or to have God’s Spirit come inside us to dwell…In this way, Christians are no different than any other group or individual – we’re on a quest, we’re seekers… This search has driven countless men and women into the desert – we know them as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. It has driven others into monasteries and convents. Others have gone to the mission field or into caves or into communes to pursue a deeper communion with God. Some have sought it in community, others in seclusion.
Our age is not different. People are still seeking. The middle school and high school students with whom we work are foremost among those seekers” (Tony Jones, Soul Shaper: Exploring Spirituality and Contemplative Practices in Youth Ministry).
In my first post on this topic I introduced the metaphor of “mirrors”. I love metaphors, but their beauty is also their shortfall. They can mean so many things, they can be stretched and pulled and eventually become so convoluted as to have lost any usefulness. In our lives, these “mirrors” can be people, traditions, practices, ideologies, locations, etc. My hope in discussing these issues is not to define fully what mirrors we need, but rather to simply address one aspect of our development that has been – at least in the circles I’m familiar with – sadly overlooked.
What role can these traditional spiritual disciplines play in youth ministry if they are approached intentionally as a lifestyle rather than haphazard engagements with a foreign entity? Can our youth groups begin to take on a different identity? One where teens are not only introduced to the life of faith and encouraged to run with it, but where they are intentionally and unapologetically formed into something different than that which is all around them.
I’ve known lots of very well intentioned ministers who sought to develop a program where teens would feel comfortable inviting their non-Christian friends. This would be a place to hang out where you’re not pressured or really confronted with anything. As long as you kept the cussing and fighting to a minimum, feel free to play all the ping-pong and playstation you like. I’m very much in favor of meeting these kids on their turf and not expecting them to behave like little monks. But I can’t honestly say, as I have heard from some, that I want to build a relationship with no agenda. I HAVE AN AGENDA! I believe that this agenda is more important than anything else in the world! My agenda is to share the extremely freaking good news that has come to give us a way out of the crap that we are tangled up in!
My personal experience with spiritual disciplines has taught me a lot about living in a fallen world. I am much more capable of being at peace when I am regularly practicing my faith with others. So how does this translate into the world of the youth group?
Links to books referred to in this post:
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life - Donald Whitney
Starting Right: Thinking Theologically About Youth Ministry - Chap Clark
Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life - Marjorie Thompson
Celebration of Discipline - Richard Foster
Soul Shaper: Exploring Spirituality and Contemplative Practices in Youth Ministry - Tony Jones