Downtime by Mark Yaconelli

Mark Yaconelli constantly challenges me with his writing. I’m not, generally speaking, a contemplative person. That isn’t to say that I don’t think deeply about things. I very much enjoy thinking, but just being? That’s another thing altogether. Mark’s constantly call to a spirituality that is deep and ever-deepening is much needed in youth ministry and, if I’m honest, in my own life.

After a very busy summer in which I realized that I, my leaders and our students needed time with God, not more stuff to do, I picked up Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray. I’m fairly familiar with Yaconelli’s other two books Contemplative Youth Ministry and Growing Souls, and I hope to read Wonder, Fear and Longing soon. What struck me most about Downtime is the extent to which it really is a how-to kind of book.

That isn’t to say that Mark’s other books are all theory, far from it. But Downtime has a decidedly “this is something to might try,” vibe to it. This really makes it a great resources to have on your shelf. The first three chapters serve as a kind of introduction concerned with helping us prepare to encounter God. The overall title of this section is “Slowing to the Speed of God,” and I can’t think of a better metaphor for what Mark is trying to explain. It really is about slowing down and walking beside God.

The remainder of the book consists of chapters which outline various prayer exercises surrounding a particular theme. So, for instance, chapter ten talks about rest. Mark starts the chapter out with a story and a question: What if I designed retreats and exercises in which young people were encouraged to pray be sleeping? He then goes on to discuss our tendency to over-schedule retreats. He shares a story about a time when he led a workshop and asked attendees to take a 30 minute nap.

In chapter twelve, Mark talks about what it might look like if we were to view eating as a form of prayer. Once again, this is accompanied by various stories and examples of what this might look like, as well as an excellent discussion regarding fasting and students. This format is repeated for ever chapter in the book and is the primary reason why the book is so helpful.

Although this isn’t a book that I think makes a great introduction to Mark’s ideas (for that, check out Contemplative Youth Ministry) it is certainly a book worth having on your shelf and worth looking at often.

Fall Retreat: From the Other Side

A couple weeks ago I posted some thoughts on our upcoming middle school retreat. Our Fall Retreat has come and gone, and I’m happy to say that it was a wonderful time. It wasn’t perfect, and there are things I would change if I could go back, but it truly went well.

After I had processed through some of the thoughts in my previous post I made a decision to further loosen the free time on Saturday afternoon. Essentially, we gave students the entire afternoon “off” from programming. We brought a bunch of board games, one student brought string and beads, and we just spent time together. Some of us spent time playing on swings, or walking around the beautiful paths that wound through the camp. Some of us played chess, while others made bracelets, and others walked a prayer path. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I was a little concerned that students would be bored.

What I find so interesting, however, is that this time is one of the most talked about aspects of the retreat. Leaders loved the freedom to be with students, and all the students I’ve talked with so far enjoyed the opportunity to simply enjoy themselves, relax and experience God in the moment. Lest I misrepresent things, please don’t believe that the entire afternoon was some kind of spiritual experience for every student. It wasn’t, at least not in the sense we normally think of when we think of spiritual experiences. But it was a time to rest, a time of sabbath.

Once again, it wasn’t a perfect retreat. There are several aspects of the retreat I think could have been tweaked to improve it further (and by improve, I mean help students connect with God and one another at deeper levels). But the best decision I could have made was to set aside formal programming and simply allow all of us to be with one another. After I have some more time to process I’m sure I’ll have more substantive thoughts on what could have been improved. But for the moment, I am extremely pleased to have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of the retreat just chilling with some of the most amazing middle school students on the planet.

Youth Ministry Retreats

This weekend we head out on our fall retreat with the guys and girls in our middle school ministry. I’ve been looking forward to the retreat for several weeks now. It’ll be a great chance to connect with students, build relationships and share life. Over the past several weeks I’ve been reflecting on retreats and why we do them and I’ve had to confront a thought that I have found myself confronting often over the past several months: why do we always have to keep students busy?

Jeff Dunn recently shared his experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani. It’s very interesting to me that he found the silence to be too loud. At the risk of sounding too much like Mark Yaconelli, do we fear offering students the opportunity to experience silence? Jeff talks about spending time simply reading the Gospel of John or sitting in the shade of a tree. It sounds to me like what he is describing is sabbath, arguably one of the central purposes of a retreat. But in my experience youth ministry retreats, whether of the week-long summer variety or the weekend school year variety, are often just as busy as the rest of our overstimulated lives.

I wonder what it would look like if instead of a busy retreat weekend we created space for students to relax, be themselves, unwind and perhaps experience God in the rest of sabbath and in one another. Instead of a schedule that merely allows for a couple hours free time on Saturday afternoon, what if our retreats instead focused on a rhythm of morning, noon and evening prayer and allowed our students to spend the rest of the time resting, playing, and encountering God in ways that connected the best with them. What if the proportion of downtime and programmed time were flipped, with a few hours of the weekend devoted to program and the majority devoted to free time, rest, silence, reading, running, sitting in the shade of a tree, praying, talking and otherwise connecting with God and one another. What if we started the morning with prayer and then offered students the opportunity to find a place to be alone, read a passage of Scripture and reflect on it? My guess is that they would actually engage more fully with that Scripture than they would in a more tightly programmed context.

My suspicion is that if we were to really think about it, we don’t fully trust our students to connect with God on their own. If we can program things we can both ensure they’re having fun and being entertained, and also assuage our own conscience by ensuring that there are times devoted to more spiritual pursuits. But if our efforts at helping them connect to God simply create more busyness, maybe we’ve missed the entire point of a retreat. I don’t know the students in anyone else’s ministry, but my students need rest more than anything else. They are constantly going, constantly doing, constantly being measured and constantly busy. No wonder our students have trouble connecting to God; they don’t have the time to sit and hear his voice.

Personally, I think that if we made holy leisure a part of our retreats, we might find that students have an easier time connecting with God. Lest I be accused of being lazy, I’m not proposing this as an excuse for us as leaders to avoid planning. In some ways I imagine this might take more planning and thought. This isn’t just about going on a retreat and ignoring all of the important aspects of preparation that go into a retreat. But maybe a little less stress on our part in terms of moving from one thing to the next might help us be more present with our students.

Even in the midst of all this reflection, our middle school retreat looks very similar to most others I’ve seen. We’ve loosened the schedule in some ways, and tried to provide a large amount of free time on Saturday afternoon, but not to the degree I’ve proposed here. I still think it will be an excellent retreat, and maybe middle school students need more structure than high school students (though I fear that sounds too much like an excuse to my ears), but maybe we’ll find that the most important parts of the retreat are when we are simply being with students.

In the future I hope to integrate larger amounts of silence, rest and free time into our retreats, even if only as experiments. Returning to the core of what a retreat is about is precisely what our students need. I suppose I have to be willing to put my money where my mouth is.