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.

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Orinary Radicals

As I’ve been thinking about worship, liturgy and youth ministry (see here and here) I’ve also been reflecting on my own practice of prayer. As I’ve mentioned before, this summer I decided to seriously expand the practice of prayer in my own life. As we were talking with students about Christian practices it just seemed right that I ought to continue to develop those practices in my own life.

I had experimented with fixed-hour prayer in the past. I’d primarily used Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours, though I’ve also used the morning and evening prayer rites from the BCP. At the beginning of the summer I added compline to my normal prayer routine, and by midsummer I decided to expand to morning and evening prayer. As I was looking for a simple, helpful, manageable prayer book I stumbled upon Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro.

As it turns out, Common Prayer is pretty much all the things I was looking for in a prayer book. I’ve found many of the side-bars personally challenge, which is nice, but the primary reason I find the book so helpful is that it sets out to be a simple prayer book that can be used either individually or corporately. I’ve been using Common Prayer for several weeks as my primary prayer book. To be honest, at times I find it challenging to force myself to take a chunk of time and pray. It’s one of the reasons I’ve found fixed-hour prayer a helpful practice. As I’ve recited the prayers in this book there has not been a time when I haven’t come away refreshed–lest I give the wrong impression, this is entirely a work of the Holy Spirit, not Shane or the other authors, nevertheless that means this book is doing what it’s supposed to: helping me connect with God and then getting out of the way.

Common Prayer is split into several sections. The first is a lengthy introduction to the book, liturgy and the practice of fixed-hour prayer. The introduction is well written and helpful to those who have never attempted the practice of fixed-hour prayer before as well as those who have found it to be an important part of their spiritual lives. Next is a section of seven evening prayers, one for each night of the week. That means that each Sunday one recites the same prayer, each Monday the same prayer, etc. I find this immensely helpful since it establishes a weekly rhythm in my prayer life. Next is a section of morning prayers, one for each day of the year with a small section devoted specifically to Holy Week (which will fall on various calendar weeks). Following this there is a single Noon time prayer, to be said each day. I’ve personally found noon prayers to be the most difficult of the commonly practiced hours to establish in my own life, but I haven’t given up hope. The book concludes with a brief selection of prayers for various occasions and a songbook.

If you have never tried developing a practice of fixed-hour prayer, I highly recommend Common Prayer as a place to start. If you are familiar with fixed-hour prayer and find the practice helpful, I highly recommend this book. I’ve actually begun using selections from the evening prayers during our Wednesday evening worship time with students. So far, they have been quite helpful.

Post Famine Thoughts

I’m still processing through my thoughts and reactions to the 30 Hour Famine. At present, I feel like it was neither exactly what I had hoped nor exactly what I had feared. On the positive side, I was able to speak with several students and get to know them better than I did before. This is always a huge win in my book, since I think that relationships are the basis for, well, life. We also had plenty of fun and good times as we chatted, played video games, learned card games and otherwise just enjoyed one another’s company.

The spiritual aspects of the event, however, were completely lost on the students. At least, I feel like they were. I’ve done youth ministry long enough to know that most likely one or two students picked up on a couple of things. This is the most disappointing aspect of the event for me. I attempted to set a rhythm of prayer every couple hours. The idea was we would gather, share a little, pray, and spend a few moments just being with God. This didn’t work out. Perhaps I was too idealistic in my expectations (always a possibility). Perhaps the students just completely weren’t into it. Perhaps God had other plans. Whatever the reason, the students didn’t pray, didn’t express a desire to pray, and these times ended up being me and one or two of the other leaders praying for a couple minutes until we released the students back to their “festivities.”

So, the famine succeeded in raising some money (though less than I might have hoped) and in allowing all of us some time to just raise awareness, have fun together, hang out, and otherwise be a community. It, unfortunately, lacked the spiritual emphasis for which I had hoped. It is times like this when I wonder if rethinking youth ministry, trying to do things differently, is really worth it. I could run this youth ministry as a typical evangelical youth ministry, and we would have easily triple the number of students we have now, in just a couple months. We’d have high energy events. I might even pick up a few “Jesus Freak” students who are “on fire for Jesus.” Yet I know, that at least in my experience, such things don’t work. They are shallow. Still, it’s difficult to run a youth ministry differently. Perhaps I need to let me thoughts coagulate for a day or two and devote a post to this topic.

An Update on the 30 Hour Famine

A few weeks ago I made a post about the 30 Hour Famine and some of the reasons students in my youth ministry planned on coming, or not coming, to it. Many of you responded with a variety of thoughts and suggestions on how to proceed. The overwhelming majority suggested that I not cancel the famine. As a result of the encouragement and advice I received here, we’re still doing the famine.

A variety of things have happened over the past several weeks. Interestingly enough, most of the students who wanted it to be all about fun have decided not to participate this year. I didn’t encourage them not to participate. Apparently last year wasn’t as exciting as they had hoped, and so they don’t want to risk this year being lame as well. At least, that’s my understanding at present. With a couple of the students I think there are some other issues that I want to track down, but as a generalization the above works. As a result of this, most of those attending are actually interested in more than just having a good time. With that in mind, and because it’s going to be a fairly small group this year, we are going to run a low-key event. We’ll spend some time in prayer every two hours, so that we have a general rhythm to the event. Beyond that, I want the event to feel more like spending the weekend at a friend’s house. Intimate, fun, but not exactly a huge party. I’d be open to suggestions and ideas, though I’ve pretty much put together the itinerary already.

Ultimately I hope this weekend turns out to be a time where we can get to know each other better, have some fun, pray for one another, for the children that our church sponsors in Haiti, for children around the world, and hopefully connect with Jesus. We’ll see how it goes, and next Sunday or Monday I’ll make a final update.

Of prayer and flagpoles

I know that things like See You At The Pole have been discussed in the youth ministry blogosphere before, but David Opderbeck, at his excellent blog Through a Glass Darkly, has made a post on the topic. Anything David writes is normally worth reading so you should really consider adding him to your RSS reader. Regardless of your decision on that matter, the question of Christian students praying at the flag pole is an important one, because of the underlying topics it touches on.

Although I haven’t had an experience exactly like David, last September I found it extremely interesting when the students in my youth ministry were talking about SYATP. They seemed to view it as a sort of witness to their faith. What was fascinating though, is that when I talked to them after the event they were amazed at who showed up. I heard many things like, “I didn’t realize so and so was a Christian.” I’m sure those same students were at their youth event talking to their youth pastor saying, “I didn’t realize [insert name from my YM] was a Christian.” It is this, I think, that makes meeting at flagpoles questionable as a “witnessing” tactic. I think we need to start with a lifestyle, before we go gathering around flagpoles.

David’s final paragraph words the question in a different way. Do such things really just make other students perceive Christian students as incredibly weird? If a student just shows up at a flagpole, but doesn’t living missionally otherwise, I’m forced to assume that it the flagpole thing is only going to make that person appear doubly weird. They don’t normally act Christian, but they do some these things on occasion? Mixed signals. On the other hand, some students are always going to see anything “Christian” as weird. Beyond that, now I’ve gotten us into a discussion on what really constitutes “acting Christian,” and there are a host of disagreements in that area.

Students and Youth Ministry Ownership

Tim has a great post on helping students take ownership of their youth ministry. I have some comments to make, and I thought rather than take up several paragraphs in his comment box I’d just post them here. Some background first, anyone who has been reading this blog regularly knows that we have just gone through some changes in our “main event” on Wednesday nights at the ministry I pastor. So this is something important to me, something that I’ve been thinking about, and something I think we (ie, the youth ministry blogosphere) needs to discuss.

First, I agree very much with time in his three steps. Students will have no interest in ministry if they don’t have relationships. It’s extremely important for us as youth workers to be diligent in developing those relationships. However, as I’m sure Tim would agree, we can’t develop them expressly for the purpose of getting these teens to work in our youth ministries. That is called using people. Which I think happens all too often in youth ministry when we begin discussing “ownership.” Too often what a youth pastor wants when she says “ownership” is actually “free labor.” We need to be cautious and check our motivations for wanting students to have ownership. The other two steps that Tim lists out are good as well. I remember Chris Seavey, in my undergraduate work, having two similar steps that he recommended. Something like having them join you in basic stuff (setting up chairs, sound tests, that kind of thing), then joining you in more “advanced” things (leading games or worship, being in charge of a section of an event), and then release them to do those things on their own.

Second, Tim mentions that jumping to #3 doesn’t work, and he’s absolutely right. We can’t just drop something in a students’ lap and expect them to want to own it, much less do well at owning it. It’s a process, and as all things in ministry (and life) it takes time. Now, I’m an impatient person, so I’d much prefer if we could just be like…”Okay, here ya go. Run with that.” Sometimes there are students in a youth ministry who are ready for that. If so, they are normally ready because they have had time to get ready, and people have worked with them to help them to that point.

Third, I’d like to add something to what Tim has said. He mentions this at the beginning of his post, but I think it deserves more attention. We need to make sure we are defining what we mean by ownership. We need to have tangible things of which students can take ownership. I think these “things,” whatever they are, need to be verbally defined as well as logically a unit over which someone could have ownership. Case-in-point, at our Wednesday night event we have a prayer room each week. This is something we’ve started very recently. The point of this prayer room is to allow students to, at any point in the night, take some time to just sit silently with God. At present the setup for the room is fairly basic. Over time my hope is that students will step forward and own that part of our Wednesday night gathering. I have verbally explained this, and it is a logical unit that students can wrap their minds around (as opposed to the intangible idea of “ownership of the youth group”). Another example, we do a time of Scripture reading on Wednesday nights. Again, my hope is that over time (and this is actually already beginning to happen) students will step forward and read the scripture passage for the week. Over the long-term I hope to involve students in selecting the passages to be read, and my real hope is that eventually I can step out of the teaching to some extent and allow students that role.

In fact, we have designed our Wednesday night program to include a number of logical units that we hope will eventually be “owned” by students. Scripture reading, explanation of the reading (ie, teaching), activity (to reinforce the topic), prayer time, discussion time. Before those things we have a time to hang out where students can play video games or use the prayer room, play card games or board games, or just hang out and munch on some snacks. Potentially each of these logical units could be owned by a student or group of students (taking care of setting up snacks and making sure there are enough, choosing and running the games for a given week, etc).

I’m not saying that the way we have chosen to configure our mid-week gathering is the perfect way. But I do think it incorporates something very important in helping students take ownership of a youth ministry. That “something” is allowing them to see, in very tangible ways, the things of which we are asking them to take ownership. Certainly, this needs to come after relationship building, as Tim has correctly pointed out. I do think it needs to come eventually though, and we need to be explicit in our expectations. Maybe this is one of those things to file under openness and authenticity.

Ooze Book Reviews: A Short and Easy Method of Prayer

I had the opportunity last month to become a member of the Ooze Select Blogger network. If you aren’t familiar with The Ooze, just click here. I enjoy many of the articles and discussions that take place over there. I’ll admit I’ve had less time than I’d like during the semester to keep up to date, but I digress. As part of this network, I receive books to review, which is an absolutely incredible thing. The first book review that I’m doing as part of this blogger network is A Short and Easy Method of Prayer by Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon. Now, the question is: does this book have anything going for it beyond the incredibly cool name of the author?

The answer is: sorta. First, any reader needs to keep in mind that this is a translation of the original French. Beyond that the original book was written in the 17th century, so to say that it is legacy would perhaps be an understatement. I’ve developed an interest in reflective practices over the past several years. In that regard, Madame Guyon’s book serves as a decent introduction to contemplative prayer. She has several absolutely pithy statements throughout the book. One of these is plastered on the back cover: “Prayer is the application of the heart to God, and the internal exercise of love.”

I found myself vacillating as I read the book as to whether or not it was worth reading. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that it is worth reading as an introduction to contemplative prayer, though perhaps that really isn’t the correct designation as she advocates a complete ceasing, and normally contemplative prayer, although advocating ceasing, at least begins with some type of contemplation of, er, something. There are a few things I do disagree with strongly:

1. She likes the internal a bit more than I do. That is to say, I think reason and contemplation work together, hand in hand, each informing the other. Madame Guyon would like us very much to throw reason out the window, or so it would seem. Take for instance, this comment, “Compose catechisms particularly to teach prayer, not by reasoning nor by method, for the simple are incapable thereof; but to teach the prayer of the heart, not of the understanding; the prayer of God’s Spirit, not of man’s invention.” Strong words indeed! Words that I fundamentally disagree with. I think the heart and understanding, reason and contemplation, can — indeed must! — work hand in hand as we live our lives. I think it is simply wrong to draw such a strong dichotomy between the head and the heart.
2. She was thrown into prison shortly after this work was originally completed. Normally that would be an almost immediate “buy it yesterday” in my book. However, my guess is that she was thrown into prison for her views on union with God. Those views are, shall we say…interesting. To be concise, Madame Guyon basically says we need to get rid of our own soul and be filled with God’s. To some extent I agree. We do need to give up ourselves, and in so doing allow the Holy Spirit to mold and shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. However, I got the feeling that Guyon didn’t mean what I want her to mean — though I could be wrong.

I need to mention some of the positives of the book though. Not because I’m required to, but because I think that some really do exist. For starters, the manuscript really encourages the reader to rest. To just stop being, stop doing, and rest in God. I think there are few things that the American church needs more than learning to stop and rest in God (I suppose one of those things would be getting a bit of that “reason” and “understanding” that Madame Guyon dislikes). For that bit alone the book is worth about half the Amazon price. She also has a section that is insightful in regards to confession. It’s almost, though not quite, insightful enough to make up the rest of the Amazon price.

Ultimately, should you buy this book? Eh. That depends entirely on what you’d like to read. If you’ve an interest in contemplative prayer or 17th Century French mystics, than sure. But if you already have a basic idea of what contemplative prayer entails, there are probably better books out there to purchase.