Ministry implications from the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project

Editor’s Note: This synopsis was written as part of a Lilly Foundation grant to the Center for Youth Ministry Training.

The Research in a Nutshell

What does it look like to do youth ministry within a culture where the anxious voice of society is often listened to over the voice of God?  What happens when the church bends to the strong arm of consumerism?  Where are youth pastors who can no longer draw from the “well” for all the material expectations blocking access?
When approaches to ministry are shaped by the dominant culture, the inevitable results are “practical, rational, efficient, productive, measurable, and hip” youth ministries.  A “successful” youth ministry is one where a high-octane youth pastor, who is in touch with culture is hired so the church can effectively market their strategies to the youth population.  High expectations…high rates of burnout…the costs of non-discipleship are high!
“The Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project was formed in response to a youth ministry culture that was becoming increasingly frantic, consumerist, dull, formulaic, and spiritually stunted” (23).  Looking for a new approach to ministry that emphasized the “heart of Christian discipleship,” the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP) sought to engage leaders of youth ministry and youth in prayer and discernment.  Not wanting to undermine the good practices of youth ministry, they desired rather to ground these in the life and witness of Jesus Christ.

The Research in Context

Admitting that Contemplative Youth Ministry is perhaps the most difficult ministry a church can undertake, Mark Yaconelli and Andy Dreitcer in 1996 co-founded the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
In 1997 the YMSP received a series of grants from the Lilly Endowment to test and develop their contemplative approach to youth ministry.  With financial backing they brought together a diverse group of churches that embodied a variety of youth ministry programming.  Leaders from sixteen churches were brought to San Francisco Theological Seminary for a series of formation retreats in the newly developed contemplative approach to youth ministry.  The initial phase was from 1997-2000.  Later, they refined and repeated the process with thirteen more congregations from 2001-2004.  Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus lays out the principles and practices of contemplative youth ministry.  Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry records the “stories, experiences, conversations, and insights” from scholars, youth directors, pastors, and youth.
What is Meant by Contemplative Ministry?
“Remember that I am with you always.”  This, the last line from the Gospel of Matthew serves as the impetus for contemplative ministry: God is present…He is with us.  This reminder would have us stop, pray, listen, and notice the presence of God as the first step in ministry.  Before developing programs, the ministry leader stops, prays, and listens.  Before working with youth, the ministry leader stops, prays, and listens.  Slowing down and listening frees the youth minister to hear the suffering of youth and their families.
The hope of the contemplative approach is to free youth ministry of several illusions (25):
1.    The illusion that we as youth ministers are the saviors of adolescents
2.    The illusion that if youth programs are not full of excitement, then our kids will not know Jesus
3.    The illusion that the success of a ministry can be measured

Major Findings

As they listened to youth workers and youth from across the country they made some initial discoveries:
(1) Current approaches to youth ministry neglect the spiritual life of youth ministers, adult volunteers, and youth
As space was provided for ministry leaders and churches to slow down, they began to realize that their current practices of ministry were “isolating, burdensome, and destructive to their spiritual health” (27).  Even though the intense desire to nourish the youth of their community was present, youth ministry leaders, both volunteer and professional, felt completely isolated in their attempts to address the spiritual needs of their students.
Often abandoned and marginalized by the rest of the church, the youth ministry leader felt alone in their efforts.  Long hours, weekends, and evenings led to burnout and frustration.  The damaging effects of their own spiritual growth seep over into the neglect of the spiritual lives of the youth.  Often treated as consumers of activity, youth are relegated to the margins of the worship life of the congregation
(2) People long to experience God within their own lives
No matter their denominational background or environment, all participants shared a similar desire to experience God in their lives.  Professional and lay alike “complained of being spiritually dry, burned-out, and overworked” (28).  For most of these youth workers, their Christian lives had been reduced to a series of activities on which their worth was measured.  Unfortunately, activity, productivity, and efficiency are realities that are strongly embedded within church cultures and youth ministries (29).

(3) Communities of transformed adults, living lives of prayer and service, attract and transform the lives of young people

In their interviews with youth it became clear that youth were more interested in the lives and souls of their teachers and ministers more than the words they were speaking.  Young people are not simply looking for more information about religion as much as they are seeking ways to embody how their faith ought to be lived out (30).  Prescribed doctrines and theologies are of no interest.  Instead, they are looking for adults who are willing (and able) to live out their faith in the context of authentic relationships that mirror the “freedom and passion” of Christ.
(4) Youth desire to recognize God’s presence in their lives and to be empowered to live out their calling
As it turns out, youth are just as weary of activity, entertainment driven youth ministry as their leaders.  Fed up with doctrinal memorization, youth are hungry for opportunities to “discuss and explore their religious experiences.”  Consistent exposure to contemplative exercises and spiritual disciplines provide the opportune environment to slow down and experience God.

Summary of the Seven Key Principles of Contemplative Youth Ministry (YMSP Charter)

During the eight years of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project, a summary of seven principles was developed.  These seven principles were referred to as the “charter” as they were a “concise articulation of the project’s spirituality, pedagogy, and particular approach to contemplative youth ministry” (83).  They argue that these principles outline the needed direction of youth ministry if the yearnings of the adolescent soul are going to be addressed.  The seven key principles are:

  1. Sabbath—Just as Jesus led a life of simplicity with time for rest, solitude, and silence, so Christian communities that find rest and balance are more in touch with their heat and soul, more aware of the Spirit of God, and more available for relationships of love (84).
  2. Prayer—Just as Jesus’ life and ministry were grounded in union with the Father, so Christian communities are invited into God’s presence for healing, inspiration, and guidance (84).
  3. Covenant Community—Just as Jesus created and realized a community of spiritual companions, so Christian communities seek to realize encouragement, support, and small covenant groups who are similarly called to spiritual growth (84-85).
  4. Accompaniment—Just as Jesus formed disciples through relationships of love, so Christian communities invite youth to join them in authentic discipleship (85).
  5. Discernment—Just as Jesus prayed to know and follow God’s desire, so Christian communities attempt to discern and respond faithfully to the leading of the Spirit (85-86).
  6. Hospitality—Just as Jesus encouraged his disciples to “let the children come,” so Christian communities seek full inclusion of youth into every dimension of the church (86).
  7. Authentic Action—Just as Jesus healed the sick, welcomed the outcast, and celebrated with friends, so Christian communities seek cooperation with the Spirit in a way of life rooted in the witness of Christ’s love, passion, and joy (86).

Potential Obstacles
After ten years of researching contemplative youth ministry, Yaconelli admits that contemplative youth ministry is the most difficult approach to undertake.  The following are ways in which the participant churches faltered and even failed in their attempts to practice contemplative youth ministry (249-254):

  1. Time
  2. Churches Formed by a Business Culture
  3. Stressed and Harried Families
  4. Lack of Understanding of Spiritual Practice
  5. It’s Hard to Pay Attention

Implications for Parents

Families need to slow down.
Families are afraid to spend unstructured downtime together.  Parents are convinced, or are at least convinced of the lie, that more is better.  This simply is not true.  The youth in this study frequently rated afternoons of solitude, rest, and silence as the highlights of the week.  Parents who do not provide opportunities for familial rest will only contribute to the weariness experienced by their youth.
Contemplative modeling in the home is important.
Youth need adults, but not just any adults.  Youth need authentic relationships with significant adults, primarily parents, who are spiritually alive and willing to accompany their children on their journeys of faith.  Whether a church is successful in implementing a contemplative approach to youth ministry is largely dependent on support from the home.  If the home is going to be a refuge from the constant onslaught of culture, then parents have to demonstrate and model the importance of Sabbath and prayer in the home.

Implications for Youth Ministry and Churches

Churches need a heart check.
The secularization of our churches was cited as a constant barrier.  Churches focused on efficiency and productivity, speed-to-market business mentalities will only serve to sever a contemplative youth ministry and the adult congregation.  As intergenerational discipling relationships are the most fruitful environment to grow young disciples, churches must shift from marketplace values to the Kingdom values of prayer and spiritual discernment.
Implementing Contemplative Ministry practices requires dedication, patience, and time.
Most contemporary churches will not be receptive to contemplative youth ministry.  It is often viewed as inefficient and unproductive.  Implementing this approach will require a long-term mindset rooted in prayer and discernment, patiently seeking wisdom and guidance from the Spirit.  A contemplative approach will understand the value of loving through relationships and understanding that paradigm shifts take time.
Adolescent Discipleship Requires a Partnership between Families and the Church.
While parents are the primary “youth ministers” in the lives of their youth, the church must understand that it plays a crucial role as well.  Therefore, the church cannot and must not place upon the family additional demands that serve to harry the family more than it already is.  Rather, the church should partner with the family in the raising of its youth as both seek to create life-long disciples of Christ who are full integrated into the life of the church.  This is best accomplished when each entity actively seeks the well-being of the other through the spiritual practices mentioned above, not the institutional survival over and against the other.


Youth ministries must move from anxiety driven ministry to Spirit-led ministry if they are going to have any chance of stepping into the lives of today’s adolescents.  As a body that seeks and claims to follow its Leader, the Christian church, and by extension, youth ministries, have a long way to go.  The project found “that most youth ministry models lack the spontaneity, freedom, presence, rest, and reflection that Jesus embodied” (51).  Creating adolescent disciples of Christ requires intentional periods of Sabbath, prayer, and discernment.
They learned in this project that when youth leaders practice the presence of God, lives are changed.  Sometimes the transformations witnessed were limited to the youth leaders or the youth; other times it spread to families, staff, and entire congregations.  Perhaps, the most overwhelming discovery made by the project team was one that has always been known by the followers of Jesus: “It is the Spirit that gives life” (258).