Contemplative Youth Ministry- by Mark Yaconelli

Contemplative Youth Ministry

I must admit that I was a bit skeptical prior to reading this book.   However, after reading through the book for a second time, it has become one of my favorite youth ministry books.  Mark Yaconelli has a witty and authentic way of storytelling and teaching how to help students practice the presence of Jesus. I appreciate his journey; his mistakes, failures, lessons learned, and advice he has to offer all of us attempting (and praying) to see our students grow spiritually.

Central to this book is the theme of presence.  The author shares that the central problem in sharing the Christian faith with young people is this:

We don’t know how to be with our kids.

We don’t know how to be with ourselves.

We don’t know how to be with God.

But if we look to the life of Jesus as our example and inspiration, we find that Jesus enjoys being with people and being with God.  “His ministry doesn’t come from a pre-planned formula but instead arises in response to the real situations and relationships he encounters.”

To be “present” with our students means relating to youth in the way Jesus related to people…with authenticity and transparency.

The idea of “contemplation” means being with God within the reality of the present moment.  As Mark explains, “it’s about attentiveness–opening our eyes to God, ourselves, and others.”

Ignatious of Loyola referred to contemplation as “seeing God in all things.”  Brother Lawrence called it” the pure loving gaze that finds God everywhere.”  Teresa of Avila referred to this experience as “Awareness absorbed and amazed.”

One of the questions asked in the book really spoke to me.  “What is my deepest hope for the youth I know?”

As I prayed and thought through this, I could sense and feel the way God sees and loves my students.  I began viewing them through God’s eyes and not through my own agendas for them.

I especially appreciated the section dealing with being transparent and vulnerable before our students. Often, the assumption is that as youth leaders we must live above our students and, without realizing it, a certain level of disconnect and unapproachability inevitably creeps in.  Mark writes (and I agree) that youth want to know about our marriages or romantic lives.  They want to meet our friends and find out what we do when not in church.  They want to know what makes us angry and whether we agree or disagree with their parents.

They want to know how to live well and live fully human, and they need us as real examples that they can relate to.

Probably my favorite chapter is entitled “Becoming a Good Listener” simply because I struggle with this approach and quite frankly needed a healthy dose of inspiration and challenge.

The first part of this approach is learning how to surrender.  “We need to stop trying to make kids love God…to surrender means to recognize that we don’t control how God lives and moves. We don’t control our churches and we certainly don’t control the spiritual lives of our young people.”

As youth leaders, we need to be able to trust that our students belong to God; that God has been seeking to love them since before they were born and will continue to love them long after they leave the influence of our ministries.  This concept is revolutionary to me and freeing in the same breath.

We also need to receive from God, and place our students in positions to receive from Him as well.  “When we allow ourselves to be open and receptive to God’s love and presence, we begin to notice that God is alive and available.”

Mark provides a great chart comparing/contrasting the different ways we approach youth ministry when we’re rooted in anxiety rather than love.  Interestingly enough, I was able to use the same descriptions and characteristics and compare “traditional” to “emerging” youth ministry approaches .  In many ways, traditional youth ministry is based upon anxiety (control, professionals, products, results, conformity, activity, and answers).  Contrary, emerging youth ministries demonstrate and implement contemplation, processes, presences, guides, relationships, creativity, awareness, and questions.

This chart forced me to critically reflect upon my youth ministry and see how we have been operating in the past:  out of anxiety or love?

The next big section offers different ways to enter into the presence of God. Most are rooted in ancient Christianity and have been transformative for centuries.  Now, I have been doing a number of these for some time, but each process would be powerful if we can find ways to implement them into our youth ministries and model them for our students.

They include: Lectio Divina (holy reading, Centering Prayer (indwelling Christ), The Awareness Examen, Silent Prayer, Creative Arts prayer

By far, the best chapter for me (and I think one of the best chapters in all youth ministry books to date) is “Being with young people”

Being human is “seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, being moved by others and allowing others to be moved by us, responding with acts of kindness and receiving acts of kindness, and embodying a sense of delight in all our interactions.”  In many ways, author and professor Andrew Root picks up on this theme and wonderfully runs with it in his books Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry and Relationships Unfiltered.


We love young people when we see them with the eyes of Jesus; seeing them as they are, not as the culture judges them to be or as we wish them to be.

Yaconelli shares a wonderful story about being on a youth retreat with a particularly terrible bunch of students (haven’t we all had that experience before!)  He became angry and yelled at them and demanded that the fun stop and they all go to bed.  Feeling bad about the way he treated them he got up and walked around the sanctuary where they were sleeping.  Watching them, he began to notice their innocence and remembered their pain and hurt. His anger at them was transformed into compassion for them as he began to see them with the eyes of Christ.


We also need to listen; to open our ears to the words and feelings youth speak.  As a youth pastor, I often feel the need (and desire) to speak.  Even when students are unloading their problems and issues, I fight the urge to interrupt with my sound advise. Most of our activities at youth group are designed to help students sit and listen to us. But imagine if we could turn that around and listen to them.  “Its almost a conversion experience in this day and age to be authentically heard by another person.”  I couldn’t agree more.

I debated whether to share this story or not, but here goes.

A few years back I had the priviledge of attending a course on Postmodernity and the Emergent Church taught at Alliance Theological Seminary by Tony Jones.  I had met Tony briefly on a few occasions and we planned to spend some time together after class.  I will never forget the time, attention, and care he gave me while the two of us sat and chatted at an Irish pub in Nyack.  He asked questions like he actually cared about my life and he listened.  He could have talked about his experiences, his writings, his theology..and I would have listened and loved it. But instead, the whole evening was about me.  And the timing was perfect because I had issues that I really needed to talk about with someone, but no one (up to that point) had thought to ask.  I finally felt free to share with someone who would not judge and had no self interest.  My respect and appreciation for Tony grew that night and I left feeling such a weight lifted.

I want to be that kind of friend, mentor, and youth pastor to students.

“Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.  They person who can no longer listen to others will soon be no longer listening to God either.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Action with Kindness

These are moments in which we embody the love of God.  This love of God “is often more powerful and transformative in small acts of love than in the lights, energy, and charisma of large outreach events.”

We need to take time to experience the everyday moments of life together with our students.  These can occur over simple meals, while driving or shopping, watching a game together, etc..

Before reading this book I associated contemplation with being still…perhaps a monk in isolation in a cave somewhere!

Parker Palmer debunks that thought and writes the following: “At root, contemplation and action are the same. As our youth ministry becomes infused with contemplative prayer and awareness, the effect is not more prayer and silence; instead, what begins to emerge is authentic action. Activities within the youth ministry no longer are chosen frantically from resource books; they no longer are prescribed from the outside.  Instead, as we widen our awareness, our actions with youth become more guided by their needs and the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Being prayerfully present to kids enlarges our capacity to act out of love rather than anxiety. Contemplative awareness nurtures our creativity and draws us to act from the heart. We find ourselves responding more and reacting less.”


As youth pastors, we should be amazed and delighted by students.  I have found that even though dealing with middle school antics and high school drama can be taxing, there is no greater joy than seeing young people “get it”.  I have more fun with students than with any other age group.  It is fun and a delight to be around them, and I feel blessed to be a part of that on a daily basis.  I know that if and when God leads me to do something else, I will always miss the joy I experience when with young people.

Jean Vanier writes that love is “to reveal the beauty of another person to themselves.”  When students are seen, they feel valued.  When they are heard, they feel respected.  When someone is moved by their situation, they feel loved.  And when others delight in their existence, they sense the very breath of God!

“Youth Ministry is about holding up a young person’s deepest identity until he or she is able to see it too.”

The last major section of the book developes a process of recruiting and training a community around you to serve the youth. Mark calls this a “covenant community” and he outlines some pretty complex and detailed steps to help build up your volunteer leadership team. Now, it is hard to deny the results he shares, but the six steps seem a bit much to me.  However, if you follow them I am sure you can double your team with solid volunteers.

A good point that he makes that we all need to be aware of is this:  You’re not just looking for a warm body, you’re seeking people who sense that their participation in ministry is intimately connected to God’s movement in their lives.   Secondly, when people spend time in prayer and relationship building, the ministry becomes a great source of nourishment; people enjoy the ministry, serve with great authenticity, and stay involved longer.

Another great thought found in this book is the idea that youth ministry is truly a calling and blessing at the same time.  For many of us, we need to be doing youth ministry.  We need to be with and for our students, because by doing so, we connect with God.  Mark writes to all of us youth leaders that perhaps we are more pliable among these youth, more open to God shaking us up or offering us a word of healing. maybe youth ministry is our spiritual discipline.

“It’s not just a place where we serve, it’s a place where we are transformed, healed, and made new.”

Below are a few more helpful and inspiring quotes I discovered.

“It’s this movement from prayer to presence–from being open and available to God to being transparent and accessible before teens-that is the real work of ministry.”

“Our first task as youth ministers is to be with young people just as Jesus was with people.  Our second task is to help youth develop the eyes, ears, and heart of Jesus for themselves.  We’re not only called to be witnesses among young people, we are also called, like Jesus, to be teachers. We’re called to awaken youth to the presence of God in the world.

To help do this we 1) point 2) question 3) invite 4) we create circumstances

All of this takes patience and time.  Faith takes time and we need to stick around long enough to see it go through its ups and downs, highs and lows, and eventually develope, mature, and blossom.

“Our role is to help youth recognize the ways in which Jesus is already near, already seeking trust and friendship.”

“An efficiently busy life is “more potentially destructive of spiritual growth than debauchery or alcohol or drugs.”

“The purpose of integrating contemplative presence in youth ministry is not to turn kids into monks, it is to deepen our awareness of god, others, and self so that we might become fully alive!”

“Through greater prayer and presence, we notice the moments of connection between youth and God and try to build our programs accordingly.”


Shift #5- from Agenda driven to Presence centered


Typically youth pastors don’t like agendas.  If we attend a conference and an agenda is given to us, we usually intentionally blow off a good number of the “required” meetings.   Our eyes roll back when we sit in a board meeting and a lengthy agenda is handed to us and we know that we will be there for a long time.  We don’t like people telling us what we have to do and when we have to do it.

We feel a bit babied

Agendas can be useful and helpful to keep people on track and focused.  Agendas can lead to productivity and a sense of accomplishment, but when agendas dominate the day, there is a lack of freedom that quite often is counter productive to true growth and personal maturity.

Here is the deal with youth ministry.

We have 2 agendas.

The first agenda is what we hope to accomplish at each youth meeting. I have  attended some youth groups that actually have a print out of exactly what they are doing for every five minute span.


7-7:05- Welcome

7:05-7:12- announcement videos

7:12-7:15- prayer

7:15-:730- lesson


they even had a scheduled 14 minutes for “hang out time”

Sometimes students are even handed these agenda/ schedules upon arrival at the meetings and told they must follow.

I wonder, where is the room for creativity, flexibility, fellowship, the movement of God’s spirit?

The second type of agenda is more hidden, but can be more harmful.

We set up agendas for each student in our ministry. For example,  what we want them to get out of our lessons, how we want them to grow spiritually, what we want them to look like upon graduation, and so on.

My old mission statement actually had these words:  “upon graduation we want our students to…..”

So we spend all of this time creating programs that will attract students to our ministry and then set up structures and systems so that that will buy in and conform to our agendas for them.

Now there is nothing wrong (I believe) with having goals for your ministry and hopes and dreams for your students. We should. They will drive our prayer life and move us with compassion.

However, often what is lost is just being present with the students…no agendas driving our conversations or relationships.

You see if we have certain agendas and they do not pan out they way we planned or hoped for, then often we get disappointed and frustrated and those emotions wear on our sleeves like a bad stain of wine (or grape juice for you Baptists)

Often our affection, time, and prayer are affected by our agendas.  What happens to our relationships with students once they clearly will not live up to our agendas?  I recently had a conversation with a father of a former female student who is getting married to her girlfriend.  He told me, “My goals for my daughter (married, 2.5 kids, house in suburbs) is clearly not going to happen. My prayer now is that God’s will.”

Being Presence-centered simply means be fully engaged in the lives of our teens.  Looking at them with the eyes of Jesus. Actively listening to their stories, struggles, fears, hopes, and dreams and allowing them the freedom to be…them.

Mark Yaconelli writes these words about the presence centered ministry of Jesus:

“In contrast to our lives of spinning isolation is Jesus’ life of relationship and presence.  Jesus’ presence, his capacity to love and be with people, is transformative.  You can see it in the way he listens, shares food, spends time, weeps, walks, touches, responds, and cares for others.  Jesus enjoys being with people. He enjoys being with God.  His ministry, it seems, doesn’t come from a pre-planned formula but instead rises in response to the real situations and relationships he encounters.”

Wow!  If only our youth ministries could look and feel like that!

There are some very good books written about the need for “presence” and authentic relationships in youth ministry.

Presence Centered Ministry by Mike King

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root

Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli

From my experience, the idea of presence centered ministry is two-fold:

1) We need to be fully present in the life of our students.

To be with them and for them in any and all situations. No strings attached. No agendas to meet.

We are there when the laugh and when they cry. We are there in the joyful moments and the depressing ones. We are they when they question God and when they are praising him.  We are there when they wonder about their sexuality and when they think suicidal thoughts.  We are simply there for them in and through all of life.

This means relating to youth in the way Jesus related to people- with authenticity, transparency, approachability, and accessibility.

The incarnation of Jesus is not about influence but about solidarity in common humanity, and so presence-centered youth ministry should be the same.

As Andrew Root writes, “Relational Youth ministry is about suffering with adolescents. It’s about sharing in their place with empathy, sympathy, and commonality…We must reach out to their (teens) humanity even if it means the suffering of our own humanity, for this is the way of the cross…We have offered them trips to Disneyland, sill games and cool youth rooms, not companionship in their darkest nights, their scariest of hells.”

We need to be fully present in the lives of our students as all times; through the good and especially through the bad and difficult days. Do our students know that they are unconditionally cared for and expected no matter what?

We may be disappointed with decisions they make, but will chose to be present in their life regardless.  We value them as human beings, created in God’s image, not as objects to be “won”.

2)  We place structures around them to allow the presence of Jesus to be encountered and experienced.

Ultimately the most important thing is for our students to be with Jesus and for Jesus to be with them and for them.  As hard as we try and as long as we stay, we cannot always be there in their lives.  We cannot be as present to them as God can.

Because of this reality, our task as youth leaders is to demonstrate the presence of Jesus in our own lives and guide students towards a position and place to receive as we have.  If we are to have agendas, programs, structures, or schedules in place for our students, i hope it is not to keep them busy, occupied, wired, and amped up.

Our students need to understand and experience that God is not some emotional high or abstract belief; He is a present reality- available and trustworthy, offering real rest, purpose, inspiration, and adventure.

I hope our approach and ministries focus around Presence.

Students being with their peers and caring adults and our students celebrating and experiencing the presence of Jesus.  Its not that Jesus can’t be experienced through a media frenzied action packed 2 hours of caffeine and games. More likely though, it is when we help remove the clutter, distractions, and busyness and settle down and rest in God that we receive. Jesus is always present. Its not like we are invoking him to come.

But traditional agendas sometimes don’t allow our students to see and hear Jesus in their midst. They are too occupied doing other things than simply being there in the presence of God.  Or, we are trying to convince them of something or motivate them towards something else.

In his conclusion to Part 1, Root writes, “relationships have been used for cultural leverage (getting adolescents to believe or obey) rather than as the concrete location of God’s action in the world…Youth ministry of influence has very little to do with the incarnation…the incarnation is not about influence but accompaniment.”

“Christ calls me into self-giving, suffering love for the adolescent, with no pretense or agenda.”

Here is a quick rundown and chart of the difference in the two approaches.  I am trying hard in my own ministry to shift toward the later approach and philosophy of presence.

Agenda-based (traditional) vs.      Presence centered (emerging) *Adapted from Contemplative Youth Ministry

Seeks control seeks contemplation (how can I be present to kids and to God?)

wants products desires presence (who will bear the life of God among teenagers?)

rests in results rests in relationships (Who are the students we’ve befriended?)

seeks conformity brings out creativity

wants activity  and business brings awareness (what are the real needs of my youth?)

Frank Rogers describes a ministry of presence as “seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, being moved by others and allowing others to be moved by us, responding with acts of kindness and receiving acts of kindness, and embodying a sense of delight in all our interactions.”

I believe that in youth ministry, two of the most important things we can do is to see and hear. We need to see our students with the eyes of Jesus; see them as they are, not as the culture judges them or as we wish them to be.   When we see them through this lens we are moved with more compassion and genuine love and interest for them.

Secondly, we need to hear them.  This implies a real and active approach that does not jump quickly to correct or find answers for them.  I struggle to listen to my students without my normal “filters” of wrong and right.  I usually listen to see if they can repeat what I ‘ve told them or listen while formulating my solution and advice the entire time.   It is said that the person who can no longer listen to others will soon be no longer listening to God.

It is also a ministry of trust.  We must trust God and allow Him to move freely in the lives of our students. After all, we cannot control their spiritual growth. We can certainly try to manipulate it with agendas, but real, true, authentic growth is a work of the heart and a result of God’s indwelling spirit and presence in the life of the student.  God is in control. We can pray, lead by example, help place our students in the paths of presence, and be fully present to them by hearing and seeing with the ears and eyes of Jesus.

If we can begin affirming these things in our life and ministry, we will see the shift occur from being agenda driven to presence centered. And when all the agenda of youth group disappear after they graduated and leave our presence, our prayer is that  the presence of God will continue to lead, guide, and direct the rest of their lives.