WEST LAFAYETTE, IN – Mark Yaconelli tries to discourage those who call him the ‘guru’ of Presbyterian youth ministry. ‘You know, we’re all just working in the dark on this stuff,’ he told the Presbyterian News Service and Presbyterians Today during a July 19 interview at the 2007 Presbyterian Youth Triennium here.
But Yaconelli has become a mentor and inspiration to Presbyterian and other youth leaders all over the country. His seminal book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, is a best-seller and his brand new tome, Growing Souls, follows up the earlier book with case studies.
Yaconelli describes contemplative youth ministry as ‘a discipline of presence with kids. What we try to do is take a long, loving look at the real with them,’ he says. Programs, activities and goals ‘are secondary to paying attention to the present spiritual needs of kids and responding to them.’
It’s hard, sometimes frustrating work, Yaconelli says. ‘Often the culture knows better than any of us – parents, churches, youth ministry leaders – how to reach our kids. They are pulled so many ways, it’s hard to keep their attention,’ he says.
‘Building solid faith is very time-consuming,’ he adds. ‘What you’re trying to build is a love relationship and its very difficult because time is so scarce.’
Yaconelli’s groundbreaking work in youth ministry is borne of necessity he says. ‘We’re in a transitional period – 1950s Presbyterianism is going away and we don’t know yet how to replace the old Christian education and youth ministry models.’
Early in his career, Yaconelli was confused with his father, Mike Yaconelli, who helped create those earlier models. ‘I see my work as a continuation of my father’s,’ he says, ‘but also a response to some of the gaps and shortcomings in what he did.’
Initially, Yaconelli, 40, says of his early days in youth ministry, ‘the theory was to make youth groups and youth ministry more fun, overcoming the strictly cognitive model of the fifties.’
In working with churches, he says there are a number of approaches that can work, ‘but the key to any of them is to slow down and really pay attention to where kids are right now, in the present moment.’
Lots of pop culture models – high tech gadgetry and ‘garage praise bands’ – ‘aren’t going to last,’ Yaconelli believes. ‘But every now and then we hit on something that works.’
Ironically, ancient Christian spiritual disciplines – prayer and contemplation – seem to be striking the most responsive chords these days. ‘Even though our culture seems so often jaded, kids are still coming to things with fresh eyes,’ he explains. ‘They may be cynical on the surface, but down deep they’re hopeful, visionary and radical. They ask the tough questions and eager to discover the answers. Disciplined prayer and contemplation seem ideally suited to that yearning.’
Young people cannot do it alone, Yaconelli insists. ‘What seems to work best is for kids to have a range of relationships with folk of all ages. How are you supposed to learn how to be an adult if you’re not friends with or relating to adults?’
In many ways small churches are better suited to this intergenerational approach to youth ministry, Yaconelli says. ‘When I was a kid, the most influential people in my life were not other kids, but older people who had the time to talk and really listened,
‘If kids are stuck in a youth room, then their faith expressions tend to get locked in and then when they get older and there’s no youth group, they’re lost.’
Yaconelli is not convinced that many of the 4,400 teenagers
who are here will remain in the church. ‘Life is so me-first and time-consuming that it’ll be very hard to keep them in the church as it’s currently structured,’ he says. ‘But they’ll find small communities of believers and seekers because the spiritual need will always be there.’
Presbyterian Youth Triennium is an important element in that faith development, Yaconelli says. ‘Some adults are hoping that Triennium will ‘create’ faith. I’m not sure about that, though God can do anything,’ he says.
‘But suddenly, here you are in a big room and singing the same songs with 5,000 others and the ‘Body of Christ’ suddenly goes from theory to reality for you – that can be really significant,’ Yaconelli explains. ‘They’re in an alternative world that they can see and feel and experience, a whole other world where Christ, not the market culture, rules. That’s a powerful experience.’
Yaconelli will lead the Friday (July 20) evening program here. Billed as a ‘prayer vigil,’ the outdoor event is really, Yaconelli says, ‘an interesting attempt to practice contemplative prayer and meditation on a global scale.’
Working in the dark, indeed.