Beyond discipline: Introducing youth to spiritual practices

by Rocky Supinger

It has been almost 40 years since the Quaker author Richard Foster published “Celebration of Discipline,” the much-heralded manual of ancient spiritual disciplines for contemporary Christians, but only 20 years since I devoured the book as a student at a Presbyterian college in central Kansas. For an entire summer between my junior and senior year I experimented with fasting, solitude, prayer and meditation with the fervent devotion of a pious adolescent who had finally found a worthy companion for his tattered “The Cost of Discipleship” paperback.

My love of the book was a function of my age. As an adolescent, I was still negotiating identity and faith, and the luster of a Christian faith that was so serious as to subject itself to punishing disciplines (like daily personal confession and hours of silent contemplation) was bright indeed.

Now though, 40 years old and a pastor to youth in a Presbyterian church, those strenuous routines appear as small specks in the rearview mirror of my spiritual and vocational journey. I don’t practice most of them, and I don’t teach them to youth. What happened? The answer points to some unique features of Christian spirituality (particularly for Presbyterian youth ministry) in North America in the first decades of the 21st century.

A random sampling of conversations I had with Presbyterian youth workers shows that “disciplines” is not a part of our vocabulary. But “practices” is. An exchange with Gina Yeager-Buckley, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s associate for ministry with youth, was typical. I asked, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind for you when someone says, ‘spiritual disciplines and youth’?”

“I think of using spiritual practices with youth focused primarily as a type of prayer practice.”

See what happened there?

Disciplines might have part of the Presbyterian lingua franca at one time, but they certainly don’t seem to be now. Rather, that parlance feels restricted to evangelical settings. Mark Oestreicher, an evangelical youth pastor and past president of Youth Specialties, thinks Foster’s book and the interest in disciplines it aroused were well suited to evangelicalism.

“Even, say, 30 years ago, when nobody [in evangelicalism] would have been talking about contemplative stuff – because that would have been freaky to people – ‘spiritual disciplines’ was still an acceptable and common language across church” because of Foster’s book. “That book specifically made it palatable.”

He has a theory about why disciplines found a footing in one stream of North American Christianity but not others. “For the evangelical world, the approach to disciplines is from a place of obedience,” he says. “In the mainline church they weren’t held back by the idea of it being about obedience and so were able to explore quite a bit more.”

That “bit more” came in the form of a move toward contemplative youth ministry in the late 1990s and early 2000s that was advanced by someone with feet in both the evangelical and mainline ecclesial worlds. Mark Yaconelli is the son of Youth Specialties founder Mike Yaconelli. In 1997, he received a grant from the Lilly Foundation to begin the Youth Ministry And Spirituality Project (YMSP) at San Francisco Theological Seminary. That initiative gathered youth leaders from mainline congregations and equipped them to begin using contemplative spiritual exercises like lectio divina and centering prayer in their youth ministries.

For nearly a decade, Yaconelli was an in-demand speaker at youth ministry events, congregations and seminaries. Youth Specialties’ National Youth Workers Convention, perhaps the largest youth ministry conference in the country, implemented a contemplative track to its program. “During those years,” Oestreicher recalls, “The prayer room ended up getting very interactive. It had tons of different prayer stations that people loved. We started actually paying people to create that stuff. Oh, and we had a labyrinth.”

A labyrinth. Of course.

Yaconelli invited Yeager-Buckley to join YMSP as a denominational representative at the very beginning, and she began to incorporate the project’s insights into her work across the church. “When I was teaching workshops, rather than ‘Here are the top 10 tips for doing great youth ministry,’ it became, ‘How do you experience God in youth ministry?’”

In 2006, Yaconelli published “Contemplative Youth Ministry,” a book that summarized what had been learned through YMSP and proposed a normative contemplative framework for youth ministry. Ten years later, Yeager-Buckley points to the book as a reliable starting point for anyone who wants to introduce youth to spiritual practices. “I just think the way it’s done is friendly,” she says. “It’s helpful for a person in a local church.”

Yaconelli is still writing books and leading retreats (he was at Austin Theological Seminary this fall). But “contemplative” seems to have given way to “relational” as a youth ministry hot topic. But have lectio divina and the Jesus Prayer disappeared from Presbyterian retreats and youth rooms in the decade since “Contemplative Youth Ministry”?

Not at all. The landmark Presbyterian youth ministry event, Presbyterian Youth Triennium, is just as contemplative now as it was in 2000 (despite the energizers). Yeager-Buckley is the director of Triennium, and she calls spiritual practices “a natural part of the small groups” and the daily reflection time for youth delegations. Triennium continues to feature a prayer center that is open throughout the four-day event. “It is there to help you look at ways to pray,” Yeager-Buckley explains. “In other words, different ways to listen to and talk with God.” Oh, and there’s a labyrinth.

Of course.

Enthusiasm for the practices youth encounter at Triennium grows with every gathering. The most common request Yeager-Buckley receives from youth and adult participants is for copies of the prayer center materials.

Contemplative prayer centers and interactive prayer stations are now common features of Presbyterian youth retreats across the country. Paul Knopf leads retreats with Tapestry: A Presbyterian Youth Collective based in southern California. Leaders don’t build a prayer center and there’s no labyrinth, but each retreat features an hour or two of prayer stations designed by Knopf. Youth move through the stations at their own pace and with minimal instructions (like, “walk outside by yourself without talking for 20 minutes”). There’s also a station with a world map propped on a chair with the prompt, “Write a prayer for something or someone, and then place it on the map.”

The stations look disorganized, even chaotic, to an observer, yet year after year they get the most enthusiastic feedback on the retreat’s evaluations.

This isn’t just happening at retreats. Irene Pak Lee is the associate pastor at The Stone Church in Willow Glen, California, where she leads the youth group in a weekly prayer practice called “the rope.” She explains: “We tie a rope into knots and form a circle around it and hold on to the rope. We light a Christ candle in the center of us all. Then we go around sharing prayer requests or ‘Thank you, God for… .’ And then I’ll close us in prayer. After the prayer ends, we pull on the rope to show physically how we support each other.”

Pak Lee points out that her students have grown fiercely protective of the rope ritual, even though many of them resisted it at first.

For every rope or candle-lit prayer station, though, there are five youth ministry habits that nobody calls “contemplative,” yet they are no less shaped by the values embedded in spiritual practices. Some Presbyterian youth workers, like Michelle Thomas-Bush, obscure the spiritual practice character of their planning on purpose. “It sneaks in,” she says. “In ways even youth don’t recognize.”

“Stop and breathe” is one example. When youth gather for Thomas-Bush’s Sunday school class at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, she greets them by simply saying, “Stop and breathe.”

She says, “That’s a spiritual discipline. That’s contemplative prayer. But unless you name it, the youth don’t know it.”

Scores of youth experience the Foster-friendly discipline of fasting every year through the World Vision “30-Hour Famine,” an overnight event where youth fast for over a day in order to raise awareness and money for global hunger. Most churches run the “30-Hour Famine” as a lock-in, complete with mixers and games, instead of focusing on it as being a fasting retreat.

That’s not to say it isn’t a powerful experience of spirituality for young people. Knopf, who is the youth director at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Diamond Bar, California, has been leading the “30-Hour Famine” for nearly a decade. One year he suggested changing the event to omit the fast, but with plans to keep the serving and learning components. He was swiftly overruled by his youth. Even though Knopf doesn’t stress the spiritual nature of fasting during the event, “the not eating part is what they like about it,” he says.

Oestreicher now runs The Youth Cartel, a youth ministry coaching and publishing organization, and also volunteers every week as a small group leader with junior high boys. He begins each meeting by asking students to talk about the best part of their week, or their “highs.” He used to ask youth about both “highs” and “lows,” which, he notes, is a form of the Ignatian examen, but adapted the practice for time. “There is an aspect of that that is at least an appetizer of discipline,” he insists.

This secrecy and adaptation raises the question, however, of how far a practice can wander from its original design and still remain a practice in any meaningful sense. Are you really leading youth in spiritual practices by sharing highs and lows? Is check-in time a discipline?

Jason Brian Santos is the mission coordinator for Christian formation with the PC(USA), and he’s not so sure. “Disciplines imply daily rigor,” he says. He worries that adopting spiritual practices in an a la carte fashion falls short of those practices’ intent and the benefits they provide. He points out that many spiritual practices, like lectio divina, have their roots in monastic communities and that their practice was part of far-reaching lifestyle changes for those who took them up. He singles out lectio divina as a “hybrid” style adoption of a spiritual practice that can easily become formulaic.

“Lectio divina was something that was drawn out for hours, sometimes days,” he explains. He fears that adapting it for busy, distracted teenagers threatens its formative power, though he concludes, “If it’s that or nothing, there’s part of me that says the exposure is still good because there’s a connection to the history of the church.”

There’s another question lurking, and that is whether spiritual practices are really what youth ministry – indeed all of ministry – ought to be pursuing in an era of discontinuity and upheaval.

Princeton Theological Seminary professor Sally Brown is working on a book that explores the shortcomings of practices for faith formation. I heard her speak about this in 2014. In that talk, she critiqued practices as things that work quite well in a stable environment but that are actually maladapted to times of crisis. She suggested that, to be faithful today, Christians need something other than practices: strategies.

Since then, Brown has become dissatisfied with strategies as well, for reasons that the book will lay out. Her book will instead recommend that Christians formulate “tactics” for faithfulness in a pluralistic world.

“I think you need the practices to have a faith-formed imagination that gives you something to draw upon, but I honestly think that given how pluralistic almost all social space is now, it seems to me that just rule-following behavior isn’t going to be enough.”

Brown’s point is easy to grant. She is bluntly realistic about Christians’ lack of influence after Christendom, and she wants ministry to move beyond applying Christendom-derived practices as formulae for experiencing God today.

Spirituality is no longer the special provenance of churches. In case you haven’t heard, “spiritual but not religious” is a thing. This may actually favor the experiential, a la carte approach to spiritual practices adopted by Presbyterian youth workers.

Rocky Supinger is the associate pastor for youth ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He blogs at