Sustainable Practices

Leading students into rhythms that last

 “For two weeks each summer I have a great relationship with God,” said my young friend, smiling. “Then the rest of the year, I’m just waiting for camp to start again.”

We were at the first meeting of a new small group in our high school ministry. I had been trying to get a sense of where these girls were spiritually. I wasn’t getting much substance from their answers—mostly just lots of chatter about the Jesus Calling app, when Caroline finally told me like it really was.

Surely it’s not the first time I’ve heard a student talk about a “camp high,” but it felt like this was the first time I’d heard a student articulate the inconsistency in her relationship with God so clearly – so proudly. Her words stuck in my head and played and replayed the next few months. As I planned Sunday School lessons and prepared for summer mission trips and prayed about the future vision of the ministry, I thought of her specifically.

A semi-regular attendee at the church, Caroline made it to her freshman year learning that God didn’t need to hold a significant role in her life 50 weeks out of each year. I’d love to point the finger at her parents or her friends or at Hollywood – anywhere but myself, really – but perhaps this student learned that God is only to be found in intense experiences because in our retreat posters and camp sign-ups and candle-lit nights of worship, that’s what we had taught her.

Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, shaped and articulated the tone of decades of youth ministry with a single sentence: “It’s a sin to bore students with the gospel.” And indeed it is. The full story of the gospel – redemption from despair, light from darkness, life from death – is as far from boring as one can get. But after decades of youth ministry camp-highs and intensely emotional spiritual experiences, I’d like to suggest that while it’s a sin to bore students with the gospel, it’s perhaps equally devastating to teach students that the Christian life is always exciting.

Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I’m not fundamentally against retreats or trips or other emotionally-charged youth ministry programs. Some of my most formative ministry training was working at Christian summer camp during college. I’ve spent more nights sleeping on a crappy bunk bed than I care to remember. I’ve laughed and cried and made some of my favorite memories schlepping students to conferences, camps, and mission trips all across this country.

But lately I’ve been wondering about the actual value of some of those experiences. So often it seems that students leave those intense emotional experiences with an implicit understanding that the Christian life should feel like fireworks all the time. And maybe it’s because we have set it up that way.

With my words I ask students to believe that this omnipresent God that I’m teaching about is with them in the boring Tuesday morning biology class that they hate. I say that God is at work redeeming and recreating and acting all around them. But then announcement time comes and my tune changes. I make funny videos to entice students to camp, or I bring in an older student to talk about how life-changing a mission trip was.

Maybe we’re not quite saying it out loud, but students are hearing us suggest, “Sure, our weekly small groups are still happening and wouldn’t it be nice if you came to worship with us this week and gee, I hope you’re praying at home, but CAMP! We’re headed out of town next month and I sure hope you’re going because we’re going to meet God there and it’s going to be awesome!”

The message in many of our youth groups is very clear. Want to serve God’s people? Hand over your $300 and drive eight hours away with us. Want to connect with God? Good. Give us $75 and wait until the big retreat next month. You can connect with God then.

The title of Eugene Peterson’s book on the ascent Psalms, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, says everything I hope we’re teaching our students to expect. 1 As disciples of Christ, we are called to live a life of consistent obedience in the same direction. One foot after another, sometimes plodding and sometimes skipping, but always one foot after another after another. Long. Slow. Steady. Fruitful.

We need to invite students into the long, steady walk of obedience. The way we talk about prayer, the events we plan, the focus of our summers and the emphasis we put on corporate worship all speak to the type of discipleship we’re inviting students toward. Either we’re asking them to meet God elsewhere, or we’re proclaiming that God is here, now. Either we’re inviting students to look for God in extraordinarily-created circumstantial experiences, or we’re inviting them to join us in noticing the action of God around us in the mundane happenings of everyday life.

I’m not suggesting that God never breaks into our everyday lives in mighty and majestic ways. Occasionally God is in the wind or the earthquake or the fire. Occasionally, but not typically. Instead of the wind or the earthquake or the fire, we are told, God is to be found in the low whisper. 2

As we build consistent spiritual rhythms into our lives, the structure gives us the freedom to see the exceptions. As Jurgen Moltmann writes, “it is evidently difficult for people to comprehend unusual or unique events without the help of archetypal patterns." 3 This is the role of consistent liturgy; the practice of regular corporate confession or a customary day devoted to rest. These patterns are the foundations of the sustainable spiritual life.

We do a serious disservice to students by teaching them rhythms in youth ministry, either explicitly or implicitly, that can’t sustain them for a lifetime. Our focus must be past the next retreat or the great summer camp and into a full lifetime of following God.

The Rhythm of God

We worship a God who created seasons, cycles, and rhythms. Six days of work always leads to a Sabbath. Each night gives way to a morning. Just when you think you can’t handle one more day of frozen weather, spring begins to break. As I begin to recognize the order of the created world, I’m starting to look for that same order in the spiritual life. I see a daily rhythm shaped by prayers of Examen and the offering of the daily office. A week ordered by a protected Sabbath that is focused on rest and recreation. The movement of a liturgical year that points us past the daily grind to remembrances of divine action in the created world; a reminder that life leads to death leads to life again.

These are the rhythms that have shaped the lives of Christians for centuries. I want those same practices to be a part of my students’ lives, both while they are a part of our youth ministry and for the decades afterward. I’ve made an intentional effort in the past few years to look past the goal of high school graduation and focus my ministry on making disciples of Jesus Christ for an entire lifetime. With that end in mind, I’ve begun to think seriously about sustainable spiritual practices.

Finding a Rhythm in Your Ministry

The opportunities to incorporate sustainable spiritual practices into student ministry are nearly endless. We can advocate for students to incorporate rhythms of weekly corporate worship or daily personal devotionals. Practices of solitude and silence or actively working for justice in the world. Praying in a labyrinth or approaching the scripture through lectio divina. It is becoming important to me to spend the moments I have with students introducing them to practices that will sustain their relationship with God not just for a lock-in or a weeklong trip, but for a lifetime of obedience in the same direction.

The new small group I led began to regularly practice the Ignatian Examen together. Frankly, sometimes it was all we really got to during our one-hour meeting, but it always happened. We would take a few breaths and practice noticing God. We would remember that if we believed that God was active in the world then it must mean God was active in our city. If we remembered that God works in the lives of God’s people then we could be reassured God works even in our own lives. So we would take a few minutes to remember the day and the ways that the action of God intersected our lives.

I’d like to be able to say that this single practice changed everything for those girls, but I don’t know that it has yet. My confidence comes in knowing that this practice became a weekly rhythm, and from knowing that this rhythm is sustainable enough to carry them into a lifetime of noticing the present activity of God around them.

Action Points

  • Evaluate which spiritual practices have been most sustaining in your own life. Consider hosting a retreat or teaching series to introduce students to different practices they could begin to integrate into their own lives. This article by Meredith Miller might give you some good ideas.

  • Think about the natural rhythms your ministry already carries. Is summer always busy? Is January a slow time? Do you already emphasize Advent or Lent? Use the rhythms your church has already set into motion to help teens begin to see their own rhythms.

  • Have an outsider listen to the language you use in teaching, announcements, etc. Are your words consistently describing a God active in the present or are you implicitly asking kids to meet God only through extraordinary circumstances?

Portions of this article first appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Immerse Journal. Reprinted with permission.