Editor’s Note: This is the second in a 12-part series on spiritual disciplines for youth workers, based on Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.
by Kelly Soifer
There is a great deal of conversation about spiritual disciplines in the Christian world these days, but not much of it pertains directly to the world of those who work with teens. My goal in writing this series is to meet YOU in that unique place, and then call you to a place of depth and soul care. Take a few moments to keep reading…
There is a part of me that hesitates to write about this next discipline. If you know me at all, you’d know that I don’t hesitate because I am shy! I hesitate because I think of simplicity the same way I think of humility…
You know what I mean. In those rare times when God works in and through you to such a point where you actually do some kind and godly thing and it feels so great, you might say to yourself, “WOW, I was just really humble right then!” and the whole darn thing gets nullified right then and there…THAT is how I think it works with simplicity. It’s something you live out, not point out, in yourself.
However, as Richard Foster says in his classic book The Celebration of Discipline, “The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject. So I will run the risk of nullifying my pursuit of simplicity today for the sake of greater discussion.”
What do I mean by “simplicity” as a spiritual discipline? Foster says it is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle. In other words, as we seek first His kingdom (Matthew 6:33) rather than seeking first after career or status or wealth or power, that singular focus on Christ should then flow out in and through our daily lives.
On one level, that sort of simplicity isn’t much of a challenge for youthworkers, who by and large are the most poorly paid of all pastoral staff, right?! However, we are also surrounded by some of the biggest consumers in the US today: teenagers. To quote the Los Angeles Times in 2010, “Typically unhampered by debt, bills and mortgages, [teens] spend freely and impulsively.” And because youthworkers’ lives, at least in the early years, are often unhampered from the bigger pressures of mortgage and pension, we can develop some very bad habits.
How did I come to practice simplicity? I backed into it. In February 2009 I resigned from a 15-year position as a youth pastor, from a church in which I’d been a member for 23 years altogether. This decision was the right one, but it was so difficult, nonetheless. I needed time to wait on God for what was to be next, and to recover from the jarring transition that it was, so I had saved some money to do so.
However, in my immaculate timing I made this decision one month before the historic financial collapse hit bottom! Amidst daily news of gloom and doom I tried not to panic, but also decided I needed to dramatically pare down my budget, not sure when I would be employed full-time again. Thus I declared 2009 to be The Year of Living Simply. I decided to buy nothing new (other than food). I refrained from spending money on entertainment–movies, books, music, eating out and travel. I let magazine subscriptions expire. I stopped buying gifts and just sent cards (sorry friends). These actions had taken up a third of my budget!
As I stuck to this approach, I learned three things rather quickly:

  1. It just wasn’t that hard. That sounds crazy, but once I got over the hump of this seemingly hard decision, I discovered that I wasn’t suffering. Richard Foster quotes the famous Arctic explorer Richard Byrd, who lived through months of deprivation in his travels to the North Pole: “I am learning…that a man can live profoundly without masses of things.” Indeed, I discovered the same. Once you wean yourself off the constant acquisition of stuff, you realize it’s all rather fleeting in its satisfaction.
  2. I was much more grateful for what I received. Once you orient yourself around God’s provision rather than thinking of it all as the fruit of your own labors, you see everything as a generous gift! The novelty of something new regained its meaning. When someone had me over for a meal, or took me out for coffee, or gave me a gift, I delighted in every part of it, since these things came less often.
  3. My default became “Why?” instead of “Why not?” While I had previously faced the decision of whether to buy something or not, now I operated from the assumption that I would not be getting it, and was forced (by my own decision) to think through what I “needed.” Rather than get something just because I had the money or because everyone else already had one, I jumped off the treadmill and thought through my spending far more carefully.

Let’s be clear–I am not advocating some dreadful legalism that disdains enjoyment. God wants us to enjoy his provision and his creation. But I began to recognize how much of my joy came from stuff rather than from God himself and from the people and things he provided already. I also found that it caused me to simplify my plans with students as well. Fewer outings to trampoline gyms and more events in homes took away some of the flash and created that much more substance in our programming.
Interestingly enough, I also had more free time since I wasn’t busying myself as I had previously. I spent some of that new time reading up on monasticism and Benedictine spirituality. Monks take vows of poverty and/or simplicity–they hold belongings in common, because they believe that the more possessions you have, the more those things possess you! They meditate regularly on this passage from Matthew 6:19-34. Here are two excerpts:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v. 19-21)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? (v. 25)

I am happy to say that after my Year of Living Simply that I am now quite gainfully employed. But that year instilled some good habits in me. So I am trying to pursue this spiritual discipline of simplicity in ongoing ways:

  • When I buy something new, I give something away. For example, when I buy a new pair of shoes, I give away a pair.
  • As I have mentioned here previously, I sold my car about a year ago. I now use my scooter, my bike, and public transportation (with occasional rides from friends). This slows me down and often forces me to think through how many things I try to do in a given day. I understand this may not be possible for many youthworkers, who use their cars as mini-buses for youth ministry! But intentionally changing transportation habits is a good start.
  • I eat seasonally. I love, love, LOVE red bell peppers and could eat them every day. And now, I can eat them every day, thanks to hothouses in South America and semi-truck trailers hauling food all over tarnation. But I choose to eat red bell peppers when they are in season where I live. By eating seasonally I am reminded to enjoy God’s provision in God’s timing. Sometimes he gives us things to enjoy, and sometimes he asks us to wait. And it is often in the waiting, and anticipation, that I learn how to deeply enjoy the things he gives me.

Here is the way that I remember this spiritual discipline of simplicity. It’s an adaptation of the 3 R’s of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle…
I say Repent (of my materialism), Reduce, Reuse, Refuse (to try to keep up with everyone else, and just buy the things I truly need), Recycle.
Tell me what you think… thanks for listening!
Use the links below to read all of the articles in the series, or visit Kelly’s CYMT contributor page:

  1. Solitude
  2. Simplicity
  3. Meditation
  4. Prayer
  5. Worship
  6. Study
  7. Fasting
  8. Service
  9. Submission
  10. Guidance
  11. Confession
  12. Celebration

Kelly Soifer is currently the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California, providing strategic planning, pastoral recruiting and training for over 40 Free Methodist churches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. She is greatly energized by the Free Methodist Church’s deep commitment to “walking their talk,” where they serve in multiple ways throughout their communities, reaching diverse populations.
Kelly was a youth pastor for 15 years, and before that served as a Regional Director with Young Life. She has also taught both at a local Christian high school (teaching Bible and doctrine) and at Westmont College, where she trains students in church and parachurch internships.
In keeping with other crazy Californians, Kelly is a devoted bicycle commuter, delighted owner of an Italian scooter, and enthusiastic fan of organic produce and cooking. She has also become quite the blogger, Facebooker, Google Plusser and Twitterer! However, she cannot surf.