Contemplative Approach: Communicating the Gospel to Youth

BY: Andrew Zirschky


During the 2000s, youth ministry became increasingly enamored with contemplative practices. Many ministries traded disco balls, comfy couches, and messy games for candles, centering prayer, and a little lectio divina. Now, roughly a decade into this renaissance in spiritual practices, the glow has faded and many youth ministers are dusting off the mothballed games-and-glam approach while packing away the coffee, candles, and contemplation.

What happened? Has the contemplative approach to communicating the gospel been found wanting? In actuality, I’d suggest that despite dripping a lot of candle wax on the youth room carpet, many ministries that “went contemplative” never fully understood nor embraced the approach.

The aim of contemplative youth ministry is to “be attentive to God’s presence, discerning of the Spirit,” as a community that accompanies “young people on the way of Jesus.”[1]  No candles required.

The contemplative approach borrows generously from Christian monastics and mystics. Rather than placing emphasis on the actions of the teacher skilled in educational method, the contemplative approach casts the youth leader as the abbot charged with fostering an environment for listening to God. In monastic tradition, the role of the abbot is not primarily to impart knowledge, but to structure the life of the community for times of listening to God and one another in various forms of contemplative prayer, worship, dialogue, and action. Compare this to many forms of youth ministry in which the youth minister is perceived to function as both cruise ship recreation director and master teacher imparting the gospel and applying biblical truth to the lives of youth—a tall order to be sure.

The contemplative approach puts the focus on the work of the Holy Spirit as the teacher who speaks, guides, and forms us while we abide in God’s presence. The role of the youth worker is to alleviate distractions and anxiety, in order to allow the community to rest in God, listen to God, and follow God together.

In this approach, creating space for God becomes a main task of youth ministry. Ensuring that there are times of gathering as Christians for prayer and discernment away from the distraction of the world, but always sent back to the world, is central. Thus, while some other approaches are primarily concerned with applying biblical truth to young lives, or helping youth interpret their lives in light of the gospel story, the contemplative approach is concerned with helping youth be attentive to God. “We move away from anxious concern with creating entertaining programming or doctrinally sound instruction and toward a peaceful and prayerful attention to God’s presence in the lives of young persons.”[2]

In this approach, the structure of youth meetings then becomes set by a “liturgy of discernment” designed to lead the group together toward shared space for discerning God’s voice and call. It is likely that such a liturgy will include times of silence, rest, meditation on scripture, reflection, and discussion of what God is showing, revealing, and doing. The liturgy often employs a host of historical spiritual practices from a variety of Christian traditions such as Ignatian awareness examen, lectio divina, centering prayer, Jesus prayer, and simple silence.

Far from banishing fun and craziness from youth ministry, Mark Yaconelli advocates for including in times of ministry anything that effectively opens youth to discerning the call of God.  He writes specifically about one youth group that needed times of bowling together regularly in order to reduce anxiety and distractions and allow them to focus on God in their times of discernment together.[3] The point is that the youth minister as abbot doesn’t include such times merely as a way to attract youth; rather, they’re included in order to properly structure the Sabbath rhythm of work, play, and rest and allow young people to be present and attentive to God.

Lesson 6: Contemplative Approach 1


For Further Reading:

Mark Yaconelli, Growing Souls

Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry

Mike King, Presence-Centered Youth Ministry


[1] Michael Hryniuk ,“The Journey of the Beloved: A Theology of Youth Ministry,” in Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry, edited  by Mark Yaconelli.

[2] Michael Hryniuk ,“The Journey of the Beloved: A Theology of Youth Ministry,” in Growing Souls: Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry, edited  by Mark Yaconelli, 78

[3] Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry (Zondervan, 2006).


Click the links below to read the series in its entirety:

Communicating the Gospel to Youth: A Youth Ministry Course in a Nutshell

Course Overview

  1. Instructional Approach
  2. Community of Faith Approach
  3. Interpretive Approach
  4. Developmental Approach
  5. Liberation Approach
  6. Contemplative Approach


No comments found.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

October Spotlight:  Professional Education Track


October Spotlight:  Professional Education Track CYMT offers two excellent education and ministry training choices: The Placement Track and the Professional Education Track. Interest in the Professional […]

CYMT Alumni Blown Away by Changes in Their Youth on Theology Together Trips


CYMT’s new partnership with CSM, City Service Mission, opens doors to impact more students across the country, and this is only the beginning. Continuing to believe that we are better together, CYMT has partnered with CSM to bring a “Collide-like” experience to cities across the nation. This partnership allows CYMT to live into our gifts of developing a theologically rich curriculum that enables students to reflect using the WOW Theological Method, ultimately creating a mission trip experience that is much more than a week of community service.


How to Have a Ministry Trip in 2021


Spring has sprung!  In many areas, the weather has turned warmer, which means summer is, well, “hot” on its heels. If your youth ministry might be looking to make a difference this summer. […]