Growing Souls, Experiments in Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli


Mark Yaconelli, in conjunction with San Francisco Theological Seminary and with the financial support of the Lilly Endowment, began in 1997 The Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project for the purpose of developing, field testing and promoting a mystical/contemplative approach to youth ministry. That the aims of the project have been successful is evident in Yaconelli’s conclusion:

Ten years ago you would’ve been hard pressed to find a labyrinth or even a candle in a youth room…Taizé music, lectio divina, and spiritual direction were all viewed with suspicion and regarded as a return to ancient pagan practices. We’ve come a long way, baby. Now youth ministry conferences and catalogs offer labyrinth kits, scented prayer candles, and journals with orthodox icons on the cover and quotes from [mystical] classics (pp 278-279).

Exactly what is this contemplative approach to the Christian life? It is hard to say, for as Roman Catholic monk Thomas Merton says, “Contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized” (p. 11). Still the goal is clear as well as the methodologies. The aim of “spirituality,” as Yaconelli sees it, is to feel the presence of God, to listen to His voice in a mystical experience (p. 22). “It’s a recovery of the mystical dimension of the Christian Life” (p. 279). The methods used for such “experiences” are not drawn from Scripture but from the so-called “ancient tradition of the church’s common life” (p.77). By this is meant not the examples and practices of the New Testament church as found in Scripture but the “disciplines” created by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox monks and mystics from what is often termed the classical period of church history (A.D. 200-700) and the counter-Reformation era (16th century). In particular, the disciplines promoted include silence, solitude, contemplative prayer, lectio divina, the Ignatius awareness examen, the liturgy for discernment and Sabbath, all guided by “spiritual directors.” Each of these practices takes on specialized definitions found in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition. Spiritual Formative is often the title given to this process (p. 59). It is of utmost importance to recognize that what Scripture means by these terms, when used at all, are not what contemplatives mean by these words. For example, Spiritual Formation is not the same as discipleship, contemplative prayer is not the same as biblical prayer, spirituality is not the same as being led by the Holy Spirit into godliness, lectio divina is not the same as reading and meditation on Scripture.

The renaissance of interest in contemplative practices is due largely to Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, but also to Merton, Henri Nouwen and Eugene Peterson (p. 65). Evangelicals who are absorbing the writings of these men are being rapidly drawn into what they believe is a deeper dimension of the Christian life, even though this mystical approach to Christianity is totally foreign to the Word of God. Nevertheless, Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner assures us, “The devout Christian of the future will either be a mystic, one who has experienced something, or he will cease to be anything at all” (p.65).

Noticeably absent from this book is any definition of what salvation means. When attempts are made, salvation becomes something like finding “inner peace” (p. 72), hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit (p. 74), living a life of love (p. 241), smiling and being happy (pp. 242-243), and trying to “improve myself” (p. 243, also see pp. 141-144). And the Christian faith is evidenced by being involved in a social agenda to improve life on this planet (pp. 157, 174-177, 257). This should not surprise the reader since all 16 churches involved in the project were either from mainline, liberal denominations or Catholic churches, with one Quaker church thrown in. What should surprise and alarm us is the rapidity in which evangelical churches, denominations, institutions, Bible colleges and seminaries are adopting these same practices and this approach to Christian living.

Growing Souls serves as a helpful overview of the destructive encroachment of unbiblical practices and beliefs that is now infesting much of the evangelical community.


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