Mystical Youth Ministry

(May 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 5) 

Ministering to young people has never been an easy task and that is certainly true today. How are we to engage over-stimulated teenagers with the truth of the Word of God without boring them to tears? God’s people have contemplated this question since the invention of the teenager.[1] Many programs and philosophies have come and gone. Some appear successful for a time only to fade away when more carefully analyzed or a new generation becomes immune to currently accepted techniques. The youth rallies sponsored by parachurch organizations such as Youth for Christ have been touted as both the beginning of aggressive and effective ministry and the beginning of the end of the very same. Proponents point to the great turn outs and obvious interest of that generation of young people. Opponents wonder if all that was accomplished was conditioning youth to want entertainment rather than substance when it came to Christian matters. More recently we witnessed Willow Creek modeling an already fading fad in which young adults were separated rather exclusively from over-thirties. Dedicated buildings, different music and teaching formats with specially trained leaders allowed for almost total separation of the young from older adults. But Willow Creek abandoned this once-flourishing concept aimed at Generation-Xers in the face of mounting evidence that such ministries were neither effectively changing the lives of the youth nor integrating those young people into the adult body of the church as they grew older.[2]

In our next installment of Think on These Things we want to present what we believe at our church to be the biblical model of youth ministry. In this edition, I would like to examine yet another powerful fad now making the rounds of evangelical churches, what I call “mystical youth ministry.” Perhaps the strongest promoter of this philosophy is Youth Specialties which, through its seminars and conferences alone, impact the lives of tens of thousands of youth leaders and young people every year.[3] Of course, Youth Specialties pours out tons of literature as well, much of it in promotion of mysticism.[4] In this paper I will be interacting largely with Mark Yaconelli’s recent book Contemplative Youth Ministry, Practicing the Presence of Jesus. This volume, jointly published by Youth Specialties and Zondervan, seeks to propagate an approach to youth work that would mirror ancient Roman Catholic mystical practices of the middle ages. I believe this book well represents what some are trying, unfortunately with good success, to introduce as the next wave of youth ministry.

An Idea Is Born

As so often happens, Yaconelli’s ideas were born out of frustration. The son of the late Mike Yaconelli, founder and long time leader of Youth Specialties, Yaconelli learned first hand about mysticism from his father who later in life sought a mystic fix to his own frustrations with the Christian life. But Yaconelli’s mystical formation went well beyond his father’s input. He participated in the “Program in Christian Spirituality” and received a diploma in the Art of Spiritual Direction at San Francisco Theological Seminary, perhaps the leading seminary in the country for mystical studies. He cofounded and codirected a seven year study called “Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project” from 1997 to 2004.[5] And he has drunk deeply at the well of classical mysticism, both past and present. Concerning all of this, Yaconelli writes,

In recent years there has been a rediscovery of the significance of presence within the Christian life. Locked away within ancient books, monastic communities, and the lives of individual praying Christians is a deep concern for presence – presence to God as well as presence to other people…. Contemplation is about presence.[6]

All that Yaconelli has learned from his mystical studies he has now incorporated into his “contemplative youth ministry,” which he defines as “courageously beholding the reality of our own lives, the reality (whether it be joy or suffering) of the young people we serve, and the reality of God’s love beneath it all.”[7] That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? In addition, Yaconelli’s incentive for developing his youth ministry philosophy was his observation of weak youth programs which he calls a “Nickelodeon approach to youth ministry that seeks to appeal to kids’ propensity for fun and recreation…It’s the ministry of excitement; discipleship through fun, culture-friendly, ‘Christian-lite’ events.”[8]

Mike King, in his very similar book Presence-Centered Youth Ministry, writes, “The notion of youth workers as entertainers and program directors must give way to youth workers as authentic shepherds, spiritual guides with a holy anointing to lead youth into the presence of God.” [9]

The fact is Yaconelli and King see a genuine problem, but what is the solution? Their answer is a mystically-oriented youth ministry which has at its heart contemplative prayer. We begin to sense there is a problem with Yaconelli’s solution when he quotes Roman Catholic mystic, Thomas Keating, saying, “Contemplative prayer is the opening of mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words and emotions.”[10] We immediately begin to notice that Yaconelli is leading us into a type of prayer not found in Scripture. Biblical prayer is rational. It uses the mind and words and often involves the emotions. Contemplative prayer is super-rational – it “relies not on words, study, and reason, but on silence, prayer [the contemplative variety] and imagination.”[11] While no such prayer is encouraged in Scripture, it is the heart and soul of classical mysticism. The goal of mystical-oriented youth ministry is to share with young people “the idea of sacred space, a thin place where heaven and earth meet, where God’s presence is so real that the place and encounter take on profound sacredness.” [12]

What are the mechanics of contemplative prayer? Let’s let Yaconelli speak for himself:

Take a moment to set down this book and simply become aware of your surroundings. Allow your eyes to receive the light, colors, and shapes around you without seeking to “do” anything with what you see. Then gently close your eyes and turn your awareness to your ears. Allow yourself to receive the sounds and noises around you without judgment. Then take a moment to become aware of your body. Beginning with the top of your head, allow a gentle attention to move down your body to the soles of your feet. Allow yourself to notice places of tension or pain without passing judgment. Can you compassionately receive your physical self? Spend a few moments allowing your body, just as it is, to breathe and rest in the presence of God. When you’re ready, take a moment to direct your attention toward God. Quietly turn your awareness to the presence of God within all that you see, all that you hear, and all that you feel.[13]

As anyone who is versed in Scripture understands, no such directives are ever found in the Word. By contrast these are typical instructions as found in Eastern mystical religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism as well as medieval Roman Catholic mysticism. But again, and this is the important thing to emphasize, it is not found in the teachings of Scripture.

The Forms

There are numerous ways that “Christian” mystics have tried to connect with God. To this end in his book Mike King prescribes virtually every practice ever invented by Catholicism: sacred spaces—where God’s presence is real (p. 87), labyrinths (p. 87), stations of the cross (p. 95), incense (p. 97), icons (pp. 132-134), respiratory prayers (pp. 121-123), the Jesus prayer (pp. 121-122), prayer ropes (pp. 123-124), making the sign of the cross (pp. 129-132), daily offices (pp. 134-136), lectio divina (p. 147), crucifixes (p. 170) and confession to a priest (p. 171). Yaconelli, while I have no doubt would be in considerable agreement with King, gives his attention to two primary practices.

Lectio Divina

This is Latin for “holy reading,” and is increasingly becoming a popular method of contemplative “Bible reading” in mystical and emergent circles. It was introduced to the West by Eastern “desert father” Cassian in the fifth century and became part of the Benedictine monastic tradition. As Yaconelli is careful to tell us, “When we engage in lectio divina, we are not seeking to read the Bible for knowledge or instruction (although both of those may come), nor are we seeking the escape of a good story. Instead we come to the words of the Bible seeking to be with God.”[14] Ken Boa, another promoter of mystical Christianity, explains that lectio divina involves four movements:[15]

Reading (Lectio)

“Since lectio divina engages the whole person, your bodily posture is important. A seated position that is erect but not tense or slouched is best…. Remember that unlike ordinary reading, in lectio you are seeking to be shaped by the Word more than informed by the Word”[16]

Meditation (Meditatio)

“Meditation is a spiritual work of holy desire and an interior invitation for the Spirit to pray and speak within us (Romans 8:26-27)…Meditation will do you little good if you try to control the outcome.”[17] Incorporating the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola is recommended for meditation.

Prayer (Oratio)

Boa informs us that “Oratio [Prayer] is a time for participation in the interpenetrating subjectivity of the Trinity through prolonged mutual presence and growing identification with the life of Christ.”[18]

Contemplation (Contemplatio)

To the uninitiated, contemplation often is confused with meditation but they are not the same. In ordinary circles meditation describes deep thinking and analyzing with a rational mind and some may use contemplation as a synonym for this activity. But contemplation in mystical circles “is a theological grace that cannot be reduced to logical, psychological, or aesthetic categories…It is best for us to stop talking and ‘listen to Him’ in simple and loving attentiveness. In this strange and holy land we must remove the sandals of our ideas, constructs and inclinations, and quietly listen for the voice of God.”[19]

Yaconelli tells us that one technique to help in this process is take a word or phrase (in essence a mantra) and “repeat it to yourself, allowing the rest of the text to fall away. As you prayerfully repeat it, different thoughts, feelings, and images may arise…. [By this methodology we can] pray ourselves empty… [and] sink into God beneath all your thoughts and feelings.”[20]

Centering Prayer

This fourth and final movement of lectio divina overlaps with the second way Yaconelli tries to connect with God, which is centering prayer, sometimes known as contemplative prayer or breath prayer. Boa tells us that this is a practice:

Recently revised and updated by three Cistercian monks – Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington. This method of prayer is based on the fourteenth-century classic of mystical theology, The Cloud of Unknowing. …In this tradition, the invocation of the name of the Lord Jesus is used to create a state of receptivity and interior recollection of the presence of God.[21]

While biblical prayer is vocal, mental, rational, thoughtful and reflective, contemplative prayer is wordless, mysterious, filled with silence and a loss of feelings, mental images and concepts, and even the ability to meditate.[22] Boa explains, “This is a discipline of silence, of loss of control, of abandoning the attempt to analyze and intellectualize, and of developing the intuitive faculties.”[23]

Yaconelli wants us to know that “in centering prayer we remove the temptation to spend our prayer time in thought and study,”[24] and the best way to do that is through the use of a mantra,

Before you begin in prayer, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to be with God…. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal a word that is suitable for you. Examples include Jesus, Lord, Abba, Love, Mercy, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Shalom, and Amen.[25]

King offers a version of this he calls respiratory prayers which “are usually said in association with the breathing rhythm.”[26] In conjunction with what he calls the “Jesus Prayer,” King gives these instructions: “With the inhale, pray the first part, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God.’ With the exhale, pray the second part, ‘have mercy on me, a sinner.’”[27]

These men assure us that centering prayer is “time tested”[28] and “is a summary of various silent prayer practices that can be traced back to the very beginnings of Christianity.”[29] But when Yaconelli footnotes this statement he takes us back to the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” of Roman Catholicism of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, not to the “very beginnings of Christianity.” There were, in fact, some mystics prior to the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation of this period but they were few and mysticism certainly was not a mainstream Christian practice. And when we examine the “true beginnings of Christianity” as found in the New Testament, nothing resembling centering prayer can be found anywhere. The only feeble attempt at proof-texting Boa offers for contemplative prayer is Matthew 17:4-5 in which the Father said, “This is My Beloved Son with whom I am pleased; listen to Him,” and Psalm 37:7, “Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him.”[30] Yaconelli’s only effort at finding a Scriptural base is a misinterpretation of Romans 8:26, “Yet God often communicates [with us] in ‘sighs too deep for words.’”[31] None of these verses are even remotely referencing anything like contemplative prayer. The modern mystical movement has no roots whatsoever in God’s Word. Rather, it is drawn from the corrupt doctrines and practices of medieval Roman Catholicism.

Yet Yaconelli, Youth Specialties, Zondervan and a horde of others want to take our young people down this path of mysticism. Incredibly, some Christian ministries are introducing mysticism to small children. NavPress, the publishing arm of the Navigators, produced a curriculum aimed at children ages 7 to 12, entitled Pray Kids! Issue 25 is devoted to contemplative prayer. One article recommends praying the Lectio Divina and tells the children to “be still before God. Get a picture of a sunset in your mind or something else He has made that amazes you. Wait quietly to let Him tell you about Himself.” The children are given a sample prayer to repeat which begins, “God I’m really glad to be with You today. I want to hear everything You want to tell me about Yourself, Your ideas, Your plans, and Your world.” Our children are now being led by a once respectable ministry down the path of mysticism.

Yaconelli, in his book, supplies an appendix showing the supposed superiority of contemplative youth ministry with other approaches. He stereotypes biblically-oriented youth ministries as complacent, conforming, dogmatic, indoctrinating, regurgitating and institutional. On the other hand he claims contemplative-oriented youth ministry is loving, informed, the way of Jesus, reflective, seeking and the living God.[32] Sounds great, but contemplative youth ministry fails one very important test—the test of Scripture.

Toward the back of Yaconelli’s book numerous other resources are offered youth leaders to help with guiding young people into mystical Christianity. These include: Enjoy the Silence, Soul Shaper, The Book of Uncommon Prayer 1 & 2, and Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy. Rather than following this literature into the unbiblical snare of mysticism, I believe there is a better way—a way that can truly be traced to “the very beginnings of Christianity.” We will explore this biblical-based youth ministry next time.


[1] The term “teenager” is of recent origin, only having appeared around the mid 20th century. See


[3], claims to serve more than 100,000 youth workers worldwide every year through their training seminars and conventions, resources and the internet.

[4] For a more complete understanding of the resurgence of classic mysticism I would draw your attention to our TOTT articles on mysticism at

[5] Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry, ( Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), pp. 26-27.

[6] Ibid., p. 23.

[7] Ibid., p. 24.

[8] Ibid., p. 45.

[9] Mike King, Presence—Centered Youth Ministry ( Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity Press, 2006), p. 25.

[10] Yaconelli, p. 82.

[11] Yaconelli, p. 56.

[12] King, p. 87.

[13] Yaconelli., p. 81.

[14] Ibid, p. 85.

[15] Kenneth Boa, The Trinity, a Journal ( Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), p. 13.

[16] Ibid., pp. 14, 15 (emphasis in the original).

[17] Ibid., pp. 16, 17.

[18] Ibid., p. 19.

[19] Ibid., p. 20.

[20] Yaconelli, p. 86.

[21] Boa, p. 21.

[22] Ibid., p. 21.

[23] Ibid., p. 21.

[24] Yaconelli, p. 88.

[25] Ibid., (emphasis in the original).

[26] King, p. 122 .

[27] Ibid.

[28] Boa, p. 21.

[29] Yaconelli, p. 87.

[30] Boa, pp. 20-21.

[31] Yaconelli, p. 89.

[32] Ibid., p. 240.


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