When the squirrels come to Jesus…
Our ninth-grade boys are affectionately known as “The Squirrels.”
The nickname captures their unceasing chatter and fast-twitch restlessness. So you can imagine the mix of excitement and fear that gripped me when every last one of them signed up for Winter Retreat. The weekend ended up a wild mix of sleeplessness, laughter, a few we-don’t-do-that conversations and some wonderful “aha” moments.
Near the end, Evan approached me and said he wanted to be a follower of Jesus. We celebrated and prayed, I encouraged him, and we agreed to meet soon to talk about next steps. He wasn’t 10 feet away when the thought hit me with a thud:
Specifically, what next steps could I give this new believer so that he might know Jesus more? He was about to return to the routinized frenzy of school, sports, friends, and family. At most he could spend two hours per week at church stuff. Saying “read your Bible” or “pray” felt too simplistic and broad, and I also didn’t want to give him a laundry list of “don’ts.” But lest I do him a disservice, I had to give him something.
I was rescued from my inertia by another student, a senior, who wanted to ask me about some things he’d been thinking about. The conversation turned to prayer, and he marveled aloud how God had been so faithful over the previous year, and how he had seen this through his journal entries.
And there was my answer for Evan: spiritual disciplines.
What are spiritual disciplines, and how can they be used in youth ministry?
Mythbusting Part I: Disciplines are Fringe & New Age-y
When I first heard the term “spiritual disciplines,” I was suspicious. They sounded like a Johnny-come-lately experiential fad that was cheekily attempting to replace tried-and-true practices like prayer and small groups.
But they aren’t that. In the first place, spiritual disciplines are not new; they are ancient. The Church has been blessed by them for centuries. Further, they are not so fringe; in fact, saying the Lord’s prayer, the ACTS prayer (a praying framework of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) or listening to worshipful music could all be considered spiritual disciplines. So could some other things I had already deemed orthodox, like journaling.
So if spiritual disciplines aren’t new, what are they? Quite simply, spiritual disciplines are practices, exercises, and habits that create space for an encounter between God and us. Author and pastor Adele Ahlberg Calhoun explains that the disciplines arose to meet peoples’ desire to know God more. They do not satisfy the longings of our souls by themselves, but rather prime us for the Spirit who does satisfy. 1
When my wife was in college, she found herself in a sorority house full of fun, intelligent girls but no sisters in Christ. Until she met one. And they committed to deepen their relationship. How? Coffee dates. Movie nights. Studying together. Walks around campus when the weather was good. Within weeks they were closer, and within months they had a bond that would extend beyond commencement.
And while they bonded over coffee and movies, it wasn’t the coffee and movies that bonded them. Coffee and movies merely provided the time and space for intimacy to occur.
Spiritual disciplines are like that. They are venues for us to be intimate with the Spirit, and for the Spirit to do its work in our lives. There are lots of different disciplines, many of which I’ve listed some at the end of this article. One of my favorite spiritual disciplines is focused, meditative reading of the Bible. I also have been greatly blessed by listening prayer, the prayer of examen, and fasting. In the time since I’ve started practicing a broader range of disciplines, I’ve grown closer to Jesus.
Some folks identify just a few disciplines, others upwards of 30. A number of people have categorized spiritual disciplines in a way that makes them easier to understand and approach. Dallas Willard offers a framework that has been helpful to me. He identifies disciplines into two major categories: Disciplines of Engagement and Disciplines of Abstinence. 2
Disciplines of Engagement are practices we add into our lives for the sake of spiritual formation. Disciplines of Abstinence involve making changes to things we probably do already in order to create space for spiritual encounter. For instance, we might engage in Bible study or a prayer exercise, and schedule regular times where we abstain from interacting with others, or some expendable part of our regular routine. The list below is partially adapted from Willard’s work:
Some Disciplines of Abstinence
+ Solitude. Purposely abstaining from interaction with other people for a period of time.
+ Silence. Closing off our souls from “sounds,” whether those sounds are noise, music, or words.
+ Fasting. Giving up the pleasures of food, or a certain kind of food for a period of time.
+ Simplicity. Abstaining from using money or goods at our disposal to merely gratify our desires.
Some Disciplines of Engagement
+ Listening Prayer. Spending time in prayer with our hearts and ears open, without much speaking on our part.
+ Prayer of Examen. Deliberately and prayerfully retracing our day/week and paying attention to our “highs” and “lows,” and inviting God into them. This ancient practice was pursued in earnest by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits (and namesake of my high school). 3
+ Meditative Reading. Focusing on a short passage of Scripture and reading it several times prayerfully (sometimes this is also called lectio divina).
Mythbusting Part II: Disciplines are diagnostic tools
So does that mean I can gauge my spiritual health by the frequency and quality of spiritual disciplines? No, of course not. Just as the health of my wife’s friendship isn’t defined by coffee dates, and that of our marriage isn’t defined by chores or Tiffany jewelry, spiritual disciplines are not necessarily indicative of spiritual health.
As we encourage students like Evan toward spiritual disciplines, we must help them distinguish between their relationship with Jesus and the ways they invest in that relationship.
The Fruit of Disciplines
Why encourage students to practice spiritual disciplines?
For starters, it helps them move from “religion about Jesus” to “relationship with Jesus.” The intimacy that students experience from practicing spiritual disciplines can lead to a living, authentic relationship of love, trust, and obedience in God. No longer will they simply memorize Scripture or repeat prayer requests; instead they will begin to love the Bible, love prayer, and most importantly love the God who first loved them.
When times get tough
The intimacy students experience with God, and takeaways like greater familiarity with the Bible and the ability to communicate honestly with Jesus, can better equip them for difficult seasons. Not long ago, I heard a pastor share with his community about a sudden grave illness that had stricken his family. Despite the thick, depleting fog of shock, sadness, anger and confusion that so often accompanies these seasons, he found the Bible passages he’d recently memorized randomly percolating to the service. He had communed with God on a deep, intimate, personal level through the discipline of Scripture memorization, and it helped him cling to truth in the midst of a chorus of tempting lies.
Times of loss, pain, betrayal, disappointment, and loneliness are simply part of the human experience, and certainly high school. The intimacy that comes with practicing spiritual disciplines can help students trust Jesus to comfort and carry them during these times.
Each one teach one
Another benefit of teaching students spiritual disciplines is that they can teach other people, especially other students. Imagine if students were able not only to invite their friends to church or direct them to Bible websites, but also help them learn to do things like pray, listen, recognize God’s presence, and be still.
60% of the time, it works every time.
That line from Paul Rudd’s character in the film Anchorman helps me to remember that discipleship is not an exact science. Some students may go all-in right away. Other students might take much longer to try even the smallest of first steps. And that’s okay. Let’s be faithful in engaging the Spirit ourselves, and faithful in encouraging students toward the same.
Evan is not yet much of a journal-writer, but we’ve had a few good follow-up conversations about Bible verses I’ve asked him to check out. I’ve started writing down his prayer requests, and I’m looking forward to revisiting them with him soon. Baby steps are still steps!
When I’m tempted toward frustration with the pace, I envision Evan a year out of high school, wherever he may be, with a little bit of free time, and wondering what God has for him in this new season. That moment is crucial. If, in that moment, Evan feels equipped to channel his questions for God through practicing listening prayer, reading scripture, or some other discipline, then he has a pretty good chance for a faith that doesn’t just survive after high school, but thrives.
- Evaluate the use of disciplines in your own life. Pick a new discipline or two and schedule – literally schedule in your calendar – some times in the next week or so to try them out. If you already do one or more of them, keep a journal to track the experience more intentionally for a couple of weeks.
- Run some experiments! Invite a couple of students to try new disciplines for a season. These could be student leader-types, or just students you know would be open to something new. You may also want to have some volunteers take part as well. Give them resources, check in with them during the experiment, and debrief after.
- Think about incorporating more disciplines into your next retreat/trip experience. The prayer of examen is a great journaling framework. Surprising, prolonged times of solitude and silence work well with students; on the winter retreat I mentioned earlier, I had our high school students spend 90 minutes in silence, and without exception students said it was the main highlight of the weekend.
- Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 2005), 15-23. ↩
- Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1990). ↩
- For more on Ignatius and Ignatian practices, please visit http://ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/ ↩