Beginning in junior high, I learned that there was a “right way” to engage in personal spiritual disciplines.
It was the “quiet time”—a daily, 30-minute (this was the ideal) time of scripture reading, journaling, and prayer. It was communicated to me, explicitly and implicitly, that this was not only the best, but also the only way to maintain a close personal relationship with Jesus.
It wasn’t until later in my life that I learned there were other ways I could be with God; ways of prayer and engagement that freed me up to be who I am as I discover who God is. Along that journey I heard about the concept of “Sacred Pathways”—a phrase from a book by Gary Thomas that describes patterns and practices customized to our temperaments that open us up to God. 1 As they do, they open us up to the life God wants us to live.
When I Meet God as Myself
Adolescents are spending vast amounts of energy trying to understand who they are in this world. During the process of identity exploration, we as youth leaders have an opportunity to help them understand not only who they are, but also how those traits can be used to connect with God. We do that best not by plugging them into a one-size-fits-all spirituality, but by showing them the wide variety of ways a person can connect with God.
John Ortberg describes it this in The Me I Want to Be:
Because you have been created by God as a unique person, his plan to grow you will not look the same as his plan to grow anyone else. What would grow an orchid would drown a cactus. What would feed a mouse would starve an elephant. All of those entities need light, food, air, and water—but in different amounts and conditions. The key is not treating every creature alike; it is finding the unique conditions that help each creature grow. 2
Just as living creatures rely on the same components, Christians often look to a set of practices: reading and reflecting on scripture, prayer, service, community, and adoration. The key to the pathways is that the types of disciplines or the frequency of engagement with them are not prescriptive. Rather, they are pieces that can be arranged in an infinite number of combinations in order for a follower of Jesus to draw closer to him.
Thomas developed his understanding of various spiritual temperaments by reading classic writings on spiritual formation, studying the lives of biblical figures, and tracing historical movements in the Christian tradition. He also considered the role of personality temperaments, most notably through the work of Carl Jung and the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. These factors combined shaped his perspective that God creates each of us not just to worship him, but to do so in a way that aligns with who God created us to be.
Here is an overview of the nine pathways according to Thomas’ understanding:
- Naturalists: loving God outdoors. Naturalists draw near to God through nature.
- Sensates: loving God with the senses. Sensates draw near to God by engaging with what they can see, hear, touch, taste and smell.
- Traditionalists: loving God through ritual and symbol. Traditionalists draw near to God through longstanding practices of disciples through history.
- Ascetics: loving God in solitude and simplicity. Ascetics draw near to God in stripped-down spaces and practices.
- Activists: loving God through confrontation. Activists draw near to God through bringing about social change.
- Caregivers: loving God by loving others. Caregivers draw near to God through caring for and serving others.
- Enthusiasts: loving God with mystery and celebration. Enthusiasts draw near to God through experiences of great joy and God’s unexpected movement.
- Contemplatives: loving God through adoration. Contemplatives draw near to God through personal adoration and heartfelt devotion.
- Intellectuals: loving God with the mind. Intellectuals draw near to God when they learn new things about God or Scripture.
Helping Young People Discover their Pathways
In my experience, students are able to identify, at least in part, which 2-3 pathways they feel affinity with. Sometimes they discover this by taking an assessment of some kind. 3 But more often I find that young people tend to discover their pathways experientially, by trying out a few of them and then reflecting on that experience.
A great venue for this is a retreat, since it allows for extended time to experience the pathways. On a couple of retreats I’ve been part of leading, we’ve explored the pathways. We explained the importance of discovering what works for each person, and then allowed time for students to try several out firsthand.
Each time we spent about half a day exploring the pathways. We created stations where students could engage each pathway, and they were each able to try four pathways for about 45 minutes each. I have included some of the stations we created for each pathway below as examples, along with the scripture we paired with each one.
After students tried several pathways, we gave them time to reflect on their experience, asking which stations they most enjoyed and which they didn’t. The latter, we stressed, was just as important as the former; it is okay to be really bored while trying one of these pathways, and that does not make you less spiritual.
Activities to experience each pathway:
- Naturalists: Retreats often provide ample natural beauty. Once we were near the beach, another time we went to the desert. In both places, students had time to walk alone in nature.
- Sensates: Provide mints or small chocolates at a table. Play soft music and, if possible, light a scented candle. Instruct them to eat very slowly, reflecting on Psalm 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Once we had someone who could teach an “Art as Worship” workshop, leading kids to create pieces of art.
Traditionalists: Explain and then lead a Lectio Divina exercise. 4 The psalms or the Lord’s Prayer both work very well as texts for this. Alternatively, you could pray a set liturgy, perhaps based on the Christian calendar or using the Book of Common Prayer.
- Ascetics: Provide a space that is as silent and visually distraction-free as possible. Once we were on a college campus and had the keys to empty, undecorated dorm rooms. Each student could have their own room for the 45-minute session, or even choose to stay there through the morning. There is no prescription for what the person does with that time; the key is to offer the right kind of space for engagement.
- Activists: This was a station we did not have at our retreats because we didn’t have a partnership for an active service project. This was disappointing, since it was the number one pathway many of our students identified through which they felt connected to God. Instead, students could write letters to people affected by injustice to encourage them. If they were over 18, they could write to their government representatives.
- Caregivers: See if a hospital or senior citizen care facility would welcome cards. If so, students could make cards for patients and residents. Similarly, some missions and shelters that serve the homeless value care kits with toiletries, individual snacks, and personal notes.
- Enthusiasts: Although none of the pathways are specifically about music, for our purposes we offered celebratory themed musical worship at this station. More than usual, we encouraged dancing, hand-raising and bowing for kids to try. Engaging these different postures before God helped students practice musical worship in ways they did not normally and we found their reflections on both the lyrics and the experience of singing were more thoughtful because they got out of the routine of our typical youth group music time.
- Contemplatives: This pathway is easily experienced in the simple prompt to write God a love letter. This could also be a place for experimenting with silence or an art project. Whichever you choose, the key is to lead participants towards adoration and an emotional connection to God.
- Intellectuals: Ask someone with theological training to teach a class on a topic your students may find interesting. This could be anything; in our case, we did an “intro to narrative theology” class, but the goal is to really teach something the students have not learned before, allowing them to be drawn to God by engaging their minds.
The Pathways as Lifelong Tools
Recently I wrote to one of the students who first learned about the pathways during a two-day retreat designed just for exiting seniors. She is in her senior year at Berkeley now.
I asked if she remembered the pathways and if she had found them helpful. She wrote back,
I loved it!!!! As someone who has trouble connecting to God ‘traditionally’ on Sunday mornings, I remember loving how it gave legitimacy to so many different ways to meet with God. Last year I was feeling spiritually dry and I went back to that list. I love learning but I was always more ascetic and activist. I reassessed myself, and actually found that I had moved towards intellectual and contemplative paths. Since then I have started reading more theologically-focused books and it's helped me deepen my faith a lot in a way I hadn't explored before. As time goes by and your life changes, so can your tools for growing closer to God and your spiritual needs.
I had no idea that introducing this student to new ways to engage God would yield such rich fruit. Understanding the pathways gave her a tool to walk with faith throughout college, responding to the changes in her life. Looking back, I am thankful we created space for students to experiment with and process different avenues for connection.
Whether you use this particular model or another, consider exploring the broad range of spiritual practices that have helped Christians engage God through the centuries. 5 For those students who are like me in junior high, you could help faith stick in whole new ways.
- See Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways: Discover Your Soul's Path to God. ↩
- John Ortberg,The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God's Best Version of You (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010), 49. ↩
- There is an assessment for the nine pathways available in Sacred Pathways, located at the end of each chapter. The same questions have been consolidated in a free online format available at http://common.northpoint.org/sacredpathway.html. ↩
- Here are two guides that offer ways to engage in a Lectio Divina practice: https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/2011/11/whats-bringing-life-to-my-own-scripture-reading/ and http://www.marshill.org/pdf/hc/practices/LectioDivinaINDGROUP.pdf. There are also several versions of lectio divina woven into the Sticky Faith Every Day Curriculum leader guide and daily guides. ↩
- Other books that explore similar ideas include Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster, Looking for God: An Unexpected Journey through Tattoos, Tofu, and Pronouns by Nancy Ortberg, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton, and The Life You've Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People by John Ortberg. ↩