Quiet Down: Lectio Divina in Youth Ministry

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Some years ago, I recall playing a popular youth group game called "Bigger and Better." Perhaps you've enjoyed it yourself or with your youth group. You and your team are armed with a small inexpensive item and sent out into the neighborhood to knock on doors, requesting a trade for something "Bigger and Better."  At the end of the evening, whichever team comes back with the biggest and best item, wins. It's a game worth trying out.

And yet, I often wonder if the concept of that game has migrated into all areas of our ministry.

Bigger events, louder music, farther mission trips, deeper lesson content, messier games, greater numbers, funnier videos, bigger ministry budget, busier lock-ins, and on and on. It seems to be the trend that the more spectacular the idea, the greater our hope that through it we will win our kids to Christ. While a "Bigger and Better" approach to our ministry can keep our teens busy, and potentially be a lot of fun, I wonder whether this approach actually has the faith-growing impact we desire.

What if we got quieter with our kids instead of louder? What if we did less programming every second of the night and left a large chunk of time open for silent reflection? What if we did less talking and more listening? What if we taught less about Christian topics and let scripture speak for itself?

During last week's Youth Ministry Resource webinar, Lectio Divina was mentioned as a resource for your youth group. Lectio Divina is a process of quieting oneself and allowing God to speak to us through words and short phrases found in scripture. It requires very little: A Bible, a quiet room, and perhaps a pen and paper. The general format of Lectio is a four part process:

  • LECTIO: Time to read through the scripture passage. In a group, I tend to read through the verses 3 or 4 times, each from different people. Sometimes using different Bible versions can be helpful for each reading. You may want to consider using the familiar text, or allow words from a less familiar translation bring new insight into the passage. As you read through, encourage your group to write down a word or short phrase that captures their attention.
  • MEDITATIO: A great way to understand the concept of meditating on scripture is to picture a dog chewing on a bone. Focus your attention on that word or phrase. Let it roll around in your thoughts. Turn it over and over. Allow this passage to stir up ideas, pictures, or emotions. Taking the time to simply allow the passage to be "in your space" is a necessary part of the Lectio practice and one that you don't want to skip over quickly.
  • ORATIO: The third section is your opportunity to listen to God. Why this word? Why these images or feelings? What is it God wants you to hear from this passage? What is he calling you to do? To change? To give up?
  • CONTEMPLATIO: The final step is to simply rest in the presence of God. Take the time to be aware of God's active work in your life and give him thanks for it.

I've had the privilege of leading a group of over 70 teens through a 15-20 minute meditation, as well as many opportunities to lead a handful of teens through a 60 minute Lectio meditation (on Friday afternoons, after school!). While the four part process is quite fixed, the time allotment and number of people in your group can vary.

While this form of meditation is good for personal reflection, I firmly believe that it's ideal for groups. At the end of the meditation, it's important to allow a few from your group to share their experience. It's also important to recognize that  not everyone will "get something out of it," but that the time spent in Lectio is your gift to God.

I encourage you to create space to allow your students hear the still small voice of God. Below is a handout that you can use to facilitate a Lectio Divina experience in your youth group.

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Greetings:

      As much as I agree that more quiet is excellent, and that less rah-rah is helpful, I wonder if you have allowed the pendulum to swing too far. It is a known fact that Lectio Divina has its roots in Roman Catholic mysticism and by definition mysticism is the attempt of a person or a group of persons to have unmediated access to the divine, or simply put "union with God.". It is no secret that Thomas Merton one Roman Catholic who advanced this mystical strand and was very much popularized by Richard Foster's book, "Celebration of Discipline" was a practicing Buddhist. In Buddhist and also Hindu thought, the idea of self-emptying to be in touch with the spiritual is well known. The very description above, of quieting and centering could be just as Buddhist or Hindu as it is supposedly Christian.

I think a big buyer beware sign is needed.

Shalom

PS. Tom Challies who is a very consistent and well-balanced blogger has written a piece called "The Dangers of Lectio Divina" in which he worries about its highly subjective approach.

http://www.challies.com/articles/the-danger-of-lectio-divina

PSS. The website Lighthouse Trails features a former new-age guru who became a Christian. He often comments on mystical strains in Christianity. Here is a link to a "Lectio Divina: What it is, What it is Not, and Why It is a Dangerous Practice" on that website that documents the influence of another Catholic mystic, Thomas Keating who advocated "naked intent directed to God" through centering prayer.

http://www.lighthousetrailsresearch.com/lectiodivina.htm

 

 

   

 

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Merton was a practicing Buddhist? I'm no Merton scholar, but a quick glance on Wikipedia shows that isn't the case. And even if Buddhists or Hindus practiced something similar to Lectio Divina, I don't think they'd be doing it using scripture from the Bible.

I glanced at the Challies article and it seems to address pastors who might use Lectio Divina as the sole basis for their sermon-writing (rather than other hermeneutical tools, commentaries, etc). I can't imagine a pastor doing that and, even if some would, it's a very different scenario than what is described here.

 

Greetings Tim:

  "In the 1969 book Recollections of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West, Benedictine monk Br. David Steindl-Rast wrote that Thomas said that he wanted "to become as good a Buddhist as I can."  [from Clark below] To me that is as close to practising as it gets.

But just for accuracy, a well balanced piece by Anthony Clark entitled "Can You Trust Thomas Merton" clearly demonstrates his move towards Eastern mysticism and Zen especially. It is here:

http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/can-you-trust-thomas-merton

 

Another recent post by Justin Taylor, who does not seem to engage with former Eastern mystics, but mostly scholars is a well-balanced treatment that even looks at some of postive givens of Roman Catholic mysticism. However he waves a huge caution flag and states the following dangers about such. Sadly the above article fails to address any of them. Taylor in his "An FAQ on Mysticism and the Christian Life" states:

What are some differences between Christian mysticism and biblical spirituality?

First, Christian Mystics tend to have an optimistic understanding of human nature. As noted above, they do not believe that mystical experiences can be self-generated, and hence it would be incorrect to label them Pelagian. But it would not be inappropriate to suggest that many of them were semi-Pelagian, or at least practiced spirituality in such a way that would lead one to this conclusion. For some, this is more explicit than for others (note George Fox’s notion that all of us are born with a divine “spark”). If all of us have a principle of grace or a ray of divine light residing within us, no matter our eternal spiritual condition, it follows that the ultimate difference between those who progress toward illumination and on to union are those with whom the human will has made a self-determination. The biblical view, to the contrary, is that all of us were “dead in the trespasses and sin in which you once walked . . . we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and of the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul proceeds immediately to reveal the difference between those who remain in this state and those who change: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:1-7).

Second, there is another deficient element to the Christian Mystic’s anthropology: he does not fully recognize the healthy and holistic way in which God has created us. The Christian mystic tends to rend asunder what God has joined: doctrine and devotion, head and heart. Because the mystical experience is not open to falsification, external examination, or even rational analysis, the role of the “heart” must be elevated above the “mind.” In fact, part of the purgation process is to rid oneself of one’s thoughts that could supplying distracting data that would prevent a divine encounter. Whereas the biblical model is to fill our hearts and mind with the great and precious promises of God (2 Pet. 1:4)—meditating on his Word day and night (Josh. 1:8), such that it is compared to our daily, sustaining bread (Matt. 4:4)—the Christian Mystic seeks to not only purge himself of all that is sinful and encumbering (stage 2) but ultimately wants to purge himself of even his delights in the character and presence of God (stage 4). This is deeply and manifestly unbiblical.

Third, despite what they might profess, the Christian Mystic’s actions tend to undermine the necessity of grace. Biblically, there is grace to forgive and there is grace to empower. We are saved by grace (Eph. 2:8-9), and yet Paul also regularly imparts a benediction of “grace and peace” to his readers. Paul is livid with the false teaching in Galatia that suggests that we start with grace and then move on to works as the means of spiritual sustenance, incredulously asking, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). The Christian Mystic often gives the impression that God might begin the process but it is up to us to find the right formula or set of rules to experience a deep and mystical encounter with him. Whereas the Christian Mystic is content to speak about the ascent and descent of the human soul in its question for a divine encounter, God tells us in his word that we are not to say in our hearts, “‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). Rather, it says: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:6-10).

Fourth, the previous point flow is bound up with  the Christian Mystics’ downplaying of the legal and forensic aspects of divine salvation. The work of Christ on the cross not only wipes our slates clean, but it also provides us with full, legal righteousness in the sight of God. We are not merely put back into the pre-probationary garden, where Adam was sinless but with the potential to fall; rather, we are united to Christ and adopted as his young brothers and as sons of the Most High. Everything he has, we have. Our salvation is secure not because of our works but because of his work. The Christian Mystic seems to view Christ mainly as our example, with the danger of Christ as our savior at times downplayed—and usually with Christ as substitute almost completely obscured. Only in so far as we realize that we are possessed by Christ and fully accepted by our Father can we be freed to walk with him in love, without servile fear. In so doing, our relationship to God is more like living with a loving Father whom we aim to please than it is like working for a boss whom it is difficult to visit with and where one’s job is always on the line.

Fifth, the Christian Mystic confuses the biblical order of union with Christ and communion with God. All who are spiritual—that is, all who are born again and made alive with God—are united with him. There are not some Christians who are united and some who are not. It is part of a package deal. With the legal and relational reality of union with Christ, we have communion—fellowship, participation—with the triune God. Whereas our union with Christ is immovable and secure, our communion with God can have ups and downs. There can be moments of greater and lesser closeness and relationship as we repent and return to the Lord again and again. The Christian Mystic conflates these two aspects of the divine-human relationship because he has such a small category for the forensic reality, and thus he is—in a sense—seeking that which he could already obtain from a childlike trust in his substitute and savior, and runs the serious risk of perpetuating self-righteousness in seeking to work for that which could be his as a gift. Another way of describing this is that the Christian Mystic has an under-realized soteriology.

Sixth, combined with the Christian Mystic’s under-realized soteriology, there is an over-realized eschatology. As mentioned above, we are united to Christ and seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:7). Those in Christ have already died and our life is “hidden with Christ in God.” What the Christian Mystic seems to fail to recognize is that when Christ returns, the—and only then—will we “appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4). The Christian Mystic is seeking for something good—to be in the full and final presence of God without sin or stain and to be ultimately absorbed into the life of the Trinity—but he is seeking it at the wrong time. Our focus should be on communing with God through the means of grace, through individual discipline and corporate worship, seeking to know him more and more as we love God with all that we are and seek to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Seventh, the Christian Mystic makes a fundamental misstep in seeking to have a direct and immediate experience of God that is unmediated. At first glance, this desire can be seen as commendable. Should we not want to experience the presence of the Lord apart from any barriers or intermediaries or encumbrances? The biblical answer is that we should want to experience God in the way that he has ordained. First, we return once again to the issue of the work of Christ, who was sent by the Father to have a mediatorial role. He did not come as only a teacher or as a great example, but as our substitute savior, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The only way to the Father is through him (John 14:6), and the Spirit and the Son combine to intercede for us before the Father and interpret our inarticulate prayers (cf. Rom. 8:27). Secondly, returning to the idea of an over-realized eschatology, we must recognized that on this side of the new heavens and the new earth, God “has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2), and we have access to his Son through his written Word. So the Word of God must be an irreducibly central role in both our communication to, and our communication from, the living God. To seek to separate God from his word, and Christ from his work, are unthinkable unrealities. And to bypass both of these mediatorial aspects of divine communication is a grave mistake that opens the door to that which contradicts the word of God.

Eighth, though not all Christian Mystics have the exact same presuppositions regarding the corporate nature of fellowship, there is a troubling tendency in the tradition to practice spiritual isolationism. We noted earlier in this essay that the Christian Mystic rightly obeys Jesus’s command that there are times when we must get alone in our prayer closets to pray in secret to our Father who is in secret. But the Christian Mystic sees the height of spiritual achievement as involved the mystical process of purging all distractions and individually seeking a communion with God. Even many Mystics who have sought to live in community have done so in a way that is isolated from society at large. What seems to be a noble quest for God, involving a renunciation of earthly pleasures (from marital love to clothing that does not scratch) is not held forth in the Bible as the ideal of godliness. We are to be eager to gather with the saints in order to stir one another up to love and good works, to encourage and meet with one another instead of neglecting each other. The idea of full-time Christians withdrawing from society and banding together may seem more spiritual, but it is not biblical. Spiritual growth takes place not only in the prayer closet, but in corporate worship as the people of God gather together to hear the Word of God read, and the Word of God proclaimed, and the Word of God sung.

Ninth, the Christian Mystic may be critiqued for having an incipient Gnosticism in his theology and practice. While biblical spirituality would certainly encourage every professing believer to purge himself of sinful thoughts and behavior, the Christian Mystic tends to go beyond this. The body, and the things of this world, are frequently regarded as competitors with God rather than gifts from God to be utilized and enjoyed. When Paul tells us to “set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2), he does not have in mind a fundamental spiritual-material duality. This is seen by his explanation of those earthly things we must shun just a few verses later: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. . . .anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (vv. 5, 8). These are contrasted with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12). The Christian Mystic must seriously reckon with Paul’s association of deceitful spirits and demonic teaching with the forbidding of things like marriage and foods under the guise of godliness (1 Tim. 4:1). Instead, Paul says, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4). If the Christian Mystic insists that some of God’s created goods must be purged, and that even his enjoyment of God’s very presence must be put away in the dark night of the soul in order to achieve union with God, then he is walking in contradiction to the very way and will of God.

Finally, although this has been touched on before in various ways, we may note again the crucial place that Scripture should play in our understanding of and practice of biblical spirituality. A bedrock principle of spirituality that is biblical is that Scripture itself plays an essential, norming role. God has spoken, and he is not silent (to use Francis Schaeffer’s memorable terminology). His word is clear, not obscure. His word is authoritative, not just advisory. His word is necessary, not optional. And his word is sufficient, not just helpful. The Apostle Paul proclaimed that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). At the end of the day, this is one of the clearest contrasts between Christian Mysticism and biblical spirituality. In the former, spiritual quests are made that are not informed and constrained by God’s self-revelation in holy Scripture. If we want our spirituality to be biblical, Scripture must be our norming norm.

Source:  http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2015/10/30/an-faq-on-my...

I'm curious about peoples' experience with a younger group, such as grade 9.  

Guide

I have had good experiences leading lectio with grade 9 students. I have led sessions with students as young as 12. 

Participant

Hello Mark,

thanks for posting this article.

Ron De Vries, you indicate that you have done this with some youth in the past.

Can either of you, or others, suggest particular texts that you have used? 

And, did you have a theme or goal that you wanted to achieve with the youth?

I am wondering if there are particular texts that might help broach subjects that the youth are struggling with...

Many thanks!

Dale

Guide

A few I have used were Psalm 23, sections of Psalm 139, and sections of Psalm 145. 

Thanks Dale, very much appreciated.  I've used a variety of texts.    I've found poetry (Psalms) to be very good. And I've used the stories where Jesus is interacting one-to-one with another person.  I would be cautious of attempting to use a text with the attempt to speak into an issue.  The goal of Lectio is the practice of active listening, not the "lesson" of the text.

Something I've also found helpful is to use an alternate translation, especially for well-known passages. The new terms help bring a freshness to the passage.  

I hope this is helpful, and that your experience with your teens is beneficial.

Participant

Thanks again Mark, and you too Ron,

currently our Jr. high group is reading the Bible together out loud, one verse and paragraph at a time. And we are using about ten different translations, so the kids have to listen well. The goal is to improve their reading of the Bible skills, attenuating their ears to the variances. The experience has proven to be quite effective thus far.

the next skill we want to teach them is to engage in reading the Bible as a conversation with God (active listening). So I wondered how a text might end up speaking to a youth about 'discrimination' and/or 'bullying' should we read the story of Hagar? Or how a youth might ponder suicide when reading the story of Elijah after the Mt. Carmel story?

based on your comments, I am hearing you say that we need to allow the youth to actively listen and if the story speaks to them about such thoughts/actions - great! But do not attempt to deliberately the youth there.

if all this sounds great, thanks!

if I missed something, please comment.

Dale

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