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‘Trust their capacity for God’

19 May 2009

Prayer can’t be thrust on teenagers, says Ben Brown. You can only encourage it

Helping Teenagers to Pray
Mark Yaconelli
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

I said the book was ostensibly for those engaged in youth ministry, but what is great about Mark Yaconelli’s book is its focus on the need for prayer in general. This means prayer not understood just as intercessory (as it is in so many of our churches), but prayer as simply being with God. We can all learn from the lightly worn wisdom here. No one method of prayer is preferred; rather, there is “an intentionally unpredictable mixture of stories, ideas, methods, theological ruminations”.

Yaconelli writes from a contemplative perspective, and throughout the book he identifies a very modern restlessness in our Western culture, which seems specially designed to prevent intimate access to God: a 24-hour bombardment by advertising, television, texting, and email.

So, to help teenagers pray (not to mention helping ourselves, as well), we must create, or take them to, a space in which they can pause: “We have to make a clean break from the regular speed and activity they’re accustomed to.”

Yaconelli calls this “downtime” a mini-sabbath of the spirit. “I’m referring to a sort of inscape — a sinking down into the mysterious reality of life . . . a returning to our natural dependence and need for God.”

He is consistently and refreshingly anti-authoritarian in his approach, careful to emphasise the need for the youth leader to “pray lightly”, because “The souls of your students rest in God.” Trust is a key word — trusting teenagers with prayer rather than imposing it on them. The leader makes the space, marks out the time, for the group, but then steps back, because prayer cannot be managed. As Yaconelli writes from his own experience, “young people need me to trust their capacity for God.”

Prayer is not a technique, but the book is a treasure-trove of ways to God, which will be just as helpful to the adults as to the teenagers they are working with. I particularly liked the chapter on imagination in prayer, based on the spiritual exercises devised by Ignatius of Loyola. You pick a passage from the Gospels, and read it slowly to the group, pausing to ask questions such as, “What time of day is it?” or “What can you see to your left?” After the passage is read, there is a period of silence, to allow the imagination of the young people listening to go where it will. This, again, is a matter of trusting teen­agers in their imaginative freedom of response to scripture, and in discovering the life of God in, and for, themselves.

This book is a must for all those involved in youth ministry, and also for all who are keen to enrich and deepen their prayer. It is written with real generosity and spiritual delight.

Ben Brown is a pastoral assistant in the parish of Putney, south London.

To order this book via Church Times bookshop click here

To order this book via Church Times bookshop click here

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