by Ray Yungen
The cover of the July/August 1999 issue of Group Magazine, a leading resource magazine for Christian youth leaders, featured a teenage girl, eyes shut, doing contemplative prayer. The article, “Ancient-Future Youth Ministry” begins by declaring:
It’s Sunday just after 5 p.m…. Seven adults are sitting around a “Christ-candle” in the youth room. There is no talking, no laughter. For 10 minutes, the only noise is the sound of their breathing … now it’s 7 p.m.–one hour into the night’s youth group gathering. There are 18 senior highers and five adults sitting in a candlelit sanctuary. A gold cross stands on a table…. They’re chanting the “Jesus Prayer,” an ancient meditative practice.1
The article discusses two Christian organizations, Youth Specialties and San Francisco Theological Seminary (Presbyterian Church, USA), which teamed together in 1996 to develop an approach to youth ministry that incorporates contemplative practices.2 Mark Yaconelli, son of the former director of Youth Specialties, the late Mike Yaconelli, was hired to direct the project, which was called the Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project. The article is very open to the fact that sacred word repetition was at the heart of this project. These two organizations sponsored the project in sixteen churches of various denominations. The article reveals that, in all sixteen test congregations, middle school and senior high youth “were eager to learn contemplative spiritual practices.”3 One of the church’s associate pastors even went so far as to say, “We shouldn’t be surprised it’s working so well. It’s kind of a no-brainer. If you make the space, the spirit will come.”4 According to the project’s mission statement, this model will soon be “made immediately available to youth ministries nationwide.”5
Just how widespread did this become? In 1997, the Project received a grant from the Lilly Endowment to test a “spiritual formation model.” Furthermore:
Youth ministry leaders were trained to meet regularly for faith sharing, contemplative prayer, and communal discernment … communities were then encouraged to begin forming young people in contemplative understanding through silence, solitude, and a variety of contemplative exercises….
Spiritual formation tracks, based on the experience of the Project, were implemented at youth ministry conventions and conferences…. National news services such as the Wall Street Journal, Knight Rider News Service, CBS radio and ABC World News Tonight all ran stories on various aspects of the Project.6
Since this project began, Youth Specialties has become a driving force, having a major impact upon evangelical youth work throughout North America, hosting several annual events including the National Youth Workers Convention, the CORE, and the National Pastors Convention [now run by Zondervan]….
Mike Yaconelli’s attraction to and acceptance of contemplative prayer was very similar to the story of Sue Monk Kidd. In his book, Dangerous Wonder, Yaconelli relates how lost he had felt after twenty-five years of ministry. In his “desperation,” he picked up a book by Henri Nouwen (In the Name of Jesus) [the same book Kay and Rick Warren recommend] and said he heard the “voice of Jesus … hiding in the pages of Henri’s book” and found himself wanting “to start listening again to the voice of Jesus.”7
In Nouwen’s book, we can find the method that led to Yaconelli’s claim to a newfound voice of Jesus:
Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them … For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required.8
Nouwen believed that wisdom and courage were found in that place of silence, when in reality they are found in Godâ€™s Word. Yaconelli took Nouwenâ€™s admonition to heart and began promoting that prayer method through his own organization.
If this mystical paradigm shift comes to complete fruition, what will the Christian of the future be like? If Christians develop into the spiritual likeness of Henri Nouwen, we will find them meditating with Buddhists as Nouwen did–which he called “dialogue of the heart.”9 We will also find them listening to tapes on the seven chakras10 (which Reiki is based on) as Nouwen did, and above all we will find them wanting to help people “claim his or her own way to God”11 (universalism) as Nouwen did. Nouwen wrote that his solitude and the solitude of his Buddhist friends would “greet each other and support each other.”12 In this one statement lies the fundamental flaw of the contemplative prayer movement–spiritual adultery.
Buddhism proclaims there is nothing outside of yourself needed for salvation. One Buddhist teacher wrote, “The Buddhist approach states that what is ultimately required for human fulfillment is a perfection of being that is found in who we already are.”35 A Christian is one who looks to Jesus Christ as his or her Savior, so to honor the Buddhist approach is to deny the One who gave Himself for us. It is logically impossible to claim Christianity and Buddhism as both being true, because each promotes an opposite basis for salvation. Jesus said, “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved” (John 10:9). You cannot love and follow the teachings of both Buddha and Jesus–for in reality the choice is either trusting in a self-deity or trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The only way Nouwen’s contemplative prayer could support the Buddhist view is if it shares the same mysticism … I believe the facts speak for themselves. Once this becomes clear, it is easy to see also that this is the same mysticism many seek to emblazon on the heart of evangelical Christianity.
The question may arise–how can credible Christian organizations justify and condone meditative practices that clearly resemble Eastern meditation? As pointed out earlier in [A Time of Departing], Christian terminology surrounds these practices. It only takes a few popular Christian leaders with national profiles to embrace a teaching that sounds Christian to bring about big changes in the church. Moreover, we have many trusting Christians who do not use the Scriptures to test the claims of others. Building an entire prayer method around an out-of-context verse or two is presumptuous, at best. Now more than ever, it is critical that Christians devote themselves to serious Bible study and discernment regarding this issue.
1. Mark Yaconelli, “Ancient Future Youth Ministry” (Group Magazine, July/August 1999, http://www.ymsp.org/resources /ancient_future_article.html), pp. 33-34.
2. The Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project (history page, http://www.ymsp.org/about/history.html, accessed 1/2006).
3. Mark Yaconelli, “Ancient Future Youth Ministry,” p. 39.
4. Ibid., p. 39
6. The Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project
7. Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003, revised edition), p. 16.
8. Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, pp. 6, 31-32.
9. Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p.20.
10. Ibid., p. 20.
11. Ibid., p. 51.
12. Ibid., p. 20.
13. Reginald A. Ray, “Understanding Buddhism: Religion Without God” (Shambhala Sun Magazine, July 2001, http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Ray/july_01.htm), p. 25.
(Excerpt from chapter 9, A Time of Departing, 2nd edition)