Nearly two years ago, Lighthouse Trails issued its first report that the Christian children’s club, Awana, may be heading toward contemplative. Since then, further evidence has come to the surface, and yet Awana leaders continue to deny that this is happening. Today, we received another email backing up their insistence that nothing is amiss. Thus, we revisit the Awana issue – where do they stand when it comes to contemplative spirituality?
In our initial February 2006 report titled “Awana Clubs Are They Heading Toward Contemplative/Emergent?” we began:
Awana Clubs has been a respected and trusted Christian organization for many years. Countless children have been Cubbies and Sparkies and have memorized Scripture through the program.
With so much of the church heading into the contemplative/emergent camp, also known as the spiritual formation movement, what a tragedy it would be to see Awana being sucked into this also. Few things are stable these days … is Awana the next to cave in?
Our report showed some connections between Awana and Willow Creek (a contemplative/emerging organization) as well as promotion by Awana of other contemplative/emerging organizations such as Youth Specialties. Later in August of 2006, we reported that Awana had begun using (and selling) a book by Purpose Driven youth pastor Doug Fields (published by Zondervan and Youth Specialties) to train Awana leaders.
The book by Fields, Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry, is still being used and sold by Awana today. Inside the book are several sidebar commentaries by various people who promote contemplative and/or emerging spirituality: the emerging and mysticism promoting Tony Campolo, the late Mike Yaconelli (founder of Youth Specialties), Rick Warren, Marv Penner (Briercrest Biblical Seminary, Canada), Duffy Robbins, Bo Boshers (leader at Willow Creek), and others, most of whom promote contemplative spirituality and the emerging church.
One year after our second report in July 2007, we issued another one titled “Awana Embraces Contemplative Spirituality.” Even though Awana had been contacted by many people over the previous year regarding their move toward contemplative, the organization continued in that direction. The July report explained:
[T]hrough Awana’s prison project, the organization is incorporating New Age sympathizer Ken Blanchard’s Lead Like Jesus Encounter program…. Blanchard has been promoting eastern-style meditators for over twenty years, and to this day is still doing so. In addition, he is a board member for the occultic Hoffman [Quadrinity] Institute. Blanchard participated in the Hoffman Process and said it made his spirituality come alive. We believe this experience he had through Hoffman is similar to what Blanchard refers to in his Lead Like Jesus book, when he says people who “quiet their mind[s]” during the Lead Like Jesus Encounter have “powerful experience[s].” This means that now children and families in Awana could possibly wind up with the same experience.
Blanchard, who has been a professing Christian since the 1980s, wrote the foreword for a 2001 book titled What Would Buddha Do at Work?. In the book, Blanchard said: “Buddha points to the path and invites us to begin our journey to enlightenment. I … invite you to begin your journey to enlightened work.” … Amazingly, in the book that inspired the Lead Like Jesus Encounter that Awana is using, Blanchard acknowledges Norman Vincent Peale’s role in his spiritual walk. According to Ray Yungen (For Many Shall Come in My Name – p. 47), Peale had strong New Thought connections.
Our July report then revealed that Awana had become involved in a book project called: Perspectives On Children’s Spiritual Formation. Of the book (carried and sold in Awana’s bookstore) we stated:
The book offers four different views on how to transform children. One author, Scottie May, a professor at Wheaton, writes the section titled, “Contemplative-Reflective Model.” May gives a hearty promotion of centering prayer, the Jesus prayer, Christ candles, the Catholic Eucharist and a strong endorsement for contemplative spirituality ala Thomas Merton, whom she favorably quotes in the book. Two Awana staff writers respond in the book to May’s contemplative approach and give it a thumbs up with only minor cautions. But overall they believe that contemplative is a valid approach for all Christians, including children. Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation is giving a green light to Awana leaders around the world to practice contemplative prayer.
It is this book that has prompted us to write this report today, January 25th 2008.
Over the last two years we have received many emails from concerned parents who wrote to Awana about their move toward contemplative, and in these emails we were sent the responses from Awana. Here are a few:
“Dear __, the answer to question is NO, we are not moving toward contemplative prayer, nor do we use contemplative prayer in our materials. To answer the second question, our facilities are not far from Willow Creek, but we are miles away in philosophy.”
“The headline in the article by Lighthouse Trails, “Awana embraces contemplative spirituality,” is not true, nor is it borne out in the article … Lighthouse Trails did talk to Lyndon Azcuna at Awana Clubs International, who told them that although Awana was using Ken Blanchard’s materials, the prison program of Awana does not use New Age and mystical meditation. In the exercise that Lighthouse Trails quotes from Ken Blanchard’s book, Awana uses it as a time for students to engage in individual silent prayer, something that we can agree is an appropriate exercise.”
“The two staff writers [who participated in the spiritual formation book] from Awana, far from giving the ‘contemplative-reflective model’ a ‘thumbs up’ in their critique of the chapter by Scottie May of Wheaton College (as Lighthouse Trails claims), rather temper their statements in the few areas of agreement with the admonition to use Scripture, not experience or feelings as our guide to spirituality. Their disagreements with the ‘contemplative-reflective model’ are very specific and backed up with Scripture. Hence to say that Awana ‘is giving a green light to Awana leaders around the world to practice contemplative prayer’ is a misrepresentation of both our beliefs and practices as an organization…. just because Awana has had some association with those who promote contemplative spirituality or are in the emerging church movement, does not mean we endorse their teachings and practices.”
“I and Awana are not in support of the Contemplative/Reflective style of ministry. I believe people are changed to be like Christ by believing and obeying the Word of God.”
And finally, the email we received today. It is referring to the book, Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation.
“Lighthouse Trials definitely gave a biased uniformed [sic – uninformed] critique. I saw no endorsement by AWANA of the contemplative approach. Rather, I viewed this book more as an academic/education assessment of four leading approaches used in children’s ministry today. I actually was glad to see AWANA was invited to present its’ position. Lighthouse should do more research before hastily making judgments. In fact, they should update their website and apologize for the misleading article, even if unintended, and I am copying them on this email as a request to do so.
At this point, let us look at statements made by the two Awana leaders who contributed to Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation. While some statements are made that “temper” the strong contemplative message in the book, several other statements show that the Awana leaders do not see a serious problem with contemplative spirituality. On the contrary they acknowledge its importance in Christian life. Remember, these comments are made in the book by the two Awana leaders (Gregory Carlson and John Crupper. Following each of their statements is a comment by Lighthouse Trails:
Page 82: “In his excellent overview, Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster outlines six different spiritual traditions that present within the Christian faith. They are the contemplative tradition, the holiness tradition, the charismatic tradition, the social justice tradition, the evangelical tradition, and the incarnational tradition. Each of these has played an important part in the larger history of the Christian church…. Each of these traditions has made significant contributions to Christian spirituality and each has weaknesses when isolated from other traditions.
Our Comment: It is in Streams of Living Water that Foster quotes panentheist Thomas Kelly as saying “within all” there is a “Divine Center” (p. 23). Foster also talks about a “kingdom of heaven” and a “vision of an all-inclusive people (p.12). He later in the book reveals his “I see a people” essay, which is a description of this all-inclusive kingdom (p. 273). This “great gathering of the people of God” includes evangelical pastors, Catholic priests, contemplative monks.
What Carlson and Crupper seem to have a problem with when it comes to contemplative, isn’t contemplative itself but rather that it should not be isolated but should be included in Christian spirituality. That is why they said each has weaknesses when isolated from other traditions. Thus they give their ok to contemplative as long as it is combined with other “traditions.” They say: Each of these models can learn from the other (p. 83).
P. 83-84: “While we believe that the Contemplative-Reflective Model highlights some significant needs in children’s spiritual formation, we should see it as an addition to the base provided for us in the Scriptures….We share agreement with the Contemplative-Reflective Model in a number of areas … we have much to learn from the Contemplative-Reflective Model. Many of our children’s programs are far from reverential, and the constant barrage of impulses does not seem to help in developing this interior life.”
Our Comment: This “interior life” of getting rid of distractions is classic contemplative spirituality. Contemplative mystic Henri Nouwen stated: “to empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God” (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart)
P. 85: [W]e would see many of the techniques [from the Contemplative-Model] of teaching as valuable tools for learning … the ideas of repetition and routine … are important; and we affirm them.
Our Comment – If the Awana writers in this book are trying to persuade readers that they do not promote contemplative spirituality, they have done a terrible job in expressing this. On the contrary, they have given minor cautions and major affirmations. They conclude with: “Given this framework, the Contemplative-Reflective Model becomes, at best, an important tool in helping provide a balanced development of the Christian spiritual life” (p. 87). While Carson and Crupper point out some of the flaws in the Contemplative-Reflective Model, they make it clear that there is much good in it. Their response to contemplative spirituality leaves one message to readers: contemplative has some problems but if incorporated with other spiritual traditions, it has great value. And it is this attitude that is going to take Awana down a slippery slope of deception, unless they truly come to understand the underlying dangers of contemplative and then make every effort to rid Awana of its influence.
Carlson and Crupper say they “appreciate the Contemplative-Reflective Model’s commitment to the development of the child’s spiritual life. We are not in disagreement about the necessity of this. Nor would we disagree with the validity of the model to build upon the foundation that is laid by knowing Scriptures. Further, we would acknowledge that the commitments that drive this model provide a necessary balance within the larger scheme of things” (p. 88). Perhaps Carlson and Crupper do not realize that the “commitments that drive” the contemplative model are based on the spirituality of Thomas Merton as the book points out and they are aligned with panentheism that states all humans have God within. If that is the case, we hope that Carlson and Crupper will research the evidence. Lighthouse Trails will send a complimentary copy of A Time of Departing , which carefully examines and documents the contemplative prayer movement, to any Awana leader who contact us and wishes to read Mr. Yungen’s book.
At Lighthouse Trails we care about children, and we are gravely concerned over the influences that contemplative spirituality is having on countless children attending church services and youth organizations. It is an influence that caused mystic Henri Nouwen to say:
Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God. (Sabbatical Journey, page 51, 1998 Hardcover Edition)
And Thomas Merton to say: “I’m deeply impregnated with Sufism [Islamic mysticism]” (The Springs of Contemplation, p. 266) and Karl Rahner (who is also discussed in the Awana book) to say: “The Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic … or he will be nothing.” It is the spirituality of Rahner, Merton, and Nouwen that Perspectives on Children’s Spiritual Formation is talking about and affirming, and we contend that in such spirituality there is nothing valid, significant, necessary, or important for Christian training and evangelizing.