Giving “Always-Online” Youth Space to Breathe

This fall, we tried something that might seem a bit unusual for an evangelical youth ministry program. We set aside one night a month for high school students centered around a series of spiritual practices, such as Lectio Divina, the Labyrinth, or the Prayer of Examen.

Surprisingly enough, it worked.

Even though “Breathe Night” was largely my idea, I was easily the most surprised of anyone that it worked. And that is because, like many other youth ministry leaders, I often limit my imagination of what is possible to the “chocolate-covered spinach” approach to youth ministry:


Chocolate-covered Spinach

The “chocolate-covered spinach” model looks like this: First, draw the kids in with an exciting game or activity — the chocolate. Then, when you have their attention, follow that up with the teaching or lesson — the spinach that in some sense you believe will be good for their soul.

Fun + content = youth group night.

This “chocolate-covered spinach” model of youth ministry can be quite effective. It was the sort of youth ministry I experienced growing up, and I can’t say it didn’t work. But there are some definite limits to the “chocolate-covered spinach” approach:

First, by dipping our spinach in chocolate, we assume the gospel is not compelling enough to stand on its own. Theology at its finest inspires awe and wonder, rather than boredom or confusion. We patronize our kids when we assume they need the “living water” to be watered down with fun and games in order for them to get it. If there are glazed eyes in the teenage audience, it is probably because there is something wrong with the content, not the context.

Second, chocolate-covered spinach can totally miss the true value of games and other fun group activities. Through teamwork and shared experience, games are a great way of building community. But they often fail as a form of outreach, especially among older kids who have the time and freedom to do whatever they want. There is an element of pride in thinking we can be the “fun place” in the neighborhood; besides, the spiritual seekers who walk by our church everyday are not secretly wondering how good our dodgeball game is.

Third, the chocolate-covered spinach too easily assumes that what kids today need most in their spiritual formation is more information. Growing up as a “Millennial”, I experienced information overload from school, the media, and even from my church. Fortunately (and this was an advantage my generation had over the “Gen-X”ers), the answers to this information flood were a quick Google search away on a dial-up modem. For today’s youth, the “Digitals” who breathe wi-fi as if it was oxygen, the internet has gone from being a place of answers to being yet another information flood. If we want to serve our kids, we need to realize that they have already have a full plate of information to consume. The last thing they need from us is more spinach: what they need is a moment to digest it all.


The “Breathe Night” experiment

Riffing off a resource put out by our denomination, “Breathe Night” opens with worship and centers on a contemplative activity from church tradition.

Curious how the kids were connecting, I asked our two sophomore girls — who are both blessed with the spiritual gift of telling it like it is — what they thought of Breathe Night. The responses I got were a simple “good” and “it reminds me of camp, and I like camp.” Success.

In youth ministry and in life, there is no such thing as a miracle program or even something wholly original. Nonetheless, Breathe Night has been for us one more step away from the limitations of chocolate-covered spinach:

First, it does not patronize the kids. By giving them this space, it puts them in charge of their own spiritual biographies. Theologically speaking, we trust this works because of the influence of the Holy Spirit. If that is a bit too shaky a foundation for our modernist sensibilities, there are plenty of scientific studies supporting the idea of contemplation as good for the brain. Both Christians and non-Christians are welcome to the Breathe Night space, and by extending the invitation to both we underscore the idea that church is a place for all to experience God, not simply a place for fun and games.

Second, by prioritizing spiritual formation we actually put fun and games in their proper place. At the end of each Breathe Night is an informal time of snacks and hanging out, along with an invitation to join us next week for an activity that usually is more on the fun side of the spectrum. Like any meal where the entrée comes before dessert, putting the spinach before the chocolate seems to make more sense. In the merely strategic terms that help us think through how to “grow” a youth ministry, Breathe Night serves as outreach to the spiritual seekers, the low-hanging fruit.

Finally, Breathe Night provides that much needed space kids need to process today’s information overload. In today’s world of constant noise and fractured attention, the idea of pushing pause is subversive. One example: during a recent Breathe Night that utilized a labyrinth, students had space to write and journal while the rest of the group made it through the labyrinth. I have yet to see a sermon move the kids to write down quite this much. We ended up running late and so the leaders had to gently interrupt the sound of mad scribbling on paper.

Of course, the kids are not the only ones getting something out of Breathe Night. As a participant myself I can say each of the spiritual practices has left me feeling inspired and recharged — and I imagine this has been true for the other adult leaders who join in. Even if as a “Millennial” I did not spend my formative years in today’s information flood (I did not get my first smartphone until after college), I am still living in today’s world with all of its challenges. I suspect those of us who are “Generation X-ers”, “Baby Boomers”, or part of the WWII generations are all feeling some sort of fatigue from being always connected all the time.

Kids these days are finding God in the disconnect. Maybe it would be wise for the rest of us to follow their example.

The “Labyrinth” — which we were blessed to get on loan for the night—fit the church’s lounge perfectly.

Article cross-posted from Ravenswood Evangelical Covenant Church’s February 2015 newsletter.