The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone…
We live in a noisy, busy culture that applauds those who clamor for attention, demonstrate neurotic busyness, and draw big numbers. Most youth workers would be quite happy after hosting an event that drew more than 5,000 teenagers—so would our churches.
And youth workers must resist this trap.
Notice that as soon as Jesus finishes this special event, he disappears for a while. All through the Gospels, we see Jesus following a pattern of intense engagement with others—then disengagement, of seeking solitude, of time spent alone with the Father. So what was the purpose of Jesus’ solitude? It wasn’t just to reenergize so he could pull off another big event—it was for his own transformation.
I’m not so idealistic that I believe churches should evaluate youth workers’ effectiveness solely on the basis of their spirituality or devotion to Christ. Of course we must attract youth to our churches and ministries. Of course we must run programs and events. Of course we must communicate effectively to youth, parents, and church leadership. But these activities should spring from, and be energized by, a wholeness of soul, by deep passion and devotion to Christ.
In other words, youth workers should be women and men of God before they’re program directors, cultural experts, video-game specialists, or social planners. And we become women and men of God by nurturing our souls and living conscientiously in the presence of God. Thomas Merton declared our souls are wholly offered to God when we are entirely attentive to God.
One of the best avenues toward attentiveness to God is solitude. The factor that best enriches solitude is prayer. But when you think about prayer and solitude, I hope you don’t see an unappetizing, one-dimensional, boring picture of mindlessly praying through a never-ending, impersonal list in a self-chastising manner. Prayer isn’t supposed to look like that.
For 2,000 years, followers of Jesus have developed a plethora of prayer practices that effectively respond to and explore Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing” that result in satisfaction rather than frustration.
Practices such as Imaginative Prayer, Examination of Conscience, Centering Prayer, Respiratory Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, Praying Scripture, Liturgical Prayer, Bodily Prayer, and Keeping the Hours, among others, have helped make prayer a richer experience and a major aspect of silence and solitude. Reading Scripture devotionally through Lectio Divina, as well as through Sacred Reading and Meditation and Contemplation, are also important parts of solitude.
I’ve also discovered other activities that help me embrace solitude, nurture my soul, draw me closer to Jesus, and bring me passion for life: I’ve developed a love for great art and enjoy visiting art galleries; I’ve created several playlists on my iPod that truly take me places deep in Christ; occasionally, I love to attend a well-chosen movie that communicates a great story; I enjoy sitting for hours in a coffee shop with a classic, life-giving book.
All of these activities inspire me deeply because I’m doing them with Jesus as my friend. When I practice solitude in all these ways, I feel like I have something to offer when it comes to sharing life with young people and others in my world and ministry.
We youth workers would serve Jesus, our churches, our youth, our loved ones—and ourselves—much better, more deeply, and more passionately if we would make solitude a part of our work-related duties.
So let us insist on a new kind of job description that takes soul care and shepherding of youth seriously. Let us work toward work habits that include spiritual retreats, pilgrimages, spiritual direction, and sabbaticals as required activities for the glory of God.
Let us begin today.