If your goal is to simply socialize youth into the church and its routines, then you do not need to read any further. Good luck with that.
However, if your goal is to invite young people into a life of discipleship, then it is critical that we start seeing ministry as discernment and not as a process of socialization and that we view the practice of discernment as ministry and not only as a tool for planning ministry.
In the youth ministry world, I often hear and see the (false) polarization of action and contemplation. Youth ministries tend to lean towards either one or the other of these two (false) poles. Either a ministry emphasizes a devotional life of prayer, reading scripture, attending worship regularly, listening to Christian music, etc. OR it emphasizes a life of service, leadership and engagement. Neither of these are wrong, but both are only half-truths. Discernment is a singular practice that consists of both action and contemplation.
“Action will always set up the need for contemplation. But true contemplation is never a mere retreat. Instead, it draws us deeper into right action by getting us more deeply in touch with the gifts that we have to give, with our needs to give them, with the people and problems that need us.” (The Active Life by Parker Palmer, pg. 122)
What Palmer is describing is discernment. We contemplate God’s call for our communities – our gifts, our needs, the worlds needs, etc. – while living out what we believe our call is. In the process of living out that call, we are draw more deeply into contemplating that call anew. This is discernment, this is what is at the center of discipleship and this is what is at the center of ministry.
Discernment is a process of asking ourselves Bonhoeffer’s two questions: Who is Christ for us today? To whom is Christ calling us? These are the questions of discipleship (See Andrew Root’s Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry and Relationships Unfiltered). A disciple of Christ will ask herself these two questions daily. Therefore, discernment is not a tool to use for planning ministry, for planning the program year. Rather, it is the substance of ministry as we learn to ask ourselves these questions together in community on an ongoing basis. Sure, these can be questions for church conference rooms, but they are also questions for the church parking lot, the dinner table, the town square, your child’s bed at bedtime, etc.
How do we practice discernment? It can be as “simple” (and believe me it really isn’t that simple) as keeping Bonhoeffer’s questions in front of ourselves, our youth, our staff, our volunteers and our congregations. But we have also been given an invaluable tool from the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project called the Liturgy for Discernment. (I won’t explain it here for the sake of time and space but you can follow the link to learn more about it.)
Just remember, these are not tools to be reserved for your leadership team. These are the primary questions of the Christian life and I believe we need to be teaching our young people how to ask them and how to wonder about them together in light of God’s promises (this is where the practices of interpretation and discernment begin working together).
Discernment is one of the primary practices in the anti-model of youth ministry because it prevents us from becoming locked in meaningless rituals and from adopting practices from another context that don’t make sense in our own contexts. It also keeps us focused outward on our neighbor and how Christ is calling us to our neighbor in news ways each and every day.
Discernment is how we live out discipleship together, listening and looking for God’s Spirit as it fills us and calls us for the sake of the world.
I do not think there is one right way to practice discernment, so please do share. How does your community practice discernment? How do you pay attention to the Spirit in your place?
Further Reading on Discernment:
Growing Souls by Mark Yaconelli
Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli
Practicing Discernment with Youth by David White
Grounded in God by Farnham, Hull and McLean
This post is the third post (of 9) in this “anti-model” series.
- Part 01: youth ministry anti-model
- Part 02: youth ministry is interpretation
- Part 03: youth ministry is discernment
- Part 04: youth ministry is proclamation
- Part 05: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are theological
- Part 06: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are relational
- Part 07: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are holistic
- Part 08: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are vocational
- Part 09: interpretation, discernment and proclamation are experiential