A number of years ago, our church began to take seriously the call to spiritual formation. We became aware that it is quite possible to be busy with church activity, yet not transform in any meaningful way.
We transitioned our church from a thriving seeker-based church to one that prioritizes spiritual formation. In the process, we questioned the effectiveness of our major programs and looked at them with fresh eyes. As a result, we have shifted our youth ministry toward the discipline of solitude.
Youth ministries long to see the transformational work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of young people. We intuitively know discipleship to Jesus is a matter of the heart, but many of our attempts at discipleship use external measurements: attendance at various programs, Bible verse memorized, right answers, avoiding bad behavior, etc. As we evaluated our ministry, we began to be concerned that in our attempt to teach young people how to have an effective quiet time we neglected to teach them to sit in the presence of God.
Productivity vs. Rest
Quiet times often are focused on content (read/answer questions) and focus on productivity and what we get out of them. Approaching discipleship from a production orientation can lead to a rigidity and legalism. Quiet times become tasks that get checked off rather than being life-giving and transformative. We know God desires relationship more than duty (Ps. 51:16-17; Mic. 6:6-8), and relationship is found in the inefficiency of unhurried time.
Henri Nouwen wrote: “The discipline of prayer is the intentional, concentrated, and regular effort to create space for God. Everything and everyone around us wants to fill up every bit of space in our lives and so make us not only occupied people, but preoccupied people as well” (Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit). We approach quiet times with much the same mindset and seek to not waste time. Mary understood that time invested at the feet of Jesus was more important than giving attention to other pressing details (Luke 10:38-41). Her posture wasn’t productive. Still, her presence at Jesus’ feet was profound; she understood that dynamics of relationships demand unhurried time together.
As we disciple young people, we must help them avoid the trappings of productivity and learn to sit in the unhurried presence of God. We must help them move from content-driven to presence-driven time with God. We must make this choice ourselves, as well.
In solitude, we sit quietly and patiently, waiting for the still small voice of God to remind us of our identity as created in His image, redeemed through the life and work of Christ. In solitude, the external markers of effectiveness are replaced with steadfast attention on our Savior. We are reminded that our identity does not come from what we accomplish or how others view us.
This is not to say solitude is easy. Often, we find as soon as we enter solitude, thoughts jump into our minds, recalling tasks that need to be accomplished.
The task in solitude is to persevere until those voices are quieted and we are left with the truth of ourselves without any exterior way of propping up our identity. In such a place, we finally are able to hear the voice of God reminding us we are His beloved.
As I began journeying into solitude, I felt pressure to produce something to prove the time was worth it. Solitude was foreign to me. Yet as I persevered, the richness of my identity being rooted in Christ and confidence in who I am in Him has given me a renewed passion from which I’m better able to minister to young people. I’ve learned a few things along the way.
Push Against a Culture of Efficiency:
Psalm 46 reminds us to be still and know God. Efficiency emphasizes what we do—formation allows Jesus’ life to be lived in and through us. We are conditioned to continue something only when we see immediate and tangible results. In solitude, we patiently wait. Otherwise we may be inclined to think we have produced change within us. Engage in solitude not for the next week or two, but for the next season. Continue even when you feel nothing is happening. Large strides in formation occur on the road of inefficiency.
Create Space for Silence:
In seeking to incorporate solitude, we must become comfortable with silence. My car’s antenna broke a while ago which makes it difficult to listen to music. Instead of finding ways around the silence, I have learned to embrace it. Take a drive or bike ride, resisting the temptation to grab your ear buds and catch up on your favorite podcast. We must be ruthlessly aware of our addiction to productivity and noise.
Concentrate on a Passage:
When reading Scripture, do not rush through a passage. Read a passage a couple times a week for a month. Don’t try to memorize it; simply read and re-read it a number of times, allowing your mind to be brought back to it through the month. Read Colossians 2:6-12. Concentrate on what it means to have been made complete because of your union with Christ. Additionally, read Mark 1:9-15 paying close attention to how the Father describes the Son before any miracles or teaching.
Any new discipline can seem overwhelming, and it is easy to feel like a failure so start off small. Set aside 20 minutes a week. Bring a journal and pen with you into solitude. Whenever an idea comes in to distract you, simply write it down so you can come back to it at a later time.
Breath prayers are short prayers that can be recited with the rhythms of breathing. The goal of breath prayers is to sit in solitude with Jesus. Once in a quiet place, begin reciting a short prayer alongside your breathing. Imagine what would happen if that prayer were actualized in your life. A prayer that has been helpful is “Lord Jesus (inhale), live Your life through me (exhale).”
Adventure with Others:
Invite others to engage in solitude and debrief the experience. Share what you noticed. Sharing stories of what God is reminding us of is a great way to encourage us to remain faithful to solitude. Remind each other to be expectant and not forceful.
As our church began the journey of taking seriously the call of formation, we began taking students on a solitude retreat to the California coast. We spend time alone and then came together to discuss what it means to be God’s treasured possession. I am confident that if you ask students who have come to any of our retreats, they would say the solitude retreat is the best—no frills, no high-energy, no wow factor—just an invitation to be still and know He is God.
Brian Robertson is a youth pastor, husband and father living in Cameron Park, California. He has served in youth ministry for more than 15 years and currently is the youth pastor at Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California. He is passionate about rethinking youth ministry and writes about youth ministry, theology and leadership issues at AllThingsYouthMin.com.