Christian Practices & Spiritual Disciplines for Youth Ministry and other important reading for serious youth workers

At Hearts & Minds, we stock tons of youth ministry resources–game
books, Bible studies, prayer activities, discipleship outlines, video
resources and all sorts of experiential programming stuff. And, of course
(of course) more foundational background theological work to understand
a biblically-driven vision for ministry. And (again: of course, of course)
some very useful guides to understanding contemporary youth culture, Christian
evaluations of current research on teens in America and wise, general-market
studies of various aspects of the high school subculture. Even if most
“Christian bookstores” don’t stock “Ëœem.

We highly recommend recent titles such as Queen Bees and Wannabes:
Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends & Other
Realities of Adolescence
(which in many ways is the Reviving
of the new decade). Patricia Hersch’s excellent A
Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence

is essential reading, and we’ve enjoyed the delightful memoir,,
written by a young lady with a nice style.

If church-based, youth worker volunteers want to be effective in their
highly significant task, they simply must move the empty pizza boxes,
parent permission forms and tangled-up volley ball nets and clear out
some time and space to read and study. (I first read this funny image
in my friend Mike Woodruff’s fine alphabet book, Managing Youth
Ministry Chaos
, which is certainly the most practical book I’ll
ever mention!)

So, this month, we have some suggestions for serious study for youth
workers. They are very good, very important and really new. As the stupid
Austin Powers would exclaim, “Yeaaah, Baabbeee!”

Here, then, are some truly extraordinary books on youth min. With no
exaggeration, I think I am ready to say that these are some of the most
significant and unique–pioneering is a word that comes to mind–books
in this field in the last 20 years. You read it here first.


The first book I must mention is the new, bright Way to Live:
Christian Practices for Teens
edited by Dorothy Bass and Don
Richter (Upper Room Books, $16.00).
To understand this cool-lookin’,
creatively done collection of essays, one must know that this is a teenaged
version of a very, very important Jossey-Bass anthology that created quite
a buzz when it came out a few years ago, called Practicing Our Faith:
A Way of Life for Searching People
edited by Dorothy Bass.
than examining traditional, individualistic and internal “spiritual
disciplines” this approach invites us to consider ways of ordering
our daily lifestyles in ways that are consistent with and intentionally
shaped by Christian conviction. Rather than the often-discussed disciplines
of prayer and worship, say, these authors ask how our embodied lifestyles
— practices — can illustrate our faith; in other words, there
are chapters on caring for our bodies, how we sing, our use of time and
traditions of sabbath-keeping, our handling of money, our habits of hospitality
and similar seemingly mundane actions . This very practical notion is
deeply rooted in profound theological and spiritual reflection, but insists
that we practice our faith, living out our discipleship in ways
that are truly “whole-life” and quit concrete.

Neither the initial adult volume nor the new youth edition are at all
legalistic. They don’t give a simple prooftext and then insist that
“this is what the Bible tells us to do.” Rather, they meander
and meditate on different aspects of daily living, asking how a Christian
framework might inform the shape of practical habits. These books and
their suggestions are rooted in good (if creative) theological reflection
but is never abstract. The goal is to get us to think about our living,
to be reflective about our lives and the ways we might actually “do”
life differently–and then live it.

In other words, these are practical pointers to the vast and joyfully
serious implications of Romans 12:1-2. If you or the kids in your youth
group know this important verse by heart, I know you will be excited about
these important books. If this great passage doesn’t immediately
come to your mind, though, I would humbly suggest that, after memorizing
it this afternoon, you call us right away for these books. They are that
Those particularly intrigued with the adult version should know that two
of the chapters have been expanded into their own full length books, each
with a small group study book. See Receiving the Day: Christian
Practices for Opening the Gift of Time
by Dorothy Bass
(I reported here two years ago that I was stunned by how wonderfully-written
this delightful book was) and Honoring the Body: Meditations on
a Christian
by Stephanie Paulsell (the chapter on clothing
is a mesmerizing and brilliant bit of theologizing.)

Way to Live (the youth version) could be used with middle-schoolers
(in fact, the bright, neo-hippie graphics and page art might seem too
vivid for older teens). The content itself, though, is ideal for even
college-aged students seeking life-giving manners of approaching their
lifestyles. That it is co-written by 18 adults and 18 youth is itself
an illustration of an inclusive, empowering and just practice, I think,
and should speak volumes of this book’s relevancy and integrity.
In fact, tell your students to get in on the excitement about this way
of thinking by checking out the website,
which includes, besides other nifty stuff, a free study guide available
for download.

Another book has just come out, equally long-awaited and also a follow-up
to a truly momentous previous book. To understand the extraordinary significance
of Soul Tending: Life Forming Practices for Older Youth and Young
(Abingdon, $12.00), you must know of its predecessor,
The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth
by Kenda Creasy Dean, et al.
That book–which we
touted everywhere we went as the most important youth min book
in 20 years–made the case that, in the middle of our fun and games,
youth group escapes and lock-ins and trips, we need to do that which the
church has always done best: teach people to know God, to pray, to nurture
spirituality. With classic authors like Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen,
Dallas Willard and Eugene Peterson on their side, the Princeton team that
researched Godbearing Life insisted that youth need such attention
to spiritual formation, too. Youth ministry should be more than gags and
guitars, well-meaning projects and socials, but a keen and conscious effort
to shape the liturgical, worshipful spirituality of kids. It was a major
work, one whose ripple effects are still being felt in youth ministry
circles and publishing. (How else can you explain the recent success of
the two excellent prayer-in-a-paint-can curricula from Group or Dive
, the small-group teenage spirituality resource from John Ortberg
and Willow Creek?) Indeed, the hunger is there for a model which relies
less on “gimmickry and programmatic pizzazz and much more, instead,
on the historic practices of faith of the Christian community” (p.
13, Soul Tending).

So, then, Soul Tending is the practical follow-up to Godbearing
and it is incredible! The back cover puts it well: “The editors of
Soul Tending have created for you an outside-the-box book, a book
meant to be “Ëœun-read’ and translated into reflective actions
to help you plumb the depth of God. It lays out a full buffet of forty-three
individual and communal practices (from the perspective of thirteen different
authors) that have the power and potential to form mature faith in teenagers
and adults alike.” This book doesn’t look like the previously
mentioned Way to Live; rather than bold tones and colors and supergraphics
it has a contemplative, nearly ancient feel (brown ink, illuminations
and the like make it quite handsome, really.) It uses the language of
practices but still usually discusses these as spiritual disciplines.
The practices this book invites include meditation, giving thanks, lectio
, and the like. Happily, they include communal practices (worship,
sacraments, acts of justice) and some that tend outward–caring for
creation or offering hospitality, for instance.

It is my sense that this guide may be the most useful tool for discipling
young adults I have yet seen. Each chapter, interestingly, is laid
out following the acronym, SPIRIT. This stands for Signs of the Spirit,
Purpose, Instruction, Rehearsal, Involving
and Tomorrow. It makes perfect sense and flows very nicely, hanging
together as a great, great format.

In their forward, Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster suggest that, “With
a healthy balance between faithful instruction (information) and soulful
experience (formation), Soul Tending serves as a primer in spirituality
in the best sense of the word” (page 13). Although that balance is
quite evident, it is not dispassionate. It calls us to the Real Thing,
a deep encounter with the Christ who wants to form us into His followers.
This is good and deep stuff, to be sure.

Taken together, Way to Live, the spiffy book of whole-life daily
practices of creative living, and Soul Tending, the reflective
guide to contemplative spirituality, and the (soon to be considered) classic
books on which they were based could revolutionize you or your church’s
work with youth. I highly, highly recommend them.

Be creative in using, adapting and/or applying them in your own improvisational
efforts to help shape the lives of the young people you know. No one book
can teach you everything, of course, and it is, finally, God who changes
lives, not us. Regardless of our mentoring savvy and our Kingdom vision–and
our mastery of the tools offered in these books–we must ourselves
seek God, trust God, know God. But believe me, these books really, really
can help. We commend them to you with much hopefulness.


Another new book serves as an excellent aid in providing help that many
of us need. While not ground-breaking theory nor a full-orbed, practical
ministry plan, this is an excellent little gem and you should know of
it. And maybe give one to a struggling youth volunteer.

Help! I’m a Small Church Youth Worker: Achieving Big-Time
Success in a Non-Mega Ministry
by Rich Grassel (Zondervan,
is one of the only books of its kind. What can I say about
this jam-packed little
book? First, it is much needed. Most–I repeat, most!–churches
are smallish, and the documentation Grassell offers is enlightening and
helpful. That alone makes it significant.

Secondly, Rich is a friend, an occasional customer of H&M and we
like and trust him. He is a strong supporter of the CCO. He teaches youth
ministry at Geneva College in western Pennsylvania and came to learn,
quickly, how so many of the youth min publishing ventures tend to presume
a large youth group. This is the book for those of us in middle or smaller–read,
average–congregations. It is written by a guy who knows his
stuff, including the ups and downs of small church ministry. He supervises
oodles of youth workers in various settings and he’s been
there himself.

Lastly, and most importantly, it is wisely theologically-driven, not
merely programmatic. One gets the impression that Grassel wants his readers
not only to appreciate the strengths of the smaller youth group, but to
move towards a more serious, disciple-making model. Which is to say, he
would love the books reviewed above. While one may need a large group
to make certain wild games really, really fun, and one may need an immense
army of fund-raising kiddos to earn money to road-trip it off to some
exotic location, the uniquely Christian practices and deeply spiritual
disciplines described in the earlier books can be nurtured in nearly any
size congregation. Help! I’m a Small Church Youth Worker will
remind us all of that and will encourage those many good saints who are
struggling to keep their small group together. Grassel knows his stuff,
cares deeply about youth ministry, and has a vision which, frankly, resonates
with the very best practices being considered in the best books anyway.
This book may come in very, very handy. Congratulations Rich!


Here are a few more titles which are mostly foundational in nature and
excellent for thinking through just what you believe about youth ministry
and the context of your efforts:

Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church edited by
Mark Senter
(Zondervan, $17.99).
Granted, most of us don’t often think of
such stuff, but let’s face it: your assumptions about what youth
ministry is will shape your work. Here, four very different views
debate it out. Fascinating, to say the least!

Youth Ministry That Transforms by Merton Strommen, Karen
Jones & Dave Rahn (Zondervan, $19.99).
The premier volume in the
new Youth Specialities Academic line, this is a comprehensive analysis
of the hopes, frustrations and effectiveness of today’s youth workers.
A first-of-a-kind study of Protestant youth ministers. Very important.

Family-Based Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries (IVP, $11.99).
Here is a very important book, one that is absolutely right and radical.
It asks the tough questions about why we even have age-segregated programming,
looks at the role of families, and insists upon the centrality of the
My, my, what a very important book. Essential.

Postmodern Youth Ministry: Exploring Cultural Shift, Creating Holistic
Connections, Cultivating Authentic Community
by Tony Jones
(Zondervan, $19.99).
Oh all right, it may be quite different than
the DeVries book I so touted above. Still, this is a hoot and a half,
and, for my money, a grand resource to ponder. It will rock your world,
challenge you to think “outside the box” and will invite fruitful
discussions about how to be relevant in the hot-wired, imaged based world
of the 21st century. I call it, “Len Sweet meets Mike Yacconelli.”
Beyond cool.

Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation by Neil
Howe & William Strauss (Vintage, $14.00).
Most of our customers
know how much we like the spectacular intrigue of the much-talked about
Generations — which predicted over a decade ago what the post-Gen
X millennial kids would be like. This is the first study done on this
new cohort and, even while their research can be debated, it is the essential
text to understand the upbeat and engaged younger siblings of the ’90s
slackers. Visit their website at
(and then come back here and place an order!).

Generation 2K: What Parents & Others Need to Know About the
by Wendy Murray Zoba (IVP, $9.99). An easy
read by a fine writer, this is the best Christian book on this new generation.

The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager: A New History of the
American Adolescent Experience
by Thomas Hine (Harper, $14.00).
now is a time for creative thinking about teenagers, and this does well
what historians do best. Wow!

Real Teens: A Contemporary Snapshot of Youth Culture by George
Barna (Regal, $12.99).
Here it is, the ever-researching Barna team,
weighing in on the issue of today’s teens. Jim Burns, one of the
most important youth workers and teachers around, has said, “I learned
more about this generation of adolescents than from any other book I have
ever read.” As always, Barna makes it readable, brief and gives you
concrete application.

Sometimes We Dance, Sometimes We Wrestle: Embracing the Spiritual
Growth of Adolescents
by Michael Carotta (Harcourt Religion
Publishers, $10.99).
Packed with research, developmental insights
and ecumenical theology, this book reflects the author’s doctoral
work specifically developed for adults who work with youth.

Shaping the Spiritual Life of Students by Richard Dunn (IVP,
The great cover and layout make this a book you’ll
be proud to have.
The subtitle is A Guide for Youth Workers, Pastors, Teachers &
Campus Ministers
. More thoughtful than most (and more practical),
it is based on very good foundational thinking about what it is we are
about in this effort. I cannot recommend this diverse resource more strongly!

Honey for a Teen’s Hearts: Using Books to Communicate With

by Gladys Hunt (Zondervan, $12.99).
This fabulous resource takes its
place alongside the wonderful Honey for a Woman’s Heart
and the newly reissued classic, Honey for a Child’s Heart.
There are oodles of books on using videos and pop culture, but this is
a stand-out, showing how the love of books is contagious and you can help
teens “catch the lifelong reading bug.” With a useful annotated
list of over 400 recommendations.

Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture by William
D. Romanowski (Brazos, $12.99).
We are happy to promote this again,
especially now that it has won the coveted “Gold Medallion Award”
from ECPA. We now have the much-anticipated three-part video curriculum
(using nearly 150 Hollywood video clips!) which is based on this useful
book. What better way to nurture Christian discernment that to empower
youth to engage in media literacy from a Kingdom perspective? The best!

Career and Calling: A Guide for Counselors, Youth and Young Adults
by Ginny Ward Holderness (Geneva, $19.95). What could be
more important than framing future career choices in the biblical context
of calling and vocation? A wonderful blend of spirituality and vocation,
this topic is absolutely essential and this guide can help.

Return to Modesty by Wendy Shalit (Touchstone, $13.00).
Of all the many books about sexuality, dating, gender and the like, I
think this to be the most important read for those who work with youth,
advise teens or want to understand the pressures of youth culture. Smartly
written, this fine young adult challenges us to recover what she calls
an “erotic virtue.” A page- turner, witty and intelligent, RTM
is a must-read, which begs to be discussed.

Beyond Belief To Convictions by Josh McDowell (Tyndale,
Leave it to Josh to come up with another comprehensive program–he’s
got videos and an array of stuff to push this agenda: helping kids stand
strong in the face of a relativistic culture. Church kids have got to
learn to discern distorted beliefs and develop deepened convictions about
God and truth. As the back cover puts it, they will “learn how to
develop rock-solid reasons to believe and a biblical blueprint for living
out those beliefs in relationships with others.” To be a part of
the ongoing campaign, visit

Parenting Without Perfection: Being a Kingdom Influence in a Toxic
by David John Seel, Jr. (NavPress, $13.00). Our vote
for one of the very best books on parenting, with an especially insightful
approach which is not technique-driven or formulaic. This has excellent
information on various subcultures and themes within youth culture, and
also brings a thoroughly biblical perspective. Seel is solid, honest and
very, very smart. Anyone who cares about youth should own this book.

Get Real: Making Core Christian Beliefs Relevant to Teenagers
by Mike & Amy Nappa and Michael Warden (Group, $16.99).
I wanted
to pick just one book of the hundreds we stock of youth Bible studies.
Here are 24 essential Christian truths and key suggestions for how to
bring these lessons to life for your kids. Very, very useful.

Lastly, while getting at basic books which will allow you to reflect
on your life and times as one who cares for youth, check over my
July 2002 column
. A number of the memoirs are actually about troubled
youth or families in the throes of adolescent-mania. Some of them are
truly wonderful and, if I were teaching a class on youth ministry, you’d
get extra credit…