A Spiritual Awakening

–REPOSTED from http://www.youthworker.com–

In the beginning of the 18th century, American churches were moving into a state of paralysis both spiritually and missionally. According to A. Skevington Wood, “the reasons for the decline are clear. The development of commerce, and with it the increase of wealth, bred a materialism which blunted the keen edge of Protestant witness. The fervour of the fathers was not reproduced in their children.” Wood continues to paint the picture,

In 1727 an earthquake which disturbed much of New Englandand neighboring provinces was interpreted as a sign of God’s judgment. There was a temporary rush to the churches but little lasting improvement. A few years later, a Boston preacher could report, sadly: ‘Alas, as though nothing but the most amazing thunders and lightnings, and the most terrible earthquakes could awaken us, we are at this time fallen into as dead a sleep as ever.’[1]

At the start of the 21st century, American churches seem to lie in a funk – paralyzed. The reasons for the decline will later be debated by historians, yet could some of them be development of commerce, increase of wealth, breeding of materialism and parents remaining silent in their faith to allow space for their children to find something that works for them? These would certainly provide a partial explanation for the lack of power and effectiveness that seems to characterize many churches today. We also had a disturbing event on September 11, 2001. The response was a great movement toward places of faith seeking answers to this terrible tragedy and personal pain. This too was a temporary rush, and those seeking answers found little help from the Church. Alas, “we are at this time fallen into as dead a sleep as ever.”

Back in colonialAmerica, something came that would change the course of the Church. George Whitefield would credit its initiation to a man by the name of Theodore Jacobus Frelinghuysen. In 1720, Frelinghuysen began passionately preaching throughout theRaritanValleyinNew Jersey. His spark would be followed by others, and, soon after, by another powerful preacher by the name of Jonathan Edwards. It was called the Great Awakening.

Today, as I sit in my office on the edge of the RaritanValley, I am convinced of the need for another Awakening. Perhaps this time it won’t come through passionate preachers and teachers. It may not come from a particular denomination of churches. In fact, I hope it doesn’t. I hope it will begin with an individual – a youth worker – who comes into a “Spiritual Awakening” and begins living in such a way that the course of Church history is changed forever. As youth workers, we need to model spiritual sensitivity as we seek to “guide young people into the presence of God,”[2] and we cannot do that until we lay down a healthy, personal, spiritual foundation.

Become Cognizant of the Spiritual

At the beginning of every year, most people consider ways to improve their lives. Some feel they’ve found the answer in amassing more wealth. Others might think a major body improvement (either physical or plastic) will bring about a better year. Still others might determine they could move ahead with further education. It really makes no difference whether you’re an adult or a teenager – everyone wants life to be better than it is. Yet, there is one thing that is grossly overlooked and basic to whom we all are as human beings—we are all spiritual. You might believe in someone or something or nothing at all. Regardless, we cannot deny that we are, by nature, spiritual beings.

Have you ever cried without understanding why? Do you ever long for things to change though you don’t know where to begin? Ever heard someone cry out “O, my God!” Such responses come from our very soul which seems to have been implanted with an indescribable desire to connect with something outside ourselves – something “other.” As followers of Jesus Christ, we echo these sounds of humanity, though our cries may be more clearly-directed. Have you ever dreamed of spending a day with Jesus? Do you ever long for the peace of Heaven? Have you ever said in the midst of your brokenness, “God, please speak to me”? “…why might Christians dream of seeing Jesus, touching him, hearing him? Is it because we detect some distance in our relationship with God?”[3] If we were honest, I think we might have to say this is true.

In order to see a Spiritual Awakening in our lives and the lives of our teens, we need to become increasingly aware that life is spiritual. This would fly in the face of what our actions say life is about – health, wealth and happiness. Let’s consider our youth ministries for a moment. What do our actions say life is really about? Is it about lock-ins, retreats, or mission trips? Is it about seeing new people in our youth group? Is it all about games and relationships? All of these things are well and good, but are we careful to emphasize the spiritual aspect of our ministry? Do our teens know that it is more about “being” than about “doing”?

Become Concerned About “Being”

The Church has become a veritable desert in terms of spiritual life and growth, and the world of youth ministry has been making some strides to alter that fact. We’re beginning to move from “an obsession merely with doing all God’s commands” because we realize that this “may be the very thing that rules out being the kind of person he calls us to be.”[4] Yet, many youth leaders still spend much time talking about raising funds and doing missions, talking about fun events and exciting studies – we’ve become so busy talking about God that we’ve stopped listening to God. The Church needs to hear from God. The world needs the Church to hear from God. Our teenagers need to hear from God. Actually, we need to hear from God.

We would do well to stop even now, put down this magazine, and spend a moment in solitude. It is in the silence I have heard the voice of God many a time. “Andrew, you’ve done a lot for Me, but are you one with Me?” Or, “You’ve been asking why your youth aren’t growing, but you haven’t once asked me why you’re not growing.” The life of a youth worker is not for the faint of heart, but our hearts will fail if we continue to do youth work. In other words, we’ll sacrifice our health and the health of our teens if we don’t become more concerned with “being” who God wants us to be.

While we can do much on our own, I believe we were created with a need for relationship. As a result, we need more than our own thoughts and experiences to awaken spiritually. This is why we need a variety of people and places to assist our Awakening. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question: “When do I lead others in an encounter with God and His Word?” If you’re hard-pressed to think of a time, then you’ve not yet become concerned with being. Here are some thoughts to help you on your way:

  1. Call up a local youth worker and ask them if they want to talk over a Coke. You’ll have some laughs as you can’t believe that someone else feels the way you do. You may also shed some tears knowing you’ve needed this for far too long.
  2. Sign up for a course at a local Bible college or seminary. You’ll grow in your knowledge of God, but you’ll also be mentored by some spiritual leaders who are further down the road.
  3. Talk to your Pastor. I’m not sure about your situation, but I haven’t met many youth workers who received a lot of mentoring from their Pastor. If you have, please write your Pastor a letter of thanks! If you haven’t, maybe you could initiate a time of weekly prayer with your Pastor. It will benefit you both, and your church family even more.

Learning to “be” is difficult. You can’t read it in a book, take a test on it, and pass. That’s why I’ve had a much easier time learning about it from others along the way. Having someone become a spiritual guide for me has brought me into a much healthier place spiritually. Now, I feel I am becoming a better spiritual guide to my students, especially as I seek to share with them how they can have a personal relationship with God.

Become Conversant with God

There are some of you who would say “God surely doesn’t speak to us.” I ask the same question as that of comedian Lily Tomlin, “Why is it that when we speak to God we are said to be praying but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?”[5] We speak much of having a personal relationship with God, but how can we have a personal relationship without individualized communication? If God is speaking (and I believe He is), perhaps we should begin listening.

Ancient forms of reading and praying are coming up in new books every day, and I think this is a good thing. I, for one, have really begun to take hold of lectio divina as a spiritual discipline. In my times of meditation and imagination, God has revealed things to me that I would never have considered or reflected upon had I just been studying the text for my next youth meeting. Contemplative practices are an integral part of guiding our hearts and souls into a spiritual state of being in the presence of God. A book that has been influential to thousands is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. I’m currently involved in spending one month developing in my life each of the twelve disciplines listed. These times of meditation, fasting, solitude, confession and more have awakened my senses to the voice of God.

Some would pass off my talking about “hearing God”, and I can’t explain it as well as I can experience it. Sometimes it comes in my observance of His creation. Other times it comes through the counsel of a friend. It clearly comes through the reading of His Word. Today it might come through a whisper in my soul. As I increase in my awareness of my spiritual being and move my life into one of “being”, I know more clearly what is meant by having a personal relationship with God. Because of that, my youth group is coming to understand that as well.

To become conversant with God, I think the best place to start is prayer. And keep in mind, “prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty.”[6] When you pray, focus your mind on God’s revelation through creation and through His Word. Don’t fill the time speaking your thoughts and ideas. The 19th century theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once observed: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”[7]

Teenagers want a personal experience to begin learning how to be in a personal, intimate relationship with a God Who speaks. Have they been able to learn it through their youth leaders? Are they in an environment that reinforces the spiritual? Are they encouraged to work for God or to be with God? Are they being guided into a conversation with their Creator? If we all took this to heart, I believe we could see a great Spiritual Awakening in our lives and in the lives of our teens. This Awakening would radically change the way they view “the man upstairs.” He won’t be someone who started things and left them alone. He will become real, personal – their God. The goal is not to give the students something that is mine, but to guide them into something that is theirs. How can we do this? Well, “a farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain.”[8] Your own Spiritual Awakening will help teens reflect upon where their heart is.

The souls of teenagers and youth workers alike need to hear from God. The good news is – He’s been speaking. The question is – have we been listening? If we tuned in to His voice, we might just be hearing how He wants to use us to change the world.

[1] Dowley, T. Introduction to the History of Christianity, pp. 438-439.

[2] King, M. Presence-Centered Youth Ministry, p. 11.

[3] Issler, K. Wasting Time with God, p. 13.

[4] Willard, D. Hearing God, p. 11.

[5] Willard, D. Hearing God, p. 19.

[6] Bonhoeffer, D. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, pp. 9-10.

[7] Foster, R. Celebration of Discipline, p. 39.

[8] Ibid, p. 7.

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