By Jeff Brumley
Some contemplative spiritual practices may be as old as Christianity itself, but they are increasingly attracting younger generations hungry for alternatives to contemporary, flashy worship.
Case in point: portions of an international Taizé pilgrimage hosted by First Baptist Church of Austin, Texas, this weekend are open only to 18-35 year olds.
That’s because Millennials and even teens are known to be drawn to worship forms that emphasize quiet and mystery — precisely the opposite of what most American churches offer these days, said Joe Bumbulis, minister of students and missions at First Baptist Church and one of the event organizers.
“The age limit gives a certain amount of freedom to young adults who know they will be gathered with people in the same place in life that they are,” said Bumbulis, himself a passionate advocate of contemplative worship and prayer. “There is something affirming about that.”
Movement started by students
The age limits were not the church’s idea but that of the Taizé representatives, known as brothers, who are bringing their pilgrimage program to Austin and two other Texas cities in the coming weeks.
The ecumenical monastic order based in Taizé, France, has been largely a European youth movement since its founding in 1940. More than 100,000 young people make pilgrimages annually to the monastery, where they participate in the movement’s trademark services of silence, meditation and sung and chanted prayer.
Two years ago some of the brothers from the monastery began taking pilgrimages around the world in order to encourage those who cannot travel to France, and also those who have been there, said Brother John of the Taizé order.
“Taizé was started by students and young people coming to visit us,” he said. “We feel a special responsibility to that age group because in Europe they often don’t find a place in churches that appeal to them.”
‘Rare to be in silence’
But youth-oriented contemplative practices aren’t necessarily unique to Taizé, said Mark Yaconelli, author of Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus.
Thanks to technology and social media, youth are pulled in infinite directions simultaneously and have vast quantities of information at their disposal. Their lives, Yaconelli said, are marked by constant distractions.
“So when someone invites them to pay attention to the present moment … and turn their full attention to their soul and the presence of God, that is a rare and exotic experience,” he said.
“For them it’s rare to be in silence and to not be pulled in four directions at once.”
‘They hunger for it’
As a result a movement is taking shape since the late 1990s of churches integrating contemplative styles into their programming, and much of it for youth.
“It’s a slow movement, it’s a quiet movement, but I do encounter youth workers in every denomination and every part of the country who are doing this with youth,” Yaconelli said.
One of those youth workers is Bumbulis, who said he uses a variety of contemplative forms — including Lectio Divina and centering prayers — with his youth group.
“They hunger for it,” he said. “The middle schoolers even resonate with it.”
Not ‘ripping off pop culture’
Bumbulis said he’s found youth to be increasingly turned off by “big show” Christianity, with its professional praise-and-worship bands leading choreographed, loud and flashy worship.
“Young adults want an authentic experience and they don’t want to sit and watch a show,” he said. “Contemplative practices feel more ancient so you don’t feel like you’re ripping off pop culture.”
The Taizé event, which runs Friday through Sunday, will also bring the community together ecumenically, said Dan Girardot, the director of worship at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Austin and the music director of the Taizé pilgrimage in Austin.
Its planners belong to a wide range of Christian denominations. Unlike the workshops and breakouts open only to younger participants, the weekend’s prayer services will be open to the public, regardless of age or faith. Similar events are planned in Dallas and Houston in April.
‘Impression of Baptists’
Girardot said he wasn’t surprised when First Baptist won the right to host the Taizé event, even though in most cities the event is held at Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian or Catholic churches.
“I have found them … to be extraordinarily hospitable to ecumenical dialogue and doing events,” he said. “It’s a great witness that a Baptist congregation is open to other Christian faiths.”
Brother John said he was surprised when Bumbulis pitched his church as the location for the traveling pilgrimage.
“In general that’s not the impression people have of Baptists,” he said.
But he and the other brothers have since learned there are many Baptist churches that yearn for a contemplative balance to their worship.