we’ve been getting a bit of heat from a web article accusing us of embracing eastern religions (here’s the article). This isn’t the first time, of course. Sabbath took tons of hits. Yac did also. And YS has been maligned for years by the LighthouseTrails “research” website .
A couple days ago I got an email from a youth worker who’s been adding some contemplative elements to his youth ministry, and taking a bunch of heat for it. this week, a church member sent him the above article. This youth worker was just looking for some help, and asked three questions (that I thought were good questions). So I took the time to write a fairly long response; partly because I thought we should help him; and partly because I wanted to form some thoughts and responses for what i expect to be an ongoing parade of these complaints and questions.
The youth worker’s questions are in bold; my responses in normal text.
I received this link from a church member today. In her note and in a previous meeting, she brings up the proximity of emergent practices to New Age and eastern mysticism, which I respectfully disagree as a thought pattern grounded firmly in 20th century fundamentalism and in absence of 19 centuries of church histories.
I was wondering how you respond to this type of criticism. I am all about listening to all sides of arguments since I surely am not an authority on everything. At the same time, the more I try to educate and introduce old things responsibly, the more flack I get. So here are a couple of things I wonder about this article.
1. Do you think that the statement “that you introduce students to yoga or to contemplative prayer practices where you say a word over and over again to put yourself into what Youth Specialties says is a ‘semi-conscious state” is something that came from YS or was that something misread from something you’ve published?
Well, first of all, the only place we ever offered “yoga” (it was called “yoga and stretching”) was at the National Pastors Convention. It’s never appeared as a suggestion in any Youth Specialties materials (for youth ministry), nor have we had it at our National Youth Workers Convention. So it is a bit ludicrous (actually, flat out false) to say that YS introduces students to yoga. But that said, yoga is really just about stretching and slowing down. Sure, yoga, I suppose, could focus on Hindi or Buddhist gods or something – but it can also focus on Christ. We received a couple stomping-mad complaints about the yoga at the National Pastors Convention, saying “putting your body in those positions invites Hindi gods to enter your body.” I’m sorry – this just sounds like heresy to me. If we don’t believe Hindi gods actually exist, then why are we concerned about them entering our bodies? And even for those who would say this is about other dark spiritual forces in the world; well, as believers, we have no fear of them. So the whole “don’t put yourself at risk by doing these stretching exercises” argument is just lost on me.
On saying words over and over again: well that sure is taken out of context. It’s not like we would suggest someone grab any word (“Tree!” “Towel!” “Beer!”) and chant it over and over again – which is her implication. There is a wonderful spiritual practice, however, of repeating a phrase from the Bible and seeing what God reveals to you about it (or about Him, or about you). It’s prayer: not a chant. I think of this as similar to rolling a really good piece of chocolate around your mouth to get the full flavor. The argument against this I’ve heard is the scriptural passage about not praying idle words. But these aren’t idle words – they’re the God-breathed, inspired words of scripture! Again, the application of this line of reasoning against praying scripture sounds darn close to heretical to me.
Short answer: yes, I think they’ve completely misread and misrepresented what we’ve suggested in publications, and what we offer at events. But even if they hadn’t misrepresented things, they would probably still not “like” what we ARE suggesting!
2. Were you or anyone at YS contacted for this story?
No, certainly not. I’ll be honest: this type of article is RARELY researched. Had we been contacted, we would have been more than happy to engage in dialogue about what we are and aren’t promoting. There’s a website (lighthouse trails research) that has been maligning us for years on this issue (I’m sure it was one of the sources for the article you forwarded). Look at the list of people and ministries they malign, under the heading “Avenues Through Which Contemplative Spirituality is Entering the Church … “:
Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven
The Emerging Church
The Alpha Course
Global Peace Plan
Leonard Sweet & Quantum Spirituality
Richard Foster and Renovare
Association of Christian Counselors
North America’s Seminaries & Colleges
I’m not sure whether to laugh at this (I mean, how did YS ever get on the same list – any list! — as some of these people? And, The Message and Rick Warren and Willow Creek are somehow ushering in Eastern Religion? And, how did Robert Schuller get on the list twice?) or be honored that we’re lumped together with some of these people and organizations.
This organization (lighthouse trails), as well as the book referenced in the agape press “news” piece (I find the name of that news agency to be highly ironic) have a few very interesting (and revealing, and not very helpful) approaches:
a. They do not connect with anyone to verify anything. They merely form opinions (which they call fact) based on books and web stuff.
b. They are HUGE into “guilt by association”. For instance: if an author writes a book with a questionable comment in it, and one of our authors says it’s a worthwhile book to read (which, of course, to reasonable people does NOT mean an endorsement of everything in the book!), and we’ve published the endorser, we get accused being part of the problem. There’s a great example of this on the lighthouse trails site (actually, dozens of them): there’s a section called “How are Youth Specialties and Thomas Keating linked?” They have a page about how Thomas Keating is terrible for this or that. Then, they link to a very old webpage from the YS Sabbath event (which hasn’t been offered in three years) that suggests a Thomas Keating book as reading. This is how we are “linked”!
c. This one really troubles me: they seem to (I’m not 100% sure on this, but it seems to be the case) malign anyone who even suggests that we should listen to God. Their position SEEMS to be that God said everything God will ever say in scripture, and that’s that. So this is where people like Rick Warren get lumped in – he has suggested, in print somewhere, that listening to God is a good thing (actually quieting yourself and physically/spiritually listening); and that constitutes eastern mysticism to these folk.
d. They seem to be very threatened by questions. For instance (this is hypothetical, but along the lines of the methodology they often employ): if I were to ask the question, “is there more to understanding the Cross than just Jesus paying the price for our sin?” These people would instantly write me off. Questions (as opposed to answers) seem to be a very quick route to being added to their list.
3. Surely you’ve heard this argument against ancient spiritual disciplines… especially since there are some which share names with Eastern practices, how do you combat the differences between Eastern mysticism and the upsurge in popularity of Christian disciplines?
A few responses:
a. Christianity IS an eastern religion. It has all its roots in the East! It’s a bit baffling to me that people lose sight of this, and insist on creating a false separation between eastern religions and (apparently) western Christianity.
b. All truth is God’s truth. By this I do not mean that all roads lead to God. Quite conversely, I’m saying that all truth – any truth that exists on earth or anywhere else in the created universe – emanates and originates from God. Since we are co-heirs with Christ to all God has created, God’s truth is ours to claim. If a Buddhist is using a breathing exercise to bring some peace to her life, well, bless her. But that should have no bearing on whether or not I choose to focus on my God-created breath – every single breath given to me by a loving God – as a way of focusing my otherwise distracted attention on my God.
c. There is a rise in interest in eastern mysticism – this is true. But it doesn’t freak me out. God’s response to Moses, when Mo asks what he should say when the people ask who his God is: I AM. In other words, “the fact that they do not know who I am has no bearing on who I am.” So I don’t spend a ton of effort on “combating” eastern mysticism. Sure, I want kids to understand their faith – which includes theology, not only experiences. But I want them to live their faith – not just understand it. Jesus says, “follow me”; not, “learn about me.” It’s active and lived and calls for experience.
To wrap it up a bit: Youth Specialties exists to serve youth workers; and we are driven by our passion for Jesus, and for helping youth workers expose teenagers to the passionate Jesus who loves them so perfectly. We serve the whole church, from every imaginable denominational persuasion. We’d love to serve the people who are accusing us of ushering in eastern religions – though I doubt they’ll want to be served by us.