“My kid doesn’t need another pizza party. She already hangs out with her friends enough. What she needs is a place to learn the Bible!” I’ve heard this refrain countless times while talking with parents the future of their congregation’s youth group. The church is full of expectations around what our youth should be doing, and yet those expectations, however well intentioned, often leave our youth spiritually unfulfilled.
I recently attended a conference of international youth workers where we spent a great deal of time brainstorming how we might make “better” disciples of our youth and what programs might help: more service projects, more Jesus-y games, more Bible studies—more, more, more. I felt exhausted at the mere thought of organizing these programs. The more items we listed, the more I began to wonder if the best thing we could offer our youth is nothing.
What if we ditched the service projects? What if we ditched the Jesus-y games? What if we ditched the canned Bible studies and instead offered nothing at all?
And by ‘nothing,’ I mean a time of intentional rest: Sabbath.
As a youth worker in western New York, Minneapolis, and Berlin, I’ve seen firsthand a truth that applies to many Western youth: they are so busy. Their commitments beyond church youth group are manifold. It’s no secret that we as youth leaders are often in competition with these commitments, and despite our best efforts, most days we are on the losing side. Against AP exams, basketball practice, theatre, orchestra, prom, mountains of homework, and friends, even the flashiest of youth programs stand no chance at all.
So, why compete? Our youth don’t need another thing to do. While it may very well be true that their spiritual fulfillment is critically more important than their other commitments, in the face of all their other commitments no amount of programming will satisfy their souls. Creating space in which the Holy Spirit can cultivate faith within the lives of our youth, then, is the most faithful thing we can do. And the best way to do that is to offer an open space, free time without expectations, grades, competition, or pressure. The best way is Sabbath.
This idea of Sabbath for youth ministry is shaped, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. Here, Heschel explores the idea of Sabbath as “eternity in time;” a chance to escape the demands of the everyday and reconnect with the divine.
Busy as they are, kids often can’t spare a whole day (even though that may be exactly what they need to do). So, with my youth I have worked to cultivate Sabbath a couple of hours a week, gathering them around good food and comfortable company. Heschel, quoting Midrash, says that our best meals should be enjoyed on the Sabbath. I believe a youth budget spent entirely on food is no waste at all. But don’t skimp with Domino’s and Zebra Cakes—go for the good stuff!
This time of Sabbath for my youth is structured, albeit loosely, because true freedom can only exist within the bounds of structure. But too much structure suffocates freedom. At the beginning, I invite youth into a time of prayer and Scripture reading. We allow that discussion to flow into a time of sharing about their lives, during which we share in a good meal. Then we let things go where they will: more conversation, games, a movie—whatever we feel led to enjoy. The structures are present but fluid, with no regard for specific outcome or goal aside from rest and communion.
For Heschel, Sabbath is about time, not materiality. God therefore calls us on the Sabbath to lay aside any desire for personal gain, any expectations, any drive to achieve, and simply spend time in the presence of the Lord.
I’m not saying that youth programming doesn’t have a place. Service projects, games, and Bible studies can serve faithful purposes. But we must be careful lest these programs perpetuate the destructive notion that our youth’s identity comes from their actions and achievements. The last thing our youth need is another arena in which they are made to prove their worth by doing or achieving something. For just one day a week, Sabbath calls us away from these expectations, away from the demands of the world, into a time of rest with God.
The Protestant work ethic might loom near and cheer, “Yes! One day off a week is great for productivity. It sets the mind straight for another six days of solid work.” That is a gross misunderstanding of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is no tool for productivity; rather, it is God’s agent of subversion against an achievement-oriented culture. Heschel writes, “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” We do not cultivate Sabbath so that we might be more productive the other six days. But, in cultivating Sabbath, we might come to find that rest and eternity begin to percolate within the other six days as well.
Our youth don’t need just another place to hang out, another thing to do. What they need is a place of pure Sabbath, a loosely structured environment devoid of any expectation except to commune with the faithful and connect with their God. Rather than presenting just another demand and expectation, Sabbath offers a grace that undermines any source of value found in achievement, and reminds us that our value lies solely in who God says we are: graciously and irrevocably loved.
 Deuteronomy rabba 3,1; see Midrash Tehillim, chap. 90. qtd. in Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (2011: New York, 2011), Kindle Edition, 7.
 Ibid. 2.
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A native of upstate New York and an alumnus of Houghton College, Jim Vitale is a Master of Divinity student at Luther Seminary and candidate for Word and sacrament ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. His concentration is in Children, Youth, and Family ministry. He is currently completing his degree with an internship at the American Church in Berlin, Germany.
During his time in seminary, he has become deeply interested in the intersection between theology and ecology (influenced by Ellen Davis, Jacob Milgrom, Kathryn Schifferdecker) and Christian spiritual formation in the secular age (influenced by Charles Taylor, Andrew Root, and James K. A. Smith).
He lives in Berlin with his wife, Isabel, and son, Ezra.