A Sabbath for Youth Ministry

By Jim Vitale

“My kid doesn’t need another pizza party. He already hangs out with his friends enough. What he needs is a place to learn the Bible!” I’ve heard this refrain many times as I’ve discussed 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.

Some years ago, I 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 exhaustion 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 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, Berlin, and now central Pennsylvania, I’ve discovered one truth that seems to apply to most youth: they are so busy. They have manifold commitments beyond their youth group. It’s no secret that we are in competition with our youth’s other commitments, and despite our best efforts, most days we’re on the losing side. Against AP exams, lacrosse practice, theatre, orchestra, prom, mountains of homework, and hanging out, even the flashiest of youth programs stand no chance at all.

So why compete? Our youth don’t need another thing to do. It may very well be that their spiritual fulfillment is critically more important than their other commitments, but in the face of all their other commitments no amount of programing will satisfy their souls. Creating space in which the Holy Spirit can cultivate faith within the lives of our youth 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, competitions, or pressure. The best way is Sabbath.

This Sabbath for youth ministry is shaped, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath in which he explores the idea of Sabbath as “eternity in time,” a chance to escape the demands of material reality and reconnect with the divine.

Sabbath is rooted in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), particularly the ten commandments (Deut.  5:12-15). God commands the Israelites to set aside one day a week in which they are to do no work. God states that this rest is important because it will remind the Israelites that they are no longer slaves in Egypt—their work, their quotas, the expectations of their overseers no longer define them. They are defined not by what they do, but by who they are: children of God.

Busy as they are, kids today probably can’t spare a whole day for Sabbath (even though that is exactly what they need to do). So, in my work as youth minister I have strived to cultivate Sabbath a couple hours a week, gathering youth around good food and comfort. 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 Dominos and Little Debbie—go for the good stuff!

This time of Sabbath for our youth is loosely structured because true freedom can only exist within the bounds of structure. Too much structure suffocates freedom; not enough structure turns into chaos. 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 basking in the presence of the Lord.

Now 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 value comes from our actions and achievements. The last thing our youth need is another outlet 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 material world, into an infinite 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; rather, in cultivating Sabbath, we 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 expectation to commune with the faithful and connect with their God. Contrary to those who might argue that this Sabbath becomes just another demand and expectation, I argue that in it actually lies pure grace because it undermines any source of value found in achievement and reminds us that our value lies solely in who God says we are: undeservedly and irrevocably beloved.