Suppose you were introduced to a promotion promising a direct line of communication with the Creator of the universe.
Let's say you're initially skeptical, but you also find the idea appealing. After all, who wouldn't want to be able to hear from and speak with God as though He were on one's cell phone? As you listen to the deal being pitched and peruse some of the literature, you realize that the key to this is the use of a ouija board. You push the literature aside and head for the exit.
Virtually every evangelical Christian would quickly reject the proposal, especially if he were aware that a ouija board is an instrument of divination, a device for contacting spirit entities, which the Bible explicitly condemns (Deut 18:10). The basic problem with divination is that, even though the diviner is sincerely attempting to contact God, the entities with which one ends up communicating are demons (posing as Jesus, God, angels, departed loved ones, aliens, gods, etc.).
Discernment regarding the above example is for the most part, as my kids would say, "a no brainer!" However, that's rarely the case in today's spiritual marketplace. In particular, the "new and improved" or "revived" ways promoted among evangelicals of communicating with God are highly deceptive and very seductive. God has given His Word and His Holy Spirit to help us discern what is of Him and what is not. It's particularly disturbing that a lethal portion of the "what is not" has entered the arena of our evangelical youth. Under the guise of "spiritual exercises that invite direct experiences with God," and with the assurance that they are "classical forms of biblical meditation," growing numbers of our "church" kids are being led unwittingly into the occult.
As I researched what I consider to be an extremely dangerous "spiritual" trend in the body of Christ, my empathy and concern deepened for the young people and youth pastors involved. I have little doubt that the motivation common to most of them arises from a desire to know God more intimately. That is not only what every biblical believer wants but, more importantly, that's what the Lord wants for us. Furthermore, no truly born-again Christian can deny the experiential aspect of his personal relationship with Jesus Christ. So what exactly is the problem? God's way is being forsaken for man's way—and worse.
Programs and practices rife with occult methodologies and techniques have been in the works at churches and youth ministries around the country: Taizé, Lectio Divina, The Labyrinth (prayer walk), Renovaré, guided imagery, Walk to Emmaus, Cursillo, Centering Prayer, Ignatian Awareness Examen, The Jesus Prayer, and The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, to name but a handful. Two significant reasons for the appalling growth of these and other similar activities are that 1) they have an inside track with established parachurch organizations, and 2) increasing numbers of evangelicals are acquiring a taste for things Catholic.
Mark Yaconelli is co-director of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project (YMSP), an Eli Lilly (makers of Prozac) endowed program which is introducing contemplative spirituality to young people throughout the country. He is also an adjunct professor of youth ministries at San Francisco Theological Seminary. His father is Mike Yaconelli, head of Youth Specialities, a major evangelical organization serving "more than 80,000 youth workers worldwide through training seminars, conventions, videos, magazines, and resource products."
One Youth Specialities seminar is "Sabbath: A [Contemplative] Spiritual Retreat for Youth Workers," which Mark Yaconelli leads. In an article for the popular, youth-oriented Group magazine, Mark states, "The YMSP approach to youth ministry pushes for a return to God-awareness...[noting] that middle school and senior high kids are hungry to encounter God directly and eager to learn contemplative spiritual practices."1
In another article subtitled "How Spiritual Exercises Can Change Your Kids," he tells of implementing contemplative methods he first learned at "a weeklong retreat at a nearby [Roman Catholic] convent":
Our [YMSP] project churches were introduced to a number of classical exercises from the Christian tradition: Biblical meditation forms like Lectio Divina and Ignatian contemplation; icon prayers and other visualization prayers; chanting; guided imagery; biblical imagination...centering prayer; and prayers of discernment.2
While I'm not questioning Yaconelli's sincerity or integrity, nevertheless for accuracy's sake his statement needs both clarification and correction. By "Christian tradition" he cannot mean biblical Christianity; these are exercises from "ancient" Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. And, as will become clear, the "biblical meditation forms" he refers to are the antithesis of the meditation presented in God's Word.
Let's begin with the term "contemplative," which is the prevalent name for the movement. Whereas contemplation normally means to think about something intently or to study it carefully, practitioners of the various contemplative methods do the opposite. The movement's goal is to get people beyond thinking and understanding and into the realm of experiencing. Adherents are taught that while reason has some value, truly knowing God can only come through experiencing Him. This approach is, at best, a corruption of what the Bible says both about reason and how a believer's personal relationship with Jesus Christ is developed. At worst, the contemplative exercises lead to the false Eastern mystical belief that man can achieve literal union with God, i.e., be absorbed into Him or It.
Lectio Divina (or "holy reading") is one of the basic exercises of these disciplines. A phrase or single word is chosen from the Bible. However, rather than aiding understanding through one's dwelling on its plain meaning, the word or words become mediumistic devices for hearing directly from God. The word or phrase is then "meditated upon" (meditatio) by being slowly repeated again and again in the fashion of a mantra (Jesus condemns as heathen "vain repetitions" in prayer [Mat:6:7]). It is then prayed (oratio) as an incantation, thereby allegedly healing painful thoughts or emotions. Finally, the repeated word is used to help clear one's thoughts (contemplatio), supposedly making one an open receptacle for personally hearing God's voice.
These biblical words are selected not for the purpose of attaining objective understanding—the "contemplator" has almost no interest in the meaning, grammatical use or context of the verses, which simply become a mechanism to aid in listening for subjective communication from God. It should be obvious (especially for evangelicals!) that this is not how the Bible instructs us to learn or teach the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Furthermore, classic contemplative concepts reject doctrine as a basis for knowing God and for receiving His salvation. Many of the movement's "spiritual masters" blame western rationalism (with its penchant for reason and emphasis upon words) for nearly destroying "our ability to intuitively experience our Creator."
While the contemplative movement is troubling in its antibiblical philosophies, it is downright alarming in its potential for demon involvement. Its methodologies have been the very stuff of occultism throughout the ages. A tutorial of this movement is The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a primer for learning occult visualization (hailed by shamans as the most potent method for contacting spirit entities). In one of dozens of such exercises Ignatius instructs the reader "to picture ...Christ our Lord....standing in a lowly place in a great plain about the region of Jerusalem, His appearance beautiful and attractive."3 Though this may seem innocent, even spiritually gratifying, in reality it's impossible. No one knows what Jesus looks like. Moreover, this is visual idolatry (Ex 20:4-5), and a divination technique that opens the door to demonic spirits. We personally know former Jesuit priests (Ignatius founded the Jesuits) who report that they had been demonized by this method. The real Jesus will not respond, no matter how sincere the practitioner. Through the imagination the visualized Jesus (or any other personage) often takes on a life of its own and brings the practitioner into occult bondage. (See The Seduction of Christianity or Occult Invasion for more information on shamanic visualization.)
Centering prayer, a foundational contemplative technique, is a "Christianized" version of Eastern mystical meditation. Stripped of its deceptively biblical sounding terminology, it's no different from that which yogis have practiced for millennia; neither are its occult effects. For example, an instructor in the movement (who mentors two Catholic priests) tells of his recurring problem with his meditation breathing exercise:
The Spirit would flow into my heart and start burning and I couldn't get it to stop. The burning would proceed into my lungs and I could not take a deep breath for days, let alone do the breathing exercises....Do not get the idea that I was doing the exercises too forcefully. I wasn't. It was just that the Spirit had become unleashed and I was encouraging it to flow more forcefully than my nervous system could handle. I sought medical help but the doctor couldn't find any reason for the problem. How do you tell a doctor that the Spirit has really been rough on you lately and you want to learn how to cope with it?4
Rough "Spirit"? Not the Holy Spirit! Still needing help, he wrote to a renowned Catholic monk, author of many books on contemplative exercises. The reply was revealing though not surprising. "He graciously wrote back explaining that although the end in God is the same....he had not felt the heat or the flowing of the Spirit exactly as I did but that he had read about these experiences when reading of the kundalini (what [Western] yogis call the fire of the Holy Spirit [Hindus actually call it the "serpent force!"]) experiences...."5 Similar "rough" manifestations—which wouldn't go away—have been reported at the alleged revivals of Pensacola and Toronto, causing young people and their parents to seek medical counsel.
If our small, central-Oregon town of Bend is any indication, the pied pipers of this movement are everywhere. Some of our local churches recently had Taizé meetings (repetitive chanting, meditative silences, candlelit rooms, etc.) for their youth. Walk to Emmaus has its local adherents. Richard Foster, who introduced shamanic visualization to evangelicals in his bestselling Celebration of Discipline, came to town with his contemplative spirituality-promoting organization, Renovaré. Its board of reference and speakers have included Jack Hayford, Lloyd John Ogilvie, Don Moomaw, Robert Seiple, David and Karen Mains, Martin Marty, C. Peter Wagner, Ron Sider, J. I. Packer, Calvin Miller, Fr. Henri Nouwen, Ted Engstrom, Fr. Michael Scanlon, Eugene Peterson, John Wimber, and Tony Campolo.
Not far from here, Eastern mystical guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had his massive ashram/ranch, which the Lord graciously turned over to Young Life, the evangelical parachurch ministry. So it's grievously ironic that the speaker for their pre-opening leadership conference at the 60,000-plus-acres Wild Horse Canyon complex was former Catholic priest/present Catholic mystic Brennan Manning. His book The Signature of Jesus advances the philosophies and methodologies of the contemplative mystical/New Age pundits. It is Jesus to whom he attributes the occult technique of centering prayer: "The hunger I encounter across the land for silence, solitude, and centering prayer is the Spirit of Christ calling us from the shadows to the deep."6 His most influential admirers (and promoters among our youth) are some of the biggest names in Christian music, including the late Rich Mullins, Michael Card, D.C. Talk, and A Ragamuffin Band—named after Manning's Ragamuffin Gospel (endorsed by Eugene Peterson and Max Lucado). His contemplative and "unconditional love" gospel (see Q&A this issue), however, is not the biblical gospel of salvation; therefore, neither can the Jesus who he claims appears to him be the biblical Jesus.
The problems with this bogus spiritual approach to God are too many to fit into this brief article. Nevertheless, my prayer is that those youth leaders and pastors involved, or thinking about getting involved, would contemplate (in the biblical sense!) the following:
Where do you find any of these methods or techniques in the Bible? Did any prophet or apostle, New Testament or Old, practice any of these "spiritual" exercises? No. Then how can these exercises be considered God's way of knowing Him?
How much of this movement with its mystical saints and classic works is Catholic, advancing the Catholic way of salvation? Are you interested in having your youth group follow the "check your mind at the door" teachings of St. Ignatius found in his spiritual exercises—such as, "If we wish to proceed securely in all things, we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical [Roman Catholic] Church so defines"?7
Have you ever found the biblical gospel in any of the classic or modern contemplative materials? Could there be any significance in the fact that this movement practically died out after the Reformation, only to be revived today! How does one discern whether or not the God being "heard" through the subjective, experiential mode of communication is truly our Lord speaking—especially if the authority and sufficiency of His Word is downplayed, even rejected?
Finally, if you truly love those young souls whom Christ also loved and for whom He died, will you be a Berean, carefully checking these things in the light of Scripture—for their sake (Acts:20:28)? TBC