Youth workers combing their local Christian bookstore for student devotional material often leave empty-handed. For all the books that exist in this genre, few deal with topics more complex than crowded lockers and rude siblings.

Brent McDougal’s River of the Soul: A Spirituality Guide for Christian Youth is a welcome break from the norm. This devotional/discipleship book challenges students to wade deeply into the waters of the spiritual life.

In an engaging, storyteller’s style, McDougal uses the metaphor of a river to encourage students to plug the river of their souls into the “great river of God.” After confronting some common problems that can pollute the soul, eight spiritual disciplines are highlighted, with practical instruction for each. The result is a guide to a thoughtful and well-balanced life of faith, relevant to older students and adults. McDougal’s own stories and those he has collected from others are themselves worth the price of the book ($9.99).

In a world where our cultural motto (even in youth ministry) tends to be “busyness is next to godliness,” it is heartening to read McDougal’s challenge to students to practice regularly the disciplines of Sabbath and solitude, for example, as a means of getting deeper into the river.
McDougal’s river theme consistently paints for the reader a picture of uncertainty and adventure in the life of faith, rejecting any promise of fanfare or expanded territory. River of the Soul is a grounded picture of what the call of Christianity looks like, why it is hard and why it is wonderful.

River of the Soul does have weaknesses. Though the book does not come with any sort of age advisory, some of the language and theological discussion would leave most middle and early high school students with smoke coming out of their ears. In future editions, it would be helpful if a suggested age range or a “how to use this book” section were included in the introduction.

The book would also be strengthened by a more accessible format. For example, the question-and-answer sections could sometimes benefit from more structured and useful patterns.

While most teen devotional books are all flash with little substance, a bit of flash by way of some illustrations might make the subject matter less intimidating for young readers. And though McDougal uses stories well, eliminating a few might make the 139 pages—bereft of illustrations—even stronger.

Despite these objections, given a choice between solid content and fine packaging, content is always a better option. River of the Soul has content. McDougal challenges students to face some of the most difficult issues of faith head on. He does so without being preachy or providing simplistic answers to complex questions. Instead, with stories and thoughtful questions, McDougal forces the student reader to think theologically—and with relevancy—about topics like worship and transparency.

It is obvious that McDougal respects a teenager’s capacity to evaluate biblical material and his or her own river experiences. McDougal doesn’t think he has reached the river’s end and knows all of the curves and rocky places. Instead, this fellow believer invites another to begin a river voyage and see where God takes them.

River of the Soul is a solid resource for youth workers to pass along to students. I suggest youth workers buy the book, read it for themselves, then share it with older or more mature youth who are looking for a deeper journey. The material will, at times, require some guidance from a youth worker or an adult mentor.

But perhaps that is a strength rather than a weakness. So jump into this river, then bring your students along for the swim.

Johnny Lewis is associate minister at First Baptist Church Middlesboro, Ky., where he works with youth and children’s ministries.

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