Worship at churches is an interesting thing. Everyone has a different vision of how it should look/happen/be. This week’s question urges us to make sure we include teenager’s voices in leading worship. Here are some different perspectives on…..
“What are ways your church encourages youth to be active participants in leading worship?”
Joe Kendrick is the Senior Pastor at Bruington Baptist Church in Bruington, VA. He is a husband, father, and avid comic book collector. His favorites include Batman, Green Lantern, The Shadow, and The Green Hornet. Joe is a graduate of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and is currently pursuing his Doctorate of Ministry in Justice and Peacebuilding at BTSR. In short, he is Batman.
It would be simplest, concerning worship with youth, to say they participate in worship in the same ways we adults participate in worship. It is ideal to have them involved during the worship service reading scripture, sharing the gifts through song or dance or music or spoken word, taking up offering, singing with the adult choir, making announcements, or serving as ushers. Such a simple statement would, or should, elicit a sounding, “Duh” from the peanut gallery. Allow me to deepen this post then.
I have a friend, well he’s more of a bro, who has this skill down. Once a year or maybe twice a year or maybe quarterly, he organizes a youth led worship service at his church in Charleston, SC. Now, youth services are fine and dandy. They are an opportunity to parade the youth out in front the congregation and the old folks feel good about how they’ve raised such wholesome teenagers. Keep in my mind they’ve never been on a youth trip with them. But Youth Sundays are not incorporating services. Someone plans the service and then puts students in where they need to go. My friend goes beyond this.
He incorporates them into the worship planning process. They organize the scriptures. They organize the music. They organize the order and flow of the worship service. They write their sermons. They write their prayers. They lead in every definition of the word.
Why is this important? Because this type of leadership is transferable and transformative.
One year, back when I was a youth minister, I had the fun of organizing an outright Youth Sunday. The youth were not only in charge of the service but they were in charge of Sunday school. The months leading up to the takeover of Sunday, we worked together to organize and plan the service. The youth preaching were taught the science of writing a sermon and the importance of studying the material. The youth wrote their prayers, learned the traditions of taking up the offering. They learned about the why’s of worship.
After Youth Sunday, several of youth were so transfixed by the experience they sought to serve on the worship committee for our contemporary service. They brought their unique voice to the committee and we finally had youth on a committee who could actually tell us about the youth culture. Nothing like having 30-70 year olds tell each other what the youth want. They sought to be active participants not only in leading worship but planning.
This type of inclusion also lead to transformative practices in their own lives. They began to wrestle with God’s call to some form of ministry as well as several began to request to serve as deacons of the church. In fact, inclusion of our youth at the church I pastor now as lead to them becoming leaders beyond their own group.
One Sunday, four of our girls requested to take over the defunct Children’s church. Every fourth Sunday they organize and lead the children in worship. They have owned their leadership roles all because they found inclusion. Not only are they leading our children, they have begun to put together a choir to help the congregation transition into learning songs outside the hymnal. They are not seeking to replace the traditional hymns, in fact many love the hymnbooks, but they are seeking to include their own culture in the service. They are not blending music but blending generations.
And to me that’s the reason why we need to include them in worship.
Brittany is a graduate of Baptist Seminary of Kentucky graduate and former music minister. She enjoys spending time with her husband Kyle and her cat Larkin.
During my time as a Music Minister, I was always looking for ways to get the youth involved in worship. This was no easy task. Of course, as music minister, I was aware of the youth with musical gifts and found ways to use those gifts in the service on occasion. This approach, however, neglected a large portion of the youth group who were not musically inclined or brave enough to sing in church. And there was also always the annual “Youth Sunday” but even getting participation on this special Sunday proved difficult.
I decided to experiment with getting youth involved in worship by inviting 2 youth to be members of the Worship & Arts committee (a committee traditionally made up of a dozen adult leaders). Before I tell you about this experiment’s success, I must admit its failure. Of the two youth invited only one became actively engaged in the committee. I could not figure out how to get the other youth involved and I must admit I was so excited we had one youth I neglected to pursue the other as much as I should have. Additionally, I attribute some of the success with the one youth to the fact that his dad was also on the committee: he had built in accountability and a ride. This experiment did, however, yield a few insights about engaging youth in worship.
First, teaching youth (and, I would argue, all congregants) about worship and why we do what we do is extremely important. We spent a large portion of our meetings thinking theologically about our worship and discussing a book on worship. I must admit I was taken by surprise the first time the youth chimed in with his favorite parts—he was doing homework for church! I quickly repented of my assumptions and came to see this youth as a vital part of our worship team. He seemed to enjoy our discussions and some of our traditions that once seemed boring and pointless seemed to take on new meaning for him. He also helped us to see where some of our traditions had fallen flat and lost their meaning. Learning about worship also helped him to root his creative ideas theologically. His opinion about elements of worship began to evolve from “this seems cool” to “I think the church would find this meaningful.”
Second, this particular youth saw that his thoughts and ideas were valued and put into practice when possible. This was a difficult task. Not all of his suggestions were practical, possible in our context, or theologically grounded. But all of his ideas were heard with an open mind and we were able to work with some of them to make them a reality. A lot of credit here goes to the members of the committee. They did not patronize him or see him as the token youth on the committee. They treated him and his thoughts with respect and dignity.
Lastly, I invested in my relationship with this youth. I sought him out when looking for particular elements for worship. I asked his opinion about songs and ideas. We worked together to plan worship for a youth retreat. I kept him and his ideas always in mind as I considered different aspects of worship. He was my go-to for a younger perspective and we talked often about things that were meaningful to him as well as aspects of worship that his peers in the youth group liked and disliked. Together we learned to center our conversations on the question: “Is this meaningful?” While we kept likes and dislikes in consideration, our main concern became finding elements of worship that would clear the path so that all ages might encounter God in our worship time.
It takes patience, creativity, and flexibility to get youth actively involved in leading worship and my experience was just the first step, but I believe the work is so worth it! Worship is a deeply formative practice—youth need and, I believe, crave this. Besides, if we believe that worship of God is the central purpose of the church and youth are the future of the church, we better make sure they are actively learning about and leading in worship.
Josh is the youth pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He attended the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor for undergrad and then got his M. Div. at Truett Seminary. He is married to Camille and enjoys the Texas Longhorns, Netflix, and Chick-fil-a. He isn’t cool enough to have any pets…yet.
By the time I was a teenager I was playing the bass for our Sunday morning worship and sang specials with my friends fairly regularly. Also, I was not a very good bass player and was a teenage boy with a squeaky voice. I didn’t care, though. I wanted to do something important on Sunday morning! Having been a youth pastor for nearly ten years now, I feel confident in saying sometimes this drive in students is mistaken for attention seeking rather than what it is: a student’s genuine desire to use their gifts to lead others in worship. Unfortunately, sometimes we forget that a student’s faith should be developed by giving them something important to do or we risk stunting what could be vibrant growth.
First things first then. The best way to encourage students to participate in worship is to make it seem totally natural that they would do so. So often students are made to feel like they are getting to do show off for “big church,” as if they were putting on a mini-performance for the adults via youth choir or responsive reading. Our church does its very best to make sure that students are consistently doing something to lead the congregation. By intentionally sending kids to the platform in some way, we subtly develop a culture where everyone from the youngest to the eldest knows they have the ability to lead.
What does some of this worship leadership look like? Sometimes it looks like a youth choir; each student wearing the same blue shirt with matching blue jeans, sort of like robes for people who would hate to wear the robes. Most would never want their voice heard out above the others, but by joining forces with those around them they feel safe to lead like the adult choir members do every Sunday.
Other times it means that a student will lead a litany or give the prayer over the missions offering. Sometimes they are invited by the pastor to help with an illustration in his sermon. A few of the students in their school bands even play with our orchestra, which is pretty cool to see.
I’ve found that Wednesday night youth worship is a great type of “farm system” from which to develop student worship leaders. Those who like to speak, sing, or play instruments are given the freedom to lead in that, but other students do stuff too. Many will volunteer to be in a skit. Some want only to help set up the stage or pass out papers and pens. Some would rather make videos for us. For every student that wants to be on stage, there are generally a few others who would like to help by doing one quick thing that doesn’t involve them being the focus of attention. So, we encourage that and find ways for them to lean into that drive too. Encouraging student leadership in worship is about giving people a space for their gifts to guide the congregation into time with God, not just training the fearless ones to sing and preach.
The point is basically two-fold: we try to intentionally create an atmosphere in which students know they are expected and encouraged to lead in worship and be creative enough to find a way for every student to use their specific gifts in leading worship. This can be difficult at times, but if we want the next generation to care about corporate worship, we must allow them to personalize and take ownership of it.