As we prepare for this year’s Princeton Forum on Youth Ministry, we are asking several writers to write about what the word “declare” means for them, for their ministry, and for the church. Throughout history, prophetic voices have made declarations—often ones that are uncomfortable to the religious elite. We hope to bring some of that same discomfort into our lives and yours over the next few weeks. If you are interested in thinking through the meaning of “declare” further, sign up for the Forum today!
Let’s assume we knew one another ten years ago and you asked me over coffee, “Eric, what do you want to do with your one, wild, and precious life?” Peering into the unknown future, I would have responded, “I want to teach in a seminary, and I want to be the liturgical theologian for Baptists in the United States.” Had you inquired further or expressed interest, I would have gleefully articulated my five and even ten-year plan for what such a vocation, centered in the academy, might look like.
An Unexpected Rhythm
Tomorrow is Friday, and I will board a bus with forty college students, most of whom are in their late teens or early twenties. We will drive two hours away to a Baptist church camp for a weekend retreat where we will worship, play, and learn how to minister through a summer camp for teenagers that focuses on worship and worship leadership. When I return Sunday evening, I will drop my luggage off at the house, greet my dog, and kiss my wife before dashing out the door to church. There, I will spend the next two hours working with 100 high school students who are preparing for a summer mission experience together. After a few hours of rest Sunday evening, I will begin my Monday with robust coffee and a classroom of college students waiting to be engaged in reading and assignments.
I have slowly stumbled my way into youth and college ministry over the last ten years. I did not get a college degree in piano performance hoping to be a youth minister. Working with college students never crossed my mind in seminary, and not once while pursuing a PhD in Theology did I believe my academic career might revolve around studying the worship practices of teenagers.
So, how is it that now, when I see the faces of teenagers like Milligan, Wesley, Alexa, Walker, and Racquel, I think about that C.S. Lewis quote that says, “Next to the blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses”? Could it be that teenagers have become neighbors to me in the sacramental way that Lewis wrote about? Could teenagers be those immortals with whom I joke, love, snub, and even exploit? The ones in whom Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden?
Stumbling into Identity
Like I have stumbled my way into youth ministry, teenagers in the church stumble their way in and out of public Christian worship week after week. Teenagers attend worship for reasons we don’t like to admit: because their parents make them, because their friends are there, or because worship is “the thing to do” on the Lord’s Day. Some teenagers have even stumbled their way into worship leadership. They are interested in leading worship because they enjoy music, excel in public speaking, or are intrigued when an adult notices their gifts and invites them to participate.
They don’t walk into corporate worship thinking, “Because of the things I do and say in worship today, I will grow deeper in my relationship with Christ,” any more than you or I think about the good dental hygiene that occurs when we brush our teeth.
In either case, teenagers aren’t necessarily programmed to think first about the long-term value of corporate worship on their Christian journey. They don’t walk into corporate worship thinking, “Because of the things I do and say in worship today, I will grow deeper in my relationship with Christ,” any more than you or I think about the good dental hygiene that occurs when we brush our teeth. Yet, we know from our own experience what philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith has written, that
being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly – who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship – through the affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.1
Teenagers aren’t programmed to think about the mechanics – the nuts and bolts of worship – unless an adult encourages it and takes the time to explain an otherwise affective experience to them. When we encourage young people to make their “accidentally showing up to worship” intentional, their actions on the Lord’s Day – praising, confessing, lamenting, giving thanks, and dedicating themselves to a lifetime of following Christ in the world – have a significantly increased chance of becoming purposeful and intentional in the ways and places that matter most: in hallway at school, around the family table, on the sports field, or lying in their bed late at night.
Formed by Worship
In The Rhythm of God’s Grace,2 Arthur Paul Boers shares the story of a Jewish boy who insisted on running off into the woods every day, even though the activity was strictly forbidden. His parents were dumbfounded by this, because they knew him to be a very obedient child otherwise. Frustrated, they called on their rabbi for help. The rabbi came and talked to the boy, explained his parents’ fears, and told him why he should not run off into the woods any longer.
The boy listened attentively, but without fail the boy did it again. So, the next day, the rabbi decided to follow him from a distance to see what he was doing. What he found was the boy walking about in the woods reciting Jewish prayers. When he finished, the rabbi questioned him, “Why do this? Why do you go into the woods to pray? Is God not everywhere and always the same?” Without hesitation, the boy responded. “Yes, that is true. God is everywhere and always the same. But, unfortunately, I am not.”
Teenagers are immersed in a culture that values an inside to outside expressivity. Yet, when the church engages them in the right ways as worshipers and worship leaders, worship apprentices teenagers into a way of being that transforms them from the outside to the inside. Teenagers get to “try on” practices in worship, and adults in the faith community encourage them with perspective ensuring those practices fit in all the right ways, providing a wardrobe of habits that teenagers can begin to wear in the right place at the right time. And, their “accidentally showing up” to worship becomes the very act that propels them into a life characterized by their baptismal vocation: returning back to the God from whom they came, living as a disciple of Christ, and witnessing to the work of Christ in the world.
1. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 32-33.
2. Arthur Paul Boers, The Rhythm of God’s Grace: Uncovering Morning and Evening Hours of Prayer (Paraclete Press: MA, 2003).
Eric L. Mathis, PhD, is a former youth minister and worship leader who teaches music and worship at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. At Samford, he is founding director of anima: the Center for Worship and the Arts, whose mission is to empower teenagers to connect their enthusiasm to all the possibilities inherent in worship and the arts. Mathis has degrees in music and theology, the most recent of which is a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.