Lesson 2: How can we make music part of youth ministry?
“We want to make music part of our youth group. Where do we start?”
– Marcus Hong
My response to this question might seem simplistic. Start with what you have. Or, better yet, start with who is there.
Worship rarely gets off the ground when we spend most of our time either pulling people somewhere they don’t want to go, or wishing for resources we don’t have. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t grow in worship or try things out of our comfort zone. Rather, I’m saying that a tree can only reach the sky if its roots are planted firmly in the ground.
Start by asking your youth what music they love. This is not a ploy to seem cool or relevant, but a tool for discovering what stirs their hearts. Take a look at any handful of Facebook profiles, Twitter accounts, tumblr blogs or Instagram pages. A good chunk of the posts are often quotes from songs. As one young woman once told me, “music is a lot of people’s religion.” The first and ongoing task of incorporating music into youth group is to do what we should already be doing anyway — getting to know our young people.
While doing this, you can travel at least three avenues for incorporating music into your youth ministry.
- Discussion Starter. One young woman loves the band Vampire Weekend. Their newest album deals with issues of faith. Ezra Koenig, their primary songwriter, is Jewish. In the song “Ya Hey,” he questions the strange ways God makes Godself known. (Listen to the song here: http://youtu.be/i-BznQE6B8U). The title of the song references God’s name as given in Exodus 3 — YHWH — I am that I am. After playing the song for everyone one afternoon, I asked for their interpretations. Then we dove into the text of Exodus 3. We also touched on personal experiences of God’s absence and on the Jewish roots of Christian faith. Through this song, I came to know my youth more deeply, shared a musical experience with them, and, I hope, helped them to wrestle with difficult issues of faith and doubt. Music can be a good catalyst for discussions like this.
- Involvement and Ownership. Music can also help to cultivate ownership and involvement from young people. Every year we hold a fundraiser whose proceeds go either to local service organizations or to support our ministry, which has to raise its operating budget. At this “Coffeehouse for a Cause,” we invite young local musicians to play a few songs. The musical offerings are eclectic. One time, the set list included a ska group, a few acoustic singer-songwriters, a classically trained violinist, and a grungy garage band. The event is run by our high school leadership team and a couple of adult leaders. Parents, young adults, siblings, and friends all come to see their loved ones make music. We take the opportunity to talk about the local organization we are supporting and about our youth center. And we pray. One time, after a tragic incident rocked the high school, we offered an extended time for prayer and silence. Music has become a way to get people involved on a ground level in acts of service and prayer.
Similarly, we occasionally ask young people to start our nights with a song. We intentionally schedule this time separately from when we all sing together, to differentiate the two experiences. Still, several people who were first invited to play songs before dinner have become involved in leading worship. By celebrating their love of music, we leave the door open for them to feel that they belong.
Once a month, we take a night to do works of love in our local community. My group goes to a nearby assisted living community. The youth bring music to share. They also spend time talking with folks who have sometimes been forgotten by their loved ones. Music brings light to old eyes. Young and old connect over a shared love for Frank Sinatra or the Beatles. We usually end our time by singing Amazing Grace together a capella. Everyone knows it. It’s beautiful.
3. Worshipping Together. Finally, we involve our young people in singing to God. I’ve written a few other blog posts that deal at length with worship and worship leadership in general. Here I want to briefly touch on singing to God together. I think it is important to involve people of all ages in singing together to God as a countercultural act of witness. Most young people encounter music as something to be consumed, or as an art performed only by those with the talent. Singing competitions in which people are mocked for their inability to carry a tune hold our national attention. In this environment, encouraging everyone to sing and to sing to God is countercultural. Calling this singing beautiful and experiencing it as such is a form of witness to who God is and who God calls us to be.
So, how can we start singing together at youth group? Again, start with what and who you have. What songs do people already know and love? What instruments do your young people play? How is your space arranged? Are a few people confident enough to provide a base sound that other people can join?
Once you find these things out, there are a few other pieces of advice I can give you on starting to sing together.
First, introduce any new songs in small, simple chunks. Get the chorus or a verse down first. Sing new songs several weeks in a row so that people come to know them by heart.
Second, sing as broad an emotional repertoire as you can. Sing praise, heartache, rage and gratitude.1
Third, be as consistent as possible in when and how you sing. It takes a while to get used to a different way of being together, for people who never sing in public to get used to singing with others. Sporadic singing rarely takes root or flight.
Fourth, be comfortable with things not sounding perfect or polished. If the people leading music make a mistake, don’t scold them or tell them to do better. If people are not singing, don’t force them, but also don’t let them distract others from doing so.
Fifth, remember that worshipful singing is different from concert singing. We can and should celebrate the musical gifts of those in our community. But this is not the primary aim of singing to God together. I love how the brothers of the Community at Taizé in France lead worship. Their voices are amplified enough to be heard, but not so much that they dominate the sound. The instrumentation and harmonization is beautiful, but simple. The brothers are placed in the middle of the gathered worshippers, not up front. Together we all face the God we are worshipping.
Which leads to the sixth and final point. Worship is about God. We sing together in community because we need each other, and we should never ignore the human element in worship. Yet we must also not forget who it is that gathered us.
(1) See Don E. Saliers’ excellent books Worship Come to Its Senses (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), and The Soul in Paraphrase: Prayer and the Religious Affections (White Sulfur Springs, WV: OSL Publications, 2011).
Marcus Hong is a child of God and a cultivator of worship, a writer, learner, teacher, musician, and PhD student in Christian Education and Formation at Princeton Theological Seminary. Born in the foothills of the rugged Rocky Mountains, Marc now lives in New Jersey with his wife Sarah and their precocious children.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- How is music currently a part of your youth group? What is good about it? What seems to not workwell?
- Watch Video together
- Do you know what kinds of music your students listen to when they aren’t at church?
- What did you think of Marcus’ story about the Vampire Weekend song that led to deeper theological conversation?
- What questions can you beg in asking to implement music in your youth group?
- Which students and adults in your community could facilitate leadership of music?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)