Lesson 4: How can we get young people involved in leading worship?
How can I get youth involved in worship leadership?
I was fifteen when I first preached at Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church. Pastor Jeff gladly agreed to lend me the pulpit when I asked. He walked me through his process of reading scripture, his thoughts on writing, and even his method for selecting hymns. He put the entire service into my hands and gave me several weeks to prepare. I was very nervous. My knees couldn’t hold my weight. He reassured me with a kind smile.
Around the same time, I was invited to join the music team for a new weekly worship endeavor — Saturday Night Of Worship (SNOW). “SNOW is coming to Mount Olympus,” our flyers cleverly proclaimed. The service was meant to be more “relaxed” than Sunday morning. Pastor Jeff wore jeans and a flannel shirt. We played extended music sets. We also helped on Sunday mornings, once a month. Our worship team included an intergenerational assortment of unlikely characters: a bespectacled mother of two who could make the eighty-eights sing; a gangly university professor who rocked the drums; a businessman riffing on guitar; his son, one of my friends, screaming on saxophone. I was a vocalist, joining another young friend, and a woman who looked like she stepped out of the pages of Rolling Stone and prayed like the Spirit blew through her as a summer squall.
I do not know who I would be without these experiences. Sometime before my senior year, our drummer moved to a small liberal arts school. He invited me to apply. I spent four years leading worship at the college’s chapel where I met my wife. The church I now serve first called me as the Director of High School Music.
I offer these autobiographical sketches as prelude to a sincere plea. Involve your youth in worship leadership. Invite people of all ages to participate in as many ways as possible. God calls all of us to respond through worship, and God regularly invites people of all ages to lead — Abraham in his twilight years, Josiah at age eight (see 2 Kings 22-23).
In addition to enabling their response to God’s call, we should invite young people to lead because doing so can be deeply formative. All that I know about music, worship, and ministry stems directly from my high school years, when I came to understand that worship isn’t primarily about me, but about us. Our team often dropped out to hear the congregation sing. In those moments, I would look out at my fellow worshippers and realize that their eyes were not fixated us, but raised to the sky, or turned to the cross. In fact, though I have used the phrase “worship leadership” so far, it is because of these experiences that I prefer to talk about “worship cultivators.” Like gardeners, worship cultivators plow and prune and water in order to help others grow and bear fruit.
How can we involve youth in worship cultivation? Here are four things to keep in mind.
- Consistency. Youth should be involved regularly. I remember our crazy “Youth Sundays” fondly. We often ditched the sermon in favor of skits about super heroes or late night talk shows. But more formative than these creative one-offs were regular worship leadership and the close bonds I formed with adult mentors. I have grown wary of Youth Sundays. In my experience, they are often treated as “experiment” Sundays, when the church’s norms can be transgressed. It is fine to experiment in worship and it is good to involve youth in this, but not when the experimentation is never incorporated into the church’s ongoing life. Youth Sundays can contribute to youth marginalization. Like burning off episodes of low-rated TV series during the lean summer months, Youth Sundays can feel like expending young people’s creative energy so we can return to the more “highly-rated” regular worship. I’m not saying youth should never provide the bulk of a Sunday’s leadership. I am suggesting this shouldn’t be the only time they’re involved.
- Variability. Youth should be involved in a variety of ways. With good preparation, youth can participate in almost every aspect of worship (though they probably cannot baptize or marry unless they get a certificate from one of those ordination websites so common on sitcoms nowadays). As a teen, I preached, sang, read scripture, greeted, gave the children’s message, prayed, and even served Communion. I also helped plan worship. A few of us started something called Barefoot Worship (BFW). Since we did all the planning, the music was ska-influenced, confession was a five minute silence during which we “got right with God,” “bouncers” made sure everyone took off their shoes upon arrival, and scripture passages were transformed into skits or puppet shows. I’d still like to revive BFW someday.
- Vulnerability. We should be gracious about our expectations in worship. Don Saliers once wrote that “Christian liturgy transforms and empowers when the vulnerability of human pathos is met by the ethos of God’s vulnerability in word and sacrament.” (1) Thomas Long acknowledges the same when he calls music the “nuclear reactor of congregational worship….where much of the radioactive material is stored, where a good bit of the energy is generated, and, alas, where congregational meltdown is most likely to occur.” (2) Our ability to fall apart like a split atom, to come before God undignified and broken (2 Samuel 6 and Isaiah 6), collides with Christ’s death and resurrection in a powerful encounter with God. This is why worship matters, and why being wounded, disregarded, or chastised in worship impacts us so deeply. I am devastated when church leaders ask youth to help at 8:00AM, then comment that it’s unfortunate the youth look tired because they are supposed to “bring the energy.” It pains me when youth are criticized for stumbling over words, or critiqued for a theologically suspect children’s message. There is a place for helpful advice. But these comments should be said to young people’s faces, not behind their backs, and advice lands better during practice, not right after worship. In worship’s vulnerable space, we should be thankful for each other and aware of each other’s brokenness, even, and perhaps most especially, for those who lead.
- Preparation. We should spend time preparing everyone who cultivates worship. How often do we run through this week’s scripture with the liturgist, helping her to discern where to pause and how to pronounce difficult words or names? Do our musicians feel comfortable enough with the songs to teach them to others? Have we nurtured God’s people in prayer so that they can intercede and confess with honesty and conviction? The real beauty of these preparatory moments comes not from the better performance they evoke, but from the mentoring and relationship building they provide. I love working with our youth group band because I know the power of relationships built through music. I have encountered the Holy Spirit moving through our practice times, when suddenly everything clicks, and we move from learning the chords to praising God. Practice may make perfect, but, more importantly, it can also build up our community in Christ.
(1) Don E. Saliers, Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 22.
(2) Thomas G. Long, Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship, (The Alban Institute, 2001), 53.
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 do young people in your church participate in leading worship?
- How does your church limit young people’s involvement in worship?
- Watch Video together
- What kind of training does your church offer adults who are involved with worship leadership? Would that be suitable for the young people who might lead?
- What expectations does your congregation have for the worship service?
- Marcus mentions the necessity of coaching for young people to be involved with worship The time needed for coaching is often greater than the time required for adults to just do it on their own. What are the benefits to this time investment?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- Choose a story and read it together out loud several Pick one character to identify with, and try to see the story through their eyes. How does this provide a new insight?
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)