Youth Sunday is my favorite Sunday of the year. The old way of doing things is gone and the new way has begun (I think I’ve heard this somewhere before). The music is new (yes, Mumford & Sons can be appropriate for worship), the liturgy is new (a multitude of voices fill the stagnant air with a call to worship from the front, the back, and the balcony), the preaching is new (I doubt the teenagers in your congregation are preaching regularly), and there is a different spirit in the air among those who gather to worship. Certainly it is the same Spirit that is present in all of our worship, but when Youth Sunday banners are hung and balloons or paper flowers adorn the sanctuary, and dancers process down the aisle with the opening hymn there is a different energy in the room.
But let me be clear, you cannot pull this off in a week or even a month. And frankly, if you’re not going to do it well, it’s not worth doing at all. When it comes to worship, I’m pretty reformed and (without apology) very Presbyterian. Worship is meant to glorify God and it is unequivocally about God and only about God. Worship is not about me. It’s not about the youth who are leading worship. And it’s not about creating a nostalgic experience where inside jokes or badly done music rule the day because you didn’t have the courage to tell them, “No, we won’t be doing that in worship.” It’s not about you and it’s not about them. Worship is about God.
And though I’ll be the first to say that worship doesn’t have to be perfect (I am a good Presbyterian after all and grace abounds), I do believe that it should be done well. Because if it’s not done well, it becomes a distraction and it is no longer worshipful. What do I mean by “done well”?
It should be rehearsed (and not just once right before the service). The entire service should be connected by a theme or a passage of Scripture. The bulletin should be accurate. It should flow easily from one portion to the next. Students should be comfortable with their roles and have a firm understanding of what their role involves (i.e. Do I need to ask everyone to stand? How do I introduce the Scripture? What do I do if I mess up?). There isn’t a single portion of the service (this includes dress code) that you should be seeing or hearing for the first time on Sunday morning.
This doesn’t mean that you are dictating or writing the entire service. In fact, inviting young people into the creative process (choosing a theme and writing liturgy) as well as allowing them some creative license (whether in dance or drama or poetry, etc) will give them a real investment in worship and help them to feel more empowered and involved. But it does mean that you are in charge. You are the professional in this scenario and you need to act like one: set boundaries and be willing to make hard decisions, guide the creative process, use your veto power when it’s needed (with a kind and honest reason why), redirect them when you veto them, offer helpful suggestions, help them edit their sermons, encourage them when you know how hard they’re trying, thank them for participating, pray with them before and after each rehearsal, have fun with them, be open to their ideas (they might be better than yours), and remind them what an important role they play in this church family. And if you don’t feel comfortable leading this entire process or teaching students how to read Scripture in worship or writing a prayer of confession, then ask for help! Share your vision for this day with other pastors, staff, adults, or parents, and invite them to share their gifts in particular areas of expertise that may not be yours.
And try to step outside the box when you consider creating this service. Pay attention to what’s right in front of you. What gifts do your young people bring to the table? Do they dance or sing or play an instrument? Are they great writers or great public speakers? Can you incorporate these things in worship? Many of my most creative ideas have sprung out of the gifts of my own young people, or experiences outside my church. Continuing education events, Youth Conferences, reading a book, conversations with other pastors, worship and music in another church—all of these experiences are fair game for ideas. If you participate in a conference or worship in another church and have a moment of creative genius come out of it, ask the leadership if they’d be willing to send you some of their material or at least the names of the liturgical resources they use. Many people are far more willing to share these sorts of things than you might expect. Pay attention and take notes all year long. No, you shouldn’t end up using all of your ideas. Because if you tried to do that, chances are it would end up being a mess of creative moves that were forced together rather than flowed together. But if you don’t use them, file them away and save them for another year! The hope, after all, is that this will be a regular thing in the life of your congregation.
Now, here’s the gut check part… It’s time to be honest with yourself. If you don’t have a good relationship with the pastor(s), or if the Session is still mad because the grass hasn’t grown back where you held your slip-n-slide kickoff event, or if there are parents calling for your head because of a lesson you led without talking to them first, PROCEED WITH CAUTION. Now is not the time to throw out every aspect of the usual worship service (especially if you’re doing it to spite someone). It’s not the time to introduce the youth praise band that you threw together last week (especially if in the darkest part of your heart you’re thinking, “this will show them”). And it’s certainly not the time to choose liturgy or themes because you’re primarily interested in making people uncomfortable. This service of worship is NOT about you. And you need to check yourself before you wreck yourself. There is no faster way to be on a pastor/congregation/parent’s bad side than to do a half-hearted, unrehearsed, indignant, self-righteous job with Youth Sunday. You will look foolish and so will the youth who have been entrusted to your care.
I am fortunate to have full creative and authoritative license on Youth Sunday. But that’s because I have earned the trust and respect of the Senior Pastor, the staff, the congregation, the parents, and the youth of my church. You need to be very honest with yourself about the state of these relationships before you move forward.
But if these relationships are in a good place and you feel confident moving forward with this new initiative or perhaps trying it for the first time in a new way, know that my prayers and blessings go with you. I do not believe it is something that should be entered into lightly, but I do believe Youth Sunday can be a powerful and provocative day in the life of your congregation. And it can also be a life-giving reminder of the fullness of the body of Christ and the gifts that young people have to offer in your family of faith.
Rachel Achtemeier Rhodes has been serving as the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministry at First Presbyterian Church of Haddonfield in Haddonfield, NJ, for over five years. Rachel is a graduate of Hope College and Princeton Theological Seminary. She is passionate about youth leading the church forward in mission, the integration of youth in worship, and preaching that digs deep in the soul. Rachel and her husband Matt live in Pennington with their adorable daughter, Madeline Jane, and their faithful dog, Henry.