An Invitation to Come Home: Affirming Youth in Worship
Most Sundays when I go to worship, I feel like 80 percent of me stays in the car in the parking lot and the other 20 percent actually makes it through the front door and into the pew.” I’ve never forgotten that comment because it points to a deep truth about the character of worship: In worship we are invited to bring our entire being, together with the community of faith, into the presence of the Lord. All that we are—our hopes, dreams, regrets, sins, joys, sorrows, loves, clarity, confusion, memories, relationships, passion, indifference—comes together in the communion of God’s people to be enveloped by grace, bound together in community, and nourished to renewed faithfulness.
The reality of living as redeemed sinners means that none of us ever manages to squeeze 100 percent of our selves into the pew, but a central goal of worship planning is to create an inviting space where that percentage is as high as possible. Creating such space is in fact issuing a hearty invitation to come home, to make ourselves fully at home in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the family of God.
The Invitation: Come Home
This challenge of getting oneself out of the car and into the pew is particularly acute for teenagers, for a couple of reasons. First, adolescence is a time of redefining, to a certain extent, what it means to be at home inside our own skin. This redefinition process includes taking some distance from those who are part of our life. Teens often appear to be aloof and stand-offish in communal worship settings, so that on the one hand they easily feel judged (perhaps with minimal cause) while on the other hand they relish those adults who reach out to them over their aloofness with warmth, encouragement, and bits of humor.
I once thanked a sixteen-year-old for playing his electric guitar in a service the previous Sunday. He was obviously grateful for the encouragement, but when I expressed the hope that he would do it again soon, he replied, “Well, I don’t think so. I was told after the service that I played well but too loud.” An old rule applies concerning adolescents: one warm encouragement plus one relatively mild criticism add up to one loud criticism being heard.
A second challenge that teens face in feeling at home in worship comes from the fact that our society is becoming increasingly peer segregated. Children and teens spend longer days in school with a proliferation of extra-curricular activities, are more frequently enrolled in community activities or summer camps geared to their age groups, participate in week-long (or longer) service and mission projects, and are ministered to by youth pastors. In addition, the electronic media (videos, TV, music, e-mail, Internet) are a huge part of their lives, and these media increase peer segregation because each generation interacts with electronic media (and, by extension, the world in general) differently.
One cumulative effect of these two challenges is that children and teens experience God in somewhat different ways than adults do, and this difference makes it harder for them to hear the invitation to come home that is issued in congregational worship. Too often the invitation they perceive is “Come home to our way of worship” rather than “Let us all come into the presence of the Lord together.”
What Teens Are Looking For
Do teenagers even want to be at home in a worship setting that involves everyone from great-grandmothers to newborn infants? A couple of years ago 10,000 Christian teenagers were given a list of ten characteristics of church life and asked the question, “If you were choosing a church, how important would the following factors be?” The May/June 2001 issue of Group magazine summarizes the results of this poll. (Note: the percentages indicate a “very important” rating for each factor.)
1. A welcoming atmosphere where you can be yourself— 73%
2. Quality relationships with teenagers— 70%
3. A senior pastor who understands and loves teenagers— 59%
4. Interesting preaching that tackles key questions— 53%
5. Spiritual growth experiences that actively involve you—51%
6. Fun activities—51%
7. Engaging music and worship—50%
8. Quality relationships with adults—36%
9. Multiple opportunities to lead, teach and serve—35%
10. A fast-paced, high tech, entertaining ministry approach—21%
A number of things are quite striking about this list: first, the number one factor—“a welcoming atmosphere where you can be yourself”—recognizes the importance of the “coming home” dimension of worship. The second and third factors both focus on relationships, which have great bearing on seeing the church as a place that is home. Second, the factors on this list that suggest peer segregation (2, 6, and 10) have some significance (especially 2) but are not dominant. Teenagers need some segregation, but they do not crave a completely peer-segregated environment. Finally, the last factor—“a fast-paced, high tech, entertaining ministry approach”—lags so far behind the others that it does not merit any consideration in worship planning. It appears that teenagers recognize that high tech worship might titillate for a moment, but ultimately has little effect on the larger purpose of coming home into the presence of God.
The Challenge: Intangibility
Worship planners and leaders who desire to invite children and teens to come home through worship face yet another challenge: “at-homeness” is an intangible phenomenon that can’t be baked from a simple recipe. The person who left 80 percent of himself in the parking lot may have been attending worship that honored all the right biblical principles for worship. Someone else once said to me, “At age twelve, growing up in a tiny Missouri congregation that did not practice careful worship planning, I was asked to play piano every week. I bumbled my way through those hymns, and I’m not sure how anyone could’ve sung along, but after every service I was thanked over and over again, and I knew that those people loved me. And that was all that mattered back then.” Her anecdote suggests a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13: “If I lead worship using the most theologically sound, biblically sensitive hymns, weaving together beautifully coordinated Scripture passages with profoundly expressive prayers, but the worship does not reverberate with the love of Christ, it is only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Of course solid theology, biblical depth, creative coordination, and all the rest are important for worship, but they are servants of something greater than themselves: lovingly inviting all who are present to be at home together in the Lord.
Worship That Invites Teens to Come Home
Though the invitation cannot be programmed, a congregation can take specific steps towards improving its “at-homeness” quotient for children and teenagers. These steps flow from perceiving Sunday worship as the foundational coordinating and integrating act of a congregation’s ministries, including its youth ministries.
Some have called the dominant model of youth ministry practiced in North America the one-eared Mickey Mouse model. Picture a one-eared Mickey Mouse, with adult congregational life happening in the larger circle of his face, and ministry to children and teens occurring in the small circle of one ear, with a short arc shared by both circles. One of the most popular how-to books for youth ministry, Doug Field’s Purpose Driven Youth Ministry, contains an entire chapter completely devoted to youth-only worship. The ways in which ministry is carried out reinforce peer segregation and undermine the invitation to children and teens to come home by worshiping with the entire congregation.
I prefer to imagine congregational worship as the narrow midpoint of an hourglass, with all of a congregation’s ministries flowing to, through, and from that centering point of worship. Here are some steps toward issuing the invitation to come home in such an hourglass manner:
- Find significant albeit unobtrusive ways to refer to younger members when leading worship. An introductory comment such as “I’ve noticed that the next hymn is a favorite of some of our teenagers, and for good reason, because . . .” gives youth a public voice. Once a seventeen-year-old in my Sunday school class pointed out something in a Bible passage that I had overlooked. I preached on that passage three weeks later, thanking him anonymously for his insightful observation. Most teens don’t like to be named in public, but such acknowledgments tell them that their voice is an integral part of the congregational voice, and that they are being taken seriously. The beauty of acknowledgment is that one such comment every two or three weeks sends a powerful signal concerning the place of younger members within congregational life.
- Incorporate the gifts and talents of young people in worship meaningfully and safely whenever possible. One year the youth group that I led had an unusually high number of gifted artists. I studied the preaching schedule, looking for upcoming passages that suggested visual potential. Then I commissioned a number of bulletin covers to express the theme of certain Sunday messages. Later I was thrilled to discover various bulletin covers taped to fridges in members’ homes, and even more thrilled to pass that discovery on to the teens. Children and teens are often afraid of public participation, so they need a completely safe way to be introduced to the practice. When I learned of any ten- to twelve-year-old (or older) who had achieved sufficient piano proficiency to play hymns, I invited him or her to play quietly along with the organist on Sunday. Frequently the child’s parents would sit six feet away from the piano and not even hear it! Yet, this past year on different occasions I bumped into two young adults who had begun that way ten years ago, and both thanked me profusely for the start they had been given as they also described how they are actively involved in worship leading and accompanying still today.
- Structure congregational ministries in such a way that there is a worship-aware voice in children’s and youth ministry leadership and a younger members’ advocate involved in the worship planning. Make sure there is a slot on all meeting agendas to honor these voices. Ministry requires specialization, but this needs to be structured in such a way that it does not lead to fragmentation. This structure requires two parts: a person and a standard agenda item. For example, the monthly worship planning meeting agenda always includes “worship and our younger members,” during which the group discusses what it was like to worship as a younger member during the past month and plans ways to address this in the coming month. Why are both parts needed? A person without an agenda item will lead to occasional random comments that have little lasting impact; an agenda item without a person is not as fruitless, but is more prone to suffer from lack of follow-through.
- Encourage all those who greet worshipers before and after worship to learn the names of the children and teens. The ultimate act of inviting someone to come home is to welcome them by name. I confess that when I shake hands by the back door after preaching, at times my mind is so overcome by the passion of having led worship that the computer upstairs simply won’t bring up the names that are stored there. But I’ve also learned that there are moments during the service when I can scan the pews that will be emptying my way, note certain faces there that I simply must greet by name, and take a moment to bring them to the tip of my tongue.
Congregations have experimented with and practiced many other steps in addition to these. The point is that all such steps are concrete ways for a congregation to say to its children and youth, “We love you. We’re thankful that we are able to worship with you from week to week. Please come home with us into the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”