Of all the books I read in seminary, the one I remember best was a sociological study of the Amish. I was fascinated by the way Amish communities raise their children, how they intentionally guide teenagers into real, needed work in the community, and how this helps young people transition into adulthood.
I recognized some of this dynamic in my own life. Like many other children in the Christian Reformed Church, I experienced remarkable consistency between church, home, and school. Even my piano teacher—and her piano teacher—went to my church, and when I was ready, they invited me to play in worship. I was accompanying entire services by high school, and I interned as a worship apprentice in twelfth grade. By the time I arrived in college, I was well equipped to take up worship leadership roles on campus.
Now, after fifteen years in local church ministry, I’ve returned to my alma mater, Trinity Christian College, to serve as the director of campus worship. Trinity students represent a broad range of church traditions, which makes cultivating a shared culture of worship a wonderful and unique challenge. It also makes Trinity an interesting place to consider the formational effects of a variety of worship practices, especially as they relate to Gen Z. What practices and rhythms contribute to “sticky faith” (see fulleryouthinstitute.org/stickyfaith) in today’s college students? How did students’ home churches help or hinder them from engaging in campus worship?
I don’t know that we have clear answers yet, but these are the questions we’re asking at Trinity, especially as we, like many, emerge out of COVIDtide with lower levels of engagement in worship and campus ministry.
I teach a course at Trinity called “The Body of Christ and Its Traditions.” It’s an overview of church history and ecclesiology, and students become more familiar with their own church traditions in the process. I asked my students, “What is it about your church tradition or denomination that feels most like home?” and I was struck by how many spoke about relationships. About family. About friendly faces and feeling welcome.
They didn’t talk about music style or instrumentation. They didn’t talk about trendy production or celebrity pastors. Interestingly, students from higher liturgical traditions consistently expressed gratitude for the structure and stability of their church’s worship. But across the board, from Roman Catholics to Baptists to Pentecostals, students said they felt at home in the church because they felt known. They felt secure.
Some years ago, the prevailing wisdom for how to engage children and youth in worship was to meet them on their own terms: Cultivate a separate space for kids ministry with an easy drop-off process for parents. Employ bright colors and big energy. Include stories with simple takeaways and songs with actions and dance. Then graduate the kids to youth-group worship. Dim the lights, amp up the volume, and sing whatever’s current. Let kids freely express themselves with God and with each other. Focus on the practical stuff.
For many worshiping communities, this silo model or some variation of it has been the norm for an entire generation. It has some educational benefits, to be sure. But the significant cost of this model is how it divides the church, creating generational islands and forming us to be generational consumers of worship. Perhaps worst of all, it keeps our children and teens from experiencing deeply the truth that they are—already, now—an integral part of the church.
Youth who have been siloed don’t really know their church community.
And, chances are, they also have missed out on being known.
As my friend and colleague Nicole Saint-Victor has said, “We created a space where youth were on the margin because they did not remain in the key conversation. They weren’t in the main room” (tinyurl.com/cicw-conversation). If we want our young adults to be an active part of our worship in our churches—and an active part of the conversation about worship—they need to be in the room where it happens. How else will we know them well enough to recognize their gifts and guide them into real roles in the church? How else will we know what questions we should be asking them?
And how else will they know the particularities of their community—its history, its people, its norms—well enough to help discern what stays and what changes in the years ahead?
This is not to discredit children’s ministry or focused spaces where kids and teens can talk about their faith with mentors and peers. But when it comes to worship, it is worth our effort to intentionally maximize the moments when everyone is in the room.
At its best, Reformed worship is intergenerational. Our emphasis is on the sacraments, on Scripture and symbols and stories, on shared practices and shared memories. Our worship is anchored in elements that run deeper than style. Style can attract, yes, but it can also divide. A full-bodied worship invites us all in, with space for a multiplicity of styles and multisensory engagement of mind, heart, body, and voice.
There’s something for everyone. And everyone is in the room.
At our fledgling church plant on the west side of Chicago where my husband pastors, we celebrate communion every week. Our children go to a separate room during the sermon and prayers and then return to the sanctuary for the communion liturgy.
They are in the room when we sing the Sanctus.
They are in the room when we say “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!” and when we recite the Lord’s Prayer.
They are in the room when the bread is broken, the wine is poured, and the gifts of God are given for all the people of God—young and old.
They are welcome at the table.
Our first-grader was excited when his school memory work was the Lord’s Prayer. “I think I already know it!” he said.
A new family joined us this year, exploring church for the first time with young children. Within months, their preschooler was confidently proclaiming the new-to-her but ancient words, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
Recently, our three-year-old had a bloody nose. As I sat with her on my lap, she looked down at those red tissues in my hand and said, “Mommy, it’s God juice.” It was her first close encounter with blood, and her only prior point of reference was communion: “The blood of Christ, poured out for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Over time, we trust that our children will grow into the ancient words and symbols of the church—even as we, in adulthood, are still growing into them. But what a gift it is to plant, deep in their strong memories, the rituals and rhythms of faith, enacted together with parents and grandparents and teachers and friends and mentors and pastors and peers.
What a gift it is to tell our kids and teens, in as many ways as possible, that they are known, they are loved, and they are a vital part of the whole church.
It takes a village to do this work. It takes a village to name and know and call forth—as the Amish do, and as my childhood church did for me—the emerging gifts in each of our kids, guiding them into meaningful opportunities for service and leadership.
But my hunch is that the villages who do this will raise up young adults who see themselves as necessary, integral members of the Christian community because that is all they have ever known.