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The Dreaded Eutychus Syndrome: Have things changed since that night in Troas?

What is it that makes senior pastors, youths, and worship mix like oil and water? Having recently moved from a ten-year sojourn as youth minister into the senior pastorate, I wonder if I too will be a victim of what all pastors and youth workers fear when it comes to worship— the dreaded Eutychus Syndrome, described in Acts 20:7-12.

You see, youth workers at the First Church of Troas had spent weeks encouraging kids to come to the worship event of the year, which would feature the preaching of that great pastor-missionary-evangelist Paul. The kids showed up for the service ("Whew," breathed the youth pastor. "I wondered if any would come"), Paul began to preach ("I hope he's on tonight, or I'll never get these kids back to worship again"), and Paul talked on... and on... and on. Eutychus (who here represents the entire youth group) soon fell not only asleep, but out the window—and fatally at that. ('Aahh! There goes my whole youth ministry! Why didn't I stick to singing, skits, and a talk?")

Things haven't changed much since that night in Troas: after a few bad experiences with worship and with senior pastors, teenagers are still disappearing out churches' doors—if not from their third-floor windows. And some of us pastors feel that, if the apostle Paul had so little success with youth, what hope is there for us? Why does worship so easily bore kids (and adults—and senior pastors)? Can the Eutychus Syndrome be overcome? How can youth workers and senior pastors encourage young people to participate in Sunday morning worship in authentic, meaningful ways?

The Non-Negotiable

During a week-long evangelism conference, theologian John Stott asserted that, of all that occurred at the event, the time of worship was most important. One day there will be no need for evangelism, no more necessity for witnessing, he said. But we will worship throughout eternity—so right now we'd better get all the practice we can.

Only when both youth workers and senior pastors make worship the hub, the catalyst for everything else they do, will we break through the Eutychus Syndrome.

The Eutychus Syndrome begins to crack when worship becomes the non-negotiable of our personal Christianity. In my youth-pastor days kids told me, "IVe got a conflict on Sunday: there's a big test on Monday morning, and IVe got to study hard on Sunday. So I can come to either worship or youth group—not both. Which one should I miss?" Students in my group asked that question only once. "If you have to choose," I always told them, "be in worship rather than in youth group."

Worship is too often peripheral to the "real" work of the church: saving souls, social-justice concerns, making disciples. Or worship is tacked on to a youth conference as a dutiful preliminary to the actual reasons teenagers attend. Yet how can there be any semblance of service or witness or teaching unless it flows out of worship? "The supreme thing is worship," said G. Campbell Morgan. A.W. Tozer asserted that "worship is the missing jewel in modern evangelicalism"— and we might add that it's also the missing jewel in youth ministry and that youths are the missing jewels in our worship services.

Because worship is exactly this important, teens must learn how to do it. We were created primarily to worship God. It is in corporate worship, furthermore, that God most fully communicates his presence to us. Youth workers, then, rob kids when they joke about worship, when they pass off worship as unimportant, when they themselves are absent on Sunday mornings. Said simply worship must be the foundation of your youth ministry.

Making the Most of Prime Time

Another way to encourage youths to worship and to demolish the Eutychus Syndrome is for youth workers and pastors to realize that 11 A.M. Sundays is youth ministry. On the senior pastor's shoulders falls the burden of grabbing this prime moment for leading youths into the presence of God, feeding them with the Word, encouraging them to taste the full measure of God's grace in the sacraments, making them see that they are integral parts of a larger family of faith that transcends age, school loyalties, race, or class. Corporate worship provides an opportunity for youths to learn their faith's historic hymns as well as contemporary Christian music, an opportunity to join in the most important celebration of the week in the kingdom of God.

"Fine and good," you say. "But however consequential worship is, it remains boring to most of my kids." Agreed, probably for one or both of a couple of reasons: they don't understand worship, and they are victims of an entertainment-oriented culture.

Neutralizing these boredom factors is another crack in the Eutychus Syndrome. For instance, if out of the blue you were plunked down in a graduate-level lecture about the function of T-RNA in relation to the growth of cells, you'd be bored out of your socks because you wouldn't understand what was going on and, consequently, why you were there. Similarly, most teenagers (and probably most adults) erroneously believe that to worship is to be entertained and patted by the worship leader. (I sometimes wonder if we are taking a hard enough look at the effect that high-powered, entertainment-oriented youth ministries have on communicating the gospel to kids. Just asking...).

Learning How to "Act"

The seventh and eighth graders I used to work with studied Soren Kierkegaard's analysis of worship with me every year (thanks to Ben Patterson's helpful article "Worship as Performance" in Leadership, Summer 1981). I asked them to think of worship as a play or ritual drama. "Every play needs actors, a director, and an audience," I said, then I asked them: Who are the actors, director, and audience in worship? The kids would invariably answer that of course the actors were the pastors, the director was God, and the audience was the congregation.

I would gently suggest to them that this was why worship bored them. They came to be passively entertained, when in reality fey are the actors, the pastors are the directors, and the audience is none other then Almighty God. When this truth sinks in, it changes one's whole perspective of worship. (If adults were shown how similarly backwards their expectations were about worship, they'd discover why they are probably as bored as their kids.)

In an age of entertainment, enabling youths and adults to worship with integrity and authenticity is a tremendous challenge for both pastors and youth workers. It is a start, however, when we discover that we are the performers—not the paid staff members up on the stage, in the choir, behind the altar—for an audience of One. How would you feel, I asked kids, if you spent big bucks to go to a rock concert—only to see the drummer fall asleep or the bassist decide to quit playing? 'Angry" my students replied. "I'd want my money back."

It then becomes a little easier for them to view their own worship through God's eyes—to ask not, "How did the pastor and the soloist do?," but "How did I perform for God last Sunday during worship?"

Entertainment and inspiration are certainly by-products of worshiping, but we have come essentially to divest ourselves of all desire for honor and glory, instead laying all of that at the feet of the One who alone is worthy.

Majesty or Intimacy?

I believe strongly, as well, that youths who break out of the Eutychus Syndrome do so because of worship that balances the transcendent yet immanent God, worship that highlights the majestic yet personal Christ. A balanced, authentic service of worship has vertical and horizontal dimensions that, when understood and maintained, usher us into the awesome and—at the same time— comforting presence of God.

Often, however, instead of balance there's a standoff: youth workers-emphasize the immanent and personal aspect of God in their ministries, while the senior pastor focuses on the transcendent and majestic aspect in worship. No wonder young people feel a little schizophrenic between their youth meetings and Sunday morning worship.

In John Updike's novel A Month of Sundays, The Reverend Thomas Marshfield, a lapsed vicar who longs for transcendence, attacks the marshmallowy immanence theology of his young assistant, Ned Bork. He speaks of Bork's "limp-wristed theology, a perfectly custardly confection of Jungian-Reichian soma-mysticism swimming in a soup caramel of Tillichic, Jasperian, Bultmannish blather, all served up in a dimestore dish of his gutless generation's giveaway Gemutlichkeit." Rev. Marshfield wants nothing of religion made amenable to human demands. "Let us have it in its original stony jars or not at all!" he cries.

Enveloped as we are in a society that dwells on the limitless possibilities of the individual self, on self-actualization and self-fulfillment, perhaps we need to listen to Rev. Marshfield. Maybe youth ministries (which have, with good intentions, generated an unholy familiarity with God and turned Jesus into the boy next door, a Friend who exists primarily to save them on their terms, help them be happy, and bail them out when they're in trouble) need to recapture—or be recaptured by—the majesty and total otherness of God.

On the other hand, youths today are not and should not be willing to settle for mere creeds and form. Ritual is okay, but worship must also be personal. Youths need and want to know the Christ of the creed, and so the sensitive pastor who realizes that 11 A.M. Sunday morning is youth ministry will work hard to create a balanced worship experience.

You don't need rock bands, all contemporary Christian music, or girnmicks to make youths feel at home and a part of worship. I have seen teenagers really get into the fairly traditional worship service (i.e., robes and clerical collars). We use a liturgy, but the pastors take great care to be warm and personal and to ensure that the ritual points beyond itself to the One who wants us to know him in a personal way. We're also flexible enough to occasionally use music that is not found in our hymnal and to try untraditional styles of worship.

In worship I emphasize both the majesty and the intimacy of Jesus. As for the sermon, IVe taken a tip from a pastoral friend: Preach to the high-school juniors. When I preach to sixteen-year-olds, my preaching is generally both understandable and still challenging to a spectrum of ages and intellects. We stress reality not ritual. We point to a majestic and awesome God, yet a God who comes to us personally.

Youths respond to such a God. They respond to worship led by pastors who are genuinely warm and personal in how they lead worship. They are encouraged to worship if their senior pastors break out of what is too often an adult ghetto and instead work at building relationships with the youths of their congregations.

Contagious Worship

Yes, the danger of relational ministry is that a pastor can easily build a personality cult. Yet, as another has noted, it is through personality that we communicate truth. The pastors and youth workers who are aware of cult building are careful to point kids beyond themselves to the Lord, to enable their students to move back and forth between the personal and the transcendent.

It is said that the church of the famed Henry Ward Beecher was packed one Sunday with those who wanted to hear the popular preacher. When a visiting preacher entered the chancel and it became obvious that Beecher was not to preach that day, some members of the congregation headed for the exits. "All who have come here today to worship Henry Ward Beecher may now leave," that visiting preacher loudly announced, rising from his chair. 'All who have come to worship God, keep your seats."

When youths realize that they attend Sunday morning worship not to observe the performance of others, but to connect with God—then real, contagious worship takes place. A balance between the vertical and horizontal; a mix of both the transcendence and immanence of Jesus Christ in prayer, biblical preaching, and the sacraments; and a pastor who is vulnerable, approachable, and personal— these don't guarantee that the front pews will be packed with teenagers each Sunday but they will at least keep Eutychus from falling out of the window.

 

This article was first printed in Youthworker magazine, Spring, 1990. It is reprinted by permission of the author.

Excerpt

The older people look at the young people as being a nuisance sometimes it seems like we can't relate to us. But really, we could learn so much from each other with a little give and take. ■ For example, it would be nice to sing some upbeat songs in our worship services. Some of the upbeat things the kids like to sing can bring smiles to older people's faces. They may not catch on at first, but after a while they do. It's also important for young people to appreciate the old hymns. There are some wonderful words in those hymns__and they're not all old! ■ Both groups have to break that generation gap. They can learn so much from each other.
-Joni Boender (Oskaloosa, IA)