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Listen to Them: Teens want to worship. Why don't they?

Do young people find our worship services satisfying, uplifting, and a good vehicle for their own praise of God?

That's the question underlying this theme issue of Reformed Worship.

It's a difficult question to answer. You can count the hours each week that teens spend in worship but not the minutes given to true praise of God. You can measure how often young people are asked to take part in worship services but not how genuine that participation is. You can ask their views but never know how often their answer is one they think you want to hear.

In the summer of 1990, the Social Research Center at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan surveyed 16- to 18-year-olds in the Christian Reformed Church. They found that 91 percent of those surveyed went to church every Sunday and 76 percent went twice on most Sundays. Why did they go? Because of parents and friends? Yes. But 71 percent said they also attended because it was important to them personally.

Even more surprising, 90 percent were satisfied with the worship service as a whole, 86 percent with the sermon, 80 percent with the music, and 74 percent with their participation.

Do these figures tell us that we are doing well in meeting the needs of our youth and need not change? Unfortunately, no. We begin to recognize how shortsighted that conclusion is when we notice how many dissatisfied young adults are no longer attending our services and start projecting how many of our teens will follow in their footsteps a few years from now. Perhaps the survey tells us instead how little our young people expect from worship services.

Talking to teenagers after a praise and worship service, in which the music and sermon were designed especially for them, gave me a picture of what worship can be for our young people. A 17-year-old girl said, "I felt completely different—closer to God." A 16-year-old boy admitted, "I cried; it was such a moving experience. IVe never experienced this before." The consensus seemed to be that this service was very different from the "worship in our home church. It moved us, brought us closer to God. We loved it."

Will these teens go back to their home churches dissatisfied with the worship there? Many of them probably will.

So what should churches do? Forbid their young people to attend such youth services? Or consider changing their own style of worship so that it speaks more strongly to their adolescents? I think the second is the only realistic course.

In our churches, ministry to the youth is typically carried out by a group of dedicated people. They do a wonderful, difficult job. But the church as a whole never owns that work. Most members will minister to the youth—indirectly— but won't let the youth minister to them. Most accept teens as church members but never let them become a truly vital part of the fellowship of worshiping believers.

Worship is the key. It represents the church to most youth, perhaps because it is the only place they interface with adult members and experience the church as a united body. Otherwise they are off with peers, friends, or family.

So worship planners, in fact the entire worshiping community, should be concerned about how youth are experiencing the worship services. Do they feel included? Welcomed? Do they become truly part of God's praising people?

I would suggest you ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do you think of the young people as eager to bring their own praise to God?
  2. Do you provide opportunities for them to learn to bring the praise that is most genuine and natural to them?
  3. Do you listen to what they themselves say about praising God?

You will find these questions reflected in the articles that follow. You will also find encapsuled views of young people on worship. Listen to them. And then listen to youth in your own church. By listening, you may learn how you can help your young people to bring their words and songs of praise to our great and glorious God.

Excerpt

In preparation for this theme issue, Harry Boonstra and I took six college students out for dinner one evening and asked them some pointed questions about youth and worship. Their pictures and comments are scattered throughout the pages of this issue. Three were from Canada, one was from Colorado, one was from Iowa, and one was from Michigan. I also met with four young men who attend a youth group in my own congregation. ■ Probably the most important theme that came through in our conversations with these young people was their call for the church to be a community, to include them as members of the body. If we teenagers are not included and not needed, they said in effect, then the church is not functioning like the body of Christ should. Jeff Schra's statement nicely sums it up: "The most important thing about involving youth in worship is that the whole church has to be a community in which the youth are a jry important part."
—ERB