One Step at a Time: Youth pastors learn there's no instant success

The first youth service at Georgetown Christian Reformed Church (CRC), Hudsonville, Michigan, was a raving success.

"We put 120 chairs up, and they weren't enough; we needed 140," said Rev. Dan Ackerman, copastor at Georgetown. "We packed the place tight."

The youths weren't disappointed by what followed, either; they whistled and cheered for videos by rock bands Petra and White Cross, a drama entitled "Deception about Diane," a dual slide show of the summer youth retreat, and some get-down talk about caring through a weather balloon named Bill. They were so turned on that Ackerman and others couldn't wait to plan the next service.

The next one bombed.

In its devastating aftermath, youth leaders did what they realized they should have done after the first service: a thorough debriefing. According to Ackerman, they learned some important lessons about youth in worship.

"We learned we had to get them involved in it," Ackerman said. "For sixteen years or more these young people have sat next to Mom and Dad and been told to be quiet in church. So now they're not going to automatically jump into a service—no matter what weVe planned for them. We have to invite them to get engaged in it."

The second lesson the leaders learned was that the large room where the youths met for the worship service was too big and too brightly lit. Enthusiasm shriveled in the glare.

"Teens have a need to be somewhat invisible," Ackerman said. "They're not sure of themselves; they need to feel protected. The room was too bright and overwhelming."

New Turf

Like other youth leaders in the United States and Canada, those at Georgetown are feeling their way through a kind of "frontier approach" to youth in worship. New books and materials are emerging to help point them in the right direction, but there are few existing programs to serve as working models. As Ackerman says, "No one teaches you how to do this. You have to work it out yourself."

Youth workers aren't interested in plugging teens like tokens into worship services designed for their middle-aged parents. On the other hand, they're also not ready to separate young people from the rest of the congregation on a continuing basis to offer them the kind of sight, sound, and spectacle that will turn them on.

And adult leaders know it won't work to just provide worship for young people. Rather, they want to offer the kind of loving support that will help teens become pathfinders to their own kind of worship. As Ackerman says, "If we don't help young people and encourage them to express themselves in worship, it won't become theirs; it'll just be something their parents impressed on them."

Finding the Way

But youths aren't necessarily ready to take the lead in worship design. Call it inexperience; overcommitment to other things like school, sports, relationships, or part-time jobs; disinterest; or just plain fear. But teens aren't ready to make worship happen. As Rev. Karl House, co-pastor of Zion CRC, Oshawa, Ontario, said, "You can't tell teens to plan a worship service. They just won't do it. Or else they'll commit to it, but then it somehow just won't get done.

"You have to lead them through it," he said. "This has to be a team effort between youth and adults."

Working on that type of team takes a special kind of adult—one who relates well to young people, is willing to flex with them, willing to take risks, willing to spend at least twice as much time getting teens to take the lead as doing the job him- or herself. It takes someone willing to assure young people that God honors a person's best efforts, even if he or she messes up.

Sharon Bradimore, player-coach of the high school praise team at Zion, said she is truly amazed at the deep commitment young people have to the Lord and their willingness to show it. At the same time, she realizes how vulnerable teens are and how dependent they are upon the approval of others to do something so bold as to lead worship. "They really need permission from those around them," she said.

Young people at Zion are learning how to lead worship by doing it. And because they're taking the lead—within the affirming context of adults who are willing to work alongside of them to help make it happen, and peers who are also groping their way toward a new understanding of worship—they're starting to move out of the back pews of the church and into their own kind of involvement.

One Step at a Time

Not all young people who are learning to take the lead in youth worship are ready to expose those efforts within the formidable context of a full worship service. Fear of adult or peer disapproval hold them back.

True, parents and grandparents are generally more accepting of the efforts of "the young people" and are thus willing to stretch the boundaries of traditional worship. Youth directors sometimes depend on that attitude to get their teens in front of the congregation. "We can get by with a lot; people say, 'Oh, it's just the young people,'" said Kel Blom, youth director at Orland Park (IL) CRC.

Some youth leaders are even willing to risk offending a few members to help young people—and others in the congregation—grow. For example, Karen Wilke, youth leader at Westend CRC, Edmonton, Alberta, said young people at her church will try drama, mime, liturgical dance, rock music—"whatever we can get away with" in an evening service. Initially she got some negative feedback (some people even walked out of church in protest), but that didn't stop young people from participating.

In fact, teens who used to shy away from worship leadership are now eager to give it a try. "Initially it was like pulling teeth to get them in front of church," Wilke said. "Now they're volunteering for it. They come up to me and ask, 'When's the next youth service?'"

Private Practice

Other youth leaders are less eager to expose their teens so soon. Ackerman would rather let teens find their own way into worship before bringing what best matches their own experience to the whole church. "We want them to learn to lead and experience worship in a safe context before sharing it with others," he said. So young people at Georgetown currently meet for worship separate from the rest of the congregation about once a month during the evening worship service. Once the young people feel comfortable as leaders in their own service, Ackerman and other leaders plan to introduce the youth worship service to the rest of the congregation.

Young people at Zion also practice worship in private as a kind of prelude to presenting it publicly in the church. Sharon Bradimore, their player-coach, says public worship is a by-product of the kind of worship services the teens are developing for themselves on Wednesday nights—not their goal. But it does provide them with the kind of experience they need to take leadership in the church.

"I see a change coming in them," Bradimore said. "They're no longer on the outside looking in. They're no longer criticizing what's going on. They're at the front now, doing the best they can."

Youth in Worship

Young people aren't the future of the church, youth leaders like Stan Drenth are quick to say; they are the church. That's why young people must be challenged to discover the kind of worship that best matches their relationship to God, then contribute that understanding to the church as a whole.

Of course, people of all ages, interests, and abilities must be encouraged to participate in worship. Within that spectrum, however, youth, if encouraged, can contribute the gifts of enthusiasm, freshness, joy roller-coaster emotion, vulnerability, willingness to experiment, and budding growth.

Their boundless energy and affinity for high decibels sometimes sends someone like Sharon Bradimore home from a youth service with only one goal in mind—a nice quiet chair and a cup of hot tea. Still, when she sees how different praise groups, including her high school team, can energize worship at Zion, she's ready to keep plugging.

"What an array of worship styles," she says. "You don't know what to expect. It's so disconcerting you have to ask yourself, 'What is worship?' Then you remind yourself, 'It's all nations, tribes, tongues, and people of all ages praising God in community'.

"With that, you just relax and start having a good time."


In one sentence: 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 very important part. ■ A lot of churches are concerned about the loss of their youth. The fact is that a lot of kids will leave home after high school and then it is pretty much up to them whether to go to church. If they come from a church where there is a strong sense of community, they are more likely to seek out a new church when they leave home. They want to be part of something, to belong somewhere again.
—Jeff Schra (Colorado Springs, CO)

Phyllis Ten Elshof is editor of books and Bibles for Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, Illinois.


Reformed Worship 28 © June 1993, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.