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Peepholes and Picture Windows: Educating youth for worship

The retreat was coming to a conclusion. All week the young people had been struggling with the issue of leadership. On this final morning they would have a chance to exercise that leadership by planning and leading our worship together.

We waited eagerly to see what they would come up with. Would it be something totally new, filled with the rhythm of the music they live by? Would it be irreverent to our adult eyes and ears? Would we truly be able to worship with them?

When the service began, many of us were surprised—and disappointed. The worship service these young people had spent so many hours planning could have taken place comfortably in any of our home churches on a Sunday morning. Instead of using their own creativity and approaching worship with the eyes of youth, our teens had created a replica of the traditional worship they had grown up with.

Later, when we leaders got together to talk about that service, we came face to face with some pretty important facts. If we want our youth to lead worship, we have to get busy "educating" them about worship. Not until they truly understand what worship is will they be free to worship in their own style and to give the congregation the gift of their own unique ways of approaching our holy God.

How should we go about their "education"? What's involved in bringing our adolescents to the point where they can truly be worship leaders1. We looked at three factors that we thought were essential to bringing about the change we wanted to see in our youth.

1. Understand their world and get to know them as individuals.

That, of course, is where it all begins— with truly getting to know our young people as individuals and understanding what's important to them. We need to come alongside youth and "reimagine" with them the reality of God in language they can call their own. We need to help them take hold of their own spiritual gifts.

For teens, one of the most important things in life is "belonging"—belonging to the right crowd, belonging in their family, belonging with their small group of friends. Through worship, we can help our young people experience and learn what it means to belong to God and to their community of faith.

The worship service itself can serve as the best teaching tool for our youth. The order of worship acts out for Christians their relationship to God. They experience the call of God to come and bring praise, to acknowledge their sin, to experience grace, and to respond in a life of gratitude.

Through preaching, pastors can come alongside youth and provide words and images for their faith. Roland Martinson, in his book Effective Youth Ministry: A Creative Approach, says, "Pastors can learn to preach to young people. In the process, they may improve their ability to communicate to all age groups" (p. 96). Martinson continues by encouraging pastors to take time to have contact with the youth of their church. Read their magazines. Watch their television shows. See their movies. Laugh at their comedians. Listen to their music. Wrestle with what they struggle with. As you listen to the Scripture text for your sermon, strive to imagine what images would help young people hear what God wants to speak to them.

Tell a story that includes the struggles and feelings of your young people. Pull them into an encounter with the God who can meet them in their struggles. Find ways to encourage them to grow— not into replicas of the adults in your congregation, but into the unique individuals God created them to be.

2. Show them "peepholes" into the content of the faith.

Michael Warren, in his book Youth, Gospel Liberation, asserts that young people live in a culture that "imagines" what life should be like for them:

Influencing young people toward the liberation which the gospel invites us to accept is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of other powerful influences, which incessantly and often effectively propose to them values quite in opposition to Jesus' way In a society dominated by electronically communicated images, young people are continually having their lives imagined for them by means of television and film scenarios, depicting for them in vivid terms the sort of life most ardently to be pursued often enough a life counter to that proposed or imagined for us by Jesus.

The problem, however goes deeper, since not only young people but also all those who interact with them—parents, teachers, church leaders—are being influenced by the same artificial culture. If older people intervening in the lives of youth are themselves naive about the effects of the media, they will hardly be able to help young people resist those effects" (p. 41).

How does the church "imagine" Jesus' way for its youth? Warren goes on to say:

If popular culture is incur time an enormous picture window showing people ever more fantastic views of what life is all about, then maybe education becomes a kind of tiny peephole, not accessible to very many and at which one has to strain to see anything. How can the peephole compete with the magic picture window? The magic picture window is so automatic and easy; the peephole requires more effort (p. 43).

In many ways, popular culture and the media (movies, television, music, etc.) have become the curriculum that teaches and imagines reality for our youth (and, perhaps, for us adults). One turns on the television, and with no effort learns (through entertainment) the curriculum of our culture. If we took a few minutes to reflect on movies, television, advertising, and music, we could effortlessly list what our culture believes about sexuality authority, parents, money, religious leaders, and the family. The curriculum of the magic picture window is very different from the curriculum of the church.

Youth need pastors to use words and images that will provide the content of faith for them. Worship is a powerful experience that can be a peephole, opening a way for youth to know that God's people feel and understand the realities of day-today life in their culture, but that they take a very different attitude toward them than the media does. Pastors can use language that images faith for youth in prayers, calls to worship, sermons, and music.

3. Include them as participants so that they get first-hand experience in planning or leading worship.

Pastors and other worship leaders are in the unique position of being able to administrate young peoples interest in worship. They can form committees that invite youth to participate in planning worship, and they can articulate life-giving insights about God in the language of today. They can recognize the emerging gifts and talents in the young people of their congregation and encourage their participation: musicians can play, drama students can act, speech students can read and speak, and writers can provide new language to communicate the reality of faith.

As young people participate in worship, they express what they are learning and find their own voice for praising God. Congregations—youths and adults together—educate each other as they articulate their life-giving faith to each other and to God in their actions, language, and gestures of worship, and they celebrate as they provide all members of the congregation an opportunity to proclaim the worth of God in our midst.

Excerpt

I enjoy going to my church__especially the Bible (Sunday) school, cause you're allowed to ask questions if you don't understand what's being said. In a regular service, you just have to sit there and listen. (Worship) would be a lot easier if it were like an open rap session.
-Javan Whiteside (Grand Rapids, MI)