Reinventing the Youth Service: Discipling young people in a way that benefits the whole congregation

If you’ve ever suffered through trying to organize an unfocused group of teenagers into a cohesive team of worship leaders, you may have asked yourself, “Why are we doing this?” That’s the way we felt when we started working with our church youth group eight years ago. It took us a while to figure out how the youth service we had inherited fit in with the rest of the youth ministry program. Were we only going through the motions each year because “We’ve always done it that way”?

After several years of trial and error, the light finally dawned: worship planning arises out of the same principles we use for the rest of our youth ministry.

Principles for Planning Youth-Led Worship

Focus on Process, Not Product

We are in the process of training leaders throughout all our programming, including worship planning. This wasn’t always the case. In the past, we did a worship service from the top down: we directed; the kids followed. We focused on presenting a polished “program” featuring the teenagers rather than on equipping the students to glorify God.

The catalyst for changing from performance to real worship was the realization that the Word must be the focus of every part of the process. At every step of the way—in choosing music, designing artwork, structuring prayer—we refer to the passage as a guide. As a result, the steps of planning, preparing, and leading have become as important to the students’ spiritual growth as the final one hour spent in the sanctuary.

Prepare So That Everyone Can Be Involved

Second, we work to involve all students in using the gifts they have. Not every student is ready to stand in front of the congregation, but every student has something to contribute to the body. When we focus on ministering with, not just to, the students, we discover the importance of both identifying and valuing their individual gifts. As a result, a youth service may look very different from one year to the next.

Since we’re not good at everything that goes into helping kids plan and lead a worship service, we have found that involving other members of the congregation benefits us—we can’t and don’t have to do it all. It benefits the students too, because they get to know other adults in the congregation. And it benefits the other adults we involve as they share the joy of working with the youth.

Some of these adults come to our youth group meetings when we plan the worship service. The choral music director, for instance, works with us during the first part of each planning meeting. The students do most of the work on the banner during regular meeting times, so the artist who works with them comes for that time. Other adults do behind-the-scenes work: writing a drama, for example.

Teamwork among the pastor, youth leaders, and students is a crucial part of this process. We work together to choose a Scripture passage for the service. Usually we focus on a specific passage rather than a theme, partly because our pastor prefers preaching a text rather than a theme, but also because this is one more way to draw the students back to the centrality of the Word.

Remember the Goals

From our days of doing a youth service because “we’ve always done one,” we have moved to working with a clear set of goals that we communicate to leaders and students alike:

  • To use students’ gifts to glorify God and edify the body.
  • To let students know they are the church now.
  • To provide opportunity for another kind of “profession of faith.”

Nuts & Bolts—The Mechanics of Worship Planning with Youth

Choose a Text

Sometimes the text for the service comes from a retreat or Bible study the students want to explore further. Other times the pastor or a member of the congregation suggests a text. However, we always involve both students and pastor in the decision. We dedicate four youth group meetings to planning and preparing to lead the youth service, so we need to settle on a text at least a month before the date of the service (our group meets every Sunday night).

Study the Passage as a Group

We used to skip this part until we realized that by skipping it, we were not communicating the truth that the Word is the central part of worship. Now our first “worship planning” meeting is a Bible study. (See box “Sample Worship Planning Bible Study.”)

Discuss Why We Do What We Do in Worship

When we talk through principles of worship, we accomplish two things. First, we educate students. Second, we provide a common ground for making choices about what elements to include in the service. For example, when we talk with students about worship as a dialogue, we help them see how that concept affects the order of worship. As we discuss the difference between corporate worship and private devotions, we see students challenging each other to think about more than personal taste.

Have Students Form Planning Groups

Planning groups may change from year to year, depending on the gifts of the students. We try to have something that everyone can do so that there are no bystanders, and we encourage students to consider where they are needed, not just what area appeals to them most.

Those who plan an element of the service do not necessarily lead that element during the service. A student who is uncomfortable speaking in public may be very good at writing a litany for others to lead.

Work in Planning Teams

Here’s where planning with the students will fall flat without advance preparation. We provide specific directions for each planning group and assign an adult or student leader to keep the group on task. (See the box, “Sample Worship Planning Teams,” for an example.) We think through whatever supplies the group may need and have them on hand.

Often much of what students develop in their planning teams grows out of their experiences in the youth group throughout the year. For example, our group has developed a tradition of how we handle prayer requests: As people share their requests (or item for praise), one or two designated students write each request on a separate sheet of paper. When they have recorded all the requests, they pass the papers around the circle. Each group member takes one or more requests and prays them aloud. The students have sometimes chosen to employ a similar method when they lead the congregational prayer.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Worship is not a performance, but we offer our best. And students are more comfortable when they know where to sit, when to stand, and so on.

How the Congregation Benefits

When youth are involved in leading worship, the congregation sees the covenant affirmed. When other members of the congregation see teenagers owning the faith and giving back to the body of Christ, they will realize that young people are real contributors to the life of the church. Often this realization leads to a fuller involvement of youth, not only in “regular” worship services, but also in other areas of ministry.

When youth are involved in leading worship, the congregation sees the covenant affirmed.



Structuring the Worship Service

1. Brainstorm elements of worship (prayer, confession, praise, etc.) as a whole group.

2. Use the passage, Colossians 2:6-7, to structure the elements. Talk the full group through the passage, helping students think of where the elements identified above might fit. Below is a sample with ideas; what the students come up with may be different.

Scripture: Colossians 2:6-7

“Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord . . . ”

—students’ faith stories
—prayer of thanks for those who encouraged our faith

“continue to live in him, rooted . . . ”

—Apostles’ Creed

“built up. . .”

(this is the communal aspect)

—prayer for needs of congregation members
—faith stories about God’s working through his church
—reports on youth group activities

“strengthened in the faith as you were taught . . . ”

—Scripture and sermon

“overflowing with thankfulness.”

—prayers of thanks

3. Personal challenge:

Ask kids to think about where their faith story might fit into this structure and encourage them to consider whether they might have a story or testimony to share.

4. Group brainstorming of music for each section of the worship



Gathering to Worship

Choral Call to Worship: “As We Gather” Renew! 6

God’s Greeting

Hymn: “I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord” PsH 169, TWC 30

Confessing Our Need

Early in human history our first parents listened to the intruder’s voice. They fell for Satan’s lie and sinned.

Apart from grace, we prove each day that we are guilty of rebellion too. We fail to thank God. We break God’s laws. We ignore our tasks. We are separated from our Creator, from our neighbor, and from all that God has made.

God did not turn his back on his creation but provided his Son to reconcile the world to himself.

—based on the Contemporary Testimony “Our World Belongs to God,” 14, 15

Psalm 40: “I Waited Patiently for God” PsH 40

stanza 1, young people, stanza 2, congregation

Hearing the Word

Scripture Reading: Colossians 2:6-7
[read by a student]

“Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord . . . ”

Prayer of Thanksgiving for those who were agents of God’s grace in our lives,

[led by students, who asked the congregation to mention people who had been influential in their faith lives, then offered prayers of thanks for those people]

“Continue to live in him . . . ”

“Rooted . . . ”

Dramatic Reading: The Apostles’ Creed
[by students]

Hymn: “How Firm a Foundation” PsH 500, PH 361, RL 172, TH 94, TWC 612

“Built up . . . ”

Faith Story
[told by a student]

[led by a student]

“Strengthened as you were taught . . . ”


Faith challenge to young believers
[by a student]

Choral Response: “You Are My All in All” Songs for Worship and Celebration 220 (Word)

“Overflowing with thankfulness . . . ”

Offering Prayer
[led by a student]


[by students]

Hymn: “Now Thank We All Our God” PsH 454, PH 555, RL 61, SFL 33, TH 98, TWC 374

Prayer of Gratitude
[led by students]

Serving in the World

Parting Blessing

Parting Song: “We Are Marching in the Light of God” (from South Africa; Renew! 306, Voices United, 646, With One Voice, 650)



Planning Teams

Students choose to work in one of the following teams over the course of three youth group meetings.


Using the master list of songs brainstormed by the whole group, this group should compile a “short list” of songs for both the congregation and the group to sing in the service. The group should work with the structure developed earlier to fit the music in appropriately. Other songbooks will also be available. The short list should be finalized at the first meeting so the group can begin practicing the songs at the next meeting.


This group should work on preliminary banner and bulletin cover designs based on the passage at the first meeting. They should assign people to purchase supplies before the next meeting.


This group has two jobs: (1) To determine where and what kinds of prayer they want in the service:

—Do they want separate prayers relating to each of the topical categories (being rooted, built-up communally, thanksgiving)?
—How do they want those prayers structured?
—Ask for prayer requests from the congregation and have different members of the group pray for them?
—Write out a prayer and have one or more group members read it?
—Other ideas

(2) To write out any prayers if they choose to have some written.

This could be done in a future meeting or assigned to willing volunteers to do by the next meeting. They should agree on structure: for example, will there be multiple readers? How will the prayer be organized? (ACTS? Some other way?)

Note: Members of the prayer planning group do not necessarily have to lead the prayers during the service, although they may if they wish. Other willing volunteers from the rest of the group can be solicited if desired.

Faith Stories/Testimonies

This group will be composed of kids willing to share their faith stories/testimonies. Work with students to determine where in the service those stories would best fit and help them develop their stories.

Communal Statement of Faith

This group will select or develop an appropriate way for the congregation to express our communal faith. Possibilities include:

—presenting the Nicene Creed as a readers’ theater
—expanding the Apostles’ Creed with personal, contemporary material

Mary Sytsma is an elder and worship planner at Wheaton Christian Reformed Church, where her husband is the choir director. Mary also teaches English at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, IL.

Jane Vogel ( is a youth leader at Wheaton (Illinois) Christian Reformed Church, and coauthor of Sunday Morning Life: How and Why We Worship (Faith Alive Resources, 2003).


Reformed Worship 51 © March 1999, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.