Middle School Worship

Some very interesting conversation going on recently about Middle School worship. You can read up on it here and here. I have one concern with what I’m seeing in the conversations. Basically, as I commented on Kurt’s blog, I think worship is a lot more than singing. I sometimes think that singing is actually an incredibly small subset of “worship” and we’ve simply mistaken the part for the whole. This is partially due to the fact that I can’t sing. Not just “can’t sing” – I can’t carry a tune. I’m tone deaf. Ask my wife, I really, honestly can’t sing. It’s not that I can’t sing well, I can’t sing. I don’t think that exempts me from singing in praise of God. But I think it does give me a unique perspective on worship. For me worship simply must be more than singing if it is to be a meaningful part of my life.

With that bit of background out of the way, I want to elaborate a little on my concern. Some of the people taking part in this conversation have a lot more experience in youth ministry (and life) than I do. But still, the fact that we are discussing “middle school worship” and we’re actually talking about how many songs to sing, what songs to sing, what genre those songs should be, etc, worries me. It’s not that I don’t think we should sing in our youth ministries. But, as one or two people have sort of pointed out in the various comments, singing is not what worship is all about. I’m not saying it’s bad to discuss songs and singing when we talk about worship. My concern is that songs and singing dominate our discussions about worship. Where is the conversation on teaching Junior highers to pray? Where is the conversation about helping middle schoolers to read the Bible devotionally? Where is the conversation about helping young teens to be silent and listen to God’s voice? Where is the conversation about taking Holy Communion with junior highers? I think I could make a Biblical argument that Holy Communion is one of the most vital aspects of worship (though others would disagree with me, certainly), and yet it is no where present in our current conversation about middle school worship.

In my thinking, if we are to help students get connected to the Body of Christ in such a way that 7 in 10 do not leave the church when they leave high school (per Lifeway’s recent research) then it must start in Middle School. I think one of the things that has to start in Middle School is that we as youth ministers, pastors and leaders must rethink what we mean by worship. Rather than seeking to lead young teens into a time of excited singing, or even reflective singing (both of which are important!) we must seek to lead them into a worship of God that includes all the senses and makes the point clearly that there is more to worship than singing. We must, in my opinion, include ways of worshiping God that are different from singing and connects with those who do not sing. Ultimately we must help students to realize that worship is more than a sing-a-long.


12 thoughts on “Middle School Worship

  1. So what does that/could that look like?
    I and others agree with you in part but have really failed to see anybody come through with alternatives for regular youth gatherings. In our culture (Oz) the contemplative process is considered weird by our young people and so its hard to engage them with something else.
    What do you think?

  2. hey calvin (and michael)
    i want to thank you for being a voice of reason in the discussion!
    i believe whole-heartedly that worship singing is only a small fraction of what worship is!
    the sad thing is that the powers that be…folks who have large youth ministries and big church backings seem to define worship as singing!
    i am currently finishing a book on alt worship that helps get to the heart of worship….not the matt redmond singing idea…but the real heart …JESUS and how we experience HIM and HIS WORD.
    i believe that middle school kids need to experience God in all aspects of their lives.
    they need to learn to hear him and to see him in their daily lives
    as you say in your post…they need to experience God in prayer, silence, and in their own encounters with the Bible.
    i believe that layered, experiential worship/prayer is a much more holistic approach for folks of all ages.
    like you, not everyone likes to sing!
    and not everyone encounters God thru music!
    i am just one of the folks who is developing ways for students of all ages to begin to engage jesus with all of our senses, not just our voices raised in song!
    i think first, we must redefine the word worship….and move beyond the notion that worship is the 20 minutes of singing before the message.
    as for regular youth gatherings, there are tons of ways to engage students in prayer and worship, using music as a back drop and also as a response to the message but not as the primary or only tool of worship.
    i use lectio with art with my jr. high kids .as well as journaling, clay, and prayer walls.
    i go outside for parable walks helping students begin to see God in the world around them.
    i create prayer experiences using muti-sensory responses to a passage of scripture so that the holy spirit is the teacher, not just me as the “professional” christian.
    i believe students of all ages need to have time to hear God and we need to provide them with opportunities to hear from God and actually have the space to listen,…and this involves silence and solitude and safe places to just BE.
    too often youth ministry is loud and over filled with activity.
    another thought on the singing bit,
    we cannot sing love songs to someone we haven’t fallen in love with yet…
    many of our younger students don’t know how much jesus loves them and they don’t love themselves so singing worship just doesn’t fit/work.
    we as youth workers/pastor/leader types must help our students discover jesus first and discover his great love for each of them, then they are more likely to want to express this love in song, art, poetry, writings, etc.
    would love your response!

  3. @Michael – I think you’re right, we do need to come up with alternatives. To be honest there are many things that make this difficult, not least of which is that many adults in churches expect that students should have a “church service” designed for their age group, and in the minds of those adults that naturally means music followed by teaching. I think Lilly brings up some great ideas. I have used prayer groups in a weekly youth gathering with junior highers as a form of worship. Also, just taking time to let students be quiet and relax is an idea. Certainly, most students will let their minds wander and such, but at least we’re helping them realize that worship isn’t only songs. I have some ideas about a Christmas Celebration we’re going to be doing this Advent season. It’s in the preliminary stages, but perhaps I’ll post about it sometime later this week. The whole focus of the event is worship (in a reflective sense). It’s geared towards students (though in our case it will include jr and sr high) and doesn’t include any singing at present (I would like to include a song or two, actually). I’d be interested to hear a little more about your situation and what you think may or may not work with your students.

    @Lilly – I think I disagree a little with one of your comments. I’m not sure that it’s just large churches that have defined worship as singing. Kurt, who is the middle school pastor at Saddleback, agrees with me that it is more than singing – at least in theory. I think the larger issue is that in evangelicalism (read: low church protestantism) we have mistaken the part for the whole, regardless of church size. Singing is good and a way to worship God (see the Psalms), but it is not the only way, or even the main way. I agree that we need to redefine worship and help students (and perhaps the adults in our churches!) understand that it is more than just the songs before the message. I like some of what you shared in regards to what you have done. I think that anything we can do to help jr highers connect worship to the psycho motor realm will be very helpful. Clay, paint, a prayer walk, a labyrinth, praying while holding hands, and even the physical aspects of Holy Communion, the bread and the wine, are all physical things that jr highers can touch, feel and experience.

    The important thing is to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Singing is a form of worship, but worship is so much more than song.

  4. i would have to agree that it is not just a “big church” issue. and yes it is a definition of worship throughout our western evangelical culture.
    i do think though that large, well known churches, who get lots of press have continued the definition of worship as singing.
    i hang out in both episcopal and vineyard circles and many in-between. we can learn from both ends of the church spectrum and share the riches of all of church history when it comes to worship.
    thanks for your post.

  5. Calvin,
    Our situation is quite rare but Ill try to cut a long story short. About 10 years ago in this church the Sunday evening was made a youth service (12-17) and pursued down the contemporary ‘Hillsong’ line. This continued on for about 8 years but what happened was as the people in the group got older, the focus of the group shifted older also. (20-30)
    When I arrived about 2 years ago, the leadership (snr pastor & board) decided enough was enough and they wanted a refocus back on 12-17 year olds. I said “thats fine, but we need to explore different ways of approaching this”. They were in full support of this and the transition began just over 12 months ago.
    The group is called “Resonate” mainly because of the words meaning, and the group reflects that in a fairly post-modern way. We have no singing (occasionally we do a battle of the bands/talent show), no message, but we have developed a strong community of young people (around 30) of which its probably 50/50 christian/non-christian.
    Each week looks different and weve done things like: debates, taking part in community events like “clean up australia day”, panel discussing sex, sports night, contemplative nights, just sharing a meal together, simulation activities, allowing them to organise the night, community car washes and the list goes on…
    There are some obvious benefits to the way we do this but there are some massive problems because of the way we do this, also.
    Specific to worship… The idea of singing in a larger group is ok even if you have non-christians in the group because the concept of music is not foreign, things like lighting a candle or labrynths or even communion, is foreign to these people.
    There is no easy answer, so the journey continues…

  6. Michael, you do bring up a good point. Singing isn’t foreign to the vast majority of people, whereas those others you mention certainly are. That’s actually something that I’ve been wondering about recently. Our “main program” (for lack of a better descriptor at present) doesn’t contain singing, but is basically a come as you are, hang out time. We spend some time having a guided discussion on various topics. This seems to work and connect well with students, but the question is how do we bring in other elements without making the experience foreign to those who are not Christians. Of course this leads down the road of why we do programs in the first place (for churched kids or un-churched kids), and a variety of other things that are certainly germane to the conversation but would take far too much space for a comment. 🙂

  7. True Calvin. Our situations sound like they have some similarities.
    I think you raised a big question, about bringing in elements that are foreign without freaking them out.
    What is your ministrys philosophy if you dont mind me asking? Would be interested to hear how your style fits within the ministry context and philosophy.

  8. I am approaching 50. I have been privileged, as well as concerned to see the many changes over the last 30 years. Some observations: I am now in Cambodia, one of the last unreached people groups by the church. I am a teacher middle and high school. Many of my students are Buddhist, some Shintoist, Christians etc… We have them all at our international school. We recently had a meeting because the Chappel service (Intl Christian School) was impossible to conduct in the normal sense of “chappel” many of the students know how to “do” chappel,because they have taken Bible classes and have been around Christians. THerefore, they can act the part, butit is disingenous. We are going to try some things. First we are going to go to a format where ALL staff are involved. We are going to involve the kids in everything that we do. We are going to primarily focus around things that bring out joy and develop an atmosphere of joy before eachother. I peresonally am dressing up as a woman and will be hamming it up with another teacher also about my age. Kids love to see adults acting just a little bit silly…O.K. maybe alot silly. One thing I do know about kids is that if you can give them an opportunity to open their hearts and minds they are much more willing to listen and partake of the goodness of God and enjoy his presence. We are also going to do a gameshow theme music, “The price is right,” and have one of our energetic young teachers run down to the front and have student and staff contestants answer quesions on Idol worship. What are our obsessions. We will probably have a suspenseful, or humorous story told by someone with that give. But all the while, all the teaching staff will be available, involved and interacting with the kids, keeping a feel on the pulse of where God’s spirit is moving.

    We will have a guitar and keyboard plugged in and ready to go…just in case music, or a song is appropriate.

    I guess what I am saying is that until the kids see the Joy of Christ in ouir lives, we are empty, clanging gongs to them. They will only check in if we check in. I keep going back to the basics….Kids are about relationships. If it works with us, and it is authentic, many times that is all they need to “verify God” as an authentic source code of truth and meaning. I am learning, once again, that our job is not to do the work of the Holy Spirit and Save these Kids. Our job is to model the beauty of a joy filled Christian life. God’s Spirit can then whisper…”Yes, that is what I am all about. These people are reflecting what I can offer you.”

    The responsibility is back on Christians to show, by their example, who Christ is and what it looks like to live for Him. Dour faces and downcast eyes do not represent reverence to our children, it represent defeat and guilt to those who are “uninitiated” into the practices of the Christian religious exprience.

    I don’t have a clue if this helped or not. However, as I read the Blog responses I was compelled to share my heart with fellow searching men and women of God. The older I get, the less complicated God becomes and the more fun I am having living my faith, in JOY before a watching, curious world.

  9. I just wanted to comment on what Calvin said in his first post. The statement about if we want our kids not to leave when they graduate that we must start in middle school…that is simply not correct. I believe that we must start in our Children’s Ministry! Unfortunately, most youth pastors see no direct relation between their youth ministry, whether middle school or high school and their church’s children’s ministry. I feel strongly that there should be an over-arching purpose for the entirety of the ministry from car-seats to college and we should be focused on instilling the reality of true Christ-honoring worship in our children. Most “children’s church” settings are no different – the “worship” gathering is nothing more than singing and puppets. So, our kids leave our children’s ministry with the worldview that worship is just singing (minus the puppets – cause they just ain’t cool in middle school). Just remember guys that we weren’t called to break attendance records, we were called to make disciples!!

  10. Toby,

    I actually couldn’t agree more. It does need to start in the children’s ministry where possible. In some instances a person may only enter the church in middle school, but where possible starting in the children’s ministry is vital. Really, though, it actually needs to start in the home and so we need to help our young families understand what worship is and how to express that to their children. My church is currently in the midst of discovering how we can link our family ministries, youth ministry and children’s ministry.

    Of course, worship is just one part of what we need to help students, children and families understand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s