Worship and the Christian Tradition – Part 3

You can find part 1 of this series here, and part 2 here.

Pulling from the tradition which we have inherited is a wonderful way to help students express themselves in worship to God. But, it is often a tricky task, especially when we as youth workers don’t have a strong connection to that tradition ourselves. The first thing we need to do is humbly learn about the traditions we have inherited. This may take time, but it really is vital. I’d love to see youth ministry programs at colleges begin including some kind of class in the history or modern expression of liturgical worship. But, that is neither here nor there at this point.

I grew up in evangelical churches which did not make use of a liturgy. In fact, most of the churches I attended were somewhat hostile to the idea of responsive readings, pre-written prayers, or too much structure in services. I had to figure out much of the great tradition of Christian worship by asking others, taking classes, doing research and–ultimately–a bit of trial and error.

My first experience with liturgy in youth ministry occurred while I was in seminary. I was the youth pastor at a wonderful baptist church in Ipswich, MA. Each Easter our small congregation gathered on the beach for a sunrise service. Each year the youth of the church facilitated this time of worship. As I prepared for this time one year I found that pretty much all of our students were refusing to speak in front of the congregation. I’m not overly sure what the issue was, but–being a pragmatic guy–I decided that if I gave them the words to say they might be less anxious. As it turns out, I was right, and so I began adapting the Great Vigil of Easter from the Book of Common Prayer. The service went very well, and the students, although not overly thrilled, weren’t hostile towards the idea of using a liturgy. I counted it a success.

Some time later, at the same church, I decided to try integrating some communal prayers into our weekly youth meeting. I chose a few prayers from the Book of Common Prayer (remember, baptists really don’t have a prayer book of their own) and I eagerly began using them to open and close our time together. However, by the second week of doing this I realized that it wasn’t going to fly. The students held the papers with the prayers on them (well, most of them held them; some of them made paper airplanes), but never actually joined me in saying the prayers. In hindsight, I really should have explained things better, and started slower since our church didn’t particularly make use of these kinds of prayers regularly (other than saying the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday).

Recently, I saw communal prayers used to great effect. This past summer our high school ministry went to MERGE, an absolutely amazing conference/spiritual retreat. In addition to creating a daily rhythm (the idea of rhythm and sabbath is another aspect of the Christian tradition that the modern western church could use to reappropriate), the event organizers made use of fixed prayers during some of the experiences. Although it was a little awkward at the start of the week, most of the students engaged with the idea of praying together in this way. We also gathered each day at noon to say noon prayers together. At these gatherings one student would normally read a prayer, and then invite us to gather into smaller groups of 2-3 people and pray together. It was, in many ways, a sort of fusion of a traditional way of praying with a more modern way of prayer.

As a final example, we have recently started organizing our Wednesday evening worship time at my current ministry as a creative vespers service. We spend time confessing our sins, reading Scripture, singing songs, praying for one another, and worshiping through creative expression (Art, Body Prayer, etc). It’s too early to pass judgment on whether this goes into the category of successes or failures. So far it seems to be going well, with a few road bumps. I’m excited to see how things proceed. I hope that through these various expressions of worship our students slowly begin to grasp that worship isn’t only about singing, but about a variety of expressions which connect us to God. Most importantly, I hope they realize over time that worship is not about us as individuals, or even us as a community, but about the amazing God we serve.

Worship and the Christian Tradition – Part 2

Part 1 of this series can be found here.

In this post, I’d like to discuss the liturgy as a rich history which we ought to draw upon in our worship with young people. Perhaps the most obvious reason to draw upon the liturgy in youth ministry is that we are constantly looking for ways to involve students. Liturgy naturally does this. Liturgy is participatory. Liturgy also creates a natural movement within a worship gathering. In subtle ways it reminds us that we don’t worship alone, but rather with a great cloud of witnesses.

Different denominations and traditions, of course, use different liturgies. But many of them are really quite similar, especially in terms of their modern form. Historically liturgy developed for a variety of reasons. But the focus of the liturgy was always on the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially as experienced in the Eucharist. It is easy to see this in even modern liturgies where many services rise and fall before building to a cresendo in the celebration of Holy Communion. One might say that without the Eucharist, there is no liturgy and this would–in some ways–not be far from the truth. This focus on the Holy in the liturgy serves as a natural, though not fool-proof, guard against a focus primarily on me.

One of the criticisms I most often hear against the liturgy is that it is all a bunch of words learned by rote that therefore have no meaning. Leaving aside for the moment the pedagogical fallacy that things learned by rote have no meaning (where would you be without your multiplication tables?), this simply isn’t true. In fact, the words of liturgies often have great meaning because they have been agonized over.

I used to think this same way. But I have since come to realize that sometimes I am not at a place where I can speak to God on my own. The words would be my own, but they would have no more meaning than gibberish. During these times I can rely on the liturgy to carry me. I know that the words I say are being said by thousands all over the world. When I pray during confession I know that the others around me, and my brothers and sisters around the world, are confessing with me and upholding me thereby.

As we teach our students about the liturgy and begin using it in our times of worship with them they will slowly begin to understand these things and many others besides. I would venture to guess that there are several reasons we don’t generally use liturgy in youth ministry. One of them is that we are afraid to bore a kid. Apparently doing that is a sin. We worry that without novelty we’ll lose them. I’ve generally found, however, that when we make decisions based on fear, it’s a bad idea. I would venture to guess that many youth workers didn’t grow up in churches which used a liturgy, and they may therefore have little experience with it. This is the situation in which I once found myself. But I decided to learn about liturgy by visiting churches that used it, by taking a class in seminary dealing with the history of it, and by slowly attempting to use pieces of it in my ministry and personal life. I’ve come to love liturgy and realize the manifold benefits it brings. This isn’t to say that spontaneous expressions of praise are bad or unwarranted; we need those expressions as well.

Finally, I would posit that youth workers tend to avoid liturgical expressions because liturgies are intensely theological. Unfortunately, overtly theological topics or experiences are often avoided by youth ministers. Perhaps this is because of youth ministry’s origins in evangelistic endeavours that were not concerned with theological nuance. Perhaps it is because youth ministry education often focuses more on the professional aspects of becoming a minister rather than on the theological ideas and tasks with which a youth worker must engage. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that many youth workers shy away from theology.

In part 3 I’ll share some of my own experiences with using liturgy and other expressions from the Christian tradition in worship with students.

Worship and the Christian Tradition – Part 1

One of the most popular posts on this blog is one on middle school worship from 2007(!). In that post I share some of my concerns with a discussion that was taking place around the youth ministry blogosphere at the time. As memory serves, many youth ministry blogs were discussing middle school worship in terms of how many songs, what songs, style of songs, etc. My concern was that we were talking about worship only in terms of music and singing. There was very little space devoted to prayer, responsive readings, Scripture reading, confession, candles, incense, or the Eucharist.

I want to revisit this topic because I think it is an important one. Perhaps it is an effect of the segregation (at our own urging!) of youth ministry into its own ghetto, but rarely have I seen a youth ministry that integrates the great traditions of Christian worship into its own expression. As my own theology continues to develop over the years, this worries me more and more.

When we reduce worship to music and singing I fear we give students the impression that worship is about them and the feeling they get out of it. If they come away feeling good, or feeling somehow more connected to God, or whatever then it was worship “in spirit and truth.” I’m not saying that worship shouldn’t elicit an emotional reaction from us, I’m saying that worship is not centrally about our feelings. One of the guards against this me-centric idea of worship is the wonderful tradition of worship that has been handed down to us by those who have gone before.

Part 2 of this series will focus on why I think liturgy is important, and in part 3 I’ll share some of my own experiences with integrating liturgy into a youth ministry.