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.