As the lone pastor of a small church, I double as the youth pastor for all of the teens in our congregation. In addition to ministering to their needs as youth, I also have a vision for the youth as fully functioning, self-sacrificing members of the church community.
To that end, I’ve gotten into coordinating ‘youth-led worship services.’ These differ from ‘youth services,’ where the music and message are meant to cater to the preferences of youth; ‘youth-led services’ put the youth in charge of the whole service, giving them the responsibility of balancing worship in a way that will make it meaningful for all members of the church of all ages.
Here’s the process that I follow; maybe it will be useful to you in your context.
- Prepare for worship as usual, but prepare more choices than you need. For me, this means studying the preaching text, establishing a ‘worship idea’ (a one sentence statement of what the text teaches us about God) and then choosing songs, prayers, calls to worship, etc. that would help us to explore, develop and respond to the worship idea. Just choose three times more options than you usually would. I also gave the youth three new songs ahead of the time and we chose a new song that we would then introduce to the congregation. Services with youth involved are a nice way to introduce new music – the youth then have meaningful input into your repertoire and the older folks tend to be extra gracious.
- Meet with your youth (at least a month out) and talk with them about the corporate implications of worship. I develop for them the flow of 1Corinthians 14 – ‘everyone brings something; let all things be done for building up’ (v. 26) – then work out the implications – as we plan the service, we need to think not just about what songs we like but what combination of worship responses will make worship meaningful for the whole congregation.
- Study the preaching text with them, then lead them to the ‘worship idea.’ Once you are confident that the youth have a good understanding of what your text reveals about God, His character and saving action, present to them the pool of choices you have already prepared (I give each youth their own package of lyrics and readings). Ask them which songs and readings will help us together respond to who God is, as revealed in the preaching text. This can be time consuming; most recently, I sang through a verse and chorus of each song to make sure they knew it, then everyone picked their top four songs. We went through and chose the most popular. This gave rise to a nice teachable moment – we discovered that the most popular choices were all less than ten years old; when there was a tie for the last song (two newer tunes and a hymn), I stepped in to remind the youth that to meaningfully engage the whole congregation, we should really include at least one hymn – so a very traditional ‘Be Thou my vision’ became the final response song for our service.
- At this point, it’s important to point out the various gifts that God gives each them and then invite youth to consider how they might use those gifts for the congregation’s benefit. This could involve being a part of the music or drama, doing readings, taking pictures for the lyric slides, creating a video, crafting visual art – give your youth the opportunity to serve according to the gifts God has given them. One of the youth pulled a handout from their Bible that they had recently used in Youth Sunday school, so a part of that became a reading and handout for the whole congregation to benefit from.
- From there, begin practicing for the service. You’ll need to give your youth more time to prepare than you would your usual worship team. Give them extra time to practice so that they feel confident leading the congregation in worship. On the plus side, you can remind that they are not performing, but helping the congregation to engage with God.
- When the big day comes, you’ll need to be there early to run through the whole service with the youth. One of the best spontaneous moments for me was when one of the grandparents came just as we prayed pre-service and he prayed for the youth – a great opportunity for multi-generational interaction.
For me, youth-led services have been a great way to minister to youth, to encourage them to work together, and to appreciate the part they can play in serving God. The service will likely be less polished than usual, but what it lacks in finesse, it will more than make up for in heart. Many of the older believers will appreciate seeing the youth involved and leading them in worship and it’s a real encouragement to me when youth look me right in the eye to say thank you for organizing them and building into them. Above all, it gives the whole church a great chance to apply the self-sacrificial posture that we are called to adopt in worship.
Youth-led worship services will continue to be an important part of our church’s ministry; I’m considering now doing ‘Seniors-led services’ too. It might be very fulfilling for them to raise their voices and plan a service as our modern culture rushes forward, but it will also give me a chance to say ‘OK, that’s lots of great hymns, but to build up everybody, remember, we need something from the past ten years too!’
Graham is a long-time worship leader with an M.Div. (Heritage Seminary) and a passion for seeing the God of the Bible receive the praise He deserves. He is now the preaching pastor at Langford Community Church in Southwestern Ontario. Connect with Graham at gwgladstone.ca or @gwgladstone.