For many students, the youth group is where they go to get away from Sunday worship. It’s often a place where they can laugh at some silly antics, enjoy music that is their style, and listen to lessons that might be a bit more palatable than what they’d receive in corporate worship with the larger church. But trying to escape “big church” is a problem. Instead, I’d like to suggest that your student ministry worship service should train students to participate in worship on Sundays.
Some dangers to watch out for
While there is a place for appropriate contextualization, the temptation to replace songs sung on Sunday with what’s new, cool, and hip leads to one of the worst iterations of youth ministry. Sometimes the set list begins to look more like the average Spotify playlist more than the song list of the church. The sermons might be significantly shortened with less depth, less Bible, and less demand. Or, there may be no significant teaching at all. And, if your church does responsive readings or recites creeds, those may be left out completely.
Though this might come from a good heart meant to reach students you would not normally reach in your context, I believe that this approach drives students further away from the most essential discipleship aspect of the week: the Sunday gathering. The regular meeting of the larger church is one of the essential means that God has ordained to sanctify and grow his people. If our youth services undermine or cause confusion about what is essential and ordained by God, we have gone in a bad direction.
Merely getting youth into a church building does not mean you are discipling them, training them in godliness, or seeing them saved. If anything, simply attracting youth to a church for the wrong reasons harms both the youth ministry and the church at large more than it helps. It creates a culture that entertains non-believers and keeps new believers immature rather than providing steps for spiritual growth.
A better way
By contrast, what if we saw our student worship gatherings as an opportunity to equip youth and facilitate greater participation in corporate worship? What if we used our student gatherings to train students in the how and why of our church or tradition’s rhythms of worship? This would mean making uncomfortable or uncool aspects of corporate worship accessible, instead of avoiding them. We’ll help youth grow as Christians and be better church members by discipling them in an understanding of how to best participate in that which is essential. After all, they are in high school for just a few years, but they’ll be Christians in the gathered body now and for the rest of their lives. We should pastor youth like that is the case.
However, I am not arguing that we should get rid of all contextualization. Your youth service will look different from the corporate gathering because of the age of the kids, resourcing, help, and other practical matters. But I am saying that your student ministry service should not undermine the style, elements, and importance of your Lord’s Day gathering. Rather, the two gatherings should complement and feed one another, not create the sort of dichotomy where students feel at home in one and not the other.
Some practical considerations
So, how do we equip them for Sunday worship? One of the easiest and most important things you can do is take advantage of the power of explanation, practice, and ritual. These three things, if reinforced in a student service, can help students sing louder, participate more fully, and engage with preaching as well as anyone in the church. Here are a few examples:
Singing. Instead of eliminating hymns, take a few minutes to explain why we sometimes sing old songs. When you sing new songs, explain what it is about that song that made it worth singing. Old songs and new songs glorify God but not because they are old or new. Our songs are intended to help us see and worship the risen Christ. Three minutes of explaining some good theology as it’s expressed in your music could not only help youth sing better but also disciple them toward a greater appreciation of a diversity of songs.
Reading and reciting. Students often find responsive readings, creedal recitations, or written prayers strange. Instead of eliminating or replacing them, talk the youth through how Christians have engaged these practices and confessed these truths for thousands of years. In doing this, you connect youth to something deeper and richer than the next game or gimmick. I’d wager that with Generation Z’s search for authenticity and depth, they may even find it to be cooler than you think. Both singing and recitation also provide hands-on ways for students to lead worship as well. You might explain the practice yourself but then have a student lead the reading or singing.
Preaching. Preaching has fallen on hard times in student ministry. Some have abandoned the practice completely and others have pushed it so far to the periphery that it is not a key element of a student ministry. One of the reasons that students don’t like preaching is because they’re told that it is important for someone else, but in their spaces, it is not needed. Instead, we should be teaching students as God has instructed us. Paul commands Timothy, “Preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). That command should be in effect in student ministry as much as anywhere. Our students can sit for two-hour movies and sporting events. They sit and learn for much longer at school. They can certainly sit for a shorter time in order to learn about eternal things.
If we expect students to grow from Sunday sermons, our student ministry sermons should look and sound similar but with more contextual application. Students are hungry for the Word, and preaching is one of the best ways to give it to them.
The ordinances. At our church, we practice baptism and communion in our gathered Sunday service. But one idea we’ve found helpful is to use a youth service before a Sunday where one of our students will be baptized in order to explain these ordinances. Give 5 to 10 minutes to go over why we baptize, how we baptize, and who gets baptized (or the same with the Lord’s Supper). Do this quickly and contextually in a way that builds anticipation for the upcoming Sunday worship service. Then, end your youth service by encouraging the students to come to the larger gathering where the ordinances will be celebrated.
Training ground for Sundays and for the Christian life
In each of these ways, you’re helping students understand the reason for your church’s practices, and you are equipping them for the Christian life. When you follow this model, student services point toward corporate worship, train students to make the most of what God has deemed essential, and give them a rationale for the habits and practices they might take for granted each Sunday. I admit this may not be the most attractive model for drawing tons of youth, but I believe it will be the most effective in the long run, because it disciples students in every aspect of church worship.
I encourage you to use your church’s identity to help students value who you are as a body. We do not want students leaving for college who loved their youth group but don’t know what it looks like to be a part of the church. We want students to leave our churches with a love for the church. When this is the outcome, chances are they will find another church to love and not just look for the next best thing that serves their personal style. If we conceive of our student services as a training ground for Sundays, I believe that they’ll also be training grounds for walking faithfully as Christians.