Theological, Liturgical Youth Ministry
By Luke Johnson | August 26, 2015
Youth ministry is theological action. It is the work of welcoming and modeling, of edifying and equipping, of awakening and reimagining, of helping young people to encounter the risen Jesus and to come to new understandings of themselves and the world as things redefined and made subject to he who is before all things and in the one in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17). The essential work of youth ministry is to attend to the worship of Jesus, and to foster mature faith in the parish’s young people, equipping them to become mature participants in the life and ministry of the local and global Church. At this level, the work of youth ministry is no different from that of any other ministerial action of the Church: it is to respond to the call of Jesus, to “come, follow me;” it is to follow Jesus into a new way of being human, to be redefined by him as Homo Eucharisticus, one whose conception of the self and the world begins with the risen Jesus at his table (Williams, Faith in the Public Square, 183).
Proclamation and Pilgrimage
As such, every component of a ministry to young people must be marked by the pursuit of Jesus. The ultimate goal is that expressed by apostle Paul: we labor “so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Col 1:28). This is as much a task of proclamation as it is one of pilgrimage. Preaching and teaching are essential for introducing newcomers to the good news about Jesus (cf. Matt 28:19-20; Deut 6:20-25), and necessary for reminding believing young people of who they are as those who have responded to Jesus’ call (2 Tim 3:16). In order to ‘give legs’ to our proclamation about Jesus, we must also strive alongside our young people, inviting them as fellow-pilgrims to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1; cf. 1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thess 1:6). This will involve allowing young people to watch me encounter my own challenges, and to observe how I work through them (or persist in spite of them). In this way, young people can see the grace of the gospel lived tangibly before them, being privy to both the suffering and the joy. To this end, the apostle Paul notes, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). By matching proclamation with praxis, young people might see more clearly what a life of following Jesus involves, and might endeavour more readily to do the same. Thus, proclamation and pilgrimage are twinned components necessary for the cultivation of a community of faith centered around the person of Jesus.
Three 'Seriouses': God, Each Other, Tradition
Therefore, in order to give priority both to the worship and proclamation of Jesus and to the cultivation of a community of ‘pilgrims’ who strive together to follow after Jesus, our ministry is shaped by three ‘seriouses’: taking God seriously, taking each other seriously, and taking our Christian tradition seriously. In order to take God seriously, we devote ourselves (and our time) to reading and studying scripture, to prayer and learning to pray, to worship, and to cultivating worshipful ways of speaking and thinking about God. Scripture is studied as a means for encountering God because we receive it as his Word (cf. 2 Tim 3:16). We do not read scripture for its own sake, but to encounter Jesus in the revelation of him presented within its corpus (cf. John 20:31). The Bible is ‘holy’ not because of some inherent value of its own, but because of the One about whom it teaches us, and the One to whom it leads us. While scripture functions as a primary, continuing source of God’s self-revelation, the most significant self-revelation of God (and the destination to which the prayerful reading of scripture leads) is that which takes place in Jesus Christ himself (Torrance, Reality & Evangelical Theology, 121). That is, in the ‘word’ of God we meet the Word of God (cf. John 1:1-14). On account of this, the study of scripture plays an important role in shaping our thoughts and informing our actions (e.g., Psalm 119), and in helping us to foster an imagination which allows us to see ourselves within the unfolding story of God’s work in his creation (cf. Peter’s reinterpretation of Old Testament texts in Acts 2). We read scripture in order to encounter God because Jesus is alive, and is therefore encounterable.
We engage in prayer as a response to our encounter with God in scripture and to our reception of the good news about Jesus in our proclamation. Thus, prayer begins and ends with Jesus. We offer praise in response to the work he has already accomplished on our behalf (e.g., Eph 1:3-14); we bring our questions and needs to him as a confession both of our dependence upon his action and of his ability to act; we beseech him to undo the evil we find around us (and in us) in recognition of his authority over creation, and out of our scripture-nurtured hope for the new day that began to dawn at his resurrection (2 Cor 5:16-21). We pray in order to participate in Jesus’ mission of reconciliation, that we, too, might be ‘fishers of men’ and ‘harvesters’ who are co-workers, friends, and yoke-fellows with Jesus (Col 1:21-22; Luke 10:2; Matt 10:28-30; John 15:15). In short, our prayer is ordered necessarily by the shape of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). We instruct and model this way of praying in order to help young people to approach God in prayer as both recipients and agents of God’s ongoing mission.
As a community of young people we worship God as a physical enactment of prayer. The worship of Jesus, in this sense, is a subversive act of eschatological vision, bearing witness to Jesus’ kingship over a world that rages against his rule (Psalm 2). As CS Lewis describes, “Enemy occupied territory—that is what the world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 46). Such participation in prayer and worship is a scripture-shaped refusal to accept the world that is, and a hopeful expectation of the world that will be. Taking God seriously means taking this seriously. God is at work in the world and in us. In Jesus he has invited us into his work, working along with him as his children. Our attention to scripture and to the eschatological acts of prayer and worship serve to shape us, ready us, and activate us as God’s handiwork (Eph 2).
Taking each other seriously means that we will seek to build our relationships with one another, to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Heb 10:24), “pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences” (Eph 4:3, MSG). Love for God and love for each other are indisputably linked. The elder John warns that “anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9), while Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for one another (John 13:35). Along the lines of Paul’s admonition to “value others above yourselves” (Phil 2:3), young people will be encouraged to be mindful of the people around them. Who is here today? How are these people faring? How can I act out God’s love for them today? As a people invited into fellowship with God himself (1 John 3:1), our relationships with one another must bear the same self-giving love as God has for us. As Paul asserts, unswerving commitment to humble and gentle love is the means by which God matures his people, readies them for his service, and fills them out into his Son’s likeness (Eph 4:11-14). Therefore, any group of people desiring to devote themselves to Jesus must also devote themselves to each other (cf. Acts 2:42; Heb 10:25; Eph 3:16-20). As a result, fellowship that is committed to love and reconciliation will be a place where deep friendships can form, and where young people’s need for identity and affinity can be met in abundance. This will be a place where external standards for inclusion and exclusion, competition, and pressures to succeed are put aside and replaced by our common reception of God’s mercy.
In this environment of taking each other seriously (and thereby, also taking God seriously), the commitment to selfless love belongs as much to the leaders as it does to the young people. Though there is often a significant age difference between youth leaders and the young people themselves, it is important that leaders interact with youth as people with dignity and honour, as God’s dearly loved children (Eph 5:1). For the sake of fostering maturity and unity, leaders need to recognize their interactions as theological interactions, viewing young people as brothers and sisters who share in the life of Jesus, rather than merely as children who need to be corralled. Indeed, God grants faith according to his wisdom, not according to the age of the body (Romans 12:3). The task of living righteously and of setting a good example belongs as much to the young person as it does to the older person, so leaders should respect the dignity a young person possesses as a follower of Jesus, even as they strive to inspire greater maturity in the young (1 Tim 4:12).
Taking our Christian tradition seriously means that we will seek to benefit from the disciplines, perspectives, and wisdom of ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ that came before us, as well as the ‘paces and spaces’ of our parish in the present. Theological treatises of the bishops and scholars of the past, traditions of scriptural interpretation, liturgies, prayer practices, lives of the saints, church seasons, sacraments, catechesis, local parish foci and diocesan initiatives, even the aesthetic of the church’s own worship space – youth ministry conducted in a liturgical setting is equipped from the outset with a multiplicity of strengths and opportunities. We are not the first people to read the Bible or to seek God in prayer. We are not the only ones to have wrestled with difficult social issues, nor to have dealt with personal or corporate crises. Nor are we the only ones to have experienced moments of penitence to be mourned or joy to be celebrated. The ancient Christians of the first century articulated their faith from within the revelation of God that came through the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Acts 2:14-41; 7:1-53). Even the form of salvation that God accomplished in Jesus was set within the framework of Israel’s tradition (c.f., “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” in John 1:29; Gen 22:8; Isa 53:7). Likewise, the ecclesiastical heritage of the Church can help to thicken and deepen the practice of our pursuit of Jesus, lending us greater strength than we could muster on our own. Like a map of well-worn paths for the pilgrim, seeking God with those beside us and before us can help us to proceed more confidently in the direction we desire to go.
These three ‘seriouses’ form a rubric by which all ministerial planning and action are measured, encompassing both motives and content. For instance, if we are planning a youth group outing, and if we cannot answer “yes” to the question, “Does the setup and content of this event help us to take each other seriously?”, then we will have an opportunity to examine what is being planned and why it fails to satisfy our aims. By shaping our plans and common life according to our attention to God, each other, and Christian tradition, our time and efforts will be directed with clear purpose, and spent on what matters most (Prov 4:20-27).
This framework will be worked into a program of five components: a weekly youth night, small groups, socials, retreats, and one-on-one discipleship.
First, the youth night is the principal element where the foundation of the community's common life is laid. Youth nights are held weekly from September to June in order to help young people to make attendance to God, each other, and Christian tradition part of the regular rhythm of their lives. All the priorities of the three ‘seriouses’ are at work in the youth night. The night begins with a casual time of hanging out in the youth room: chatting, laughing, and catching up with one another over snacks and drinks. Our leaders participate as well in order to model the importance of engaging with each other, and also to ensure that any newcomers are made to feel welcome. This is also an opportunity to extend care to one another. Perhaps a young girl is experiencing conflict with friends at school, or a senior boy is ‘suffering’ the consequences of defying his parents. Or maybe something really funny happened at school today that begs to be shared. This casual beginning functions as a chance to witness each other’s lives. Even the setup of the room seeks to encourage relationship building. Everyone is seated on identical chairs, arranged roughly in a circle. This removes any notion of preferential seating (i.e., competition for ‘better seats’), and intentionally positions everyone to face each other.
After about fifteen or twenty minutes the youth night officially begins with the greeting, “The Lord be with you!” (“And also with you!”), and a prayer dedicating our time (and our attention) to God. The next thirty minutes belong to group activities, which are aimed at learning more about each other, and at interacting with scripture. Following the opening prayer, the group receives instructions similar to: “When you hear me say, ‘Welcome to youth group!’, I want you to jump out of your chair and share with three people the three ingredients for your perfect day.” This type of ‘mixer’ encourages young people to engage with people other than those with whom they habitually sit each week, while learning something new about other people in the group. After the mixer we transition into a larger group activity, usually focused on memorization of a verse of scripture that pertains to the night’s study topic. Activities are designed not merely to give young people something fun to do, but to help young people to do something important in a fun way. For instance, to work at memorizing a scripture verse, we will split the group into teams of four or five people. A memory verse will be cut up into pieces, one word to a card, and placed face down on a table for each team at the end of the hall. One at a time, members of each team will run the length of the hall, grab a card, and run back to their team. After gathering all the cards, teammates will work together to assemble the verse in order before reciting it to the activity leader. This type of activity seeks to encourage young people to bond together as they act as a team, while interacting with important information as the content of the game.
At the end of the activity, we assemble in the youth room once again to be introduced to the topic of our study for the evening. On a typical night I will give a brief introduction to the scriptural text, and dismiss everyone into their small groups in which they will read the assigned texts with a leader, and discuss the texts together. This study time is designed to give young people exposure to scripture in an environment where they can ask questions and be challenged by what they read. To minimize distraction and to encourage the growth of friendships, it is useful to split the group into gender- and maturity-specific groups (e.g., boys in grades 6-8; boys in grades 9-12; girls in grades 6-8; girls in grades 9-12). Of all the elements of the youth night, this study time is the longest, occupying around 50 minutes during a 2 hour youth night. As outlined above, this time is so dedicated because of the important role scripture plays in shaping our thoughts, informing our actions, and helping us to encounter Jesus himself.
At the conclusion of the study time, the whole group assembles in the church’s chapel for a time of worship. We sing two or three hymns or worship music of another kind, and then spend the remainder of our youth night in prayer, following the Anglican tradition of compline. Compline is an ancient form of prayer which Christians have used for centuries to bring their labours and thoughts and concerns and praise to God at the end of a day. It contains such elements as corporately recited prayers like the Lord’s Prayer and a seasonal Collect, Apostles Creed, responsive readings from the psalms, and guides open prayer with a litany. Compline is a helpful tool to focus a time of prayer because it prevents a person from thinking only about his or her particular concerns, inviting him or her to intercede for others, to pray concerning some of the troubling events in the world, to confess sins, to declare belief, to give thanks to God. This time of prayer also allows young people to voice their own needs or worries or thanksgivings, and to pray on behalf of one another. This practice of prayer is prescriptive as well as descriptive. In praying the Lord’s Prayer, the psalms, and reciting the Apostles Creed, we state what we believe and approach God in ways he has granted to us. But by doing the same, we also learn how we ought to approach God, what we ought to believe. This is helpful especially for newcomers who are new to faith in Jesus, since this pre-scripted form of prayer gives them words to pray even if they have never prayed before.
Throughout the ministry year, the foci and content of our activities, studies, and compline prayer are intentionally influenced by the seasons of the Church calendar. This is especially appropriate in my ministry setting, as my parish orders its church life and worship according to the Christian year. By shaping the youth group year according to the big questions of each Church season, we are able to take advantage of the balance and rhythm the seasons themselves provide. For instance, if we were to work our way through the year of youth group topically, we could find ourselves spending too much time on one issue while neglecting something else. Following the Church seasons ensures that our year will wind through times of anticipatory reflection, penitence, celebration, and thanksgiving, without getting "stuck" anywhere. And beyond using the Church seasons as a teaching aid, they also help us to align our youth group’s life closely to that of the larger church’s life, even merging at several points to take part in the larger body’s celebrations. This is of great advantage to our task of leading young people into a mature participation in the church’s life and ministry.
Second, as the ministry grows we will seek to create small groups that meet outside of the weekly youth night. These small groups will offer young people the chance to meet together, to read and study scripture and pray for one another outside of church in a more intimate setting (such as the leader’s home). These groups can be an effective way to grow both the larger youth ministry’s maturity and attendance. Young people are likely to invite friends to this more intimate setting, and this smaller context is a place where relationships and spiritual disciplines can flourish, and where young people can receive significant and individuated care from a leader (Moser, Changing the World Through Effective Youth Ministry, 88).
Third, we will run ‘socials’ every six to eight weeks, which we include in our program in order to provide time for non-structured (or loosely-structured) fun for the purpose of developing group memories. These are not evangelistic events or study-centric events. They are geared toward growing friendships and drawing the group together through shared experiences. Our group will enjoy such social events as bowling, swimming, movie nights at the theater or in someone’s home, barbeques, “girls’ night” and “guys’ night”, progressive suppers, campfires, and more. These are great opportunities for discipleship, as non-structured time can grant us a lot of time for spontaneous conversation with young people. As such, socials make an important contribution to the growing health of the whole group.
Fourth, we will run overnight and multiple overnight retreats each year, during which we can focus more intensely on growing together in prayer, worship, study, and fun. Retreats will contain all the elements of regular youth nights, small group times, or socials, but in greater supply. Retreats present an excellent opportunity to delve more deeply into the study of the Bible, practices of prayer, meaningful conversations, and into striving together even when our patience or grace for each other might wear thin. These are excellent opportunities also to instruct and model young people in the way of spiritual disciplines, such as personal devotion time or keeping silence in order to hear God. Because a retreat is a more intensified youth group time, it is possible to achieve a new level of fellowship, a new level of awareness of God’s presence with us, and to return to ‘regular life’ on a new and higher plateau. Retreats will happen most often away from the church and the home, in another town or region, in order to allow young people and leaders alike to truly ‘retreat’, to be undistracted by the cares of school, home, and work. We will run mixer and group activities, enjoy meals together, hear from a guest speaker, spend time in worship and in prayer, and have ample time to grow in friendship together.
Finally, we will seek regular opportunities to disciple young people on a one-on-one basis. This is the least programmed of all the youth ministry’s elements, but certainly not the least important. As described above, our pursuit of Jesus is not solely a personal matter – it is indelibly linked to our devotion to one another. Leaders will look for opportunities to foster a discipling friendship with the young people of the group. This will take place most naturally in the context (and as a product) of the small group. As relationships are built in the small group setting, those relationships can be strengthened further by individual attention, conversation, and prayer. This is a necessary aspect of presenting everyone as “fully mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
In conclusion, a program of this shape, powered by theological conviction to take seriously God, each other, and Christian tradition, will form a sustainable and self-renewing ministry. As we draw together in the formal space of a youth night, the initial relationships that form will flow naturally into the space of smaller groups and deeper friendships. In turn, as young people are built up individually, their relational and spiritual maturity will serve to build up the larger group when everyone meets together. Similarly, by gathering around the worship of God, the proclamation of the good news about Jesus, the reading of scripture, the practice of prayer, and our care for one another that is borne out of our attention to God’s love for us, we will be building a community of young and growing Christians who understand what it takes and what it means to take God seriously – to encounter him in his word, to pray expectantly, to worship confidently – to take each other seriously – to listen and perceive, to care and to come alongside – and to take our tradition seriously – to receive the strength, breadth, and depth offered to us by those who have spent their lives following Jesus as we seek to do the same.