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Are You Selling Youth Short?

Do the words "pizza" and "Bible study" define your church's idea of youth ministry better than the phrases "mentoring younger kids" and "leading worship" do? A feature story about a new way to lead youth ministry.

William's whaling on the piano. Giovanni's got a sophisticated drum beat going, and George riffs on electric bass. Meanwhile, Ashley, Coco, Jessica, Darnese, and P.T. (Pastor Trevor) lead songs so rousing that little kids rock and sway in the pews, singing full throat.

In short, it's a typical service at New City Kids Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. Only, instead of leading 250 six- to twelve-year-olds on a Saturday afternoon in their Jersey City ministry center, these teens and their pastors are leading worship during the 2004 Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts.

Everyone sits down, slightly breathless, as youth pastor Darnese Daniels explains that the entire service is shaped around the parable that compares the kingdom of heaven to a treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:43b-44).

Two teens start a skit, but several adults in the pews exchange glances and shift uncomfortably-because some girl, apparently one of the kids from New Jersey, is standing in the side aisle, trying to get the attention of those not in the skit. She gestures, rolls her eyes, then starts hissing, "Ashley! Ashley!"

Hah! It turns out the hisser is part of the plan.

Minutes later, Ashley tells worshipers, "We're all hidden treasure, and we all deserve a chance. There may be kids in your neighborhood or church who seem disrespectful or distracted. Do you pass up these hidden treasures?"

It's a perfect example of how-given discipling and the chance to lead-teens can create profound insights for worshipers of all ages.

Through its School for Youth Leadership, New City Kids Church, a Christian Reformed outreach to Jersey City youth, teaches a covenantal model of worship. Recent grants from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship helped fund classes in worship, music, and drama.

"God invites us; we come. He affirms his covenant with us; we respond in joy and adoration. He gives the good gifts of his Word, Spirit, and Gospel; we jubilate in response," Rev. Trevor Rubingh explains.

Youth pastor Darnese Daniels says that visiting many churches-from Coptic to Pentecostal-helped her students see how to blend different styles with a covenantal worship model.  "In many Christian Reformed churches, we noticed a focus on structured liturgy and corporate gathering. In many churches of color, we saw more emphasis on individuals crying out to God. That individual experience spontaneously leads to corporate mourning, healing, and rejoicing," she says.

Classes, church visits, and actually leading worship for New City Kids Church helped her teen students learn to value expressive, spontaneous worship that is also "grounded in God's will and the Bible," she says.

Dean Kladder, a Calvin Jubilee Fellow, helped Daniels teach worship classes last summer. "The kids at New City were willing to volunteer for anything at anytime. Many come from neighborhoods of poverty, drugs, and broken families. They experience hope and love at New City and want to share the message with others," he says.

Dozens of New City teens volunteer up to 20 hours a week. They take classes, plan and lead worship, support each other in prayer, set up chairs, visit children at home to review the previous week's sermon, serve as bus captains on Saturday routes, run the sound system, and more.

Their example convinced Kladder that churches can develop "a force to be reckoned with" if they let teens invest their energy, time, and enthusiasm in leading worship for "the entire church, not just the youth."

Learn More

Though New City Kids Church is unique in the Christian Reformed denomination, it has drawn on ideas tested by Bill Wilson, founder of the world's largest Sunday School. Wilson describes weekly home visits as essential to such ministries. His model eventually led to formation of a church for adults, something New City also hopes God intends for them. Christians in England have adapted Wilson's model, comparing its effectiveness to the Alpha evangelism program for adults.

Pastors Trevor and Linda Rubingh originally focused their church-planting efforts on adults. They say God showed them he wanted them to reach parents through their kids. Read their top tips on developing a youth-shaped ministry.

Darnese Daniels so inspired teens in her summer worship class that many returned the next summer for an advanced class in leading worship. They now lead worship at retreats, in other churches, and at New City Kids Church. Daniels offers seven hints for churches that would like to use youthful gifts in worship.

Read a Juilliard student's account of teaching keyboard and composition at New City's School of Youth Leadership.

Start a Discussion

  • Do you see the children and youth of your church as part of your entire church's ministry or as groups that need to be ministered to in ways separate from adults?
  • New City youth pastor Darnese Daniels describes her African-American tradition as PUSH-Pray Until Something Happens. Pastor Trevor Rubingh's childhood worship tradition was REST-Relax.Expect.Sense.Trust. Both perspectives come from Scripture. In what ways do your services help worshippers to PUSH and REST?
  • New City's step-by-step approach to youth leadership development begins with accepting 11- and 12-year-olds into drama, dance, or video troupes. How might you use this model to begin welcoming youthful contributions to your worship services, church school sessions, or other gatherings?
  • New City staffers admit that when teens first take over from adults, quality suffers. The payoff? Teens learn more and get energized about worshiping and helping others do so. How do you see this trade-off in your church? How might you be willing to shift the balance?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to include youth in your congregation's worship?

  • Have you located a great resource or written your own curriculum to teach children and teens about the elements of worship?
  • What are the best-or worst-ways you've found to include young people in planning and leading worship?
  • What youthful insights have startled, moved, or otherwise affected your church as you've begun to involve young people?