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Artistic Engagement and Leadership Formation: A Conversation with Stephen Martin

In this edited conversation, Stephen Martin discusses the role of creativity, collaboration, and intergenerational connections in empowering young worship leaders.

Stephen, tell me about your context and the work you do with youth.

Through Azusa Pacific University, the Angeles Worship Initiative is a grant-funded endeavor that has allowed us to focus on intergenerational worship. In this context, we host events that help us support intergenerational worship on and off campus. We also support churches at the level of the local congregation and seek to empower them in their pursuit of intergenerational moments and strategic initiatives—and supporting their youth in that process.

For the last four years, the Angeles Worship Initiative has hosted various events on campus and then supported a cohort of fourteen churches that have each engaged in a particular project over the course of a year or two. We gave them a lot of freedom to build something that was relevant for their church, and also sought to engage youth and adults together in some corporate way. 

That’s the big-picture overview. It hits that cross-section of worship and youth agency. And worship for us has often involved multiple art forms.

Let’s talk about youth agency: What does your program do to equip and empower youth in worship and in your intergenerational projects? And what are you learning along the way?

I’ll talk about the on-campus events first. Worship Arts Lab is a summer academy. It’s a weeklong event where youth come on campus, and we provide opportunities for them to engage artistically—to express their artistic abilities and learn more about those while at the same time taking part in a worship design project in a group. They have ownership at all levels of that project—in the design of it, the implementation of it, and the follow-through afterwards, processing how it went and what they learned together. They’re essentially creating it from start to finish.

We have found that to be really fruitful. They enjoy not only the creative aspects of it, but also learning to lead, learning to collaborate with others, learning to work through whatever challenges and problems may come up along the way, and then seeing that through to completion into a real product in a real space where people can worship together, and in a worship gathering that they are facilitating. 

That agency piece, I think, is connected to a buy-in process, a creativity aspect, and then the actual leadership and relational components, both with other youth and with mentors. 

We’ve also seen creativity itself be a particular mechanism or a pathway for youth agency. The fact that youth really enjoy creative work has been vital to this whole project. At every event—including the Lab, the one-day conference we have in January or February, and then a songwriting academy that we have—participants are given a chance to experience that agency aspect.

It’s interesting for me because that’s not how I initially thought about that word “agency. I thought of it as kind of a one-dimensional word. And yet we’re finding it to be more multidimensional. It involves not just being told what to do; that’s the buy-in process. Gaining buy-in always requires time; there’s a relational component that we’ve found to be really fruitful. And then leadership:not just playing backdrop roles, but having ownership of parts that are “up front” or more prominent. 

For the church cohorts, it’s a big thing for them as well: how can we enable and empower youth to have agency, to have buy-in in the process, to be strategic in their relationships, and then be actively involved in some leadership component? Much of it comes down to projects that are well led by leaders who can exemplify agility in the moment and the ability to adapt. When faced with a new reality, particularly during COVID—the ability to engage youth not just for the sake of engaging them, but in a real way that has the potential to provide really meaningful work and a meaningful outcome—that was remarkable to watch. That was vital for us to be a witness to. 

While youth are growing as leaders, they’re also asking new questions about their faith, about life, about the world around them. What space do you provide for that? How do students explore and ask those kinds of questions in the context of your community?

I love that question. Two things come to mind. One is that the lab groups from Worship Arts Lab seem to be a really helpful way for that to happen. That group setting is a place of safety, a place where they feel comfortable asking those probing theological questions. And often their lab projects are actually focused on asking the question at hand rather than providing answers, which is fascinating to me. The youth are often the ones guiding the project toward vital questions, asking, “Where would this question take us if we were to portray this artistically in worship?” So the worship gathering, the worship service they put together, is posing the question. That’s been fun to watch. 

Another space where that has happened is at our Angeles Worship Summit. Often, we intentionally have the keynote speaker available for Q&A in a separate session right afterward, and youth are welcomed there just as much as anybody. They are the ones who often drive those questions, and that’s been fun to see as well. 

And then we’ve been blessed with some great ministry leaders in the cohort church projects that love facilitating that kind of stuff, too.

It sounds like you have a strong focus on intergenerational practices, so let’s dig into that. How have you seen those practices used effectively, especially in relation to public worship? How have you been able to nurture relationships intergenerationally?

Some of the intergenerational practices that have really come to the fore are driven by the project leaders and are specific to their context. So, for example, during the pandemic a church in Burbank used their funding to put together a live music performance during a time—Christmas season of 2020—when almost no other performances were happening. They typically had organized youth from their community to participate in a youth orchestra. The question now was, “How do we do this with all of the COVID protocols?” 

They figured out a way to meet outdoors with everybody masked up and spaced apart, with specific masks for the instruments. At this time nobody was quite sure how the virus was behaving, and it was L.A. County, which was one of the strictest in the nation. They used their grant funding to hire professional players who were right here in Hollywood and L.A.—and normally would be working during this time—to come alongside and mentor these students in the orchestra. And they put together a virtual choir that was pre-recorded to a click. They played all of this on a big screen out on a football field, and had the orchestra play live there for this performance in December. Again, this was taking place during a time when live performances were almost non-existent.

So it was intergenerational, (and) it still met the goals of being together while at the same time allowing for mentorship and skill development. It was fun to be a fly on the wall and cheer on this project leader and see where this idea took them.

We also have some great intergenerational songwriting examples. We had intergenerational worship teams that formed out of the grant work, and those were really exciting because they weren’t just token moments of someone older and someone younger reading scripture together—although that’s beautiful. But these are teams that are built strategically for the long term. You’ve got young musicians and older musicians who are the worship team and doing it on a regular basis. 

Those are a few examples that came out of our church cohorts. 

Another program theme has to do with equipping parents and families. How does that play a role in your work and in the conversations that you’re having?

You know, at first I thought, “How are we going to do this? How are we going to support parents being involved?” Because sometimes youth don’t want to be around their parents. So that was a question mark at the beginning. But we have had families come to the songwriting academy together—parents and children coming together to write together, and to do so all the way through to performing the song they wrote together, which is really exciting. 

And then these intergenerational moments within the church cohorts—the worship teams being formed and family members coming to be a part of those teams. Or families coming together to the summit, the one-day conference, sometimes painting alongside one another out on the lawn or making music together. We also invite parents to come and be adult mentors at Worship Arts Lab.

What ways have you found to be effective in helping youth find their way into the life of a church that doesn’t segregate them into only a youth program? What are your experiences with exploring multiple pathways for ministry with youth?

I love the multiple pathways concept, and after having done this work for a while, even more so. It makes sense because youth, like adults, have so many different personalities and relational needs and abilities—how they connect with others, learning modalities, artistic kinds of expression they are capable of. 

Our work tends to focus on the artistic: music, storytelling, scripture reading, and prayer, each of which has an artistic aspect. And youth are great at that. They love expressing themselves through those means—not to mention those who have great technical capacity, or who are really visually oriented, or who can identify what is cinematically appealing. 

Not only is this a potential entry point for a young person into the worshiping life of a church, but then there’s a kind of synergy that begins to emerge out of the work of these various disciplines, or aspects, of ministry. When those all start to converge—from my perspective, that is worship leadership at its finest. It’s not one person who is up front, but a team coming together that can see the fruit of their labors together, communally, collectively, and the larger body of Christ benefiting from that. 

Robin Jensen is one of the authors who has done a good job of talking about the spiritual formation aspects of this kind of work, particularly in the arts and the act of making. Mako Fujimura also talks about this—the act of making, the act of creating, the act of leaning into the new and then doing that together, and the beauty that can come from that.

Overall, what would you say you find most encouraging about this work with youth and worship?

One of the best things is the sense of journey. We have a church that has been with us from the very beginning, and their youth always come back for each event. They just won’t miss an event. We get to see those youth grow up, and I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that there is a sense of transformation in many of their stories. And if that really is the case, then that’s as much as I could possibly dream of or ask for. 

To hear youth and adults, too, talk about the ways their lives have been changed—their community, in some cases the entire church has changed, for the better—that’s pretty humbling.