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Bridging the Gap Between Youth Ministry and Worship Ministry: A Conversation with Emily Andrews and Mallory Johnson

In this edited conversation, Emily Andrews, executive director of the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University, and Mallory Johnson, a student at Beeson Divinity School, discuss the role of mentoring and training in promoting teen leadership in public worship.

Emily, tell us a little about your context and your work with youth in worship.

Emily Andrews: The Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University focuses on equipping congregations to engage intergenerational and artistic worship practices, with a focus on teenagers in particular. Most of our programs and activities support one or both of those goals. Music, historically speaking, tends to be the art form in which many Christians engage in worship. But we are currently interested in seeing how other artists representing other disciplines can be involved in the work of worship and congregational worship life. 

Mallory, tell us where you fit into that work. 

Mallory Johnson: I just graduated from Samford with a music and worship degree. The summer before I started at Samford, as a teenager, I was a student in Samford's worship and the arts program, called Animate. So I got to experience that from the student side, and then the next summer I was one of the staffers. I also helped facilitate our online version in 2021. Now I'm going to Beeson Divinity School and pursuing a master of divinity degree. And I'm serving on the worship staff in a local church in Birmingham that is quite intergenerational, so it's cool to see that in practice.

Let's start by talking about the idea of youth agency in faith formation. In your work, what do you do to empower youth through their involvement in worship or in intergenerational ministry?

Emily Andrews: Mallory mentioned Animate, our summer program for teenagers and their adult mentors related to worship, theology, and the arts. Although that’s not the only program we oversee, it has a touchpoint with most of what we do, and we can relate many of our activities to that summer program. 

In the Animate curriculum and philosophy, we think of ourselves as supporting youth agency in a couple of ways. One is by training and equipping. Students in that program are with us for a week, and every day they're involved in a few hours of classes with expert artists, theologians, pastors, and worship leaders. We do our best to equip them, meeting them where they are developmentally, and giving them the resources and tools that they might take into their local worship context. We call those “toolbox sessions.” Those sessions lead up to a Festival of Worship.

Throughout the week, students are divided into small groups of teens and adult mentors, so there is an intergenerational component there. For the Festival of Worship, groups are given a literal toolbox where we put a variety of resources, including a prayer book, a hymnal, a Bible, and some artistic materials, and then a context—an actual space to consider their worship service and the biblical theme we’ve provided. They use the tools and resources they’ve received in the moment and throughout the week to plan and design a worship service that they then facilitate and lead for a larger group. That is an intentional part of the flow of the week because we want them to have practice, in a safe space, to use their own agency to do the thing that we’ve been talking about and doing together all week. They’re not just watching the experts do it. 

We also have training sessions for adult mentors. They are given resources to think about how to take that experience home. One of the things we’ve learned is that if we don't make those connection points with adults who can advocate for the teenagers when they get back to their home church, then it essentially gets lost. While we want to empower their voice and give teens agency, they still need advocates in the larger life of the church. Through the adult small group sessions, we're giving resources and expert leadership that we hope might assist those conversations when they return to their home church about how to better include teens in the whole life of the church rather than thinking about siloed programs of ministry. 

We've been really interested in what we perceive to be the gap in many congregations between youth ministry and worship ministry. So that's another level when we think about equipping youth and empowering adults to advocate for them. Part of our ongoing learning is to consider why that gap might exist: What are the structural, educational, practical, and logistical reasons that this gap between the ministry programs exists? And then how might we support bridging those gaps? 

Mallory, what was it like for you to participate in worship in that way as a youth—using your leadership skills and being equipped in that through Animate?

Mallory Johnson: I felt like that helped me be a good leader when I was in college. Animate incorporates all traditions from the universal church, and I remember when I walked into the opening worship and looked at the liturgy, it was foreign to me. I didn't grow up in a context that had a worship order laid out. I had to admit that I had no idea what was going on, which was really uncomfortable for me. My mentor explained those things that I didn't understand, and that is a good picture of Animate: meeting people where they are and helping students grow in their knowledge of the worship world. There's so many different contexts and levels of confidence and skill that the students come in with, but everybody is given a lot of dignity and value in that experience. 

While your youth are developing their leadership skills, they are also asking big questions. So how have you in your work, Emily, made space for students to ask questions about theology, questions about life?

Emily Andrews: One of our practices, which Mallory alluded to, is that we intentionally have students engage a variety of liturgical traditions. Being a historically Southern Baptist institution, we do engage a lot of Baptists through Animate, though not exclusively. So the first night they’re there, they engage worship that is largely from the evangelical contemporary worship tradition. This is the context from which many of our participants come. The next day we follow what is by and large a Reformed model of liturgical order; confession of sin is always a part of that service. The following day we have our liturgical service. It's very scripted and loosely based on an Episcopal service of prayer. The next day is our Festival of Worship, where students get to plan, design, and lead a service. And then the last day is back to the more celebratory, evangelical style of contemporary worship, this time including a service of the Lord’s Supper. 

That progression in itself creates space for theological questions. Most of our students find something that looks like their liturgical homeland on one of those days. But usually the other days are foreign to them. They’re often in a home congregation that has its own traditions, and they haven't had the opportunity to experience much diversity. We hope that by seeing with fresh lenses something that looks similar to their church, students will find some space for thinking, “OK, this is kind of like what we do, and now I'm kind of seeing it with a different lens.” Questions arise from that. 

But the other fruitful exercise is when they come to the foreign liturgical land on the other days, and they begin asking questions about that. For instance, “What is confession of sin and how does that fit into the liturgical space that we're thinking about? And how does it help us think about worship more broadly?” Even basic questions: “What is this? Why would we even do it? I've never experienced this before.”

The other thing we've observed is that students walk away from the week with a far deeper appreciation of their own homeland. And so there is a deeper appreciation and, in some cases, a healthy dose of skepticism in terms of, “Why? Why are we doing that? Why aren't we doing this?” 

We’re creating space for those questions—literally as well. In our program, we worship every morning, and then students and adults immediately have some reflection time in a small group. We created curriculum guides that our college mentors use to lead the students through a reflection on the worship in which they’ve just participated. 

The other thing we use is the process of PERTA: Prepare, Experience, Reflect, Transfer, Apply. That rhythm is common in higher education, and we tend well to that in the Animate week. So there are moments throughout the day where we're preparing students: “You may see this in worship tomorrow.” Then they experience it in the actual worship gathering. Then they have time to reflect on it through their small group. The transfer and application comes through the Festival of Worship planning, design, and implementation. That model is something that has really guided the rhythms of the week.

Mallory, from your experience as a student or as a mentor, where have you seen this freedom to ask questions, this space for experiencing something new and reflecting on it?

Mallory Johnson: It was really disorienting for me, especially as a teenager, when you think you have things figured out, to enter into an unfamiliar worship environment. So after the worship services, when we had those intentional guided questions, that really was helpful. When I was a leader, every day there was a different student who was like, “That's my heart worship style.” And another student would say they hated it. There was that honesty there, and it was great to see people come from different denominations and styles and ask those big questions. 

What's helpful for me even now is (that) it gives you a greater appreciation for, or maybe a rejection of, the style of worship you're used to, but also it gives you a bigger understanding of the gospel. Once you take in all the different styles, the common thread through them all is the gospel. This is how the church across time and space has been worshiping, in all these different styles. That's what I took away—how the gospel has staying power. 

Now let’s look at your intergenerational work, Emily. Talk about the intergenerational practices that your program has used effectively, especially in relation to public worship. How have you nurtured relationships across the generations?

Emily Andrews: In contexts and congregations with whom we have worked closely, this is pretty countercultural work. Youth ministry has a fairly siloed ministry model, so this is not natural for the folks with whom we work. But I can share a couple of wins that we've observed in the past few years and also some challenges we've run into.

First, COVID has opened up opportunities we didn't expect. One example is from a large local church. Once they were producing online worship services, that became fairly labor intensive in terms of the production. Very quickly this worship leader, I think in graceful wisdom, saw that teenagers could be a resource for involvement on the worship team in ways the adults, especially during the more intense COVID time, didn't have the time for. Maybe they were giving to their children or to their jobs in difficult ways. And so teens became far more utilized in the worship ministry of the all-church worship in that congregation than they had previously been, to the benefit of themselves and the congregation. This worship leader has sought to continue forms of this practice, regularly involving teens in the all-church worship leadership at their church. Promoting that message is one of our own practices. 

The other thing is that we have been developing a curriculum called About Worship. It is about worship, but it's for an intergenerational context. Part of that curriculum is putting people of different ages in conversation with one another. There are intentional guides to support that work. Part of the goal is breaking down the silos for the teenagers, who are maybe talking to their adult mentors but don't have a lot of contact with others.

There are two other general practices we have seen some success with. One is illustrated at Animate, and we've been able to promote it in some local churches, and that is, from children up to those in their twenties, seeing how fruitful it is to have those folks be mentors to the age group directly under them. You have grad students who are mentoring the college students; and then the college students, the teenagers; the teenagers, the middle schoolers; and the middle schoolers, the older children. We have seen congregations follow that structure with great success. We’re leaning into the protégé effect, where teaching someone else is the best way to learn and deepen your own abilities.

That doesn't only play out in the public worship life of the congregation. But in our case, we've seen that model put into effect successfully to support an intergenerational cohort of worship leaders.

One other practice on the positive side is a congregation we worked with that, as a result of seeing that model done at Animate, went back and said, “You know, on every team we have in our church, we need to have at least one teenager representative.” And we've been learning a lot from them in the sense that they have sought out the teenagers’ giftedness and tried to match that to support the ministries of the church. I'm thinking of a church that put a teenager on their finance team because this teenager was really interested in that work. That’s just an example of making it a point to involve teenagers in all of the life of the church through intergenerational mentoring.

Mallory, what did this look like in your experience? What kinds of intergenerational connections have been meaningful for you in the church context?

Mallory Johnson: When I started becoming a church leader, I was in high school. I was a worship leader for our youth band. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think about these experiences is the word “dignity.” This doesn't just go for teenagers; I also think about church members in their seventies or eighties. Give them a sense of dignity and value and importance. That always went a long way with me. You're not sure if you fit in yet, or you're not sure if you're qualified enough or talented enough. It means a lot, having a recruiter mindset or a mentor mindset, seeing a potential skill to be developed in teenagers and speaking to their value in the church.

Another theme is the idea of providing multiple pathways for ministry with youth beyond the youth group. What are you learning about how churches can provide various pathways to help youth find their place in the life of a congregation?

Emily Andrews: I would go back to the mentoring model that we promote—that every Christian disciple is capable, by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, to mentor another Christian disciple. We've seen the benefit of pairing teens with someone who's slightly younger and equipping them, giving them the resources to teach them about where they are in their own journey of faith.

The other thing we hope to be promoting in churches is creating more spaces for teenagers to practice leadership opportunities—leading in public worship in a variety of capacities, including leadership in other ministry programs of the church. If they have to wait until they are adults to be able to practice, surveys and data show that by then it's too late; they're no longer interested. Getting teens invested is crucial. Doing that means creating space for it to be imperfect, or not to the quality standards that some adults have come to expect, especially as a result of the professionalization of ministry that's developed over the past several decades. 

Another thing we would like to promote under this theme is the idea of transferable leadership practices. By that we mean having conversations and looking deeply and broadly into the teenager's full life. We tend to talk about spiritual gifts—what is your giftedness for the church? And teenagers, especially older teens, are beginning to sense a level of their giftedness in a variety of contexts. They're soon-to-be-emerging adults, and they're learning about their own giftedness, their own vocational callings at that age. They're beginning to discern that, and they're sometimes not seeing that played out in the church: “Where do I fit in?” 

Look for the adult who can get to know the teen and how they're discerning their gifts and calling, and then be an advocate, saying, “Yes, we need that gift. We need that in the life of our church.” That can involve a lot of creativity because we don't have those models. Adults are not always good at thinking outside the box, considering those creative ways of getting teens plugged into the ministry programs of the church. We want the teenager to be able to say, “I'm discerning that this is something I'm good at or that I love,” and then be able to transfer that into the church in some form. That kind of transferable leadership practice can be really impactful for the youth. But again, it involves structures and discernment and advocacy on the part of the adult that might not be typical in many congregational programs.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about your work with youth and worship? 

Emily Andrews: One thing we’d like to learn more about is the gap we perceive between worship ministry and youth ministry—understanding the history and why it exists. If we understand the “why,” then maybe it will help us to better address it in the life of the congregation. 

We also want to gain more clarity on the relationship between the spiritual formation of the teenager and public worship in particular. One thing we have learned is that there's not a lot of writing on that angle—how the teenager is spiritually formed by and through public worship at that developmental stage of their faith journey. We would like to learn more about this alongside others. 

And last, we want to foster in the life of the church an expanded view of what we often call the “worship leader.” The role of the worship leader, or the song leader, has become narrower and narrower so that fewer people see themselves as equipped or enabled to be a worship leader in the life of their church. We want to learn more about why that perception exists and address it in order to get back to the idea that all Christian disciples are empowered to lead in some way in the worship life of the church. We want to help congregations see a way to worship leadership that is not just the song leader so that more people, and especially teenagers, can be empowered to do that work.