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‘By the People for the Good of the People’: A Conversation with Matthew Sigler

In this edited conversation, Matthew Sigler discusses how contemporary youth can find their place in worship by exploring historical church practices.

Why don’t you start by telling me about your context, your program, and the focus of your work with youth.

Our program, Leitourgia, tries to be attuned to some of the particularities of the church in Seattle and this part of the country. The three words that we use internally to describe our program are helpful in understanding it: contemporary liturgical catechesis. You see why I don’t use those words externally—they need definition. They don’t work well on a T-shirt. 

But they really do describe what we’re doing: Liturgical catechesis is simply this ancient way of recognizing that we want to teach people what they do in worship. That’s a pretty foreign concept to our modern sensibilities. But historically, the church has recognized that people need some onboarding, not just in the “what,” but sometimes in the “how” of what happens when we come together to worship God. 

The neat thing about the way the church has historically practiced that is that they understood that we learn by doing. So we wanted to tap into that ancient wisdom and say, What are those time-honored ecumenical patterns and elements within worship that we can unpack for congregations today?

The contemporary piece is important, too, because we’re acknowledging that worship is never static. It’s always occurring in a particular time, in a particular place. 

Working with youth, we’re learning together about how they’re connecting to God, how they’re finding new expressions alongside time-honored patterns. We put all that together, and that’s what our program is about.

We run a very small cohort for a period of seven months, and we learn together about: What is it that the church shares in common in some of the ways it worships? And where do we find differences, and why? And while we’re doing that, we also provide some of the practical dynamics—we’re not just talking about it; we’re doing it, kind of like a lab. 

I’m increasingly convinced that you can’t talk about worship without having people at least consider the doctrine of the church. So part of what was important to us, not just in terms of teaching but in experience, was that students would get to glimpse the church universal and begin to wrestle with basic questions like: Can you be a Christian without being a part of the church? What’s the difference between the invisible church—the “big-C church”—and the “little-C church”? Things like that. That’s another thing that’s important for us in terms of the vision.

Who are your students, and where do they come from?

Our cohorts are drawn from local churches. These are older junior high and high school-age folks from diverse churches in the area—three to four students from each church coming with adult mentors. We were intentional about selecting congregations that represent a wide array of denominations and racial/ethnic backgrounds. 

There’s a lot of relationship-building and trust that has to be built in any setting, but it’s really true in the Pacific Northwest—there’s kind of a pioneering spirit for many congregations. So we spent a year trying to get to know churches and listen and build relationships before we got started. 

COVID hit right when we were getting ready to launch our first cohort, so we went immediately online. But now we’re fully in person. This is our third cohort. The average size has been between a dozen and sixteen students, and it’s almost a one-for-one pairing with adults. So there’s real mentorship going on. 

Tell me about the format of your program. How often do you bring your students together? And how do you connect with the individual congregations?

We begin with an opening retreat, which gives students a chance to get to know each other. And then throughout the year, we have a video curriculum that we’ve developed, and we partner with youth leaders to work this curriculum into their church, either with the whole youth group or with a select group of youth.

After the opening retreat, we come together every other month for a daylong summit. We have different musicians and keynote speakers every time. And every time we come together, we try to model a different expression of worship—a different style, a different tradition. 

In between those summits, students are working with our curriculum in their local congregation. So the basic rhythm is: come together, learn about a particular topic or ecumenical pattern—for example, how does the Word function in worship?—and then for the following month, they work with our curriculum in their local church with practical steps to have them think about their own context and then practice helping lead in worship in that particular focus area that we’re looking at for that month. 

For example, we have a congregation that has a very young youth group—mainly eighth graders—and they want to start a music team. They’re an Anglican congregation, and in the months that they’re focusing within their own church, they’re working through our curriculum. We’ve got electives on video, so they can watch the teaching on how to choose songs for worship. Then they practice choosing songs for that Sunday, and the youth have actually been incorporated with the adults in the music leadership.

That leads to the idea of youth agency. What does your program do to empower youth in public worship, and how do you support them in that?

Part of what we’re trying to test out and experiment with is this question: Do students feel empowered to participate more fully in worship if they have a greater sense of understanding that’s not purely didactic? Could we cultivate in them an appreciation for all the parts of the worship service and their deep meaning, and at the same time equip them to lead in those parts? 

And we’ve actually found that to be true. As students learn the time-honored patterns of worship and also learn the differences in the traditions, there’s a greater appreciation for what their local congregation does. We’ve heard students say things like, “You know, I never even thought about why the public reading of scripture was an act of worship, but I now see it.”

That’s one part of it. The other part is not just having them have an appreciation for it in terms of the history and theology, but to give them practical tools. So, for example, we partnered with some drama professors in our school to help students understand everything from projection to how you can make the texts come alive. A lot of our students—maybe they’re not musical, but they come to recognize that they still have a role to play in the worship service.

Another example would be a student from last year’s group who gravitated toward poetry as a form of testimony. At the close of our cohort last year, she shared one of her spoken-word pieces with her congregation—something she’d never done before. Those are the things we’re working through. 

We’re still learning, but I think the summary would be that it’s a combination of understanding the meanings of worship—why do we do these particular things—and then honing the various skills for leadership in different areas.

As they’re developing their leadership skills and learning about the things you’re teaching, these students are also asking questions. How are you making space for the theological questions, questions about faith and life?

I’m biased here—I’m a worship professor—but I think worship is inescapably theological. I mean, we’re making statements about God. We’re singing statements about God and offering prayers to God. So it’s a ripe situation for this kind of conversation. And we found that it happens quite naturally. It’s not a big jump to move from talking about why we pray and what should we pray for to talking about doubt and worry and grief. I think the material lends itself to that.

In terms of pedagogy, we’ve tried to make all of our delivery conversational. Even when we bring in a keynote presenter, we have been featuring the presentation more in the form of a casual conversation. And I’ve found that students move into their own thoughts very seamlessly. 

I think there’s something about building a bridge between what we do in worship and how it’s inescapably connected to everyday life and God (with) a method that allows students to feel like they’re heard and seen and are valued. We’ve seen that there’s an eagerness to talk about the things they’re bringing into everyday life—their concerns and worries and doubts. 

The other thing we’ve done, very practically, to make space for asking deep questions is at the very beginning of the year, when we go on this retreat, we put students into fellowship groups that they stay in throughout the year. The groups are small, and they’re led by some of our undergraduate students and our seminary students. We’re trying to cultivate meaningful relationships where there’s trust built, where they’re getting to have a mentor relationship with these young adult leaders. 

Then with the adult mentors, it’s truly intergenerational. There’s a deep commitment to building relationships in ways that open up some deep honesty, especially as we connect it to the content of worship.

You just introduced the idea of intergenerational practices, so let’s talk more about that. 

That was another big commitment, and part of it comes out of my own story. I came of age during the worship wars. I strapped on a guitar and really felt empowered and embraced in my church. But my grandparents, who were pastors, hated the drums. It hurt their ears. And I remember that, for a while, I didn’t care about whether or not my grandparents could join in worship with me. 

But I think things have changed. I think there’s a deep hunger for intergenerational worship. One of the comments we got at the end of our retreat this year was “It was wonderful to be among so many different kinds of people, but I would love to see more people over the age of 60.” The ninth-graders were saying, “Where are the 60-year-olds?” There’s a hunger to look past stylistic differences that so often separate (to) see the bedrock ideas and practices that we see as foundational, that allow us to come together despite our stylistic preferences. 

That’s part of our programmatic approach. We’re trying to help people see lots of different ways of worshiping. In terms of delivery, having students experience worship that’s intergenerational is important. Having exposure to something outside of your context can open your eyes, so not only do we have lots of different denominational traditions represented, lots of different racial/ethnic makeups, but we do our best to have different age levels at our summits. 

Another theme is the notion of multiple pathways for ministry with youth—that is, not everyone finds their way into participation in worship in the same way. What are you discovering or exploring in that area?

When I first wrote this grant, I was envisioning working with some pretty big churches in the area that we had relationships with. What we have found is that the people who most gravitated toward this program are oftentimes new youth groups, meaning they’re from a younger congregation or they’re very small. So we tried to be as intentional as we could, (asking), How can we resource a part-time or volunteer youth leader—or a small congregation that doesn’t have a youth leader but wants to make sure that their students feel a part of their congregation’s worship?

We knew coming in that worship has multiple pathways for youth to get involved, but what we didn’t anticipate is the need to invest in churches that don’t have the resources. And by default that means you have to think about multiple pathways. 

Just some examples: We have a church we’ve now worked with for three years that has been one of our most consistent congregations. They have maybe three students. None of these students is musical, so it’s not like they’re going to be forming their own youth praise team. But they all love their church, and they want to be a part of it. They’re one of those groups that really has picked up on the skills and knowledge we’ve been trying to teach about worship being more than just music. 

We have another church this year with a critical mass of some really talented musicians. And they said, “By the end of this time, we want to have our own youth worship team.” 

Those are two very different scenarios. The commonality is they’re eager to serve the church, and if you give them an opportunity to cast their imagination and then equip them, they’re jumping right in.

The other thing I would name is that pastors have to buy into this, too. One of the perks about a smaller church is that we found the pastors are much more eager. It’s not a knock on big churches, but the logistics of a larger congregation makes it a little bit more difficult to get the leadership to buy in in a way that has lasting impact.

It sounds like you are able to customize what you’re encouraging among your youth participants based on what their interests and talents might be.

Absolutely. One thing I didn’t say about our curriculum is we have four modules, and they’re based on the fourfold pattern of worship: gathering, receiving the Word, responding to the Word, and being sent. We use that as our foundational rhythm. 

But our curriculum also includes three “choose your own adventure” tracks that can be mixed and matched. One is called “Creativity and Worship: Beyond the Music,” and that’s dance and poetry and drama. Another track is called “The Mechanics of Worship,” where we talk about reading scripture, bringing hospitality into worship, making announcements. And then the final track is music—everything from choosing songs to how to run a good rehearsal.

The hope is that the leaders at the churches that are going through this curriculum can find resources that they can customize in consultation with us. So a lot of what we’re doing is also at the leadership level—church consultation, where we get to know the churches and listen. How can we serve you? How can we equip you? After three years, I feel like we kind of hit our stride in knowing some of the areas that local church leaders are looking for. 

And then we’ve been able to tap into digital resources. Over the last three years we’ve been able, in person and online, to get a vibrant video catalog of different experts and write a curriculum alongside this video curriculum.

Is there anything more you’d like to say about any of the themes?

So much of what youth are wrestling with now is the brokenness that they see in the church, and at the same time a deep longing to be a part of something bigger. So we’ve tried to say (this:) If we really consider the doctrine of the church—that it’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—it’s broken and it’s beautiful. And if we are concerned with the question of youth agency, I think we’ve got to tackle these big questions they have about the church and not run from them.

What is it that you find most encouraging about this work?

We’re finding, coming out of the pandemic, that there’s a hunger to be a part of the church universal and to see it for its beauty. There’s a hunger in these students that I don’t think is disconnected from what they’ve experienced the last three years, both in our pandemic and our current cultural moment. 

So I’m encouraged by these eighth and ninth graders. They love the church, and they have a deep desire to bring their gifts in service of the Lord in the church. That really does encourage me. And then to see how that is encouraging our volunteers, our college students and our adult leaders—it’s been a blessing to get to see that.

Anything else you’d like to add?

For as much as I’m encouraged by the students, we also hear the burnout from leaders. We also hear a lot of uncertainty about the church’s place in this current moment. A common thread I’ve heard both from church leaders and even from our team is there’s a lot of fatigue. We wanted a seven-month program that allowed for meaningful relationships, but it is a big ask during our current time to have people commit to something that long. 

I think it illustrates why this program is so important. Because a lot of people are burned out on the church, disillusioned with the church, feel like they have no place in the church. I think when they can experience this, they come alive—but there’s a lot of burnout both internally and programmatically among staff, family, students. So I would name that as something we’re seeing, but I think it also amplifies why these kinds of programs are important.

One last thing: Say a bit about the name of your program.

It’s Leitourgia. We chose it because it was the word that the Greek-speaking church chose when they tried to describe what it was they did when they came together to worship God. It’s a word that was often used to talk about public service. It literally means “the work of the people,” or it can also mean “the work done for the good of the people.” 

We thought this communicates, in many respects, what we’re trying to do with this program: to help students and adults and church leaders see that worship is not a spectator sport. Many of us have a call to use unique gifts. Not everyone’s going to be a musician, not everyone’s going to be skilled at reading the Word in worship, but we bring all that together. It’s the work done by the people for the good of the people.