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Discipleship, Faith Formation, and Belonging in Worship: A Conversation with Chris Schoon and Elizabeth Tamez Méndez

In this conversation, Chris Schoon, director of Faith Formation Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church of North America, explores with Elizabeth Tamez Méndez the importance of equipping congregations and parents to embrace children and youth as full image bearers and active participants in worship, for the well-being of the intergenerational community.

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:16] Welcome to the session on Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. This is a series hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I am Dr. Elizabeth Tamez Méndez, executive director of New Generation3, a longtime collaborator with CICW. Today, Dr. Chris Schoon is joining us for conversation, and Chris, we really want to thank you for being our guest. We’re so happy to have you here. 

Chris Schoon [00:00:42] I'm delighted to join you today. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:00:45] Thank you for making the time. In this series we really want to learn from one another about community worship practices in different contexts, especially those that encourage intergenerational relationships and empower youth. Chris, would you please share with us a bit about your context and your work? We're really eager to get to know more about it. 

Chris Schoon [00:01:07] So currently I serve as the director of Faith Formation Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church. I am based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and my team is scattered all over the United States and Canada. So we have fifteen people on the team, and we do a variety of things around creating resources for churches around faith formation, walking alongside church leaders with coaching and mentoring, and then I also do a lot of workshops and training for parents, for family, for youth, a variety of ways that we engage in the life of the church, all focused on this idea of faith formation. And we work closely with our denomination’s worship ministries as well, because we recognize that a lot of faith formation takes place in the worship context. Before my current role, I served as a pastor here in Grand Rapids and also in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In Ontario, I was pastoring for eight years, but in Ontario for ten years while I worked on my doctorate, which focused on the intersection of worship, discipleship, and mission. And so that's a little bit of my background and what I’m entering this conversation with today. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:02:39] Thank you, Chris. You have such a wealth of backgrounds and places and spaces where you have worked. So we're really eager to get to know more about it and to learn from you. I'm just happy that we get a chance to work on a project together again. So thank you for being here with us. 

Chris Schoon [00:02:55] It's good to be here. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:02:56] As we frame our conversations in this series, we have chosen five values of corporate worship and models of ministry with youth. These are youth agency, spaces for theological questions, the role of the family, sparking intergenerational relationships, and designing multiple pathways for ministry with youth. We know that not everyone has a traditional church setting, and so sometimes there's different ways of connecting with the young people in our community, so we always like to hear about that. Chris, how has your work with youth and young adults through the Christian Reformed Church at the denominational office, but also your past experience as a pastor, reflected some of these aspects and incorporating them into the way you work with young people? 

Chris Schoon [00:03:45] I love the question and the overall values that you're naming here, Elizabeth. I think they really show a sense of including children, youth, and young adults as full image bearers in God's kingdom and full participants, and not just the future of the church, but actually the present reality of the church. It's beautiful to see. One of the things that, when I was thinking about our conversation today and kind of preparing for it, one of the places I went to was my experience at First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton, Ontario. We began very early on in my time there to ask questions about how do children and how do youth sense that they actually belong in worship as active participants in worship, not just passive recipients. We had a lot of conversations over a couple of years about what are simple ways that we can start bringing them into the full participation of actually leading worship, contributing to the things in worship.

One of the first things we did was start putting in a call and response with children of the church as they were getting ready to head out halfway through the service to a children in worship setting. And we did a variety of blessings as the call and response. So, “The Lord be with you. And also with you.” The congregation would say, “The Lord be with you” to the children. The children would respond, “And also with you.” But then we started adding other ones in. One of the ones I enjoyed doing quite often was “God is good.” The kids would say that, and the congregation would say, “All the time,” and then the kids reflect back, “All the time, God is good.” But we started introducing liturgical seasonal pieces as well. Each Sunday in Advent we would start with the kids toward the back of the sanctuary with a small whisper, “Jesus is coming. He's almost here.” And then each week the kids would get a little louder and a little louder until on Christmas Day, they're standing at the front of the sanctuary. And I just say to the kids, “You can be as loud as you want with this. This is a celebration moment.” And they would shout, and arms would wave. It was this sense of week after week of building. And they were actually leading us through that in this anticipation of Jesus coming. So I think small ways like that we started, but we also started saying, what are ways that are our early teens to mid-teens, the high school range, how can they start participating in a sense of their voice being in? One of our elders started meeting with the youth, and when it was her turn to pray, to lead the congregational prayer, she would actually coach a couple of youth in how to lead a congregational prayer and would quite often have them give voice to the congregational prayer. It was things like that. We started on a small scale, but with the coaching of them, whether it was me coaching the call and response or this elder coaching through prayer, it was a way of them having a voice in the worship space and not just singing a children's song, but actually shaping some significant places within our worship. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:07:56] I think you pointed out some very important aspects for us to continue harvesting as we're looking at this question together, because sometimes we fall into the tendency of church models that have different age segregation, and this is how people connect with the church, but not with each other. You have pointed out how important it is that we continue as ministers and leaders to see that it's the whole congregation, all ages, that we're serving, that come together. Your examples have made me think of . . . We know that sometimes some of our listeners and viewers may not come from churches that have the liturgical way of leading worship, but I think these are great examples of how, like you're saying, with verses or phrases that engage the whole congregation, not just the children. Because we've seen that model a lot where it seems like it's the adults in worship, and then they make this little space for kids or young people to interact, and then they just kind of disappear away. And in the meantime, everybody just thinks like, “Oh, this is so cute; let me take pictures,” versus “We are worshiping together regardless of our age.” But how can we make it interactive? And then also what you pointed out about people being intentional to approach young people and mentor them: what does this look like, and how do we do this, and how can I pass this on to you so you can learn and be an active participant? So thank you for pointing out those important practices as we look into engaging with the younger generations. 

Chris Schoon [00:09:50] One of the things that has struck me along the way is that age segmenting that we tend to do—and you're right, the pictures of kids, the kids’ choir that gets a lot of pictures—there's still a place for kids’ choirs and children's sermons and those type of things; I don't want to be dismissive of those. But the question becomes, how do those become ways that the kids are leading us as adults? How does it become a place where they can actually experience being in a place of contributing to the well-being of the community rather than just receiving programming from the community. There's something in that. A few of our parents actually said, “We'd like to see our kids help with planning worship. The kids have music lessons. They're learning all these things. They have some songs that they like. But what would it be like for them to plan worship?” And so one of our years, a couple parents and five or six youth, we took out songbooks, we took out a whole variety of things we had done before. We took out Reformed Worship articles around planning Advent series. And we had the kids work with us throughout the month of November to plan the Advent worship litanies for Advent, that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas where you're looking forward to Jesus coming, Jesus’ birth, celebrating Jesus’ birth and his second return, anticipating that. And the questions the kids raised, it wasn't suddenly about “What songs do we like, and let's make sure we sing these.” They got into questions of, “Well, I know Mrs. So-and-so appreciates this song,” and they started thinking about what songs are actually meaningful to the whole church. And we started talking about how we tell the story of Christmas in a way that invites the whole congregation in. And so the youth began planning with this vision to the whole congregation and not just themselves. So it wasn't a youth service. It became the youth leading us in worship with the very planning of how that worship would go. It was a powerful experience for us who are normally involved in planning worship to step back and take more of a coaching role with them, but also powerful to see them step up and really embrace this idea that they were leading the whole congregation, not just receiving or not just a project or an afterthought for the congregation. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:12:49] Or focusing on “This is what I like, so this is what we're going to do.” I always mention that to people: when we put young people at the center and we empower them and give them agency, we learn some of the biggest lessons from them because as adults, we tend not to do that. We think about what do I like or what the adults like. And here come the younger ones saying, “What does everyone like, not just me?” What a paradigm shift that they model there for the congregation themselves. They said this is about everyone. We do a lot of workshops and coaching, especially with young leaders who are in their early adulthood, and they have this tension of “But the older people like this, and we want this,” and it's always this conversation about, OK, so are you leading one portion of the congregation or are you leading the whole congregation, and what's meaningful? Sure, there's differences with the different age groups, but what is meaningful for all? As you're talking about putting these things into practice, what were some of the challenges that you saw with empowering youth in this way and giving them so much agency? 

Chris Schoon [00:14:16] One of the first challenges is actually for me as a pastor having to go, I need to let go of control. It's much, much easier for me to sit down and write it out and pass it along to other people and say, “This is what we're doing.” And so to step back and say “what we are doing,” it needs a “we” on the front end of it and not just me. So that whole letting go of control as a pastor in terms of how the service gets planned, I can shape it in terms of “Here's some of the main things we want to make sure are included in worship,” but actually entrusting the kids with real leadership so that they can start planning some things and putting it together, it took a bit as a pastor to go, okay, I need to let go of this.

I think one of the other challenges along the way is great ideas come along and enthusiasm comes along and idealism comes along in the process, and then you’ve got to say, “So how do we do this in a way that people will hear what you're trying to say to them and they'll receive it?” We might not be able to get a full band together on four days’ notice that you want to pull together. You know, there is a thing about rehearsing and practicing that some of the musicians like to have advance notice. So trying to help the youth see that there's actually sometimes several weeks’ worth of planning for a service where you're lining people up to be readers, or you're lining people up to who will be the musicians that day, and making sure the songs we're using are ones the musicians feel comfortable playing (and) not out of their skill set. So some of those things to think through ahead of time. I think as a pastor I was just in routines: this is how we do it, and of course it's going to get done. But having to slow down and say, okay, how do we actually help the youth understand (that) here's the breadth of things that we're going to be doing in worship. Here's the types of forethought that we've got to put into it to make sure that people are ready and feel prepared to lead other people who are going to be leading in the service. So some of those things I think were challenges.

I think one of the other things we realized was a challenge was there is a fair number of members who were not accustomed to youth leading. And the first time you do it? “Oh, isn't that good? That's so nice that they're here.” You do it for a few times, a few weeks in a row, “So when are we going to get back to doing church the real way?” Some comments like that come up and you realize there's a whole lot of discipling of the congregation about why intergenerational worship is important, why youth being involved in leading worship is actually important for the faith formation of youth, why it's important to have youth lead for the faith formation of older adults who can see the faith being passed on from one generation to the next. Some of those conversations, especially for people who grew up as a child being told children should not talk in church; if they have questions, wait till after church and they can ask their parents, when you create a more interactive intergenerational worship, it actually bumps into some of those narrative stories that other members in the church grew up with, and they may actually have wanted to contribute and were told no. So recognizing there's some pastoral care, there's some discipleship that actually goes into bringing youth into leadership in the church because it's not just about the youth. It's actually the whole congregation experiencing something intergenerationally that they might not have been accustomed to when they were growing up. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:18:33] That whole understanding of why this is important. It's not just an add-on or something that looks cute, or oh, great, we're encouraging them to do this, but actually in the ethos and the way that the congregation works and sees itself as all of us working together and even the humility right to say, yes, I am learning from this young person, and yes, it is more important to have this vision of legacy and passing on and teaching and training than perhaps to say, this is how we've always done things and let's just keep it that way. This is not perfect. I always encourage leaders to remember that we too had a season of a lot of learning and we continue to if our leadership is effective. We know that we can't just say we know everything and just coast through it. We're constantly learning. Someone gave us a chance, and someone also gave us the opportunity to mess up, to not do things perfectly, even though we thought we were doing it so perfectly. Like you pointed out, that's how we pass on the faith and we're able to empower young people in feeling that this is the place where you belong, this is yours, this is not the adults’. And then when you grow up, maybe you'll stick around. And if not, well, we'll complain that you're not here. But some have never felt that sense of belonging because they're not hands-on doing anything. So I always remind people that those are the years of basics that if we want to help someone develop as a leader in the church, in society, in the community, it's those hands-on approaches because we can teach them as much as we want theoretically, but it's not until they have actually these experiences and this sense of, “Oh, we wanted to do all of this and what do you mean we can't put together a band in four days?” They start to learn these planning skills, and they know for next time, okay, we've got to start early on. And I know as a pastor it must have been hard because I'm sure it took three or maybe four times more time investment than if you had just sat down and done it yourself and if you had done it the same way all the time. We know that pastors and leaders are always juggling so much, and time doesn't seem to be enough. What drove you to say, hey, I want to invest in this and allow myself to do the hard process of it? 

Chris Schoon [00:21:34] I think it's a combination of things. Some of it is my own growing up. I certainly had people in my teenage years as I turned toward Christ and started following Christ, I had people who mentored me, who invested in me, gave me opportunities to speak, taught me how to evangelize, taught me how to disciple. So I had people who poured into me and I'm sure, quite certain, the first couple of times I preached—I feel sorry for those congregations now. I remember once I was going to preach on Isaiah 58, and as I'm going up, my mentor says to me, “So which verse?” And I was like, “The whole chapter.” And he just nodded his head. And 45 minutes later, people are starting to stretch and they're going, what do I do now? And so afterwards, he's like, “You know, it's great that you studied all of Isaiah 58. It's a great chapter. It probably worked better as a series than just doing it all in one sermon.” So we kind of talked through how you serve the people even while you preach. I needed to be mentored into that. So having some people really investing in me as I grew into my sense of calling and ministry opportunities.

I think another piece for me was we had people who were in our church as adults who admitted, you know, “I've been in the church 60 years, 70 years. I don't know how to pray out loud. I don't feel comfortable with it. I've never done it. It was always the pastor or my dad who did it. And then my husband did it.” I talked with the 77-plus-year-old widow who said, “I have never prayed by myself because my husband always led it, and he's died. I don't know what to do.” So recognizing that people who are lifelong Christians hadn't experienced actually doing some basic things that we have in worship, of reading scripture out loud, of praying out loud. Not that those are magical things to be able to do them out loud, but it impacts our formation as disciples of Christ, and hearing people who are elderly say those type of things, I thought we've got to find ways that younger people are being brought into this experience.

And then the last thing I would say that was shaping me in some of my thinking about this were studies that were coming out in Canada about hemorrhaging faith, which was a study put together by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. It talked about kids walking away from church and why they were leaving the faith. And some of the things that it talked about was this sense of belonging. They did a follow-up study a few years ago called Renegotiating Faith. And and one of the things that really showed up in that was the more that youth have a sense that there are other adults in the church who they're not related to, who know them by name and and who know a bit about their life, the more likely it is that those youth will stay involved in the life of the church as they grow into adulthood. So that sense of belonging that you mentioned just a couple minutes ago, we can point to several studies now over the last ten or fifteen years where belonging actually comes before kids are willing to believe the gospel story. They want to know this community is safe for them, that they have a place there, that people love them and care about them. And that makes it possible for them to go, “Maybe God loves me, too.” 

So I think these experiences where they belong in worship, they can lead them worship, we can point to studies, we can point to stories in our own lives, we can see the benefit it's having in the life of the congregation. This idea of belonging is pretty important. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:26:14] I think, like you pointed out, it can be encouraging for us as leaders to know that it will take more of an effort. We may face some opposition because it may be something new and paradigm changing for some people in the congregation. But the reality is that it gives us that sense of knowing we are investing our time and our effort in what will give us the biggest dividend down the road right now in creating this faith formation, but also the sense of belonging and also the understanding of our faith and how to put it into practice in the context of the congregation but also outside on the day to day. And I think, like you said, if we start gathering all these stories of those of us who are in ministry, we have these recollections of someone who invested in us, who gave us opportunities, who mentor us. I started teaching Sunday school when I was twelve years old and that was because of someone in the congregation saying, I see that gift in you. Would you be interested in us getting together on the weekends and letting me start teaching you? And unfortunately, by the time I got to that point, she had already passed. But I always wish I could tell her, “You know those books we were using and you were teaching me how to go through them?”—They were massive books; I don't know why these Sunday school books from the Baptist church are just like pages and pages for one lesson. . . . She had a gift for it, and she was teaching me how to do it. And I wish I could have told her “Guess what? I ended up working on, creating those, and making them leaner so that people could actually use them!” 

So it is, I think, encouraging for congregations to take those bold steps and say, if we want to continue to see the generations being involved, being here this is the best way. And it will be uncomfortable and it will be strange sometimes, and it will be taxing, and it will create a lot of additional investment, and yet that sense of knowing that this is the way to go. This is the right thing to do. 

Chris Schoon [00:28:49] The last couple of years, especially for us in my current role, where we're looking at coaching churches and coaching ministry leaders on all aspects of youth ministry, young adult, emerging adult ministry, children's ministry one of the things we keep bumping into is people weren't attending church because of the pandemic. They weren't going in person, so youth group meetings weren't happening, the normal discipleship stuff wasn't happening, normal worship experiences weren't happening. And what ended up occurring was a lot of people were saying, how do we equip families to do this stuff in the home? What does that look like to do family worship? What does it look like to have spiritual conversations with our kid intentionally? It's going to feel weird because we normally let the church just do that, and now we're responsible because we're all home together. So the last few years we've been working on resources that equip parents to be the primary place of this kind of discipleship for your kids. How do we come alongside parents who feel like they're too busy, and their own discipleship is struggling, and they are not even sure what it means to be discipled, and how do we bring that in the home? And so some of these things that we've learned in worship about belonging and how do you make worship intergenerational, the last couple of years we've been saying, how do we kind of revive that home-based faith-formation worship space? A lot of what we've been focusing on around faith practices or spiritual disciplines, how do we equip parents to lead kids in reflecting on scripture, to practicing wonder, to doing mercy and justice from the base of the home rather than a church-based program? And I would say we're recognizing not only are the kids being discipled as parents are doing this, but the parents themselves feel like they're learning stuff about their faith as they're being more intentional with discipling their kids. I think there's something about that experience of the last couple of years that I hope as we come out of the pandemic and we start returning to church-based ministries or the building-based type activities and programs that we start saying, wait a minute, there was something in this experience of everybody going home where we were able to equip families to be more intentional about their faith formation. What does that look like as we go back to programs, and how can families actually be part of equipping their kids in worship, in discipleship, in service, in caring for one another? What would it look like for kids to come along on visits to people who had had a recent death in the family, and you bring a meal over and have the kids come with in bringing the meal over? . . . I think there are some opportunities here that some of that intentional, intense family time that we've had over the last few years, there's ways that I hope we can bring that back into the way we do ministry, the way we shape things intergenerationally in the church that parents begin to see there is a valuable role that we have as parents in discipling the next generation and bringing them into a sense of belonging in the life of the church. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:32:41] Thank you for pointing that out, because I think, like you mentioned, there's sometimes that tendency to be a bit hands-off and say, well, the church and the leaders there, they're the ones who are going to guide my child into the spiritual development, because maybe as an adult myself, I am not very clear about things, and yet . . . that paradigm shift. Because Deuteronomy 6:6–7 says it is our responsibility and our privilege to walk alongside of them in daily life and when we're going on the road, when we're doing our daily things, where we are looking at the walls of our home, everything should be pointing to us giving them the message over and over again. And then the church and the leaders come alongside and support us in that responsibility of guiding. So that's one of our prayers: that, as you mentioned, with the pandemic and the shifting of some of the practices and the getting together and the different roles, that parents will continue to see this as their responsibility and privilege of guiding their children so that even when they're old, they're going to continue to do this. I always think of Proverbs 22:6: guide them in the right way, and even when they're older they’ll know which way to go. Then maybe our churches shift also that perspective into instead of me being the sole interaction, the responsibility for guiding young people and children in their faith, how is it that I then change my paradigm to make sure that I equip the family and the parents and the grandparents, instead of saying, well, since we're back, some of us, let's just go back to what we were doing before and the whole responsibility is ours, and you just go sit over there. 

Chris Schoon [00:34:49] I think that there's going to be a temptation from pastors who go, “For the last two years, I’ve felt like I've had no interactions. I want to do this, and I want to be involved in everything.” And we might as pastors be tempted to take stuff away from parents that they've been doing the last few years. And parents may have a sense of relief of “Phew! Other people can do this.” Give it away. So how do we find a middle ground where the church is doing stuff and helping the discipling and the worship and the service life of the community? But parents still have a place in that; it can really be collaborative. One of the tools that has been developed over the last few years is by Bob and Laura Keeley. They put together something called The Four Building Blocks of Faith. And we found that this works. It's just a simple way of stating what are some of the discipling needs that we have. And they said we all have a need to belong—to belong to Christ and to Christ’s body. We all have a need to know and understand our faith. So it's kind of the nuts-and-bolts content of the faith. Who is God, who are we, what's sin about those type of things. But we also all have a need for hope. And I love that they put that in there, that there is this sense of it's not just about head knowledge that I can explain to you that Jesus died for my sins, but that I have hope that God is actually at work in the world making things new. The last need that they highlight—so, four needs—the fourth need is to be equipped and sent. I have a need to be equipped and sent. So I actually have a place in this unfolding story of God's grace. And I love that they kind of frame those as building blocks. They didn't say they come in a particular order, but all four of these work together to help grow our faith. And it's accessible to kids, it's accessible to youth, to young adults, to older adults, just these four basic needs. And there's something of that that I'm finding helpful, even thinking about worship. The first thing we often do in worship is what? We welcome people. You're welcome in this space. This is God inviting you in. Well, that's the need to belong. We do things like . . . read the Ten Commandments, or we read the Beatitudes, and we give some expression to what the content of our faith is, that Jesus died for us and rose from the dead. That's that need to understand. Sermons, when done well, point us to the hope of the gospel that the brokenness in the world isn't the end of the story, but that God's calling us forward. And oftentimes even the offering can be framed as this offering is an example of how we have been equipped with resources, and we are equipped ourselves and gifted by God to participate in God's mission in the world. So even in worship, those four needs all tend to surface. And I just think there's something beautiful about that, that it becomes so accessible for us now. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:38:34] Thank you for pointing out that resource! Is this a book, or . . . 

Chris Schoon [00:38:38] We've got it on our website. But they wrote a little book called Dear Parent that they outline it all in, and in that little book Dear Parent, they just walk through how to talk to your kids about each of these and how to build some of these in your home. But as we talk about it as a team, we're like, oh, there's an application here and an application there. It just fits in a lot of different arenas. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:39:05] I think this is a great resource to create that roadmap of the joining of the two: What should parents be focusing on? How can they structure in a sense their way of interacting with their kids and leading their faith? And then how can the church then also support and mimic that so that the two are going down this similar structure in organization and knowing this is how we support one another. Can you tell us the website, please? That way those who are interested can visit it. 

Chris Schoon [00:39:42] And if you go on that and then look for “building blocks” or “Building Blocks of Faith,” it'll bring you to the resource page. I'll send you the link so you can put it in show notes if you want. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:40:03] Yes. Thank you so much. Thank you, Chris, for this engaging conversation. We have learned so much from you today. 

Chris Schoon [00:40:13] Elizabeth, thank you. Thank you for inviting me to be part of the conversation. I've loved watching some of the videos in the series already and connecting, so I'm very appreciative of the project overall and what you're trying to do through it. 

Elizabeth Tamez Méndez [00:40:33] We appreciate you being so transparent and letting us be inside your experience as a pastor and in these congregations. Thank you for sharing with us. And we also want to thank our viewers for joining us in this session of Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth. Thank you for investing this time with us. And we pray these conversations will inspire and encourage your efforts in reaching the next generation. Please join us for the next video in the series, and leave us a comment. We really want to be interacting with you, and we want to hear from you because we know we can also learn from you.