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Equipping Youth for Church Leadership: A Conversation with Chason Disheroon

In this edited conversation, Chason Disheroon of Baylor University discusses the joys and challenges of empowering youth to lead worship in their local congregations.

Chason, would you say a bit about your context at Baylor University and your work with youth in relation to worship?

Baylor’s project is mainly focused on our summer training program, Worship Lab, which happens each July. This event brings high school students to campus for a week. Those students are involved in music rehearsals, breakout classes, evening worship, concerts, artist Q&As—all centered around equipping and encouraging them to pursue vocational ministries.

The students come primarily from the eight or ten churches that we’ve partnered with over the last three years. We do an assessment with those churches early in the year to understand how their youth are engaged in the overall life of the church and, more specifically, how they’re participating or leading within the music and worship ministries of their churches. They come onto campus in the summer. And then starting last year, I followed up with most of the congregations in person to observe youth gatherings, youth worship rehearsals, or youth choir and to observe youth either leading in a corporate service or leading in a smaller youth gathering. 

The training piece in the summer is the foundation of what we offer, with the hopes of expanding the resources we can offer into the local church outside of that training event.

Let’s talk about the idea of youth agency in faith formation. What does your program do to empower youth in public worship? How are you supporting and equipping them? 

Worship Lab is focused solely on empowering and equipping young people with the skills and the encouragement and the proper mindset to lead effectively within their local contexts. Some of the students that come to camp have little understanding of music and worship ministries and all that entails. So our having a space for them to hear about ministry leadership and planning opens doors for greater conversation with their youth ministers when they return home.

A great example would be a student that comes to our event and has the desire to lead either their youth group or the broader body of their church, but they’ve not been given an outlet for that. We hear time and time again from students who step away from the summer event really motivated, encouraged, and affirmed into their calling to vocational ministry because of a conversation, a class, a small group meeting, or maybe an encounter with another like-minded student from another church. 

In addition to Worship Lab, a team from Baylor visited a number of our church partners. While we were there for those visits, we workshopped with their music and worship students. Our presence there in their communities highlights our investment in them and what they’re doing in their own churches. So it creates a stronger path for them to be encouraged to continue finding new ways to be involved in their church’s leadership.

One of the things we hear from almost all of the churches we communicate with is that there is a disconnect with the staff that are leading these students in their worship leadership and music rehearsals week in and week out. A prime example would be the youth minister who has no musical education or training but has been tasked with guiding a youth ensemble. Larger churches have the budgets and the opportunity to hire additional staff for those roles, but smaller churches have to rely on either a youth minister or, if they’re very lucky, a music or worship team member who is able to cross over into that world.

So as a result of having leaders who don’t speak the same language as the students, we created a sixty-page guide that we distributed to all of the youth participants who came through the summer program. That guide includes a how-to for worship planning and execution, plus chapters on selecting music, writing prayers, leading devotionals, general planning, and themes for worship. There’s also a music and worship glossary that we put together that covers some of the basic and more advanced language that leaders can use and might need to know to communicate effectively with musicians. 

It’s something we created primarily to help the students communicate with one another and understand more about the basics of worship. But the guide also works as a refresher document for youth ministers on “These are the reasons why we pick these songs in worship. These are the reasons why we think about these things when we plan worship.” It’s a refresher for the adult leader, and it’s a great 101 introduction course for students who want more involvement in the planning and leadership of their groups. We would like to eventually turn it into a video series as well.

As students are developing these leadership skills, they’re also developing more independent thought and asking deeper questions. What space does your program create for youth to ask and explore theological questions?

The training and the conversations that take place among the students and the faculty, the counselors and the visiting worship leaders at Worship Lab are invaluable because students are given a place where they can ask anything. I often hear from these leaders that they come away having learned just as much as the student participants have, just from the questions that are asked.

There is a lot of time for conversation and discussion in a way that’s very open and honest. We have small groups, and we start each day of camp with a devotional time where we share an idea that we want to think about and apply throughout our day. The classes that they later break into are intentionally smaller, so there’s ample time there for questions and conversation as well. 

There’s no judgment to the questions, whether you come as a new believer or an older, wiser believer—we’re all collectively still learning every day. The attitude from all of the students is very welcoming and understanding. That’s something I’m very thankful for when I step in and observe those conversations.

What does your work do to cultivate intergenerational practices and relationships?

One of the things we wanted in our summer setting was to collectively bring together the youth who would be on campus along with our concurrently running adult ministry event. We wanted to create times of worship that were multigenerational, that provided space for everyone. Because our events run over top of one another, we have around three hundred church musicians who are on campus at the same time as we have around one hundred youth. So we bring all of those together for worship at midday during the week. 

We found that it provides a great space for students to experience worship styles and traditions that are different from what they’re accustomed to. So it provides space to have greater conversations about their understanding of worship and to ask questions like “Why did we do this? Why did we sing this type of thing? Why did we say this type of prayer? Why did we read this type of reading?” That’s something small, but it has a big impact on the event overall. And the life that the youth bring into that for the adult ministers is important too.

With our partner churches and the greater church, we want to promote the idea of being led by a team each week that includes multiple generations—students, parents, and grandparents. It embodies a closer representation of the full kingdom of God. By offering multigenerational choirs or instrumental ensembles in churches, we connect our future and our past, and we have a greater opportunity for enlivening our worship community in a different way. 

But many churches are limited in offering those intergenerational ensembles simply because of the scheduling of programs between all of the siloed ministries that compete for the same space and time. I wish I had an answer for that. It’s something that every church on some level is struggling with—buying that space on the calendar where programs don’t overlap. Choir rehearsals typically run right over top of youth gatherings on a Wednesday evening. So those intergenerational gatherings are difficult to put in place. 

We intentionally included a chapter in our worship leadership guide on the approaches to starting and forming one of those intergenerational types of programs in your church. It’s a standalone chapter that we would like to put more energy into in coming years, but we thought it was important enough to include. Seeing the significance of intergenerational partnerships, relationships, fellowship, and worship, we thought that was something that we should include in that resource.

What are you doing to encourage multiple pathways for ministry with youth, and what examples are you seeing in your partner churches?

It’s an important conversation. Youth are all different in their abilities to participate and engage in the life of the church, so churches need to make a greater effort to reach youth where they are and assess how to use their leadership skills most appropriately. 

Our project focuses on music and worship experiences; our lens is smaller. In our church assessments, we’ve learned that the offerings available to young people are often limited. There are a number of viable options for small changes that could impact the experiences and increase the opportunities for the church. But those depend on the collaboration of those siloed ministries—being able to work together and create adjustments so that a student doesn’t have to choose between being a member of their youth group and participating in something else. 

Being able to break down those walls—I don’t know if that’s something that this project has been able to accomplish, but it’s something that we’re at least able to identify as a future desire for the local church: to have greater communication and collaboration.

A few access points for youth in the church would be music, ensembles, sound and tech teams, prayer writing, speaking within services—there are ways that their ministers could incorporate them that might not require the commitment of lengthy rehearsals. Those are logistical things that the church is going to continue to need to work out. There’s a wide range of things that they could invite young people into and say, “We want you to invest in this because we want you to feel that this is not just a service you’re passively participating in, but something that you are actively engaged in and a part of.”

Several of our church partners are actively working to get their youth onto the platform on Sunday mornings, whether that’s weekly or every couple of months. I believe the leaders do exist that can make those changes happen in the churches, but the politics and the visions often dictate how they implement those types of goals.

Is there anything else you would like to highlight or share about what you’re learning? 

A big takeaway from our conversations and interviews is that leaders are often saying, “We are so excited that your team has decided to focus on our youth ministries, but what about exploring opportunities for our children and our younger youth that don’t fit into your high school model?” So a big piece of our learning over the last couple of years has to do with starting younger and understanding how shaping children directly impacts their engagement as youth, especially in music. We’re learning more about music education for younger students and how that folds into them participating in music activities as youth and into adulthood. 

And then a separate topic, but a theme we see regularly, is the difficulty resulting from turnover of youth staffing. It’s very hard for programs to develop when the turnover puts the focus on survival. I would say staff turnover during the pandemic was probably at least twice as high as outside of the pandemic. Being able to grow offerings for their students has been very difficult.

What is the most encouraging thing about your work?

The word that we say at the end of every summer event is “hope.” We see a continued hope for the church, especially through the eyes of young people. Youth have a strong desire to learn and a very similar desire to come to the table as an equal member of the body of Christ, so they can grow and serve and lead their congregations in very active, enlivened ways. That’s our biggest takeaway: that there is hope.