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Eric Mathis on Expanding Teens’ Vision of Worship

Defining “worship” is an essential step for churches that want to start including youth in planning and leading worship. Teenagers long for worship that connects to life issues such as justice, imagination, and the arts.

Eric Mathis teaches music and worship and directs anima | the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He also directs Animate, a five-day summer program in worship leadership for teenagers and their adult mentors. In this edited conversation, he talks about why and how to expand teenagers’ vision of worship.

Who comes to Animate, and how do you discern their definitions of worship?

We average 75 to 100 participants per summer. They’ve ranged in age from 12 to 72, with a 58:42 female to male ratio and 70:30 student to adult ratio. These students represent a wide variety of races and ethnicities and come from Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions in the Southeast and Midwest.

All incoming Animate participants complete a 15- to 20-minute questionnaire when they arrive at Animate and again when they depart. Some participants return the next year, which lets us track their changing perceptions further. Chuck Stokes, my Samford colleague in sociology and congregational studies, developed the questionnaire, and it’s part of our reporting process with Lilly Endowment. We’re early in the process of interpreting how teenagers define worship and how Animate expands their vision of worship. 

What have you noticed so far?

The two most common worship definitions we receive from teenagers are:

  • Worship is music.
  • Worship can’t be limited to one time and place. I can worship anywhere.

Neither definition is necessarily incorrect, but both are myopic. Neither represents the full picture of the (upper-case C) Church that has worshiped and is worshiping across time and place. Our job is to help expand the teenagers’ definition, understanding, and experience of the worship spectrum.

How do you do that?

The first group usually describes worship as the time when the congregation is singing, or is of one heart and mind, and, in many cases, so intentionally focused on singing together that they are unaware of anything else around them. This group, I think, has had experiences of feeling deeply connected to or being a part of their church community because of a particular liturgical action. These teenagers possess unusual qualities of empathy that help them connect deeply with their worshiping community. Our job at Animate is to emphasize those times of corporate worship that are not singing—preaching, praying, fellowshiping, and going out into the world—and showing teenagers that those moments are just as much worship as singing is.

The second group can describe what worship looks like in their congregation, but they more readily define worship in the church as one definition of worship among many options. If you press them by asking, “Where do you worship outside of church?", they might say, “I often worship God when I’m singing in my choir at school,” or “I feel most connected to God when I’m running on the trail behind my house.” 

This group possesses a very deep understanding of sacramentality, though teenagers would never use that language. Our job at Animate is to emphasize the theological, historical, and biblical importance of community in Christian worship. We need to take these teens' general understanding that God can be present anywhere and make it specific: “You understand that God can be present anywhere because you have experienced God in the context of Christian community.”

What shows you that teens’ Animate experiences are expanding their vision of worship?

We know God uses our efforts at Animate when youth ministers, worship leaders, pastors, and parents send us accounts of something that happened in their congregation because of Animate—sometimes months after Animate ended.

Last summer Paul Ryan was an Animate worship leader. Paul is a worship chaplain and mentors student worship apprentices at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A group of six teens and two adults from Atlanta came with an understanding that worship equals music. Paul and other Animate leaders worked to expand this definition by inviting Animate worshipers to hold out their hands to receive the benediction each time worship ended. He explained that doing so indicated that the power of the Holy Spirit would be upon them as they left worship and entered the world.

Animate ended on Friday, and the next Sunday afternoon, I received this email from that group’s minister of worship: “This morning, we dismissed worship with a benediction, as we do each week in worship. As our senior minister gave the benediction, I looked up, and there were our eight Animate participants, sprinkled across three rows on the left side, with their hands held out. I asked them after worship why they did that, and they told me it was a sign of their openness to the Holy Spirit, who was sending them into the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus.” 

Your website talks about violence and division in our world. It says we need imaginative worship that witnesses to God’s kingdom of mercy, justice, and peace. Do most churches agree?

Worship that witnesses to God’s kingdom—one of mercy, justice, and peace—is deeply important to me as a Christian and as one who leads Animate and anima | the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford. I thought these issues were important to everyone. But I've learned the hard way that presenting these concepts can be controversial in some congregations. Put this on the list of “things they don’t teach you in graduate school.”

What interests me is that issues of mercy, justice, and peace are deeply important to the teenagers I meet and work with at Animate and beyond. They want their churches to address these issues because they encounter violence and division every single day at school. They want to see justice, to see wrongs made right. Moreover, teenagers' faith needs the language to understand and address justice with humility and conviction. If the church doesn’t provide those answers, teenagers will look for them elsewhere.

So how do you deal with that disconnect?

Participants come in knowing that Animate provides training in worship, theology, and the arts, and where those intersect. We work to make the arts, imagination, and justice accessible for teenagers as well as adults. We’ve begun using the triangle of youth ministry that Andrew Root talks about in The Theological Turn of Youth Ministry: prepare, experience, reflect.

Can you give an example?

Language and intentional wording are very important for communicating these concepts. Rather than talk about justice, we prepare participants for an experience of justice, which we define as righting a wrong. Then, we attempt to right a wrong. This year, for instance, we wrote letters to congressional leaders as part of our learning about Bread for the World, in connection with baking communion bread for worship. Then we reflect on the experience. After reflecting, we transfer the preparation, experience, and reflection into worship. We do it through the age-old practices of confession, lament, and remembering the wonderful promise that God will hear us, forgive us, and be with us. God promises this because God is still about the business of saving this broken world in which we live. The same is true in how we engage art. We prepare, experience, and reflect. This model is much better than a didactic approach about why we need art or justice.

Last summer Animate had a sub-theme of restorative and reparative justice. We went to the Civil Rights Museum, we worked with Bread for the World, and we heard from those working in the inner city. Yet I never said, “Worship should promote justice.” I did, however, say many times, “Worship inside the walls of the church should prompt us to live differently outside the walls of the church.” Animate was about justice this past summer, but we connected it using language that our broad audience could agree with.