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First Steps for Including Teens in Planning and Leading Worship

Integrating youth leadership throughout the church is a new paradigm. But churches are reaping the benefits of mentoring youth to plan and lead worship.

Mentorship is a big part of summer worship camps for youth, like Animate in Alabama and Awakening Institute in Michigan. Camp directors explain how churches and Christian schools can mentor youth to plan and lead worship for all ages. 

Time and intention

Churches are finding that it’s worth the time and energy to form friendships with youth, nurture their spiritual relationships, and give them leadership opportunities.

“Adults who want to mentor teenagers have to spend time developing relationships,” says Eric Mathis, who teaches music and worship and directs anima | the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. “We’ve heard this over and over from teenagers. Any kind of relationship has to be intentional, but the relationship—a friendship, really—has to come first. This happens by spending time with teenagers, getting to know them, asking good questions and listening to and engaging their answers.”

Mathis has talked with hundreds of teens about intergenerational relationships in church as the director of Animate, a five-day summer program in worship leadership for teenagers and their adult mentors. Sponsored by the Center on the Samford campus, Animate hones students’ worship skills, sharpens adults’ mentoring skills, and helps everyone explore the intersection of worship, theology, and the arts.

Long-term church survival depends on developing these intergenerational friendships, according to Jim DeBoer, director of Awakening, a summer youth program in worship, theology, and the arts at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

“Integrating youth throughout church leadership may be a new paradigm, but it could radically alter the trend of losing youth after they graduate from high school. How many high school students do you know by name in your church? If most of us only know a few, we must radically change how we do the ‘business of church,” he says. DeBoer has 30 years’ experience in both leading worship in churches and teaching music to students from pre-K through college.

Emily Andrews, a Samford music and worship teacher and Animate’s assistant director, knows that adults often need help and encouragement to reach out to youth. “We have found that many adult mentors long for training on how to empower teenagers to contribute to worship as gifted members of the present church” she says. “At Animate, adults gather daily for conversations with church leaders and practitioners who are thinking deeply about intergenerational ministry and worship.”

Mathis says he’s learned a lot about mentoring youth from John Woods, the music and worship pastor at Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where Mathis serves as music and worship associate for organ.

“At Dawson, we’ve spent a lot of time investing in adults and equipping them to invest in teenagers,” Mathis says. “We’ve taught Sunday night classes for parents of teenagers based on the Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky Faith curriculum.”

Nurturing faith in parents and youth

Another aspect of intergenerational friendship is helping youth deepen spiritually. “One of the most profound ways to include teens in worship,” DeBoer says, “is to begin by having each individual develop a deep relationship with God. At Awakening, we spend a great deal of time and attention to our individual spiritual walk with God. This includes being quiet before God without technology to distract and listening to God’s voice through various Scriptures, readings, and prayer.

“When the relationship between the person and God is present,” DeBoer explains, “worship can take place on a much deeper level. It happens as each person submits his or her ego and gifts to God, focusing instead on laying down their lives before God and others.”

Risks and opportunities 

DeBoer thinks it’s critical for local churches to have students on their committees, including the worship committee. “Students need to be treated as members of the body—to engage in the congregation’s life and story and wrestle with its problems,” DeBoer says. “It’s all fine and good to have the traditional youth group lead a service ‘for adults’ once a year. But what message does it give the congregation and especially the youth? Do we want them to feel as if they’re not prime-time leaders? Or do we want them to feel loved and embraced as a part of every ministry and the church’s future?”

While some churches worry that embracing a new paradigm of intergenerational leadership will lead to sub-par worship, Eric Mathis says it’s key to give teens tasks that seem almost too big.

Many teens have gifts and skills to share

Many teens have gifts and skills to share

“Give teens a worship task they can do but that feels almost too big for them to do on the first ask. This creates the space and energy for a mentoring relationship that equips teenagers to lead as well as succeed. In my congregation, we worked with two teenagers involved in high school band and choral programs to lead music during a worship service. They thought it was beyond their capacity, but we worked with them weekly for an hour over the course of four weeks. They led music in worship—and they did it well,” Mathis says.

He’s noticed it’s often easier and more common for small- and medium-sized congregations to include teenagers in worship. Bruce Benedict, Awakening’s worship leader and Hope College’s chaplain of worship arts, attends Maple Avenue Ministries in Holland, Michigan. Maple Avenue averages about 130 people in Sunday morning worship. “The youth are a rich part of the worship life here. They play on the worship team, sing in the choir, help lead prayers, and more. There is seldom a Sunday in which I don’t see youth up front leading,” Benedict says.

Mathis suspects this is because smaller congregations need everyone’s help. Larger congregations such as Dawson Baptist often expect a level of professionalism that makes it difficult to give teenagers larger roles.

“In our worship planning we have a checklist, and part of that checklist is to make sure one or more teenagers are involved in worship each month, at a minimum,” Mathis says. “The key is to prepare teenagers well for whatever they do. Teenagers are pressed hard to do well in school, sports, arts, and more—and they always rise to the occasion. The church has to believe that worship is important enough to do well and that teenagers are important enough to rise to the challenge of leadership. When those two convictions find synergy, the sky is the limit with teenagers.”



Improve worship mentorship skills by registering for Animate, Awakening, or Calvin Symposium on Worship. Read a feature story about Animate and Awakening. View symposium presentations by Eric Mathis.

Explore Sticky Faith resources or join a Sticky Faith cohort. Especially if youth and others in your church don’t prefer to learn by reading, you owe it to yourself to listen to this 12-minute presentation on the beauty and value of the oral tradition in worship.

View short worship lessons, worship services, and other resources created by and for campus ministry teams at Calvin University, Hope College, and Samford University. You can use them to start mentoring teens in your worship context.


Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, board, liturgy, or worship meeting. These questions will help people start talking about how to include teens in worship and congregational life.

  • Who in your church or school is especially in tune with teens? Ask that person to help you start building friendships with youth.
  • List all the roles that your church or faith-based school offers for teens to plan or lead worship or to serve on committees. What would be the easiest opportunity to add?
  • Share a story of an adult church member who invested in you when you were young. Is there a connection between that adult and your church involvement today?