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Planning Worship With Teens

Sharon Veltema on how to plan worship with a Youth Ministry Team.

Since worship plays such a formative role in the faith development of young people, planning worship with them is very important. There are two main reasons that underscore the importance of careful worship planning with youth. First, good worship needs to be planned carefully. Second, the participation of teens in worship planning will enhance their own formation in the process and will enable them to grow in faith and in their commitment to God and to the church.

However, working with teens to plan and execute quality worship takes time, resources and energy. If youth worship is planned quickly with little consideration for content and the worshipers, the result will probably be frustrating to those leading worship and those engaging in worship. Worship planning must be thoughtful, well-planned and surrounded by prayer.

Well planned, meaningful worship is important to young people. In a 2005 survey at Unity Christian High School in Hudsonville, Michigan, high school juniors and seniors were asked about their daily faith practices. Many students said that the time they spent in chapel at school was the only time in their busy daily schedule where they were able to focus solely on God. Most students expressed a desire to be engaged in worship. Students appreciated spending time in prayer during worship, and they wanted to be encouraged to meditate on God’s word. Many students said that they would be willing to participate in worship if they were simply asked. Overall, students wanted the opportunity to be actively involved in worship—both leading and participating in worship.

Many methods can be used to effectively involve teens in worship.

1. Scripting

One method to ensure quality worship requires scripting the worship service. While not everyone agrees with this method, scripting what young people will say ensures that teens will be successful in leading worship. A complete script of a worship service can be given to those leading worship as well as those playing instruments or running the sound equipment. (The young people who run the sound board are equally important to a worship service as those who are in front leading worship.)

2. Leadership

Scripting worship works best by engaging a small group of teens—this can be a Spiritual Leadership Team or simply a group of 2 or 3 teens working on a worship service. One person can be encouraged to write an opening prayer while another group member writes a greeting or a call to worship to begin the service. Some young people may struggle with this. The Worship Sourcebook is an excellent resource for worship planners, including young people (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 2004). This resource is divided into sections that can easily be used for the different aspects of worship. Teens can use a prayer or a call to worship as it is written, or they can use the contents as a guide to writing something in their own words. The Worship Sourcebook is an excellent reference for writing a prayer of confession, an assurance of pardon, or a statement of faith. Many churches have members offer the congregational prayer in the service. Churches should consider asking a young person to write a prayer, practice the prayer, and deliver the prayer in a worship service. Some may argue that writing out prayers does not lend itself to the work of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is present when a young person is writing out a prayer and practicing the delivery of that prayer for church or a youth service.

3. A Safe Environment

Young people need to view worship as a safe place. While some argue for engaging in practices that encourage a “shock value” in worship to get a teen’s attention, most students want to know what to expect when they gather together to worship, or when they are leading worship. Young people want to be led in worship in a way that allows them to enter into God’s presence without worrying what their peers around them are doing. For example, a lead worshiper may announce a song with the following instructions: “If you feel led to stand sometime during this song, feel free to do so.”  This leaves the worshiper wondering: When during this song should I stand? What are my friends doing? If I am the only one standing, will my friends think I’m odd? Peer pressure is very evident in youth worship. But a worship leader who is specific in what is expected can ease the feelings of peer pressure.

Peer pressure isn’t necessarily negative in worship, which is why youth-led worship can be so effective. Quality worship led by one’s peers is well accepted by teens. Young people who see their peers leading in singing, playing instruments, reading scripture, sharing the spoken word, and giving personal testimonies are more likely to be engaged in worship. Young people are also more likely to get involved in leadership roles in worship when they have observed their peers leading worship.

Many leaders are able to involve the students who are musically gifted. The praise band is a great way for young people to be involved in worship. But what about the teens who are not able to play an instrument or sing? Where do these young people fit into the planning and leading of worship? A teen who is not part of the praise band can lead the opening prayer, a prayer of confession, or read scripture. A young person can also be instrumental in bringing the spoken word to the worship service. In a church setting, the spoken word is given by the minister. In many Christian schools and youth groups, a speaker, often from outside the school or youth group setting, will present the spoken word. However, there are many ways to involve youth in all aspects of worship including bringing the spoken word.

4. Readings

Dramatic and devotional readings are great ways for teens to present the spoken word. It is helpful to keep the portions read by teens relatively short, with several teens sharing a reading together. This keeps the focus off one person, and it helps get more teens involved—teens who may not be polished readers, but who want to participate in worship. When young people are asked to read scripture in worship, consider asking the reader to memorize the passage. A portion of scripture that is memorized and spoken during worship is an extremely effective way for a young person’s peers to hear the Word.

5. Art and Visuals

Leaders can include young people with artistic talent in a worship service. First, encourage several young people who enjoy art to read the same portion of scripture. For example, an art class in a Christian high school was instructed to read Luke 22 and 23 which outlines the last hours of Jesus’ life on earth. These young people read the portion of scripture several times over the course of a week and meditated on the passage. They were encouraged to pay attention to the portion of scripture that was most meaningful to them as they read, and then make a visual depiction of that section of scripture. Most of the students picked different portions of scripture, and they all drew or painted different expressions of the passages. The students then thought and wrote about the impact of the verses they picked, which in turn led to their drawing, painting, or other form of artwork. During Holy Week, these students presented their artwork and shared explanations of their work. One young woman’s artwork showed three crosses on a hill. The hill, she explained, was created by using her own fingerprints, because Christ died for her sins. Other students shared their work as well. After the students shared their thoughts about their artwork, a string quartet played the song, “What Wondrous Love Is This” while the pictures again were shown on a screen in front of the worship space. There are many passages in scripture that lend themselves to meditation and artwork. This is a very powerful method for sharing the Word of God.

6. Testimony

Encouraging a young person to share a personal testimony is a wonderful way to present the stories of God’s goodness and faithfulness. A young person should begin by completely writing out their personal testimony. Often, putting the ideas and thoughts of a testimony down on paper can be the most difficult part. A youth leader can first spend time encouraging a young person to talk through the testimony. If it is still difficult for a young person to write out a personal testimony, consider having someone type their story while they tell it. Or perhaps tape the conversation and then type up the testimony based on the conversation. However it is done, it should to be written down. When reading it through, see if anything needs to be clarified for the sake of those listening. Also, when discussing a personal testimony with a young person, ask questions to help them think about what they are sharing. Questions can include the following:

Did you see God working in your life during this experience?
Did God put people in your life to help you in this experience?
How has your relationship with the Lord changed over the course of your testimony?
What do you think God is showing you throughout your experiences?

It’s important to help a young person process a personal testimony—whether it is a story of becoming a believer, or whether it is about coming through a difficult experience. Not all testimonies have to be stories of tragedy, illness, or loss. However, many difficult experiences become times of personal growth that a young person may want to share.

Youth and chapel leaders should be careful with sensitive situations. For example, a young person may want to share about overcoming anxiety or depression solely through prayer. While God certainly does heed the prayers of His people and heal anxiety and depression, it’s important to think of those listening to this testimony who may be struggling with depression or other issues that could require professional help. Always consider the audience when allowing a young person to share a personal testimony. Be sure to clarify a young person’s motives for sharing in worship. Is the purpose of sharing to get attention from friends, or is the purpose to glorify God?

Sometimes it helps to be creative with a young person’s testimony. For example, consider the personal testimony of a young woman who wanted to share her story with her high school. This young woman had survived two diagnoses of cancer—one in her freshman year, and another in her junior year of high school, and she had been told that it was very possible that the cancer could return again. Although she had a strong desire to share her testimony, it was very difficult for her to write it down and even more difficult for her to speak to the entire school. She first talked through her story with her chapel leader, and the story was recorded and typed for her. Her testimony went through several written revisions, and an idea was presented to her to have portions of the Psalms read as part of her testimony. Her good friend would read the verses during breaks in the young woman’s testimony. The following is an example of how this testimony was presented. (The passages read are excerpts from the Psalms listed and found in the NIV Bible).

Young woman:  I was just starting to get excited about attending high school towards the end of my summer vacation when I began experiencing some health problems. Because of these problems, my doctor decided to do a biopsy to see what was going on. The biopsy revealed that I had cancer.

Friend: From Psalm 140: O Lord, I say to you, “You are my God.” Hear O Lord my cry for mercy. O Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer. My eyes are fixed on you, O Sovereign Lord, in you I take refuge.”

Young woman:  I was in shock. It really didn’t sink in with me, that is, until the chemotherapy started. What happened in the months to follow was the hardest part of my life. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong.

Friend: Psalm 57: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

This young woman went on to describe her struggles with cancer, her doubts about God, and the reassurance of God’s love and faithfulness in her life. Throughout the entire testimony, verses from the Psalms were interjected. By presenting the testimony in this way, those listening heard a testimony filled with the power of the Psalms. Practically speaking, having the young woman’s friend reading scripture throughout the testimony allowed this young woman to catch her breath and calm her nerves. The testimony ended with the following:

Young woman: Through all of this, my faith was tested. And there are times when I felt I didn’t have much faith left at all. That’s when I needed others to pray for me and get me through the really tough times. I am so thankful for people in my life who were willing to pray for me, especially when I struggled with my relationship with God. But God helped me get past the anger and frustration. I know that he has a plan for me. This may sound strange, but I wouldn’t change anything about my life. I wouldn’t change what I went through over the past four years. My faith is so much stronger now.

Friend:  Psalm 121:  I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you—the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life. The Lord will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore.

7. Creativity

There are many ways to be creative when sharing the spoken word. For example, in a brainstorming session with a spiritual leadership team of young people, the leader took a box of Lego pieces and spread them out on a table. The team was brainstorming ideas about relationships—with others and with God. The group was asked to use the Lego blocks to create a visual depiction of the relationships in their lives. It was amazing to see the different Lego creations that were constructed. The young people were asked to describe what they had created and the thought process behind their Lego creations. One young woman made a cell phone out of the Lego pieces. She said that the people she cared about the most in her life were the people she took time to call. She compared that to her relationship with God, and talked about the importance of prayer. Another young man made a structure with a red base, and Lego block “limbs” coming out of the base. He said that in order to have solid relationships with others he needs God as the base of all his relationships. After the group shared their creations and thoughts, they decided to take pictures of their Lego creations and share in worship what they had written. A sermon was preached by young people with Legos.

During another brainstorming session, a spiritual leadership group wanted to do a series of worship services on witnessing. A discussion was led about witnessing by posing several questions to the group:

What do you consider to be witnessing?
Have you ever had the opportunity to witness to someone else?
What keeps us from sharing the gospel with others?
Why does it seem so hard to witness to someone in your own family?

With the group’s consent, the discussion was videotaped. The questions and comments made by the group were thought-provoking and honest. This video tape was then used as the introduction to a high school chapel on worship. After showing the video, students shared verses and meditations on witnessing.

Some leaders find that it can be difficult to put together meaningful worship during the week of Thanksgiving. When asked what to do in worship for Thanksgiving, the answer is often the same: “We could talk about the things for which we are thankful.”  One leader decided to take a different approach with a Spiritual Leadership Team. She asked the students to mention something for which they were thankful. It could be anything at all. The teens began with the usual things: family, friends, church, and school. The leader encouraged the group to keep thinking of things, and the list grew. The young people were thankful for a warm house in the winter, or for a car to get to work and school. One student was thankful for his dog, while another was thankful for shampoo! The list went on and on. Then, after writing down all that the teens had said, the leader led the group in a prayer of confession. The prayer included a quiet time for personal confession. After the conclusion of the prayer, the leader read some verses that gave an assurance of pardon. The leader then asked everyone to once again list some things for which they were thankful. After spending extended time in confession, the responses had changed. The list included the following: 

I am thankful that God accepts me as I am.
I am thankful that God loves me, even when I’m not very lovable.
I am thankful that God is in control.
I am thankful for weaknesses and that our weaknesses are not all the same so that we can help each other.
I am thankful that God forgives AND forgets.

After sharing, the group sat in silence, aware of the change that had taken place. The leader pointed out that it was good to be thankful for material possessions as well as things such as family and friends. But when time is taken to confess our sins and think about God’s forgiveness and grace, our thankfulness goes so much deeper. After contemplating what had taken place in the group, the students decided to re-enact this in a worship service, explaining that they had done this in their small group. They led their fellow worshipers in a time of confession, and encouraged them to think of the things for which they were thankful after they shared their own lists.

There are many ways to creatively allow young people to be involved in worship, including bringing the spoken word to worship. Teens need to know that their contributions in worshiping our God and Creator are valued. Many young people will not ask to be involved—especially if there haven’t been many young people involved in worship in their youth group, church, or Christian school. Young people may need to be asked in order to be involved. It’s important that these young people are successful when they are involved by putting together quality worship that is well-planned and scripted. Youth leaders and those who involve youth in worship need to be patient and encouraging, walking alongside young people as they help them learn more and more about worship. Leaders need to ask thought-provoking questions as they spend time brainstorming and planning for worship. Finally, youth and chapel leaders need to remember the importance of prayer. It is God, not the leader, who works in the hearts of young people.  When youth leaders and young people pray together, lead and plan worship together, and work diligently together, God will work in amazing ways.

In Summary

  1. The participation of young people in worship planning enables them to grow in faith and in their commitment to God and to the church.
  2. Working with young people to plan and execute quality worship takes time, resources and energy.
  3. Worship for teens needs to be a safe environment that draws them into the presence of God.
  4. Teens can be effective in bringing the spoken word to worship.
  5. Teens should be encouraged and mentored in the process of sharing a personal testimony.

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