Youth Agency and Creative Worship Ministry at a Christian High School
A campus pastor shares how Vancouver Christian High School youth are showing initiative and taking on emerging leadership roles.
In Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth series, pastoral leaders from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their ministry work with and for youth through the lens of several key values: youth agency, theological practices, role of parents, intergenerational relationships, and multiple pathways.
October 27, 2021
It’s 11:05 a.m. this Wednesday, and in each of the high school classrooms, a few students are packing up to leave class earlier than their classmates. They head to the Lower Gym, fifty-five steps below the ground-level gymnasium, and begin setting up for our weekly chapel. Space in our school is tight due to increased enrollment, so while the chairs are being set up in the gym, the senior band continues to rehearse Christmas music off in the corner, and the senior boys volleyball team is doing a few drills. Students push carts stacked with foldable chairs under the net, ducking their heads and dodging volleyballs as they go. The worship team rolls the grand piano out of the archive room, and the AV team wheels the sound board to the back of the gym. One girl stretches as tall as she can to set up the liturgical worship banners that will frame the front of the massive room, transforming it as simply and quickly as we can into a worship space. It’s chaotic and loud, and the pressure is on. We have just 25 minutes to get the volleyball nets put away, the band instruments returned to their cases, and all the sound equipment plugged in for our seven-person band.
A few years ago, two student worship leaders approached me and said, “Mrs. Vanderveen, we know you’re the campus pastor and you’ve been doing a lot of planning. We were thinking about how we could support you, and we’d like to form a Worship Council to help with that.” I had been praying about just such a thing for a while but hadn’t uttered a word about it to anyone. For two years, we experimented with having two chapels per week, and I had been very busy with all the planning in addition to teaching. Simply put, I was tired. So when these two students shared their vision for ways students could take on more responsibility, I started to cry. I almost never cry in front of students, so the two students—grade 11 boys—were startled to see my tears, but I was relieved and delighted by their heartfelt vision. It was a timely and grace-filled gift. And I think my tears were a gift to them, too—my own unrestrained, heartfelt acceptance of help offered to me.
We’re now in our fourth year of having a student-led Worship Council that oversees four different worship teams, prays regularly for the student body, creates posters to hang in the hallways each week so students can see upcoming chapel themes, posts regular messages on the school’s Instagram, invites students to submit questions online, and provides devotions to equip and inspire other students. The team leader and vice team leader of the worship council create the weekly agenda for our meetings, send out a weekly memo, and intentionally check in with worship leaders to see how they’re coping with their extra responsibilities in addition to their schoolwork.
A sense of belonging
A few of our high school student leaders reflected on what they think about how their creative ministry energy is being nurtured in our school. According to Lucy, the vice team leader who’s in grade 11 this year, “Youths feel supported by other youths and by the adults whom they work with” and are confident to “try out new, creative ways to worship with a group of people.”
“A year of online chapels has given us the opportunity to recognize many ways to worship and work together,” Lucy adds, noting that “cross-council-led chapels let other students get to know the students who have taken on leadership roles.” In other words, the Worship Council partners with the Student Council to lead a chapel that explores the ways that Student Council activities are a holistic part of a Christian education where a sense of belonging is fostered in the context of a loving and supportive worshiping environment. The Worship Council also partners with the Grad Council to share in a worshipful way the attributes and Christian characteristics of graduates from our Christian high school.
“Students involved with worship are definitely taking [on] more responsibilities as chapels are now more student-led," Lucy also noticed. "Teacher advisors still give support when needed, but student teams are giving more ideas on how we [can] form a better environment and habits for the student body to worship. One of the many improvements made from the start of the school year (September) to now (November) is that more students are singing and expressing their feelings during our weekly chapels.”
Another thing our student leaders do is check in with students who aren’t on worship teams to get a sense of how they perceive school chapels. “Some students have asked me some questions about their faith and what we believe in as a community at our school," Lucy said, "and I have been able to have a discussion with them and/or direct them to someone who is more knowledgeable than me about the specific topic.”
Sam, another of our grade 11 student leaders who has a passion for leading Bible studies, added, “There's definitely a lot of progress and evolution that chapel has gone through in the past years. We started with having chapel once every other week in our old campus and moved into having passionate worshiping sessions every week now in Vancouver Christian School (VCS). I am so thankful to be working with such a devoted team, and I am definitely looking forward to the future of what chapel means for VCS!”
Sam also observed that “although Mrs. Vanderveen is not fully in control of what we do for chapel, she is always here to look out for blind spots and always offers suggestions and techniques from her own experiences of leading positive worship environments.”
Finally, Lucy noted that students are now “taking more responsibilities when it comes to practicing, setting up equipment, and cleaning up after chapels, whereas before it was more teacher-led. That not only supports the energy of initiative of the youth, but also the energy of the whole high school, including the teachers and staff.”
Last year, in response to a growing number of students in grade 10 who were asking hard questions, Sam suggested offering an online question box. This led to a series of chapels in response to the submitted questions, sparking a lot of interest and some challenging conversations around the school. From Sam’s perspective, “since we live in a generation that is broadly secular, objections to Christianity are raised within our culture and are more present with our youth. I see this as an amazing opportunity to strengthen our community's faith and [our] understanding of Christ and the scriptures.”
At only 16, Sam demonstrates remarkable maturity and a commitment to helping his peers grow in their faith. Recently he asked if he could write a series of devotions on Romans to help his friends and classmates learn more about this book of the Bible. Our school verse for the year is “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, [and] faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12 NIV). Hoping to help students understand the context of this verse, Sam sent me this note: “I will be leading a forty-day devotional for our school community centered around the epistle of Romans. I see this as a unique opportunity to help students understand the scriptures well.”
Pray fervently for the students
Coming into my role as campus pastor several years ago, I never expected to see students become so motivated and passionate about leading worship and finding creative ways to engage their peers. The only explanation is that we have prayed many, many prayers for our students. That is possibly my only real takeaway from the growing spiritual maturity of our students: continue to pray fervently for the students and for the community. Humbly admit that you can’t do it all. In fact, refuse to even learn to do it all. I still don’t know how to turn on the projector in the gym. The students are gleefully willing to show me each week that they are a necessary part of the chapel program, and I am happy to let them be the experts. I also hardly ever join the worship band because I’d much rather see a student at the mic or the piano. But I pray often, giving thanks for all the amazing gifts God has given them that lead to a flourishing school community.
We’re willing to let students make mistakes. Not everything has to be perfect. And we have fun together. We spend lots of time getting to know each other, and our student leaders often ask fun questions at the end of their memos to test whether other student leaders have read to the end of the message–“If you’ve read to the end of this message," they might write, "tell us what your biggest pet peeve is.” And before you know it, there’s a whole thread of hilarious and unusual pet peeves. Most of all, students look forward to worshiping together. Students and teachers are willing to share their stories about what God has done in their lives, and we’ve heard some absolutely life-changing testimonies about how God has transformed hearts and minds with his unfailing love.
We’ve received two worship grants from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship that have allowed us to have deeply formative leadership training in the form of retreats and workshops (and lots of very popular sushi and pizza lunches!). Over the years we’ve taken groups of students to the Worship Symposium.
God is so faithful to us as a community, and this is one of the ways we experience it: at 11:35 a.m., just moments after the chaos of band instruments and volleyball drills and chair setup, the gym fills with nearly three hundred students and teachers and support staff, and a holy quiet settles over us. We gather as one beloved people, and we lift one heart and voice to the praise of our eternal King. As another of our students said recently, we are doing what is described in Psalm 95: “Come, . . . let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods” (Ps. 95:1–3, NIV). When I hear students make that kind of connection, my heart sings. God really is faithful from one generation to the next.