by Jenn Parrish
Every time Youth Sunday rolls around my stomach ties itself up in knots. My hands start to shake and I swear I drink at least drink one pot of coffee throughout the morning to calm myself down and breathe. I’m always so worried that I won’t be able to find a student who is willing to preach, or that a student will back out at the last minute. I’m worried that they won’t take their roles in the service seriously. I’m worried that they won’t show up to practice or that they won’t show up Sunday morning. And in all reality . . . this truly is a monthly occurrence that causes me to stress out to no end.
Then Sunday morning rolls around and I find myself sitting in the pew with tears streaming down my face because I am so incredibly proud of my students. I am so moved by what they have to say to our congregation. My heart swells with joy, admiration, excitement, and praise as they step foot on the altar to lead our church in worship. And every youth Sunday at the end of the service, I find myself asking why I allowed the stress to get to me . . . because these youth always pull it together and blow me away by their love for their church and their willingness to go out of their comfort zones and move the congregation through word and through song.
Through these Youth Sundays my youth are learning that they have something to say, that their thoughts, their sermons, and their voices are worth listening too. That their worth is not simply found within the bounds of youth group, in the church basement, or in Sunday school, but rather that they too play an active role in this church and they are vital to the congregation. These are the opportunities that can change their lives and teach them that they are valued, that they are loved, and that their thoughts are worth being heard. This is why I continually plan youth Sundays through out the year, even though planning for them makes me lose sleep and drink inordinate amounts of coffee just to get through.
Planning the Service
Our church has rallied around Youth Sundays. If I’m being truly honest, Youth Sundays are the only days that the pews are full in church. In my church, every second Sunday of the month is Youth Sunday. Let me clarify that this is not an all out service led by youth but instead it is a day that is set aside to intentionally incorporate youth into the service.
On these typical Youth Sundays we first ask youth to participate in leading the church in worship either as an anthem, opening, or special music somewhere within the service. It has been such a blessing to watch my youth blossom as they step out of their comfort zones and raise their voices in praise in front of the congregation. Some play guitars, others play piano, some have voices that can move you to tears. You will be amazed who will be willing to lead in worship if you are willing to ask.
Secondly we ask a youth to lead as a liturgist. This is a great opportunity for your shy and outgoing students alike because we write everything down for them ahead of time. I have been blessed to watch some students who will barely speak two or three words at a time in any social setting lead the church as liturgist because they feel comfortable with the words written right there in front of them.
Third, we ask youth to lead the children’s message in the service. This can be numerous teens leading together or one by him or herself. It is so beautiful to watch my teens interact with and love the young children of the church. The children open up to them in a way that they don’t necessarily do with older adults.
From Their Perspective
For these second Sundays we typically plan a few months ahead of time. We ask teens where they would like to serve in the service and make an active attempt at circulating the responsibilities. We inevitably have certain students who love the limelight and volunteer every month but it is also important to ask the students who don’t necessarily speak up on their own. You would be surprised who is willing to volunteer if you simply go out of your way to ask them.
We also have two or three youth-led services a year. These are quite a bit trickier than the average second Sunday and can be as different or similar to the average Sunday at church as we wish. We may choose to host a typical service but implement youth in leadership, or we might choose to do something completely different. This is a blessing of youth ministry: we are allowed to shake up the service every now and then.
We typically begin preparation two months early. Right off the bat we ask teens where they would like to serve (preaching, liturgy, music, perhaps a skit team). From here we move on to ask them what it is that they wish to share with the congregation. I always ask, “From your perspective, what do you think the church could benefit from hearing from the youth?” From here we craft our theme of the service and decide what moving parts and pieces we want the service to have. Then each of these pieces must reflect the theme of the message the youth wish to present. The theme should be present in music, message, any extra presentations, and even the layout of the service. One month ahead of time, we work on all the moving parts and pieces of the service. It is so important to practice, practice, practice. Practice will make teens feel more comfortable and erase some of the nerves for the big day.
The biggest pitfall that youth leaders make when preparing for Youth Sunday is believing the myth that teens need to be spoon fed everything for the service to run smoothly. They write the prayers for them, write the majority of the sermons, tell them what songs to sing, and pick the theme. When leaders do this Youth Sunday becomes a time for youth to stand at the front of the church so that the youth leader can be praised for his or her own work. “Did you see all my kids up there? They did so good! You should congratulate me now because they would have never happened without me.” When we take this mentality we destroy the beauty of Youth Sunday. We destroy the opportunity for teens to feel valued. We obliterate the opportunity for teens to lead. We corrupt the hope for teens to feel that they are a part of the body of Christ, rather than simply someone who belongs in the church basement.
Jenn Parrish serves as the director of youth ministries at Smithville FUMC in Smithville, Tenn. She is a second-year graduate resident with the Center for Youth Ministry Training.