Hillsong or Hymns: What Role Does Contemporary Worship Play in Your Youth Ministry Context?

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by Andrew Mochrie

Growing up Polish Catholic I was not really exposed to contemporary Christian worship. It’s not that we never had guitars in worship, it was mostly about the tradition (which isn’t a bad thing) and the rituals (again, good in their own way). Eventually I attended a Christian summer camp of a different denomination with a friend, and it was there that I had my first experience with contemporary Christian worship. I was hooked and since then contemporary worship music has been a very large part of my own story. I picked up guitar and started leading worship later on in Young Life, house churches, Wesley Foundation, retreats, youth group, summer camps, etc. Contemporary worship and my story seemed to intertwine themselves.

Having served in many different contexts, contemporary worship has had a different reception and meaning in each place. Some places it was embedded into the worship culture. For some it is a gathering ritual, one where it helps to set apart a time of teaching and conversation, and for another it was one of many forms of interacting and engaging the presence of God.

Recently there have been conversations within my youth ministry circle about the role that contemporary worship has in youth ministry today. Has it diminished? Is it time for something new? How about something old? I can’t answer for all of youth ministry and predict the role that contemporary worship will play, but here are a couple of things that have helped me adapt to each place I have served in regards to youth worship.

Contemporary within Tradition

My first year in my church in Tennessee I was working hard every week to craft a contemporary youth worship experience. I had slides, words, good backgrounds, intro songs, and up-to-date worship songs. I worked to create contemporary youth worship for our teenagers, even if it was only me and my guitar. But it felt like I was hitting brick walls, as I received nothing but blank stares from disengaged teenagers.

However, that changed over time as I intentionally exposed them to other groups who do contemporary worship and do it excellently with passion. We attended Hillsong United in Nashville, went to Big Stuf Camps, and we continued to use contemporary worship within our own group. Only after continued exposure did our group really begin to engage in meaningful worship through a contemporary style. At first, this style didn’t work for these teenagers because they had not really been exposed to it except once a year. None of their churches, ours included, had contemporary worship within the greater church as they were all traditional United Methodist worship services. Yet after three years in a traditional UMC our teenagers found it odd when there wasn’t a form of contemporary worship at youth and it became a part of the DNA of that youth ministry. Recognizing context and exposure to a new worship style is what played a crucial role in this transition.

Contextualize and Expose

Every group has its own culture, norms, and theological leanings. If the context is one where contemporary worship is a part of the DNA, it will be an easy sell to get youth to a Hillsong United concert. In my high school youth group contemporary worship was embedded into our church. We spent Sunday mornings with the congregation singing David Crowder Band and Sunday evenings singing Passion Worship. It was both a part of the youth ministry as well as the greater church. Often times if it is a part of the greater church culture then it is a natural fit within the youth ministry culture.

If it is not a part of the church culture, then you need to consider this step: exposure. If teenagers are not exposed to any particular style of worship, we cannot expect them to fully and meaningfully engage traditional or contemporary style worship. If someone who had only been exposed to contemporary worship went to a traditional liturgical church, then liturgy would look incredibly foreign and those teenagers would probably be lost as to how to engage in worship. If there is a true conviction for engaging teenagers in any particular style of worship that is not a part of that culture, then exposure is key. Through long-term exposure they learn how to engage in that style of worship and it becomes a part of their own DNA as a worshipper.

Be a Risk Taker

My charge to youth ministers is to take risks. It never ceases to amaze me how much teenagers engage in creative and new ways of participating in the presence of God. Teenagers are pursued by many things, companies, and industries that are willing to risk so much for their loyalty to a brand and lifestyle, offering them false and empty hopes. Yet as youth ministers we know that the hope of life, death, and resurrection of Jesus changes lives, both theirs and others around them. The resurrection hope of Jesus is the one that truly defeats the powers of death and evil. Why not participate in this hope in creative and risky ways?

Contemporary and traditional styles of worship are only two ways of expressing our devotion and adoration of God. What would worship look like that allows teenagers to practice and participate in the hope of Jesus, creating a lifestyle of worship that gives others around them a glimpse of God’s in-breaking kingdom? Maybe that style is contemporary, maybe traditional, contemplative, or artistically expressive. May we as youth ministers be attentive to the culture of the teenagers whom God has placed in our care. And may we be willing to risk it all, exposing teenagers to new ways of engaging the presence and expressing adoration for God, who is even more passionate for teenagers than we could ever be.

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Andrew Mochrie is a graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and serves as the Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

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