by Joanna Bellis
When spring rolls around, I renew my love/hate relationship with a tradition that was passed to me in the church in which I serve: Youth Sunday.
What’s to dislike about Youth Sunday? There’s always a possibility that anything a youth (and especially a child) does in front of a congregation can turn into cute, adorable entertainment. I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t mean we are to become like cutesy children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Youth Sunday is their opportunity for them to share their words, thoughts, and desires through worship. As a result we adults just might be reminded to humble ourselves like a child and remember what it was like when our faith was new and exciting.
It’s likely that youth have only experienced one or two types of church services, which makes their perspectives of worship quite narrow. Some have had opportunities to be part of a church camp or youth conference worship. This experience may widen their perspective a smidge, but those types of worship can border on showy. So how can youth groups bridge the gap of, “We mean business without the snore” and “We aren’t here to put on a show?” I don’t think there is one answer to this question, but a series of them with which to start great conversations with youth:
- What is worship?
- Why do we worship?
- What are we doing when we worship?
- Is there only one way to worship?
- What do you like about the way we worship?
- How would you do things differently?
These questions are what I love about Youth Sunday. This is the time when youth can explore their own church’s worship and why they do what they do. Yes, they may have covered this information in confirmation, but were they able to take what they learned and put it into action with the whole Body of Christ, the church? Here, in the Youth Sunday setting, they can actively create it. This is where new ideas of worship can be explored and tried, while seeing what works and what doesn’t, and why old traditions are sacred and why some might need to go by the wayside.
This is the Sunday youth can push the lines to maybe change a tradition that has seen its better days. For example, the number one complaint from my youth is the music. They aren’t a fan of the organ or any slow tempo music. So I asked how they could bridge the gap. How can you help our congregation that isn’t ready for hymns to go away, but still be something the youth can get into? They created a praise band that sings more contemporary music to express their style and desire to sing praises to God, as well as spices up a few traditional hymns to still connect with those who think the church might burn down if we got rid of them. When we created the praise band our church wasn’t quite ready to make them a steady gig, but once these youth shared their gifts for music they are now asked to share those gifts quite often. This baby step has introduced lots of possibilities, not only for the music. The screens put in the sanctuary in 2006 are now finally used every Sunday. The blending of the two generations can happen gracefully but slowly nonetheless. And we all know Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Not only has Youth Sunday opened doors for youth in music, but also those youth who never had the confidence to read liturgy or serve in another job on a regular Sunday service somehow find that confidence on Youth Sunday. Once they’ve experienced that it’s not as scary as it looks, some have signed up to be a part of the rotation for other things as well. They are greeters, ushers, liturgists, and some even serve on the Worship, Christian Education, or Missions committees that plan these things all year round.
In the grand scheme of things, the love I have for Youth Sunday outweighs the frustration. I think there are many more frustrations than what I’ve expressed here, but they don’t even compare to the exuberance of the youth.
How do we come up with a Youth Sunday theme?
I’ve found success in coming up with themes by finding something about which they are passionate enough to rally and get behind. Yes, they need direction and that’s why leaders are important to guide their ideas and help map them out when whatever their passionate about seems, well, maybe crazy. But weren’t all of Jesus’ ideas crazy, too?
Come in with your own ideas, lay them down, and DON’T get attached to them. You have to encourage the youth to do this as well. Once an idea is given it is no longer one person’s. It is the group’s idea to do with as the group chooses. They may take it and run or ditch it and never see it again.
Whatever is popular in the media might be a really good idea to spin off of OR it might be the dumbest thing ever. Choose wisely.
How can we involve every student in Youth Sunday or EVERY Sunday?
Do some research for those students who have no desire to get up in front during the service. I recently learned that our church has a rotation of letter writers who go through the registration pads and write personal notes to newcomers. I didn’t know this job existed. There have to be more jobs like this for those youth who just can’t find the nerve to get in front of anyone during the service, but would love to be involved this way. Ask around as to what other jobs are done each Sunday that you haven’t paid attention to before. For example, I’m sure there is one person taking attendance for Sunday School and during the service. There is probably someone who locks and unlocks the doors and maybe turns on the coffee pot or recycles the bulletins. Who makes the bulletins, folds them, and has them ready to pass out on Sunday morning? (Shall I go on?)
Know your students’ gifts and utilize them in every way possible. If that means doing a lesson on spiritual gifts before you start planning for Youth Sunday, do it!
Joanna Bellis is the director of youth ministries at Brenthaven Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, Tenn. She is a 2013 graduate of the Center for Youth Ministry Training.