Are Worship Conferences for Youth Valuable?

So, I recently got back from a worship conference for youth. I must admit, that I was apprehensive about the content and setup of the conference since I tend to be the theologically “progressive” one in the midst of sea of conservatives (at least in this UMC conference). This weekend is a new thing in our conference, and was birthed from the ashes of an annual Youth Choir Rally in this UMC conference after attendance began to decline steadily over a number of years.

worship_1 It isn’t hard to figure out that this decline was from an increasing interest in and affinity for modern worship music among youth in our area. And I honestly didn’t know what to expect going into the weekend. Where would the emphasis be in trying to help kids to learn about and engage deeply in worship? Would it be like one of our conference Midwinter camps where deciding to follow Christ with one’s life is the emphasis? Would it be a promotion of popular speakers and worship bands which many kids seem to be more interested in than worship itself? Would I find myself in a position of wanting to deconstruct much of what they encountered? Or would it be a place where teenagers who love to dance, sing, play instruments, and create be helped to see that their gifts have a place in their home congregations?

So how did it actually turn out? I will say that it was something in between all of the options I proposed in my questions, but all that does is leave me asking more questions and wondering about how best to teach teenagers about worship in general.

Before I go on, as an aside, I have to be honest here – I love me some worship music. I know that so much of it is full of things that I don’t want to elevate over others (emphasis on self, lack of theological depth, often bad theology), but I am often able to find a modicum of something to celebrate. And to be honest, I feel like I don’t have a choice, because despite Brian McLaren’s plea to songwriters, there isn’t a plethora of progressive worship songs that are out there that don’t suck. (I’ll try and follow up on this more in a later post, but for the sake of staying on topic, I’ll leave it at that for now.)

MY CRITIQUES

In all of our endeavors in the church, there is often a disconnect between what those of us in the Organizational Learning field call the “espoused theory” and the “theory-in-use” which is a fancy way of saying that what you are saying doesn’t align with what you are doing. The harder question becomes, “How can we align what we are saying with what we are doing? How can we create less disconnect?” And at times during this conference there was disconnect to be sure.

Worship was primarily discussed in the context of a worship gathering. Of course you might expect this at conference put on by a mid-level judicatory. But, I think this is both good and bad. There was a seminar called, Worship: The other 6 days, but I think it might have been more helpful for us to make the other 6 days the focus. Most churched teenagers know about worship gatherings, whether they love or hate a gathering’s content, they understand what they are and probably already focus on them as disproportionately as the adults in their communities do – if we are honest with ourselves, we talk about worship gatherings way too much. Seriously, we do. And, if we are to take the Colossian Epistle seriously, then we have to engage our youth with the question of what it means for them to do all things, “for the glory of God.”

It seemed to want to encourage artistic pursuits in worship. This is great, but it didn’t quite make it. For instance, one of my teenagers offered the feedback that it was very frustrating to walk into a seminar entitled Creating Drama Sketches only to be handed a script for a drama to be done during Sunday morning’s closing worship. What he was hoping for instead was to engage in a creative process of creating a Drama Sketch. And although I couldn’t attend every seminar, I fear that more was done to explore the “how” of doing something, when most of our teenagers today probably learn better by actually doing the thing itself, with the “how” being interspersed as part of the process. Perhaps it might have been better to have had “tracks” that allowed teenagers to really focus on developing one piece of artistry (sermon, music, media, drama, prayer, dance) over the weekend that they could take back as an offering to their home congregations. This is just one thought off the top of my head, but overall, it would be great to curate space for artists to truly develop their craft together with others who are interested in the same things.

worship_2 Other styles of worship beyond the worship-leader-leads-us-in-song weren’t deeply explored. To be fair, I know they tried to incorporate and explore other ways of worshipping at this conference, but from where I sat, it only seemed to do so about 20% of the time, if that. For instance, one gathering explored Taizé, but only for about five minutes compared to the other worship singing’s 20+ minutes in each gathering. I wondered if there were students in the room like me, who could have drifted deeply into prayer with 15 to 20 minutes of Taizé, but we won’t know until we try… repeatedly.

A form of worship was introduced to a worship gathering without explanation. During one of the formal worship gatherings, the students were led in Lectio Divina, which is great! However, it wasn’t identified as Lectio Divina and little explanation about it was given. For instance, I think youth would have benefitted from a four minute explanation that, before universal literacy as a product of the printing press, the Sacred Reading was the primary way of reading the scriptures for the church for more than a thousand years, and was a big part of the Rule of St. Benedict (and that Benedict believed his rule had to be lived out in community and connection with others).

There was specific emphasis placed on the importance of worship in relationship with others. At one point during the weekend, the speaker shared that they were supposed to have spoken on personal worship, but they didn’t believe it was possible for us to worship God without each other -that made me cheer inside. This has always been part of the discussion for those of us (that I know) in Emergent Village. Self-centeredness has always been a critique of worship in large evangelical churches. ( In those settings, worship gatherings often seems to smack of individualism when “me/I,” language is employed much more often than “we/ us,” and results in what some have called the “Jesus is my boyfriend, “ phenomenon.)

It is my hope and my prayer that I am wrong in my analysis. I hope that teenagers who attended will begin to write drama, create dance, compose music, and pressure their home congregations to engage in a variety of worship styles. But I fear, that in spite of some effort, this worship conference reinforced a view of worship among the teenagers who attended, that the way worship really happens is with a gifted worship leader (often accompanied by a band) leading songs, a gifted communicator speaking, and interspersed times of prayer. And that while many forms of worship are legitimate, some are more legitimate than others.

I hope that in my accounting of the experience, I have been charitable. And before you think I am throwing anything or anyone under a bus (which I’m not), you should know that I shared with our conference youth director that I was writing this, and I am pretty sure he appreciates it. I think that far too often he receives feedback that doesn’t offer much critical analysis. In my opinion, just saying that everything is “great” all the time is a passive posture that does little good in helping us as youth pastors find a way forward. We need to look at what we do critically so that we can improve it – so that we can learn together the most helpful ways of teaching youth about worship.

WAS IT VALUABLE?

In light of my critiques, I am left wondering if a conference like this holds actual value for teenagers. My answer is unequivocally, “Yes.” Why, then?

Because I agree with this reflection that attending events like this make our lives better. At any event like this, there are people who make it worthwhile. Most of my teenagers feel like this was a great weekend in their lives – one of them even posted, “Best weekend of 2010 so far…” as their Facebook status. Why? I think that more than anything, it is because of people.

As a youth pastor, I think that the best thing about events like this is it offers teenagers the opportunity for relationship with others. Whether it is to learn about worship or share a meal, the act of getting together with others is significant in and of itself. Even more so when we take the time to acknowledge that God is already there with us.

What about you? What do you think about how we should be teaching youth about worship? Would you have found the experience valuable like I did, in spite of the educational shortcomings?

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