Dear Parents: Your Teens Don’t Need Contemporary Worship

Dear Parents: Your Teens Don’t Need Contemporary Worship September 28, 2016

Jonathan Navaro, 15, of Kenosha, Wis., raises his hands in worship at the Convention Center, in La Crosse, Wis., on Friday October 30, 2009. These students were part of the 1700 youth that attended the Assemblies of God denomination Youth Convention for Wis. and UP of Mich. for the weekend. An evangelist, Jason Maupin, had just finished speaking, and whey were some of the several hundred that come forward to a stage area to pray, and had a desire to grow closer in their relationship with God. (AP PHOTO/The Country Today/Paul M. Walsh)

Call to Worship

I get comments from a lot of parents (and other adults) who are convinced that the key to keeping their children engaged in church is a service with lots of energy and excitement.

These are parents, who usually for the most honorable of reasons believe that they need to put their kids in contemporary worship. After all, it’s easy, it’s entertaining, it seems relevant, and it doesn’t ask for much in return. And then, a sense of panic sets in: if we don’t get them hooked on church when they’re young, we’ll never get them back!

But parents, hear me. We owe your kids more than contemporary worship. They deserve something better.

You might not have heard it, but listen!

Kids are crying out for something that lasts. They feel the paucity in their bones, they sense the divide in their hearts, they know the numbness in their minds. Even with all their electronic gadgetry, their generation is hopelessly disconnected from each other. The church and its worship can be a real alternative to that. Not the entrancing commercial pop music. Not the three-points-and-a-take-home topical sermon series. Not the rock concert and self-help message. Not the lights and the stage and the special effects.

I’m not going to lie to you and tell you this kind of contemporary worship will absolutely, positively never hook in any of your kids. It might.

But they deserve better.

They deserve to be awakened out of their media-fed self-absorption by a liturgical role.

They deserve to not be targeted as the church’s most coveted demographic.

They deserve to inherit a sacramental theology that doesn’t hold up a commercial, musical manipulation as a replacement for the sacred meal.

They deserve to sing the songs of the saints, not the ditties of the day.

They deserve to learn to tell the Christian story as their own.

They deserve to worship with older brothers and sisters who refuse to patronize them, to bait-and-switch them with an individualistic gospel.

Yes, they deserve better, and woe to us who continue to fight for their right to temporary pseudo-spiritual diversion, while ignoring their need for nourishment in community.

Of course the jesusy entertainment of contemporary worship might give some of them enough incentive to crawl out of bed early on a Sunday morning without much griping.

But let me share with you what I’ve seen in my own experience.

A Sobering Sermon

I have seen a few kids get hooked enough on contemporary worship to stick around in church. A few. The majority haven’t. It just doesn’t work on them. They can smell the inauthenticity a mile away.

The marketing makes them run the opposite direction. The music is a silly pseudo-pious parody of their older brother or sister’s mainstream favorites. The promises of emotionally enthralling worship “experiences” eventually ring hollow. The disconnect between contemporary commercial worship and the gospel of Christ is awkwardly, embarrassingly apparent.

Eventually, most of them wise up to the empty promises, and the endless parroting of pop-worship cliches ring hollow in most of their ears.

And even if it does work for a time, even if we do get some kids to buy in, if all we do is give them a rock concert and a “relevant” sermon, we’ve sold them on a modern recreation of church life. Liturgy is the way the church worships publicly: its calendar and script, it’s praying, meditating, singing, and proclaiming.

Watching the Los Angeles Dodgers’ recent tribute to the great Vin Scully reminded me of the way Vin compares the gridiron to the diamond: “Football is to baseball as blackjack is to bridge. One is the quick jolt. The other the deliberate, slow-paced game of skill.” Dare I say it, I think the comparison fits nicely between the worship of our modern creation and the historic liturgy of the church. One is the weekly search for the high, the quick jolt of limbic reactivity, the dynamic speaker that woos us with jesusy generalities; the other is the weekly discipline of remembering, speaking, and enacting God’s story together.

In contemporary worship, we seek out that which will amuse us and excite us, believing it’s done to facilitate our own personal, mystical connection with God.

In liturgy, we unite ourselves as God’s covenant people to remember who we are and what God has done for us, to be transformed by Word and Sacrament, and to corporately submit to the beauty of the gospel and its hold on our lives. Through the repetition of this weekly work, by praying, singing, storytelling, and dining together thoughtfully, meditatively, and truthfully, we become equipped to live lives that speak truthfully about the love of God revealed in Jesus the Christ.

Some of the things demanded of us are difficult, yes. That’s the thing about the liturgy. It sometimes requires more thought and conviction and honesty than any of us have to give, kids or adults. And a lot of it won’t appeal to casual outsiders, either. We need to make ourselves believe that’s okay.

The key to keeping anyone engaged in church, especially kids, isn’t creating a show they don’t want to miss, but in believing that what Jesus does there for his people is enough.

A Changed Charge

So don’t push for contemporary worship for your kids’ sake. The church’s job isn’t to craft a custom-tailored “worship” experience for every generation. It’s not our mission to phony up a bunch of excitement that is vaguely related to Jesus. That’s an idol of our own creation. We’ve made worship in our image. We’ve decided we can get more butts in the seats with our gifts of electronic music and casual, often careless religious doublespeak.

And a few such churches grow. The rest shrink. Children continue to grow up and leave, and they’re leaving faster than ever before.

Should we really be surpised?

Is it any wonder?

Have we not yet learned from our mistakes?

Parents, please listen. I know you want the best for your kids. But we all know that the things that are most worthwhile in life are the things that require the most out of us. The church’s worship offers the perfect alternative to the cultural obsession with convenience and instant gratification.

Let this reality take root in you.

Instead of championing for your kids to get worship their way, show them a better way.

Model it for them. Live it in front of them.

It will be different than what they’re used to. It will take more concentration and discipline. But if it takes hold in their lives, in the end, it will help them internalize the truth and beauty of the gospel in a way that amusement worship simply cannot.

And that is more than worth the effort.


Flickr, Paul Walsh, creative commons 2.0
Flickr, Armin Thanvir, creative commons 2.o

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