A Culture of Worship

Releasing young people into their potential

By Peter O’Brien

People are still chatting as the worship leader gives the signal to start. With just a few taps on the drumsticks and some rhythmic strums on the guitar, a unified purpose emerges. Words for the first song appear on a screen. The worship leader motions toward the microphone and in unison, the whole room begins declaring God’s goodness and exalting Jesus’ name. It is wonderful. It is heaven on earth.

There’s nothing too unusual about this scene. The songs, and perhaps the equipment, may be different, but this is familiar in church gatherings and prayer meetings around the world for people who love Jesus. In this case, the worship leader just happens to be a teenager, but again, that’s not uncommon.

However, a quick scan of this worship team reveals something a bit more unusual. With their odd socks, hoodies, and fresh faces, they clearly all have school in the morning. Yet this is an important public event with people from other churches coming and friends invited. Is this an experiment? A token show and tell? Far from it.

If we expect the young people in our church to be mature Christians, they need to exercise their spiritual muscles. Joseph, Joshua and Josiah are examples of people who took up leadership positions at a young age. Before them, a young Miriam stepped out from the bulrushes to be part of God’s plan for delivering His people.

If we expect the young people in our church to be mature Christians, they need to exercise their spiritual muscles.

Stepping out, speaking up and serving humbly are the traits of leadership in God’s kingdom. As unmarried apprentices, many of Jesus’ disciples were in their late teens. When Paul states in 1 Corinthians 3:16 that as believers we are a temple, he didn’t qualify it with ‘when you are old enough’. There is no Junior Holy Spirit that dwells in us until we’re ready for the unrestricted, fully loaded version.

A number of years ago, Trinity Church Network began providing opportunities for our teenagers to grow through serving in a youth-led service. We already had a few teenagers involved in the regular worship team rota but this would involve greater responsibility. Since then, the path has unfolded in ways we did not envisage. The numbers of teenagers involved has grown as we seek to respond creatively to God’s goodness.

Our hearts are open to the possibilities of exploring more of what God has in store for us. We haven’t gotten it all together, nor do we know exactly what we’re doing - some things we tried didn’t quite work. But we remain confident that God has begun a good work in our youth and that He will perfect it.

Here are some things that we are discovering that may help your youth group start or go deeper in expressing (and leading) worship.

It is easy to get caught up in the “what and how” of worship and youth ministry. Having a clear, meaningful vision really helps keep things in focus. It took us nearly two years to express ours: “We want to develop a culture of worship in our youth that is authentic, accessible, and acceptable.” This has helped with engaging others and is a litmus test for choosing what to do or not to do.

The creative and performance elements of worship can be rewarding musically and emotionally. It is tempting to focus exclusively on that, particularly as other aspects (witness, welfare, and word) of the Christian life can be challenging. However, the greatest growth in worship expression can be found by investing time letting your light shine, caring for others, and delving deeper into the Bible. Ensure that teenagers are growing in all aspects.

“Being on the aXcess worship team has been an amazing blessing… it has allowed me to explore and develop the gifting God has given me, grow relationships and build community within our youth group. The worship team has given me a place where I can bring ideas, learn, and put into practice what gifts I have in a safe environment with leaders who wish to see me succeed and pursue God wholeheartedly.” - Holly Doran

Note that this doesn’t say ‘passion, not polish’. There certainly has to be a level of capability, some substantive polish to get started. We should work on these skills so that we give our best, but it is our praise that the Lord inhabits, not the performance. Work out what criteria is appropriate for your situation. However, be clear that a desire to encounter God and to help others do the same is the priority.

The modern rocket launch provides a useful analogy for the developmental youth worship team. A launch-pad structure provides resources (e.g. fuel) and protection and keeps the rocket pointing in the right direction.

When we first introduced violins, the launch pad was evident. We arranged some dedicated workshops on improvisation and playing in a band (resources); for the first worship session, we kept violins to one song rather than the full set list (protection) and reminded them that they are playing to an audience of one (direction). Now, our teenage violinists make a contribution to the mix in almost every song.

As a group involving teenagers that are still growing in their own identity as well as their abilities, there may be some things that you will do differently to the adult worship team. It may be extra practice sessions, or the worship may have different elements. The most effective tool we have is the Hangout Practice. We eat together, have a short team-building exercise or discussion, and then get on with rehearsing. The relationship and trust built up around sharing food and fun brings about a real sense of team, which shows when they play together. Find routines that foster relationship.

Music is the most common expression of worship, particularly in a church context. Not everyone who worships sings or plays a musical instrument. It is important to encourage the use of technical and creative gifts in our teenagers. Keep the workshops and practice sessions open to all the teenagers to attend. Having Colossians 3:17 as a criteria, be open to the collaborations and innovations that come from the group.

We play with a higher purpose, and that’s different from being in a regular band.
— Luke Nolan

Now more than ever, there is easy access to inspirational worship events, worship teaching, great worship songs, and tutorials on how to play them. With limited reference points, a teenager may have no hooks on which to hang these pearls of wisdom. What they are familiar with is their own church context, so involving people from the existing worship team to share their own experience is very effective.

In general, one of the main jobs will be providing structure, a bit of discipline on time keeping, and staying focused on the task at hand. Look for those times when it is appropriate to release more responsibility. It can take time for the true leaders to emerge. Then, as suddenly as it all comes together, it is time to repeat and go back over topics (even the basics) again.

Peter O’Brien serves in the wonderful space where youth and worship ministry overlap. The Dublin-based software developer grew up in a Christian home but did not choose Jesus until his teens. Not long after, Peter learned three guitar chords and joined others more gifted than he in worship.