Youth Sunday Audio, Learnings, And One Idea

Youth Sunday was a gas, of course, as teenagers ranging from 6th graders to nearly graduated seniors stood before the congregation to greet, call to worship, lead in prayer, read scripture, preach, call for commitment, charge and bless.  You can listen to the entire service led by our junior high students here (the earlier service, led by our high schoolers, isn’t online anywhere). The sermons from that service are here.

Here are a few things I learned from on Youth Sunday.

You can have eight preachers in a service and still be done in an hour.

Students can be flexible. Especially the high school students. Owing to communication problems on my end, we were four high school worship leaders short, which caused me no small amount of panic moments before the service. No matter, though. Students took on new roles voluntarily and CRUSHED them.

Preparation will save your life as a stressed out Pastor. Not my preparation, of course, but the preparation of our Senior High Director, who assembled fully annotated orders of worship for each student, complete with their name and highlighted parts. There’s no way to measure how much this helped our leaders feel comfortable and confident in their roles.

Even though you think it will get old, the beginning lines of the senior’s sermon that recount how she was baptized in the church as an infant and grew up in it attending Sunday School and VBS and playing roles in the Christmas pageant, it does not, in fact, get old. Ever.

Here’s an idea for something to try next time.

A worship leading workshop the week before the service that allows youth leaders to get up in the chancel and practice their role and to draw on the experience and insight of their peers and adult leaders for making improvements. This idea is 100% about reducing the anxiety of the Pastor, who can’t relax when students keep coming up to lead whom he has never seen do what they’re about to do.


Youth Sunday Jitters

The big project I’m working on this week is Youth Led Worship. The 9:30 service this Sunday will be led entirely by high school youth and the 11:00 by 6th-8th graders. The entire service, sermons and everything. They wrote all the parts to the service a week ago Sunday.

Youth Led Worship (or Youth Sunday) is, for me, more nerve wracking than just about anything else. Neither preaching nor giving a children’s sermon nor baptizing a screaming baby fill me with as many jitters as sitting in the pews as youth I am supposed to have prepared stand before the congregation to lead them in worship.


The right answer is that I’m nervous for them. I want them to have a positive experience. I internalize some of their nerves and uncertainty. The wrong answer is that I’m anxious about how their leadership will reflect on me. That answer is wrong because Youth Sunday is not about the youth or the adults who lead them, but God. It’s worship.

What’s the worst that could happen? One of my students once introduced a time of silent confession by saying, “And now let the awkward silence commence.” Legend has it that a student at my current church told a blonde joke during the service.

Water off a duck’s back, man. Compared to the best that can happen, the worst possibility is nothing. Students will experience the welcome and the grace of the church, while adults experience the courage and conviction of its teenagers. Whatever jitters it causes are totally worth it.

Also, if youth are consistently in front of the congregation, that’s fewer jitters for everybody.

Formal, Structured Conversation Is Useful for Learning

You learn a lot by talking to the right people. Informal, unstructured conversations over coffee can be surprisingly revealing.

But there’s nothing wrong with structuring conversation for particular learning. One on one or with a group, setting aside time to process a particular issue or experience for the sake of harvesting learning and growth is invaluable. It might feel forced, but it’s worth trying.

We did this in the Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohort I’ve written about before. Participants had 20 minutes to present an issue, and then the cohort got five minutes to ask clarifying questions followed by five minutes to offer constructive feedback. The whole thing was meticulously refereed, which made a big difference.

I’ve also used a thing called a Leadership Learning Conversation with my professional development people. It’s not as specific with the timing of things. Instead, it structures a conversation around a series of questions the presenter addresses: what is the issue, briefly stated? What is at stake with this issue? What have you already tried? What do you need?

I love being parts of these intentional conversations. Whether I’m asking the question or listening to it, I always learn something.


No Jerks Allowed (An Unpolished Presentation of Youth Ministry Values)

I scheduled a four hour planning retreat for our youth ministry staff for this week, and after reading Marko’s post on values I decided to commit a significant piece of our meeting time to them. I hope it’s the first step in a broad conversation about what matters to us in our work with teenagers. I also employed this Harvard Business Review piece about different types of values, because the distinction between, say, core values and aspirational values feels pretty important.

Here is an unpolished presentation of what we uncovered.

Relationships, community, and belonging are core values for us. We prioritize activities that foster face-to-face conversation, especially in small groups. We want teenagers to feel at home when they’re at church.

Another core value is exploration and questioning. We want students to delve deep into their doubts and their gaps in understanding–about God, themselves, the world–in a safe, non-judgmental environment.

We have some aspirational values too. We think these are critical to our success, but we’re not sure we’re fully embodying them yet. Being Biblically thorough is one of those. The arc of the Biblical narrative ought to shape our students’ emerging understanding of who they are and how they’re called to live. We also value inclusion: the spaces and activities we’re cultivating need to be accessible to teenagers we don’t yet know and who don’t know the church yet.

We also think that adolescents need to be incorporated into grown up expressions of church life, so we’re aspiring to a value of youth/adult integration. At the same time, adolescence is a long runway with a world of isolation between its extreme ends, so it matters to us that early adolescents and older adolescents are connecting with one another and not only with peers their own age.

Spiritual vitality, too, needs to matter. We are in the spirituality business. Youth need to experience moments of transcendence, gratitude, penitence, and glory, and they need to be invited to respond in those moments with commitment, yet in ways that do not traffic in emotional manipulation.

Our “Pay To Play” values are pretty straightforward: we must enjoy teenagers. We must have healthy personal boundaries. Collaboration, enthusiasm, patience, and authenticity are all non-negotiable for us. We can’t be jerks or bullies either.

Professionalism, long term involvement, a preference for the big and the best–these are some of the “Accidental” values we notice in ourselves, things that, for better or worse, seem to really matter to us based on an assessment of who’s already here and what’s already happening. We also clearly value youth leaders who are not parents. Getting away on retreats is another accidental value. So is ritual; we invest a lot of meaning in doing things the same way year after year.

Here’s to a robust and honest conversation about what matters to us in our work, and here’s to that conversation leading us to work that is daring and smart.



The Ones Who Aren’t Here Yet

In youth ministry, your community changes year-by-year. This is true of the whole church, of course, but it’s especially true of the teenagers; every September brings a new crop of participants and parents who have zero experience of the youth programming before they started.

Which means, “The way we’ve always done it” develops for some people over a single year.

So that thing you’re considering changing–that Bible study you want to launch, that retreat you want to plan, that time change you’re mulling–may seem like a major disruption to the people who are here now; the 11th and 12th graders like things the way they are. But what about the new 9th graders and 6th graders? How do prospective changes look through the eyes of those who don’t know the way things are?

What if we thought equally about the students we’ll be working with next year and the year after that in deciding the shape our youth programming should take? What if we planned not only for the ones who are here now, but the ones who aren’t here yet?


Youth Group Gathering Recipe Box

I want to get really good at leading gatherings with youth, and I want you to help me. So I’m sharing the recipe for a gathering I and three very talented volunteers led for 6th and 7th graders yesterday in the hopes that you’ll look it over and comment.

Also, feel free to use it.

A note about structure. As I’ve written in this space, I’m a big fan of Stanley Pollack’s Moving Beyond Icebreakers and so I structure youth gatherings with name and warmup exercises, springboard activities, clearly defined work, summation, and evaluation. I’m open to comment about that structure, which comes entirely from Pollack.

A note about content. If “great artists steal,” then youth workers are world-class thieves. Some of the activities in this agenda are taken from a Spice Rack lesson on Psalm 23, which you can buy here. Other pieces are applied from Pollack’s work, and still others are original to me.

Should Signing Up Be Difficult?

I’ve embraced an All Online strategy for ministry functions that involve signing people up for something, mostly employing Eventbrite and Google Forms. Want to sign up for the mission trip? It’s online. Want to apply to be a leader on that trip? Online. Want to propose a course for our Youth Summer Bizarre? You do that online too.

The promise of the online sign up is ease. It’s just easier for people to fill in a web form, and even to submit payment on a website, than it is for them to scribble answers on paper, write a check, and then stuff all of that in the mail (“Where do I mail it again?”)–or even remember to bring it with them to church next Sunday.

The fulfillment rate on that promise is less than 100% though, because, of course, school and soccer and Girl Scouts are utilizing this strategy as well. People reach a saturation point with online sign ups.

Also, they have to want to do the thing your clever online form is for. Google can’t help you generate interest for events that are simply uninteresting.

Here’s my question: is there value in making it harder to sign up for some things? Is making the enrollment process for mission trips and teaching opportunities convenient actually hurting the effort? Is the willingness to complete all the analog steps a signal of commitment that we’ve lost?

The church should be the network in our peoples’ lives that is most curious about all the other networks.

Ministry is networking:

interfacing with existing networks of people who care deeply about something (food justice, youth, elder care), to add value to the network;

caring deeply enough about something (children in worship, adult education, homelessness) to build a network for working on it.


Think of the networks in youth ministry. There’s a network of adults in the congregation who care enough about teenagers in the church to volunteer for youth group and to go on mission trips. There’s work to do with that network. Its connections need strengthened, its skills need building, its reach needs expanding. The people in the network want to do that work.

Of course, the church’s youth are a network. And, as with the adults, the church is but one of the networks that make up their lives and determine what they spend their time on. Teenagers are connected to multiple networks of shared interests and goals, like the soccer team, the paintball-playing friends, their extended family, the science fair, and the peers they play video games with online.

I’m at a point of transition into a new congregation where I get to be curious about the networks that make up the youth and the adult volunteers. I love this. Hearing an 8th grader lyricize about paintball; discovering that there’s a PhD in poetry among the Sr. High volunteers and a freelance video producer teaching confirmation; being schooled in the rules of squash; strolling through the city science fair. I feel like an investigative journalist. It’s fun.


The church should be the network in our peoples’ lives that is most curious about all the other networks.

They Are Consistently Hacking My Agenda

If people are using the thing we make for something other than our intended use, maybe we should start perfecting it for how they’re using it and stop judging them for using it wrong.


Take youth group. I may bleed and sweat to design gatherings for, say, junior high kids, that teach them the Bible, but if they are consistently hacking my agenda to socialize with their friends, then maybe I can reverse engineer the youth group as a tool for them to socialize even better. Hack the hackers.

Give over youth group to hanging out? Give up completely on Bible study? No. Design the Bible study to meet the socializing need youth are expressing.

The same goes for parents.

If parents are insisting their kids participate in confirmation as a vague sort of cultural and moral rite of passage and not an entrance into active church membership, then maybe that signals the need for a high quality version of the thing they’re defaulting to. Maybe we could design confirmation to be a high impact experience of moral and religious exploration that issues in some sort of ritualized conclusion detached from the question of church membership.

What kind of impact might that have culturally? Who says a cultural rite of passage is less crucial today than institutional growth?

My Sweater Game Needs No Leveling Up

I’m kind of love with the idea of “leveling up” at the moment. The work we do is multiform, and the only way we get better is by choosing to work on particular pieces of it.

Sometimes that’s a choice to seek out a training or a coach. Learning Godly Play was a major leveling up for me (I did that with a partner–that’s never a bad idea). The Youth Ministry Coaching Program I did in 2012 was another one. I’m looking to level up even further with that particular platform in the coming months.

Other times it’s a choice to take advantage of some circumstance we didn’t create, like using a budget shortfall as a chance to level up our financial management game or putting a season of unemployment to work learning a different field. Choosing to level up means refusing to be a passive recipient of whatever slings and arrows come our way.

Where can you level up in the next six months?

(for the record, my sweater game needs no leveling up, according to Reverend Fem).