Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Many parishes periodically have something called a "youth service." In my last parish, in the 90s, one of my staff responsibilities was to work with the DCE (Director of Christian Education) to prepare a "youth service" once a quarter. This meant that praise songs and other 'contemporary' music was expected to be sung, that youth would read the lessons and take other, 'creative' roles in the liturgy, and, above all, that the sermon would be replaced by a dramatic presentation from the youth. Over time, I was able to make the "youth service" more like our normal Divine Services, and we did do them less often before I left, but, in the end, the congregation's idea that there needed to be a "youth service" remained - as well as the idea that the youth needed to do "youth things" at such services.

On Easter 3 this year, some might say we had a "youth service" at Bethany, because of all the teenagers who were involved. But it wasn't anything like the youth services promoted by Synod, Inc. Instead, it just happened to be a service where the musicians of the day were a youth ensemble, and a couple of the ushers on the assigned usher team were high school students as well (not to mention our acolytes). There was no need for a cutesy morality play or entertaining skit, nor was there some sort of ersatz confession & "forgiveness" led by the kids before worship. The pastors played their roles like they always do, and they just happened to be assisted in the Lord's ministry by a whole bunch of young people doing the things that lay volunteers do in the service.

And the musicians in this group were not "the youth group", but were simply a group of youth who already participate in the music program at Bethany, and are drawn together every other month or so to make music by themselves - just as I draw other groups of musicians out of the regular groups to form special ensembles. Of the 8 kids who sing in the group, 6 sing in one of our choirs; of the 5 instrumentalists, 3 play with another liturgical ensemble and 3 ring in the handbell choir. And so we had 9 youth sing and play in various combinations, accompanied at different times by various instruments: clarinet, flute, bass, guitar, piano, synth, and organ.*

But our congregation's piety and customs did not change due to their involvement. So it wasn't a "youth service", just lots of youth serving. And this is how it should be. We don't need to change the church in order to involve young people, we just need to make room for them and make use of their talents just like we do with the talents of our adults. This approach may be less "fun and exciting" as doing something "special with the kids" might seem. But the youth enjoy this more, because this approach treats them as the mature adults they aspire to be.

The more we give both children and youth things they can grow into, rather than grow out of, the more connected they will remain to the Church. And the experiences they have as students will shape their piety for the rest of their lives. Why not make them liturgically Lutheran?

*My custom with these groups is to keep about 1/2 to 2/3rds of the music played by the organist of the day. This particular Sunday the youth ensemble played the Canticle of Praise, sang the psalm antiphon and led the chanting of the Psalm of the Day, sang the Verse of the Day, presented an anthem as the offerings were received, played one of the communion hymns, and led the singing of another Canticle at the end of the Lord's Supper. For those interested, here's the breakdown:

Canticle of Praise: "Now the Feast and Celebration", Marty Haugen; congregation sang refrain, three singers sang the verses and sang a descant on the refrian. Accompaniment was guitar, bass, flute, clarinet, synth, and piano.

Psalm: Psalm 4 from Liturgy Solutions. SATB a capella antiphon used as a refrain. Kids sang the antiphon first, but then the congregation sang it between certain verses.

Verse: Verse for Easter 3 C from Litury solutions. Accompanied by organ. Congregation has the alleluias (VICTORY), and the Verse for the Sundays of Eastertide (Romans 6:9); choir then sang the proper Verse for Easter 3.

Voluntary: I arranged Stuart Townsend's "How Deep the Father's Love for Us" for 3 voices, flute, clarinet, bass, synth, and guitar.

Communion Hymn: The congregation sang "Stay with Us" accompanied by the ensemble playing out of the LSB Guitar edition, with clarinet & flute playing melody at first, and then descants I composed for the occasion.

Closing Canticle: Instead of "Thank the Lord" at the end of the Lord's Supper, the youth ensemble led the congregation in singing David Haas' "We Have Been Told".

So how do you involve the youth of your parish in leading the Lord's song? Feel free to share your comments


Cheryl said...

And just to clarify for your readers . . . all of the music that this group sang (excepting the voluntary) is music that our congregation has sung in the past and will sing again in the future regardless of whether or not they are led by youth. We have a rich musical life at Bethany and our congregation is accustomed to variety in the liturgical settings. It just so happened that this week the liturgy was assisted by youth. But it wasn't a "youth service" and wasn't billed as such and I don't think the congregation viewed it that way. It was just another Sunday, with the cantor leading various musicians of the parish as he does every week.

Cheryl said...

By the way, I videotaped "You Have Been Told." Of course, it was with my cell phone, so as usual the quality is not the best. Is this service available on our podcast?

Cheryl said...

Oops, "We Have Been Told."

Susan K said...

I think that whole notion of letting the youth do things they can grow into and not out of is so important and so ignored by the church at large. It's why the youth ensemble works so well and it's why children shouldn't be sent off to Sunday School while their parents go to church!

Unknown said...

I love the "grow into" idea. It is certianly what we try to do here. We have several high school students who participate in the Vocal Choir and Bell Choir as well as instrumental ensembles. I also use them to make up quartets to sing the propers on the Sundays when I don't have one of the other choirs singing.

In the past when I have had teenaged organ students we have also worked them into service playing gradually.

We are trying to get a regularly meeting group of high schoolers together to sing, but scheduling is a bear with everyone in different activities at different high schools on different calendars, so there is still lots of work to be done in that direction.

Stephen R. Johnson said...

This is a very responsible and substantive way to do a "youth service." Sometimes other churches' attempts at such things place the kids in situations where they are not only out of place, but visibly uncomfortable, even if said youth expressed an interest in participating. (How many bad skits have we seen in these situations performed by young people who have no affinity for acting?) It is kind of like forcing round pegs into square holes. By capitalizing on the abilities of the young people where they already exist, and using them to their full potential, the youth feel fulfilled and vital to the event. They do not appear uncomfortable, but naturally execute their roles. Not to mention that the quality will be higher, because they are doing what they know how to do. In simpler terms, let the pastors do what pastors are supposed to do and let the youth do what they do in their capacity as laity.

Phillip said...

Hi Christina,

Glad you are using your talented teenagers as well. I like working them into organ playing. That's great! And you've got them ringing and singing, too.

Regarding getting them together around their various schedules, here are some ideas that have helped us here at Bethany:

1 - Schedule them to sing/play together about every two months. Avoid December, May, July.

2 - Don't beat yourself up trying to get every kid. Find a group that has the heart for this and go with them. At first, you'll have to work extra hard to get them together. By the third time, this group will begin to take ownership of the activity, and a couple of fence sitters will decide they really do have the time for this.
(Remember, they are ALL busy. But they all make time for doing what they want to do. "Too busy with [fill in school activities]." is just code for "I really don't want to do this." Sure, sometimes a kid is in a play or something, and so may have a reason to miss once in a while, but, generally, they are NOT too busy)

3. Keep the music simple enough that they can do well with just two reeharsals.

4. Establish the pattern and expectation that EVERYONE BRINGS THEIR CALENDAR TO THE FIRST REHEARSAL. No one leaves until the second one is scheduled.

5. After they sing/play, all of them should go to your office (or classroom) and celebrate. Before they leave, nail everyone down (or as many as possible) for "Our Next Date". This keeps them on the calendar.

6. You don't need pizza at every rehearsal. But a "pizza rehearsal" every 4-6 months is a very good thing.

7. Treat them like adults. Train them and then involve them in being responsible for tuning, microphones, speakers, music stands, getting bulletins, etc.

8. But then also do a few silly things, too. Director quirks endear youth!

9. Alwyas let them know how much you enjoy them - and how much you enjoy making music with them.