"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Developing Student Praise and Worship

The Worship Explosion

Tim Kurth

    In the first of two feature articles on the meteoric growth of youth-led worship in the church, we follow one youth leader?s journey from a traditional youth ministry structure to a revolutionized ministry fueled by worship.

    Editor?s Note: What do Britain?s royal teenagers William and Harry have in common with your kids? No, it?s not those spiffy private-school uniforms. The sons of Charles have jumped on the biggest bandwagon in youth ministry?high-octane worship. In January the royal family joined 60,000 people at an outdoor stadium in Wales for a worship event called Millennium Songs of Praise, broadcast live to 10 million people.

    In the last two years, worship music and youth-led worship services have quickly steamrolled into the hottest trend in worldwide youth ministry. That?s not just me talking?we asked youth leaders visiting our Web site to vote on, well, "the hottest trend in youth ministry." We offered 13 choices, and "worship" was by far the #1 vote-getter.

    Meanwhile, the flood of worship CDs and worship resources shows no sign of cresting. And the swelling number of Web sites dedicated to groups that have launched their own youth-led worship services indicates the movement has moved well past the fad stage. More and more youth leaders are networking with peers who?ve experimented with a youth-led worship format, then returning home to plant one of their own. Veteran Illinois youth minister and longtime group contributor Tim Kurth is one of those trendsetters, and this is his story...

    Last year, after nearly 18 years of ministry in the church, I finally pared away my other church responsibilities to focus full time on building a ministry to teenagers. Youth work has always been a big part of my job description, but now it is my job description.

    I figured I already knew the formula: fall retreat, winter retreat, and summer retreat or service project or work camp. Sunday morning was about study and discipleship, Sunday night was about fun and games with a short devotion thrown in. Mix in the occasional lock-in, paintball or laser-tag competition, amusement park excursion, and the odd fund-raiser and you?ve got yourself a youth ministry.

    Armed with that wealth of conventional blindness, I announced to everyone what we?d be doing. The youth program?s cornerstone would be our Sunday night meetings. The first and third Sundays of each month we?d focus our time on small-group discussions (because some kids like that). The second Sunday would be recreation-oriented (friends won?t come if it?s not fun). And every fourth Sunday we?d do some kind of worship thing (because I?d heard some youth ministry peers talking about worship?s power to attract new kids).

    My theory was simple: To appeal to the broadest number of young people you have to offer all the options. And when church leaders pressured me about big numbers I could always rent the local health club and invite 80 or 90 kids to swim, play basketball, and run around the building.

    I know you?ve already seen it coming...the whole ball of yarn was one big operatic disaster. My "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" model was colossally ineffective. With no clear focus to the ministry, our kids grew confused. They could never quite keep track of what happened on what Sunday, and over time they gave up trying.

    Disinterested kids lead to dissatisfied parents, and dissatisfied parents make for disappointed church leaders. My tried-and-true strategies just weren?t reaching kids the way I?d hoped. We did fun-and-games with some success, but we weren?t feeding kids? hunger for deep spiritual growth. We didn?t do much of anything to disciple them, and we weren?t challenging them to be Christian leaders.

    As I muddled through the year it finally hit me: we weren?t really doing ministry, we were maintaining a program. We called it a youth group and we had a cute pig mascot that reflected our acronym?PYG. But I?d failed to mature my approach as this new generation of teenagers was entering my ministry. I desperately needed to discover what they were searching for...

    The first thing I did was to listen to my young people. Even before the program went sour, a group of eager kids asked me if they could start a band. I gave them permission to use the church?s sound equipment on one condition: They?d have to play for our once-a-month worship night. They agreed, and I told them I?d help with their rehearsals. It wasn?t long before I realized their talent was raw, and I couldn?t give them the help they needed. So I recruited a musically savvy twentysomething guy to take these teenagers under his wing and train them to be a worship band.

    I also invited a diverse group of young people to paint a picture for me of what our youth ministry would look like if they were in charge. I?d done something like this years before when I rebuilt a youth program, and I had a hunch it would work again.

    Meanwhile, by God?s grace, people started dropping news articles on my desk about kids around the country who were hungry for intimate worship experiences and surprisingly curious about the church?s supposedly stuffy traditions.

    Just as our youth band was getting organized, my church hired a consultant to help us evaluate the church?s various ministries. He said some pretty harsh (and accurate) things about our youth ministry, then strongly recommended that I visit St. Timothy?s Catholic Community in Mesa, Arizona, to experience their Life Teen ministry?centered around the weekly Catholic liturgy. He also recommended that I visit King of Kings Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, to taste their Hearts Afire worship service for teenagers.

    My church had already planned to send our entire staff to Arizona for a conference, so our worship director and I went a day early to visit St. Timothy?s. And I already had plans to visit King of Kings in Omaha together with our worship band members. There, we worshiped with more than 300 teenagers. They prayed over us and sent us on our way with a blessing. It was one of the most moving experiences I?ve ever had with young people.

    The visits to St. Timothy?s and King of Kings cemented in me the conviction that teenagers are hungry for worship. The two churches approach worship from vastly different angles. At St. Timothy?s they draw 600 young people to the church every Sunday night using the exact same liturgy that?s used on Sunday morning?the only difference is they do it with a youth band, step up the tempo, and involve the young people in the liturgy. They follow worship with classes on church teachings and, once a month, they have a social event. Experiential worship is always the central focus.

    At King of Kings the worship service has a form, but it isn?t the traditional Lutheran liturgy. They open with several worship songs, beginning with faster tunes to draw kids into the sanctuary. Then they move to what Pastor Dan McDougall (Pastor Mac) calls the "slow, sweet stuff." Their worship includes Communion?kids receive it as they stand in a huge circle around the altar. One regular part of the service is actually called Whatever God Wants. Each week this time has a different focus. The night we were there, it was an extended time of prayer. Sometimes Pastor Mac delivers a short message, but mostly the group does whatever God seems to be leading it to do.

    The seeds we sowed during the disastrous last year of our youth group are now growing into a strong and healthy youth ministry. The group of kids I?d recruited as consultants came up with a new name for the ministry: God?s Youth Ministry (GYM)?and a new motto: Building Up the Body of Christ. I realized we could never compete with the recreation programs put on by our park districts, clubs, and schools?but they could never share the gospel like we could. So we dumped recreational events from our schedule.

    I knew we needed a focal point?an identity for our ministry?and worshiping Jesus Christ seemed like a pretty safe choice. I learned from our church visits that experiential worship could take many different forms. We would find our path as long as we set our sights on Jesus and challenged the kids to do the same.

    Our ragtag and raw teenage musicians quickly coalesced into a real band and were already putting together a broad repertoire of rock and ska worship tunes. It was time to formally change our direction.

    So in August 1999, we announced our transformation from a group to a ministry. Our anchor would be a weekly worship service dubbed Soul Desire by one of the youth band members on the long drive back from Nebraska. Small-group discussions, leadership retreats, workcamps, mission trips, and regular monthly service projects would grow out from this central focus. The one thing we said we?d do every week, no matter what, would be worship.

    Our worship style is still taking shape. Our youth band plays ska one week and rock the next. We use video clips, drama, interactive discussion, and even a question-and-answer format to introduce our weekly biblical focus. But no matter how we open things up I always close with a short message from God?s Word.

    Since launching Soul Desire we?ve doubled our Sunday night attendance. And we?ve attracted five area churches that felt the pull to develop a youth-oriented worship service and decided to check out what we?re doing. Meanwhile, we?ve entered into a partnership with another area youth ministry to sponsor a monthly coffeehouse for community outreach.

    Parents who were skeptical about our program?s effectiveness are now actively involved in our ministry. Our work camp team for 2000 is the largest ever?more than 70 teenagers and adults. And my church leaders are no longer second-guessing their decision to make youth ministry my only job.

    Of course, we?re new at all this, and it took a lot more work to make the transition than I?ve described here. But if you feel God tugging you toward a worship focus in your ministry, I urge you to do what I did?visit a youth ministry that?s already doing it. King of Kings in Omaha and St. Timothy?s in Arizona are great choices, but there?s probably a church in your back yard that would love to help you get started.

    1. groupmag.com is our Web site?s address, since you were wondering. And, since you were further wondering, you can findthe results of our unscientific-yet-nevertheless-worth-noting poll there?just click on the extra box, and then select "Hot Trends."

    2. We dipped our ladle into the flood of worship music CDs and pulled out a heaping serving?you can taste what?s out there by going to our Web site at groupmag.com and clicking on the EXTRA box, and then selecting "Worship Music CDs."

    3. Surprisingly, the movement has its roots in "post-Christian" Britain, where high-energy, youth-led worship has enticed a generation of young people back into the church. For a brief tour of what some of these groups are doing, go to greenbelt.org.uk and click on Alternative Worship.

    4. To find examples of youth ministries that have a worship focus, use the words "youth worship" to search on any major online search engine, such as Alta Vista. You?ll get a wide diversity of examples and denominational approaches to youth worship. You can also add your state?s name to the search to find area churches that are already pioneering a worship focus in their youth ministries.

    5. See what King of Kings is doing with their youth worship service by checking out their Web site at www.kingofkingsomaha.org.

    6. Check out the youth ministry at St. Timothy?s by visiting their Web site at www.sttims-mesa.org.


    Tim Kurth is a veteran youth minister in Illinois.


    Used my permission, Group Magazine, Copyright March/April, 2000, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539.

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