Lately I’ve been suggesting that churches consider using worship as the center of formation for young people. My thinking grew out of a conversation with a former rector, now retired and doing consulting in his new home in Florida.
Liturgical churches have by their very nature the means to pass on scripture, tradition and reason through worship and the books that guide and shape their corporate gatherings. Pick up the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and leaf through it. It has prayers, scripture, words of healing and celebration, and clear statements of belief in the Catechism section.
A worship-based formation program is a natural segue in churches that use Godly Play or Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for younger learners. Already immersed in the rhythms of liturgy, these children are prime candidates to broaden their learning through actual experience and hands-on participation during corporate worship.
My conversation with my old friend and mentor in Florida about a worship-based formation experience began with acolytes. Training for these young people will only increase their knowledge and understanding of our faith. In my mind’s eye, I can see how their proximity to the activities at and around the altar make the Sacrament of Eucharist come alive—not an abstract discussion in a classroom, but an unfolding drama about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Youth members of an altar guild could have the opportunity to learn the practical language of faith. The formal names for the cup, the plate, and other parts of the Eucharist can become part of their vocabularies.
Similarly, the rhythms of the seasons and the special feast days start to make sense with the changing colors of the altar cloths and other hangings. Adult or older youth mentors can be primed to talk to younger youth about the different names and functions of each parts of the altar area.
Perhaps the best learning opportunities come from preparation for lay reading. Each week the entire lector group, young and old, could gather to learn about the passages that will be read the following week. Careful instruction about the context of each passage and discussions relating to common themes in each reading make for a lively Bible study.
At the cathedral that I attended regularly during my year in South Africa, young people were encouraged to be lay readers during worship services. They were required, however, to meet with the lay reading coach, a retired drama lecturer from the local university. Young men and women from nearby townships and private boarding schools participated in this program.
They began their coaching sessions by exploring the scripture passages they were assigned to read. Then they practiced walking from the pews to the lectern—pacing themselves carefully so their approach did not add an unnecessary distraction.When they reached the lectern, they sometimes pulled over a small stool to stand on and then made sure the microphone was properly set.
The coach taught them how to pace their reading and maintain a pleasant cadence. Watching these young South Africans mature over the year as they gained confidence and assurance was heartwarming for everyone in the congregation.
Youth who want to explore prayer disciplines more deeply might work with a mentor to prepare the weekly Prayers of the People read during worship. They would not only be scheduled with other readers each Sunday, but also responsible for certain parts of the content.
Other places to combine formation with worship participation include ushering, which might incorporate stewardship sessions, and singing in the choir. Music invites people to explore poetry and scripture in hymns and anthems with more depth and perception.
In each of these service components, there is an element of service. Not only are youth learning about their faith and the traditions of the church, they are also giving of themselves. Working with youth in the different worship areas can also be a high point of learning and relationship-building for adults involved as mentors and teachers.
Instead of sending young people away from the center of corporate worship experiences, look for ways to form their faith around the richness of our liturgical traditions.
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum)
Rite Place: Kids Do Church! Adults do, too!
By Shawn M. Schreiner and Dennis E. Northway
Morehouse Publishing, 2014
Dorothy Linthicum (@dslinthicum) is an instructor at Virginia Theological Seminary and program coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching.