A few weeks ago, my congregation held it's annual Youth Sunday, a tradition I have the ultimate love / hate relationship with.
For years, I've heard people describe this Sunday as the one in which our youth “take-over” worship. Even though I fear I've occasionally repeated this phrase, truth be told, I hate it with every fiber of my being.
Worship is not something we take-over; It's something we do, it's part of who we are, it's a response to God's love for us. Leading it is always a privilege and a responsibility.
That's the message I've tried to consistently instill in my teens about Youth Sunday. Having heard this message now for six years, I think they finally understand and believe it.
Unfortunately, I fear many of the people in our larger congregation do not. A few well-meaning parishioners still watch Youth Sunday as though it were an end-of-the-year school performance – oohing and awing at our talented teens, knowing it requires nothing of them other than a few scattered applause.
Such a mentality frustrates me and harms the church. By treating Youth Sunday like a performance, we tell teens their role in our community is to delight and entertain us. This, in turn, disempowers teens.
Knowing this, I was delighted when, this year, my senior pastor opened Youth Sunday with these words:
In my reading over the past few months, I’ve come across a new word: adultism. It’s an -ism, like racism or classism. And it refers to the tendency of the adults in the world to regard our youth as somehow incomplete, second class, still waiting to become fully human. Think for instance about how often we refer to the youth in our society as problems to be solved rather than gifts to be embraced. Yesterday in our staff/council retreat, we spent some time in Romans 12 where it talks about the gifts that have been given to each member of the body of Christ. Including our youth. So, this morning, I invite you to open yourself to a different way of experiencing this youth service. This is not a performance by our high school youth. It’s not a once a year opportunity to see them on stage, if you will. But it is a chance to see in bold and living color the gifts that they have, the asset that they are to our faith community and the word from God that they bring. Above all I invite you to listen for a word from God through their leadership this morning.
And to the youth I say this. You don’t have to wait to share your gifts with the world. Sometimes, I think we adults give you the impression that you have to stand in line waiting until you grow up, until you maybe settle down or get a career or find someone to partner with and have kids with before you have anything significant to offer. But I want to say quite the opposite.
At whatever age you are you have a soul, you have a spirit, you have a heart, you have a mind; use them. You have experience; draw on it. You have challenges to pose; pose them. You have learning; use it to teach us. You have to wait till a certain age before you can drink. You wait till a certain age until you can vote, until your opinions are heard. But I tell you, don’t wait. You have something to teach us, and today, I promise that we will listen. And I hope that in practicing our listening today, we will be able better to listen to you in the days to come.
I listened to my senior pastor's words with tears in my eyes, thankful to be part of a congregation whose leadership sees our youth in this way; Thankful to be part of a congregation who doesn't just say these things, but who regularly puts these words into actions.
And that's when it occurred to me. As much as Youth Sunday as a performance frustrates me, Youth Sunday as worship does not. Instead, it invites teens to discover and use their gifts to serve and glorify God.
This year, teens did that on Youth Sunday by serving as ushers, acolytes, lectors, musicians, assisting ministers (who help with communion), and preachers. They fulfilled all the roles needed for Sunday worship to occur.
What's remarkable to me about this, however, is not that teens fulfilled all these leadership roles on Youth Sunday. It's that in my congregation, with the exception of preaching, youth serve in all of these roles on a regular basis.
In my congregation, teens are integrated into the worshiping life of our community; They're encouraged to use their gifts to serve God on a regular basis; And then they're equipped and empowered to do so – not just on one particular week but throughout the entire year.