Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, September 23, 2005


Last night some close friends who read my blog asked if I was regretting getting out of youth ministry since I was blogging about those days with some nostalgia. The answer is "not at all", although I don't regret my youth ministry days...in fact I was grown and blessed and nurtured and matured by it. I'm proud of having spent a short time in what I consider to be an incredibly special and needed and difficult profession. I'm no longer a YM because I feel God called me to another place, not because it was a bad place to be. I will always have a special place in my heart for youth ministry and youth ministers.

Besides the teens themselves, what I clearly miss most about youth ministry is the freedom and creativity that it allowed and expected. This is a way in which all ministry needs to be like youth ministry. Then, if I had tried to do the same thing, worship in the same way every time we met, there would have been a revolt. So I was challenged to make every meeting meaningful and full of life and God. I'm not trying to make a case for consumer Christianity, where we feed people only what they ask for in order to secure their presence in our assembly in the future, what I'm saying is that teenagers' natural desire for variety, for their faith to be a journey of adventure and wonder is much more healthy than many adults' tendency to want their church experience to be static and comfortable and routine, to avoid challenges and conflict. I remember being challenged every week to plan worship that would be powerful and meaningful and relevant to us TODAY, never having to rely on a formula, always approaching God in a fresh way. And the next week, in our new context, new situation, we could worship and study in a way that was appropriate to us again, even if we were in a totally different place spiritually. Was it a lot more work than preparing for worship in my current church? Sure...it was more work than preparing a good sermon. But it was vibrant and rewarding and real.

I'm constantly amazed how few churches understand the power of atmosphere. By that I mean that you can totally enhance worship by putting some effort and thought into setting up your worship space. It blows my mind when I hear church leaders wonder why people come into their church's dimly lit auditorium/sanctuary and don't speak to each other or interact much. Because it's lit like a tavern in there! You feel like you should be sitting in a corner with a pitcher of beer and a pack of cigarettes, listening to a bad lounge singer croon "Muskrat Love." The first, most simple rule of atmosphere is that the brighter and friendlier a room is, the more people will chat and interact. The dimmer the room, people tend to be more calm and reserved. If my youth group was becoming too talkative to pay attention, I'd always turn out the lights and keep going. I love to play with lighting. My favorite thing about my youth room when I was a YM was that it went TOTALLY dark without lights. I even covered the exit signs. I could speak by candlelight, we journaled by candlelight, we prayed in the dark, then flip on the blinding flourescent lights when it came time to discuss. I caused a stir once because in preparation for a youth event, I blacked out all 30 stained glass windows in my church's auditorium and hung heavy blankets over the doors so that I could have hundreds of teenagers praising God un-selfconsciously (although you'd be surprised how much light is generated by a video screen even with a black background and a gray font). But that darkness helped draw them in and actually engage.

If you have an awkward kind of meeting area and people have a hard time focusing on the speaker, turn the lights out on them and put a spotlight on him. Sometimes it's better to take the spotlight off the speaker to emphasize the words. I've preached on poverty or the sick and destitute by putting a continuous series of powerful pictures on a screen while I sat down where no one could see me and preached softly over the speaker system. Very powerful.

Seating plays a role. Pews tend to keep people buttoned up, chairs are less formal. In my old youth room, depending on the mood I wanted to convey, we'd sometimes sit in chairs, sometimes in couches and beanbags and sometimes on the floor. It makes a difference whether people are seated in neat rows so that they only see the backs of other peoples' heads, or if they are seated in a circle where they can see each other.

What if we could even leave the church building sometimes to worship? Easter sunrise services are a good example of this. Once when I was teaching my youth group about poverty and having a heart for the poor, instead of ordering pizza for our youth meeting like usual I gave them bags of groceries just like our church gave poor families and made them cook their own meal with the crappy generic non-perishable food we gave to people who came to us for help (my policy: if you don't eat it, don't donate copious quantities of it to a food pantry). Then we gathered outside our building in the alley around a dumpster and worshipped while facing the reality of life in that neighborhood - people living in garages, in shacks with dirt floors, drugs houses, screaming children, trash covering the yards. Then we talked about how poor we are all when we approach God. I miss that kind of freedom and creativity and I think it would be helpful for the rest of the church, not just youth ministries.


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