Congregational Worship and its Effect on Youth Groups

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I was talking with a church planter recently and he suggested that a new church start that had traditional worship could not be successful.  His point was that church plants, and he added that existing churches that were growing, all used contemporary worship.  As I processed that claim, and as I thought about youth ministry, I thought I would throw a similar question to those who read this blog.

Is it possible to have a growing, healthy, successful youth group in a congregation that has traditional worship? Does the worship style of the congregation matter? Does the worship style of the congregation enhance or inhibit a youth leader’s ability to do youth ministry? I certainly don’t have what I believe is the correct answers to these questions. I would love to hear from others and actually share the discussion with leaders throughout the denomination.

So what do you think?

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Paul - Thank you for your provoking questions.  

I am a director of music at a CRC in New Jersey.  I also am the co-leader of our church's young adult ministry.  In the past I have been a leader in our youth ministry.  And in a little more distant past, I was a participant in youth ministry (after all, I'm only 25).  So I think I have a pretty good perspective on the subject.

Let me address your comment about having a healthy, successful youth group and it's ties to the congregation.  In most youth groups I have been a part of, the youth group can basically be divided into two groups: kids who's families already go to the church and kids who's families don't go to that church (or any church).  For those who already go to the church, worship "style" is not going to inhibit them going to youth group, since they are already familiar with that style.  For the kids who don't go to that church, most likely they are never going to experience the worship style of the church anyway.  In most churches, those kids are basically going to come to youth group on [Friday/Wednesday/pick a day] night and most likely not walk into the church building again during the week.  So I think that "worship style" doesn't really effect them either, since they never really experience it.

As far as church plants/growing churches go, let me preface by saying that I absolutely hate the terms "traditional" and "contemporary".  It's like someone drew a line somewhere around 1982 and put songs on either side of that line.  All songs that are considered "traditional" today were "contemporary" when they were written.  The only difference is that with today's "traditional" songs, the grand filter of time has weeded out most of the bad songs and we are left with the good ones.  Whereas with the "contemporary" songs, we operate on a "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" method.

That in mind, I don't know that there is any good evidence to suggest that there is a correlation or causation between worship styles and church growth.  Let me throw out there some anecodtal evidence to suggest the contrary.  I went to a  Christian college in the midwest where about half of the college students there were from out of state.  The area that the college was in had a wide variety of churches to choose from.  Of my friends there, as well as other people I had spoken with over my time there, most people's experiences were similar.  Initially, when "church shopping", people started with the churches with the cool praise bands.  But, in most cases, the decision on what church to attend regularly came down not to what church had the most contemporary singing time.  It came down to which church engaged them the most on a relational level.

The church I chose was a church where I felt welcome, where I was offered meals, where I was invited over to people's houses to fellowship with them.  It wasn't the church with the most impressive praise band.  In fact, the church I attended the most was, in fact, more on the traditional end of the spectrum.  Style of singing, in most cases, has nothing to do with growth of individual churches.  Churches that grow the fastest are the churches where the people in them make an effort to build relationships with others.

Just some food for thought.

John Van Buiten
Director of Music
Covenant CRC, North Haledon, NJ

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JOhn: All good points and we totally agree although we've approached the question differently. Definitely, relationships play the biggest part of what is going to engage the youth. Thanks for pointing that out! Don't totally disqualify the issue of worship styles with those who are "unchurched" or not necessarily steepping into the church except for that one night a week of youth group. The Wosrship style is contagious and so needds to be embraced by all.....even those future believers who don't know they're saved yet... LOL! 

On a lighter note, I've been in your church and know people who attend there. I grew up in the Propect Park CRC which is now the Unity CRC (PP & 2nd CRC combined). You've found a good spot to begin your roots.

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It sure seems historically that youth have been the driving force behind the change to our contemporary style; or like in the majority of the churches....the "blended" style. However, I think you would see, if you did a study, that every generation pushes the worship envelope in a new direction....and the definition of "traditional" is ever shifting. I don't think a church's success or growth is necessarily tied directly the the style of worship. Sure there are disagreements within churches as to what is the most glorifying, but even within youth there is no common denominator as to what is "more" glorifying; there certainly are criteria of what non-glorifying songs would consist of - mostly focusing on which words/meanings are used - , but within the god-glorifying framework there is a universe of diversity. I know many churches that thrive on traditional hymns alone. Granted, they are probably more conservative than the CRC (eg. URC and Dutch Reformed). The bigger question is, "Are these differences splitting the visible and the invisible church". Many times we see splits over this issue which hasn't changed since I was at Calvin in the late 70's. A healthy use of tolerance is allowing for others to express, engage and embrace God's relational presence through music, even if it doesn't "seem" God-glorifying to them (but fits into a god-glorifying framework). It's easy to be stubborn on this issue; I think the hardest thing for a church is to accept that there are other styles of worship in the universal church. If it's a thorn and causing us to stumble there are methods for trying to work together at it. Sometimes, it even leads to a deeper and richer worship experience that you have never felt before. Sometimes it means disagreeing and worshipping somewhere else. It's like a marriage; we don't always agree; in fact many times we disagree. But usually we come together somewhere in the middle, sometimes closer to my side, sometimes closer to hers, but our efforts ALWAYS produce something so much BETTER than we could have produced on our own as individuals. When disagreemnt in worship occurs....throwing up our hands in the air in frustration and quitting NEVER leads to that point where something better can have the opportunity to evolve.  I don't believe that youth ministry is inihibited because of the worship styles....it's more because of our inner selfishness and stubborness of what we (youth & elderly and everyone in between) define worship should be.....well, then it is no longer god-glorifying, but Man glorifying. Focusing it inward only enhances man; focusing it outward enhances only God. God gives us that freedom to embrace many styles; let's not trap His glory in a defined, little box. Rather let's lavish Him with all types of styles that enhance His Awesome Nature!

 

For 300 years in the US and Canada there was very little change in worship format. All of a sudden, last 20 years, the youth tail is wagging the dog. What happened? 

Bill,

As denominational loyalty recedes, the church will go to great (and sometimes foolish) measures to retain youth and young families. You're probably frustrated that many churches have began catering to the demands of young people while neglecting the preferences of older folks. What this creates is older people who are loyal to the CRC but also feel betrayed by their churches for the sake of the youth. And on the other end of the spectrum, the youth come to a church where many of the older people don't/can't sing and there is a feeling of disunity during worship (especially while the praise team is blasting the latest Christian radio hit). I have visited over a dozen CRCs in the past few years and this tension has been evident in too many of them.

What I encourage is for you to talk with your elder or pastor about the importance of a song's 1) singability and 2) lyrical content. If you find that your church is singing several that don't fit both criteria, you might have a problem.

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It's important for both the seniors and the youth to get to know each other better; Although, I know this happens in many churches, I honestly believe it's due to a great disconnect chasm between seniors and youth. In our church we try to do some events together that gets both generations building relationships and bridges to each other. A deeper understanding goes a long way, and spills over into other areas like respect for gtraditiona/ and contemporary styles of worship...

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Industrial & Technological/digital revolution has played a huge part in that; Air travel, communication and digital advanced have reduced the size of the planet and reducung the distance barrier and have sped up our daily routines; Whether good or bad, that is the world we live in....one that is always changing. Although God's timeless LAW is never changing, the world will ALWAYS be changing and we need to accept change, not for change itself, but for application and implementation of God's Words, so that others around us can understand it. It's just like the facebook issue. My dad constantly complains that my son doesn't respond to him when he emails my son. My dead doesn't have fb. What my dad is missing is that anyone under the age of 21, is NOT using email anymore. txting & fb are the only modes of communication for young people today - or at least 95% of them. I totally understand that being in youth ministry. Here's a great example....If I call up to my son on the 2nd floor to do something for me, I get a "yeah, dad!" and I wait, and wait, and wait. However, if I txt him to come out and help me, he's outside within minutes. It sounds crazy, but that is how they are connecting.The older generation thinks they are being rude when they are not responding, but really the issue is that they are NOT GETTING THE MESSAGE! We need to make sure they are getting the message before we can accuse them of negative actions. Just a thought....

Thank you all for the replies. I know it is a new world out there. At 72 years, I am set in my ways and don't want to be a part of it. In my mind, worship is an obligation, not an entertainment. I'm a legalist at heart.

In  the OLD old days the pagans understood that a popular entertaining civil religion kept the population under control. Maybe the CRC should try public sacrifices and fighting (for Jesus) in the arena. That would be an interesting test of the first amendment. After all, the Rastafarians can now deduct the cost of sacrificial chickens from their income tax.

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WOW! not sure where this came from....worship as entertainment isn't even mentioned; I agree that worship is an obligation that God requires of us to glorify Him - and BTW that's not legalistic - but it shouldn't be done with stone-cold stoicism. While I appreciate your wisdom, I also think God wishes us to bring "pleasing" sacrifices or worship to His feet and ears. You may be referring to those churches who confuse what worship is really for - and, yes, therre are many out there - but, God also demands that we don't hide our heads in the sand, just because there are new "tricks" - or rather ways to worship - to learn. Make the connections with those younger generations, get to know them better, and you'll be surprised, I think, how you each have in common, in furthering God's kingdom and homoring His majesety. You may even bee pleasantly surprised that there is a mustard seed of desire to left in you to be a part of it in some god-glorifying way. 

 

The Juvenilezation of American ChristianitybyThomas E. Bergler, reviewed by Robert Hosack in The Banner 

Jun 22, 2012 — In this critical but constructive study of the intersection of Christianity and youth culture, Bergler explores a “quiet revolution in American church life.” Teens and their youth leaders have convinced churches that “the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents” are now “appropriate for adults.” While these changes have breathed life into four major American church traditions over the last 75 years—African American, evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Roman Catholic—white evangelicals have led this revolution, resulting in adults “embracing immature versions of the faith”—with consumerism and self-centeredness popularizing a feel-good, theologically ignorant faith. As Bergler notes, “at least some traits that should be included in Christian maturity have been decoupled from adulthood in post-1960s America, encourag[ing] [a] . . . juvenilization of American Christianity and the emergence of the new immature adulthood [that] have mutually reinforced one another.” In sum, “we’re all adolescents now.” (Eerdmans)

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Bernard: Please expand on what you are trying to point out here....

I suggest you either read the book, published by Eerdmans 2012,  or perhaps read the most recent Christianity Today where this was the cover story, titled "When Are We Going to Grow Up." The author is professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University . Three individuals were tasked with reviewing the professor's book, and when one drills down beneath what might be their biases based upon their own vocations, one finds they are hard put to disagree.

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OK, so you're pointing out an article in which they claim that the organized church (a big generalization, since all denominational frameworks are different) has adopted, as a whole, the philosophy of the younger generation. Namely, that we need to be entertained and feel good about our theology, and that there is no solid, theological underpinning; and then in the next breath you point out that there is overall disagreement amongst theologians concerning this point. Coming from a self-proclaimed non-church attendee, that observation seems translucent since (1) how can you evaluate something you're not a part of and (2) it is a self-defeating statement and looks like it's just tossed into the discussion to muddy the waters. If however, you are taking a stand and have facts to back it up, then I challenge you to do so.....BTW, I would not agree with the statement that all churches have this attitude; Some denominations strive to even discourage this type of thinking. I would agree that there are good number of churches have fallen prey to this type of thinking because they have been trapped into thinking that numbers is the answer to a successful church, thus making the vision of the church unclear and difficult to define. The mandate of the universal Church should always be clearly understood. That of the Great Commission! The success of the Church depends entirely on the obedience to that command!

I totally agree with John's main point that relationships will connect young people to a church or a lack thereof will send them somewhere else.

Regarding worship styles, I'm a big fan of talking throughout the service about why we do things, why we sing a certain song or even why there's a sermon every Sunday. This usually means that I spend some time every couple weeks reminding people that the most important part of a song is the lyrical content. Sometimes I'll read the words of the song before we sing it so they can sink in a little bit. Our church is very traditional in the songs we sing because of that factor. If a contemporary song has great words (we sing lots by the Gettys) we'll use it. I think that this helps the older people appreciate a new song and it helps the younger people appreciate the older ones.

I'm not sure if this approach will grow or shrink our youth group, but the passion for congregational singing at our church is quite high. If the people in the seats are passionately engaged with the Living God, young people will want to be there no matter the type of music.

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This is an excellent idea. Especially when the pastor - especially in the CRC denomination - is making special efforts to coordinate all aspects of the worship experience to blend as one experience.

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I have to say to  Paul who initially started this discussion.  I am not seeing a lot of room for the Holy Spirit to work.  Too much emphasis on contemporay/traditional, church plant/established.  We need to set all of these personal preferences aside and allow the work of the Holy Spirit to do wonderful things in our denomination/congregations

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I was hoping that was being assumed already, but maybe not, in which case it is a good point to insert.

Albert:  your response can only be characterized by what in intro philosophy we learned was one of the weakest of arguments: ad hominem.  Attack the messenger when the message cannot be swallowed.   But, to answer the attack:  my wife and I attend every Sunday--I take it that this website is now presenting what one thought was information gathered for confidential purposes and like many political polls the answers allowed are too limited and confining so one picks what might apply given how one reads the poll.  We do not attend CRC churches which is how I understood the question to be posed for statistical purposes.  I can write much more on my street cred on this but it would likely be self-serving sounding.

Now:   I did not do the research, write the book, or put it in Christianity Today as the cover story.  You need to address the author, who apparently has been in the field for quite some time, and address the editors of Christianity Today.  

Bill Wald made a point and having just read the article thought that it in some way supported the point he was trying to make before that point was swept away in a tide of homogenous opinion.

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Bernard: You are right on both accounts and I apologize for any remarks that may have caused inappropriate assumptions. I was wrong in making those statements that may have been perceived as critical. I, in no way, was trying to attack you personally and at the same time, I am glad that we can have an open and free discussion without mixing in hurt feelings. By your response, I do understand, now, I think, where you are coming from by offering the article as citation for Bill's comment. I may still not entirely agree with Bill, I do still think we need to be cautious and aware of teaching to the younger generations a watered-down version of theology, just because we/they think/say it's outdated. God bless you and I am relieved that I was wrong about the church issue; we are becoming less in numbers and need to stand firm side-by-side in faith with one another.