This past Sunday evening our eighth grade confirmands, some parents, fellow parishioners, and my family and I went to the Old Market in Omaha to attend worship at Urban Abbey, a United Methodist worshipping community. When I was their age (12-13), I remember all of my peers and I preferring contemporary-style worship (whatever that really means) over the more traditional forms. At one time in my childhood, I even wanted to be Baptist—for no reason other than the more upbeat music I experienced when attending another church with a neighborhood friend. In college, classmates and I discussed “worship wars,” attended talks by various pastors and professors about how they each approached and understood worship differently, and we each wrestled with what we thought was most appealing to youth. In seminary, I was inundated with liturgy and traditional—and in some cases high-church—practices, in preparation for serving on internship and eventually first call. Just about everywhere I’ve been: South or North, rural or urban, I’ve encountered adults, parents, and youth alike discuss and debate what in worship “feeds” each of them and how it should be done in the church. Is it appealing or inviting? Is it true to who we are as Christians in this particular congregation? Does it represent our context and unique congregational make-up? What is being, or attempting to be, communicated through each part and piece?
One of the great assumptions I’ve heard time and again is that all young people (whatever that blanket label means) prefer the lights and sounds, spontaneity and spunk of contemporary-style worship. At times, in my own personal journey, I have fit that assumption. Yet, there have also been other times when such a statement could not be further from the truth. Monthly, I take our 8th grade confirmands to different worshipping communities to participate with and witness others’ differing beliefs and practices. I believe it’s important for them to have these experiences so they can see the great diversity and variety of beliefs and practices, and begin questioning what is most faithful and appealing for them personally. Following each of our worship visits, I try to debrief with the students over a meal. We discuss what they saw, heard, and felt, the similarities and differences they noticed between the place we just attended and their home congregation, and I ask them to each offer both something they really enjoyed and something they did not like. Each month, I am amazed by what I hear—how much they pick up on, what draws their attention, and those parts they could otherwise do without. Being the second year I’ve done this, it’s even fascinating for me to mentally compare how the previous class responded to a particular worship site and how this one compares or contrasts in their reactions.
So as we sat around the table—sipping on our drinks and waiting for dinner to arrive—we reviewed the worship setting and its affects on each of us. Going around the table, each student shared his or her thoughts and feelings—some comments more surface-level, and others quite profound. Two main themes stood out from the group that I found interesting and shared back with them—giving way to even deeper discussion. First, most all of the group really appreciated the intimacy of the worship service at Urban Abbey. They found the people to be very welcoming and friendly, and the space to be warm (emotionally and relationally) and fun. Secondly, however, the majority of the group said they struggled with its difference in liturgy and more freeform order. These students who, for the most part, have been raised in the same specific worshipping community all their lives, found themselves wrestling with anything that deviated from the traditional hymns and organ music, pews, stained glass windows, and particular building of the sanctuary they had grown to view as comfortable and defining church for them. “It was a nice change, but it just didn’t feel like church for me.”
Hmm… Interesting. Not what I expected to hear. In Lutheran fashion, I find myself wondering—both in my own personal consideration of this and discussing it with others: “What does this mean?” First and foremost, I think the comments of our youth regarding various worshipping communities and their personal thoughts and feelings of them reinforces the adage: context is everything. No longer can we assume and cast it onto others that all youth/young people want/seek/admire a particular style or specific qualities in worship. Every person—young and/or old—is unique in themselves. Where and how one is raised very much shapes a person’s views regarding worship—positively or negatively. This means, for some, if traditional forms of worship are experienced in negative ways the person is likely to look for other styles, if any, to pursue in church. On the other hand, for others, if the same exact forms of worship are experienced in positive ways the person can find comfort in it and, as a result, in some ways be shaped in how they view other, different styles. This is not to say one approach to worship is right or others are wrong. I have this “field education” as part of my Confirmation curriculum in order to enhance the students’ learning in opening them up to a variety of experiences that will hopefully give them a greater appreciation of others and the diversity of beliefs and worship, and also shape/strengthen their own personal beliefs and views of worship. My hope is that with each additional visit we make, the students will be further encouraged to engage with others of differing beliefs and practices and that they might feel more and more comfortable to question—both internally and with others—what such similarities and differences mean for them.