I grew up in the church. I went to youth group. I played guitar. I sang. So, of course, at some point I became the “worship leader” for youth group.
I’m not saying it was wrong or right for my Youth Pastor to ask me to fill such a role, but now looking back on it, Im not sure if he had any idea what he was asking me to do because He certainly didn’t give me much instruction on what “worship” or “worship leader” even meant. Thankfully, he was a great YP, and he invested in my life in so many other important ways. God used him to grow my faith in big ways in my High School years. After High School I, by God’s grace, was able to attend Trinity College of FL where I studied Worship Theology. I went to Trinity expecting to take the normal Systematic Theology classes and then take a bunch of easy Worship classes, I mean, I’d been “leading worship” for like 6 years by then, I was pretty much an expert, right?…Thats not quite how it went…
During my time at Trinity I was introduced to a bunch of great worship Theologians, and my Worship classes were anything but easy. In every class I was asked to visit 3 Worship services of Churches that were inside one of the three main branches of Christendom, but totally outside of my tradition. I visited a ton of different kinds of Churches in both High, and Low Church traditions. I visited Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and I visited Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist, and everything in between (well, almost…Gods Children are diverse!). When I would come back from these visits in my classes, we would talk about what “Worship” meant and what the differences between that particular church visit and my tradition. We also talked about the similarities, and we talked about the stuff that made us think “man! that was so cool!!”, and the stuff that made us want to tear our shirt and throw ashes on ourselves. This was WAY more intense, and Theological that any “worship” discussion I’d had with anyone in my church, even the Worship Pastor.
This brings me back to the “bow-tie”. Up until this point in my “Worship Leading” life, the most thoughtful idea I had been given about how to plan a worship set was to do the “bow tie”…you know…big opener, bring it down in the middle so there are tears and raised hands, and then close with another big song. Now, the bow-tie is fine, there is nothing sinful or wrong about it. However, if thats the most thought your young worship leader puts into your corporate worship, the problem will be that you will have placed a style issue at the top, and you wont have done much work on content.
For me, the following is the system by which we plan and critique our corporate worship in my Student Ministry: Content, Structure, Style.
Content: This is the most vital part of the equation. Content is non-negotiable. It needs to be Christo-centric, Trinitarian, and it should tell God’s Story (He existed in perfect holiness, He created, we fell and need Him, He redeems, He calls us into His family as Sons, and Daughters) It doesn’t matter what tradition you come from, you can tell God’s Story through your songs and preaching every week, no matter the series or passage you might be in. This part of this equation was the one thing that I noticed remained basically the same across most of the Church visits I did in Bible College. Though the way the story was told definitely changed, for the most part, this was the story that I found.
Structure: Structure is semi-negotiable: want to do communion as a way to communicate that the community we feel when we partake of communion is a picture of the way God exists in perfect community in the Trinity? Cool! Want to use an “alter call” as a way to communicate that we need God and that He wants to redeem us? Do it! This is of secondary importance, and this is where you get to be faithful to your tradition. You will need to be a bit cautious though because there can be times when the structure of your gathering can change the Story you tell, like if you never sing songs about how we are sinful and need God, the story seems a bit inconsistent…
Style: This is of even more secondary importance and this is where you can begin to have your students take over some of the responsibility of things like song choice. Style is a great doorway to conversations about content with your musicians. The style should fit your students, not necessarily you or your sponsors, so having students be in on the decisions of song choice is a great way to make sure the style is agreeable to them, and its a great way to start a conversation like “Ok, great we all like this song! What part of Gods story is this song telling? Where should we put it in the set?” etc…
Honestly, if you want to teach your young musicians theology in a way that will stick with them, talk about Worship with them. Get them to start defining what they actually mean when they say that word. Get them to study the ancient words that we got “Worship” from. There is nothing worse that a young Worship Leader who speaks with way more “authority” than they have maturity and humility, and many times, this pride spreads to the other students. Lovingly, continually showing your young Worship Leader that they don’t know everything, and that there is a lot more to Leading Worship than stage presence and the ability to talk in that weird, overly dramatic, “worship leader” voice from the stage, will help them to become more pastoral and humble in their approach to Worship Leading. Help them to understand that their role in your Youth Group is vitally important and that what you are asking them to help you with is of high, high importance. Talk through the set lists they choose and ask them why they chose those songs and why in that order, and don’t let them slide by with easy answers! This may mean that you need to do some study and reading yourself, but believe me, it is worth it! A great place to start reading is any of the “Ancient-Future” books by Robert Webber, but particularly “Ancient-Future Worship”.
I promise, if you invest the time it takes to develop good, thoughtful Worship Leaders among your students, you will begin to see a deepening in their faith that you haven’t seen before, and this will begin to spread throughout the other students, and probably even your adult leaders.