The church we often attended the year we lived in South Africa, St. Michael and St. George Cathedral in Grahamstown, taught us a great deal about diversity, weaving cultural traditions into the fabric of the liturgy, and worship itself. On Sundays during the school year, the church was usually filled with young students attending school in one of the surrounding townships or at a boarding school.
I soon discovered that the best layreaders in the congregation were young adolescents who often walked to the cathedral from their township homes. From the moment they stood at one of the front pews in the cavernous space and made their way to the steps of the lectern, they exuded poise and confidence. Even the tiniest youth who had to move a stool into place before she reached the lectern maintained an air of calmness and control.
The scripture readings were almost always in English, the third or fourth language of many of these young people. I rarely heard a word mispronounced, even the more difficult names of places and people we encounter in the Bible. The gifts of these young people were honed through practice, simple hard work, and the vision of a church elder.
A retired drama professor at the local university was their guide and mentor. Each week she met with the layreaders to study the scripture passages from the lectionary readings. They looked at both the context of each reading and the themes that pervaded each week’s verses.
The young men and women learned how to walk with confidence, with slow, fluid movements. They discovered the importance of pacing, pausing before making eye contact with the congregation. I’m not sure they were told what to wear, but youth participating in worship always looked well-groomed.
Their mentor was already losing her hearing when I met her but not her authority nor the respect of the young people in her care. I have often wondered if the tools she gave them proved useful in other parts of their lives.
After returning to the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, issues raised by lay and clergy leaders about formation, especially during the traditional Sunday school format, reminded me of what the people of Africa had taught me. Worship can be a powerful place to center formation.
When I described my experience in South Africa, I heard similar stories about formation already occurring in congregations. Sometimes it centered on a creative choir master or an energetic acolyte coach.
Maybe some churches don’t need a new curriculum. Maybe we can build on programming already available in churches and supplement it with new activities to create a paradigm built on worship and faith in action.
The best place to begin is to identify the parts of worship where youth are already involved or could play a role.
- Acolytes Most churches already have acolyte training scheduled at the beginning and/or middle of the school year. Consider setting aside time before or after worship to go deeper with that training. Episcopal worship is steeped in tradition, with names for spaces, sacramental objects, and other items around the altar and worship area. Learning about how these names came about and when they were introduced could provide a foundation in church history for more in-depth study later. An inspired teacher could help young people bridge ancient traditions to modern practice and faith.
- Choirs The importance of music in the faith of people of all ages has been well documented. Putting music of beauty, hope and inspiration into the minds of young people is a lifelong gift. Coupling the music training with biblical study and the teaching of faith is a natural. Knowing the context of a psalm set to music, for example, makes the words more meaningful and rich.
- Hospitality Youth at some churches are actively involved as ushers and distributing worship bags and bulletins to young children. Increase their responsibilities while teaching them the role of welcoming all into the community, using the early church as an example of inclusion.
- Layreading Use the South Africa model for Bible study and how to present the Word.
- Altar guild Learning to set up the altar for different kinds of services at different seasons is another opportunity to learn about Episcopal traditions, being in sacred space, and honoring the rules of the sanctity of the sacraments. This could be coupled with the acolyte instruction.
Other experiences and activities could also incorporate a youth presence, scheduled immediately before or after a worship service.
- Mission and outreach Youth could participate both in decision-making and actual work situations. A youth member of the mission/outreach committee can provide thoughtful and realistic input about ways children and youth can fully participate in mission activities of a church.
- Gardens and grounds Youth involvement in the development and maintenance of gardens will help everyone involved remember and celebrate God as creator.
- Coffee hours While preparation and clean up are important parts of hospitality, more important might be a role as greeter, engaging people of different ages in conversation, and providing newcomers with information.
Role of Mentors
The strength of a worship-based curriculum is the use of mentors of all ages to lead children and youth in different content areas. Depending on the size and diversity of ages within a congregation, leadership could range from adolescents to church elders. A goal of the program would be to foster relationships among active worship participants.
Ideally, meeting times for a worship-based curriculum would be set immediately before or after worship, to allow the widest participation possible. Use of the actual worship space could be rotated, depending on the needs of the different groups.
The format of the program could be set for a defined period of time or on a monthly or other rotation basis. The goal would be to expose children and youth to different aspects of both worship preparation and execution.
Moving to a Worship-Based Program
It may be best to approach a worship-based program in incremental steps. Begin with programs that may already exist, such as acolytes and choir. Build from a strong base into other areas in which mentors have expressed strong interest.
Discover how worship can really become the heart of your congregation!
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Fall 2016, Vol. 29, No. 1, page 6-7