I had tried to put off thinking about it all day, all week in fact, it was something that i wasnt that looking forward to being involved in. But, and this part stays anonymous, i was asked to go along to a 2 monthly youth-worship event in one of the local churches in the town, and maybe have a conversation with some young people afterwards. Given that I have and had no prior contact with any of these young people, the request itself was odd. However, I went along.
I arrived late, as i had taken my son to a friends house. There was no one on the door at the front of the church, the door looked closed but was open, so i went in to the church building, and found myself a seat near the back. I rarely do ‘making a scene’ in public.
On stage there was a 5-6 piece band, male musicians, one female singer, all young people aged 18-21 ish, all from local churches. Great, at least there’s some young people participating. Of a crowd of about 25, a generous 30 maybe, only 8 were actually young people, maybe there was 10. I felt like I needed to check that this was the ‘youth event’ and not just young people doing the music for the ‘normal’ Sunday service in the church building. But it was, at least i think it was.
I could be really critical here, but im not going to be. Because underlying that criticism is two questions, and one overriding feeling. The feeling is guilt, but ill get to that later.
The questions however, are ones that we have got to really wrestle with, because, with the pending closing of Soul Survivor, there is a distinct possibility that the youth-gathering-worship-event is limping along on its final death march, dragging a few people along with it as a final fling. Yet with the growth of the Australian version of the youth worship scene in the UK, its evangelists are quick to put on the same, not learning from the journey of its existence in the UK over the last 50 years.
Though it never was the great act of rebellion, the youth worship scene in the UK once stood out as something different from the sunday church, and this was before my own time in it. A discussion with a pastor yesterday revealed that they did church as an act of rebellion, back in the day. But today – youth worship as an act of rebellion? its conformity to the hilt and why its not dangerous enough for young people to take a risk with.
There is no doubting that the youth worship scene catapulted to the mainstream in a swaith of relevancy and contemporaryness, has at its best revitalised singing and worship in churches, or at least created more opportunities that sunday church worship looks as much like a youth worship band (in instrumentation and style) that the youth worship service.
For many, there might be no difference, even the same songs, sang and performed by a similar style of folky, U2/Coldplay style music. The youth worship gathering is as least distinctive as it could ever be. By virtue of its own deemed success. Apparently its what cool churches do, but it barely attracts anyone except those who’d be in church somewhere else.
So, thats the first question – Is it time to say good bye the ‘youth gathering worship style event’?
Alot of effort was put into the latest incarnation of one that I saw yesterday, the band were talented, the message cool, though the room was almost unbearably hot.
But questions about genuine participation leave me hanging, as do questions of faith, learning, discipleship and mission. Its not just about substance, its also about style, and as a young person said to me yesterday, they dont like singing, so why go to a singing event. Yet whilst young people are attending and participating in choirs in greater number in the UK, standing in a row singing along to a band wasnt something they would actually want to do. Its one reason they wouldnt go to church in the first place.
It is the participation and power stuff that gets me.
Last night wasnt so bad, it was summer, the room was light. But on other occasions beautiful churches are blackened out and mega watts of lighting are focussed on a stage so that one person, and a few musicians can stand in the light. And everyone else watches on from the sidelines, and can just watch as the stage entertains. Greater participation might not be possible if there are 100 young people, but reducing their involvement to singing, watching and putting their hand up if they pray a prayer, seems to be at least possible. But the level of power is as worrying, and ego. Especially if its just adults on the stage. (and last night at least wasnt)
But participation. What role are young people in such events? Where are they on this scale – and which young people are highest on it? its a youth event where youth well, pay (if theres a charge)
to have the pleasure of being entertained – but is this appropriate. Giving this money to charity would be a better kingdom use for it – surely? So, if they dont pay – should they ‘play’ instead, and give through doing and participating? maybe this would be more valuable.
Where does participation occur in events that are primarily ‘for’ young people – rather than develop with them?
But the youth worship event itself can look like many sunday services already, so is it just a young person congregation of what already goes on? Does that means it needs to end? not necessarily, but then again, just singing new songs isnt making it that much different.
Yet why do I feel conflicted?
Because this was me.
It was me, in the same town, 22 years ago.
It was me trying to be the lead guitarist, me trying to save a town, one gathering of young people together in a larger group at a time, with a venue and speaker. It was me. It was me, even though I had heard the warnings from others ‘yes we had so and so, but didnt get many people’ – though I though I was different, or ‘we ‘ were, because we could sing the latest delirous song, and could book Steve Chalke as the speaker. Then we wanted to make History, sing of Jesus love forever and sing unending songs cos we’re so happy, the only difference now is that the mountains have to be climbed and counted, then we were trying to knock them down, youthful urgency and world changing has turned to God as therapy for difficulty – world changing and expectation of God moving because the mountains are trembling has mellowed to something far less urgent, confident and hopeful. So underlying the criticism is guilt. Guilt that this was once me, guilt that in the same town at 20 odd i maintained the status and dream and style of the same thing. I did to others what i knew was failing to me, because of my own ego, or lack of imagination to think of something different. Guilt that these young adults with all their creativity are following this same path and I could be slightly responsible- even though some of them werent born. I had been to soul survivor in the south and thought i could take this to the north and see the masses arrive.
But i was the masses, I was the paying christian who would travel to watford, and make soul survivor look good by being there and adding to the numbers – how many young people from watford really did do the soul survivor thing anyway? yes probably lots, but not because of the worship, but the years of grafting before hand. Turning up to do the worship without the grafting doesnt necessarily work, unless what you have captures a real niche. – anything else is christians travelling. Im back onto moaning and reflecting, rather than those feelings of guilt. Its guilt that I could have done something different to try and change the culture, make a shift and challenge the gravitational pull, that was stronger then, when soul survivor was on the crest of its early wave, and youth ministry was in the middle of its hey day and I was only late teens then myself, so who and what was I thinking.
Maybe my own criticism is deep down hiding a sense of guilt, that i probably shouldnt feel, but do, So….
If there is still a space for the ‘youth gathering’, whats the alternative?
Its not new but how might a youth event – become a youth church- and do so with the energy and participation of young people driving it – it might just rustle a few feathers, but churches are so dead that to ban a ‘youth church’ might send it underground and rebellious, being just what it needs. But i fear this is barely imaginative enough. It might do very little other than change its name. Though it would be a start.
The worship-gathering-youth event might be less the space as the outcome, but that the space for ideas for the next thing to emerge from.
The Spirit of the love of God might cause real action to become manifest and awakened, and not just social action, but Godly love action that might be social, or it might be a space for young peoples ideas, imagination and entrepreneurship to occur- as they do meet in a larger group, or their space to reflect on ‘worship’ or ‘mission’ or something else. Young people will only grow into the size of the space thats opened up them. But that lack of emerging ideas and conversation space is not just a problem for the youth event, theyre only copying grown up church.
The alternative has to look theological and work – which is bias, because the youth worship event gathering is barely theological and barely works but is still the dominant paradigm, the gravitational pull of 30-50 years of youth ministry. But if attempts are made that the new thing is grounded in the love of God for the poorest, or freedom for the oppressed or Gods care for creation and hell bent on trying to worship God in spirit and truth thought loving the world, then it might have a chance. It might pull up the weeds literally and figuratively. It might not need some guilt ridden 40 year old moaning youthworker to provoke it, but id love to be part of a solution. Young people, yes even the christian ones, deserve better. They have much more to contribute.
So, maybe it isnt quite goodbye after all.
Maybe as a launch pad for something else, the youth worship gathering might act as a catalyst or melting pot for ideas and action, for a space of participatory discipleship for all those involved, maybe its got some legs as a method a process rather than the outcome. If they are going to be started – can they not be judged on noise or numbers, but discipleship, and loving action for others, and participation. Maybe make youth worship dangerous and risky again. After all, if young people want safe and conformity, they can buy a coldplay concert ticket. If they want to change the world, they join amnesty international. If the church is a movement of transformation, then it songs are written with passion and freedom in mind – and young people must lead the charge again.
A note in point though; We do have to deal with the lack of females in the bands. We have to deal with the lack of young people preaching. We have to think about power, about the space and about inclusion. If it was something young people could believe in then they would be inviting their friends, it would get a dangerous underground following that would challenge the status quo. Then the Spirit might be really on the move.