By the time I was a junior in high school, I had pretty much mastered leaning my arm on the pew rail to prop my head up so that I could take a nap during the sermon. Only occasionally did it slip off causing me to nearly knock myself out and I can only remember one time that my friend had to kick me because I was drooling. I liked the preacher (he was my dad), but most weeks I had a hard time getting into worship.
Are youth at your church engaged in worship? Are they writing notes about the pastor’s most recent theological point or about where they should go to lunch? Do they sing the hymns? Do they look bored out of their minds? Are they asleep? Are they worshiping the living God in spirit and truth or simply present in body only?
We could rightfully blame our consumerist culture that has turned worship into something that has to do with “us” instead of God. We could dismiss them as teenagers who have not matured enough to participate in “adult” worship. We could come up with a lot of excuses, but one of the most important things that we need to teach our children and youth is how to worship God.
We have turned the verb worship into a noun. We “go to worship,” meaning to a place. We rarely use worship as a verb. We worship the living God. Worship is a verb which requires us to do something instead of simply be somewhere.
Here are some ways to engage teens in worship:

Sing Songs They Know

I know you have over 500 hymns in your hymnal. I also know that most of your members only know 50 of them. You know what it feels like when you introduce a hymn you have never heard or rarely sing. The organ feels extra loud. People seem to lose their place because they don’t know the tune and at the end most people are thinking, “I’m glad that is over.”
When my daughter was four, she asked me why we didn’t sing more songs in church that she knows. I told her to ask the senior pastor and after church she tugged on his leg and did just that. He looked accusingly at me, but we did sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” a couple of weeks later. But her question is a good one, why don’t we sing more songs that “I” know? The youth feel the same way.
The volume level in the sanctuary changes dramatically when you sing hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” etc. Why? Because everyone knows them and those hymns mean something to them. Music is powerful and will engage youth, but you have to sing songs they know. Which means you either have to teach them the songs you sing or allow them to teach you the ones that they do. Either way, they will engage and sing (which is a verb) in worship.

Speak to Them

Should your sermon directly address how teenagers are impacted by the topic or scripture? Should you talk about teenagers in worship the way you would lead a parenting class? Should you try and have an illustration in your sermon that teenagers can relate to?
Sermons should be proclamations of the Word to the congregation. Since youth are a part of the congregation, we should address them as well. I also firmly believe that pastors should speak directly to youth in their congregations, not speak about them. If you speak about them, they wonder if you know they are there. If you speak to them, they have to think, “Is he talking to me?” They are engaged, because they have been specifically included.
If you are a pastor, and youth culture or thinking about how a scripture or topic is relevant to teenagers does not come naturally to you, ask your youth minister. Invite your youth minister to send you two or three thoughts about the sermon topic or scripture that you might use. If they don’t fit, you don’t have to use them. From experience, I know this will deepen your relationship with your youth minister and enhance your ability to speak to teenagers through your sermons.

Invite Them to Participate

One of the ways to combat consumerist worship is to invite youth and adults to participate. By that I mean inviting them to actively engage and participate in all areas of worship from the Call to Worship to the Benediction. And I don’t mean responsive readings!
Responsive readings have their place, but for the most part they have lost their power. One of the most common complaints I hear from teenagers is that they don’t like responsive readings and printed prayers (except the Episcopals; see why below). Do you hear energy at your church in a responsive reading call to worship? If you do, then please comment and share how your church makes that happen. Responsive readings invite little personal response from the worshiper. They have been told what to say; therefore, they invite low engagement.
What if, for the Call to Worship, you had worshipers turn to three to four other people and share two things that they love about God? What if you invited them to call themselves into a spirit of worship? What if worshipers chose their own response to the reading? It might sound funny to use, but it would invite folks to think and engage in worship.
Pastoral prayers are the same. One person praying while others listen (although for most it is not engaged listening) pales in comparison to each worshiper praying. Consider using guided prayers and having a congregational prayer instead of a pastoral prayer.
What if everyone READ the scripture? I know. Crazy, right?
My point is that the more folks “do” things that require them to think or do during worship, the more engaged they will be. If worship feels like working on an assembly line, where you do the same thing over and over again, people will be disengaged.
Another way to engage youth is to invite them to lead. Youth should be regularly actively involved in leading worship. They can read scripture, lead Calls to Worship, sing solos, preach, etc. They simply have to be invited.

Teach Them

I know you can’t shake everything up every week. So my last suggestion for engaging youth in worship is to teach them why we do what we do. Teach them about the liturgical elements during the service. Why does someone carry the cross in at the beginning of the service? Why do we baptize infants? What is a Prayer of Confession? None of these have to be long teaching sessions, but every time you explain an element of worship you will be inviting worshipers to engage more deeply. Explaining to those who don’t know and reminding those who do why we do what we do in worship makes worship richer for everyone.
Episcopal youth often find great meaning in the liturgy. Why? Because they have been taught what it means. They often get more out of the liturgy than the sermon, because they are engaged in participating in the liturgy, including the prayers of the people and the Eucharist.
Youth can and will engage in worship. As pastors, it requires work on our part, but I am confident that it is important work well worth doing.
If you have suggestions for how to engage youth in worship, please join the conversation.