Ten Questions Youth Leaders Ask About Worship: Sally Morgenthaler and Robert Webber respond

After a big youth rally that's been hyped with pyrotechnics and a full band that practiced for weeks, how do you get students back into authentic worship without the aid of those externals—and keep their praise more than roller-coaster emotionalism?

Sally Morgenthaler: If students aren't experiencing God's presence in any other way than with big, expensive events, they'll assume God's going to go hide somewhere until the next rally comes around. If you've ever been fortunate enough to witness a Deliriou5? concert, you know the swirling, pulsating lights, smoke, interactive video, and the band's incredible musicianship spells awesome. It's unforgettable. Yet if you've been fortunate enough to light one small candle with two or three friends, wait for God in silence, and sing a heartfelt confession accompanied by the quiet ripple of an acoustic guitar, you know there's a vast repertoire for this thing we call "experiencing God." One of tine values we can build into youths is deep interaction with God—a simple here-and-now reality in our spiritual communities.

Robert Webber: First, let's keep in mind that there's a new cultural shift taking place with the rise of [the generation some are calling the] millennials. A great majority of them are reacting against the loud music and hype often associated with contemporary worship. A key for worship in the regular rhythm of the church is to remember that communication in a postmodern world has shifted from verbal explanation to immersed participation in events. The key to good worship is to stay away from entertainment models and return worship to the people. This generation wants to participate with the body and the senses. Thoroughly active and participatory worship will attract and keep our young people.

How do you implement regular worship times in a small group (20-30) that's never done it consistently before? We've tried several times, but it always seems to die out due to lack of commitment on the part of the musicians or lack of interest on the part of the students.

Morgenthaler: Maybe it's the regimentation of a "worship time" that gets in the way. Youths are relationally driven. That's where their motivations are. If you can let worship times emerge out of small group discussions or times of prayer, it may seem more authentic. Also it could be that our evangelical definition of worship—a bunch of praise songs stuck together—needs expansion. How about paraphrasing Scripture and reading it together? How about, in the context of a small group setting, encouraging your students to dramatize a parable or play some cool, techno music underneath it—maybe even relate it to a mainstream song? (e.g., Connect Jesus' protection of the condemned adulteress to Alanis Morissette's "That I Would Be Good.") I think a lot of us—adults included—are just plain bored with singing 30 to 40 minutes of praise songs. We crave multisensory expressions. Why can't we use all the arts to get students to make worship an aesthetic experience that pleases God by engaging their minds, hearts, emotions, and spirits?

Webber: You may have to change your style to a more participatory worship. I use communal gestures: standing, sitting, kneeling, lying prostrate on the floor, prayers of the people, talk-back sermons, "passing of the peace," and gathering around the table. You may also anoint with oil and do laying on of hands. This generation wants an authentic embodiment of worship—and young people are quick and can spot a phony a mile away. But when worship is genuine and done by them—not to them or for them—they will respond. By the way, passing of the pence—if you're not familiar with the term—is based on the first words Jesus said to his disciples in the Upper Room: "Peace be with you." For centuries Christians "passed" or spoke his greeting to each other in church between the service of the Word and the Eucharist. It became lost in worship but has recently been restored.

What are the most practical ways to get students involved in actual worship—not just the music part?

Morgenthaler: If you change your model from a praise-song fixation to a fully orbed, aesthetic adoration of God, you're going to need dancers, painters, weavers, sculptors, poets, writers, actors, storytellers, photographers, and digital graphics people. (By the way, there are lots of budding digital daredevils out there, I can tell you. They're working on creative stuff three to four hours a day in their basements—and no one knows!) The arts speak to young people. Yes, music is part of that. But we've isolated our affective experience of God to one tiny slice of the artistic pie. Worship music is often dictated to us by the worship music industry. I think we can do better. We can write our own music and then expand the expressive vocabulary to tactile, visual, et cetera. We will be absolutely astonished at the energy that's released in

students once they're invited to share their gifts-musical and otherwise.

Webber: Let's go back again to this matter of participation: It's not this or that person "doing" an act of worship, such as reading Scripture or offering a prayer; it's the whole congregation "doing" the worship. Worship is a drama about the meaning of life: The leaders are prompters of the drama, the members of the congregation are the players, and—as Kierkegaard said—"If there's an audience in worship, it's God." We really need a revolution in our understanding of worship if we're to experience what I'm talking about. The notion that worship is a drama that recites and enacts God's saving deeds in history is thoroughly biblical—yet unknown to many of us.

Is there some way to develop a "farm system" for student musicians/vocalists?

Morgenthaler: If you have a band that's first and foremost relationally connected—to each other, to the rest of the group, and (this is crucial) to non-Christians in your community, musicians will come. They'll not only be attracted to the very real, caring people behind the music. A lot of teens—especially band types—are looking for new families. Your band can become that new family, a new community for students whose lives have been broken apart, students who are at risk and looking for a soft landing.

Webber: The idea of a farm system for students who wish to learn more about worship leading is a terrific idea. I believe that youth workers should be proactive in identifying students who have a particular sensitivity to God's moving and Spirit—musical ability is important, but not as important as a heart connected to God. And the best way I think you can grow these students into worship leaders is to offer them training. I'm going to see if the Institute for Worship Studies can sponsor such a program. Perhaps we could begin by asking people to write and let us know if there's a need.

I've known youth group leaders who've had non-Christian .student musicians up front, believing that this will change their hearts toward God. Is this wise?

Morgenthaler: Something we have to understand (and this not only applies to musicians, it applies to the whole community of students) is that for a generation that values the arts more highly than business, a generation that would rather buy CDs and digital software or go to the movies than eat, a generation that would rather stand in line for days to see The Phantom Menace than sleep, the arts are one of our most powerful evangelistic tools. Now apply that principle to a band situation: Can we make room for the non-Christian, garage-band guitarist to play while he or she is in the process of figuring out this "God thing"? Simple fact—salvation takes longer in this culture. Rarely do students come to our gatherings and sign on the dotted line the first time. They need to try on faith, to practice "doing" Christianity with us. They need to develop relationships with us, to see if we're tor real. Worship is a perfect context for all of that to happen, and the arts can be the conduit into worship.

Now I'm not saying that the majority of your band should be non-Christians or that your worship leader should be a non-Christian. Let's use some common sense. I'm just saying that God works in mysterious ways, and if we wait for people to spout out the right words, to look the way we look, to shed the earrings and tattoos and wear Abercrombie & Fitch, we'll probably miss a zillion windows of opportunity. Do we put a premium on accountability? Yes. That's what we do in our families with our kids—they weren't born knowing right and wrong. They learn by doing and watching and participating. Do we teach the in-process seeker what God expects? Absolutely. Again, that's what we do in our own families. But we do it in the context of a small unit—Mom, Dad, brothers, and sisters. In the church of the next millennium, the family/small unit will be, to a great degree, groups of artists expressing their God experiences together.

Webber: The kind of worship I'm talking about— the kind that moves you into the presence of God, deepens commitment, and fills you with joy-requires Christian leadership.

How do you gauge whether or not students are ready to lead worship—and what (if any) personal and spiritual requirements should you place on them?

Morgenthaler: Often we've looked at religious criteria (conformity to institutional expectations) rather than spiritual depth (vital relationship with God in Christ) when we choose church leaders. Examples of religious criteria in a student community might be the number of Bible studies they're in, the number and length of personal quiet times, verses and worship songs memorized, et cetera. While these activities often aid in spiritual development, we all know that it's quite easy and—unfortunately—quite common to go through the motions and not develop greater intimacy with and dependence upon Jesus. And Jesus had some harsh words for those religious leaders of his day who tended to concentrate on the visible requirements of faith and ignore matters of the heart—he called them "whitewashed tombs." Clearly God's looking for broken people with "broken and contrite spirits"; people who know that, without God's mercy and grace, they can do absolutely nothing of value. These are the kinds of kids we should be watching for and mentoring into worship leaders—not the perfect, popular, squeaky-clean musical prodigies or the self-righteous or religiously conformed. We need to look for tax-collector types who can say, "Have mercy on me, O God, for I am a sinner." Only that kind of person can truly say, "To God be the glory," and lead others into worship that will transform lives.

Webber: We need to be careful that we don t fall into legalism with requirements for student leaders. You can set up systems like that, but if it's "Come to church three times a week, don't smoke, don't drink," those things don't have a whole lot to do with spirituality. Again, 1 believe the student worship leader—the one who's the primary person bringing his or her peers into communion with Christ—needs to be a Christian. But for the other musicians—particularly back-up players—their role isn't as central because they're playing instruments only. For them, the issue of personal commitment isn't as crucial.

How do you help a student worship team focus on performing for God and not performing for the group?

Morgenthaler: We aren't born learning how to worship. In fact it's our nature to do exactly the opposite (see Romans 1). We have to nurture our teams into the response of worship, and the best way is to adore God deeply together each week and to get involved in each others' lives at an intimate level— sharing, confessing, repenting, and interceding. We need to practice giving ourselves to God as a small group, not just singing the right notes, playing the right chords, or coming up with cool riffs. It's actually much more crucial that we practice redirecting our hearts and letting God cleanse our motivations. Worship leaders have a responsibility to continually remind team members of their higher callings and to gently speak to any prima donna, "look at me" attitudes.

Better than speaking to it, however, is modeling what being a worshiper looks like. If the leader and other members of the team are demonstrating true humility and supernatural focus on God, prima donna-ism rarely becomes a problem. The neat thing is that God is a win-win God. One of the results of intentionally nurturing worshipers within our teams is evangelism. When non-Christian instrumentalists experience God "with skin on"—God tangibly at work, reshaping and remolding selfish, narcissistic individuals (read: Christians)—they sit up and take notice. They say, "Wow, this stuff is real!"

Webber: Worship leaders need to be intentional. I tell them to reflect on their worship all week long; "Sing it. Hum it. Pray it. Practice it. Get it inside of your heart and let it take up residence within you. On the night before you lead worship, throw away all your notes and then lead with a sense of abandon." The new generation's worship is shifting from performance to a state of prayer. When you lead worship this way, it will draw the entire congregation into prayerful, intentional, heartfelt worship.

I've recently found that worship through music has become an effective part of our outreach events. When talking to non-Christian kids, I often hear positive responses to the music. Is this a trend?

Morgenthaler: Music has the ability to access the human soul faster than anything else. This has always been true. When Saul was in the depths of depression, he called upon David's musical skills to soothe his spirit and give him a sense of hope and renewed joy. We're now learning that exposure to music early in life helps crucial mental and emotional development. But is there a new trend in this area? Our whole society—especially those younger than thirty—craves the "medicine" of music. The percentage of income spent on tapes and CDs has risen dramatically in the last decade. When we apply this trend to the intense spiritual searching that's a fact of life as we round the bend of the next millennium, it shouldn't surprise us that God is harnessing music to tell people he loves them. God is an efficient God and will use the most effective means in any culture to reach the lost. It's a tremendous window of opportunity. Yet 1 believe God wants us to move beyond music alone and mix in other art forms as well, which is what MTV has been doing for years. It's also why groups like Delirious? have become so popular and so effective in telling the old, old story to a new generation.

Webber: We're in the midst of an extraordinary communications revolution that's shifting us from the primacy of print to a focus on the audio-visual. Sound itself—which creates atmosphere—is now viewed as an important communicator. For the kind of worship 1 propose, sound communicates the various moods of worship—the joy of coming into God's presence, the quietness of confession, the meditative mood of prayer, the joy of the resurrection at the table of the Lord, and the sense of going forth to love and serve God.

How do you involve all your .students in worship when you have a very diverse, multicultural group? (We're an interdenominational church, too!)

Morgenthaler: What a great situation to have! Gone are the days when we could be "white bread" on stage and pretend that God was of northern-European descent. By 2050 demographic experts tell us that Caucasians will be a minority race in America— and it could happen more quickly than that. So how do we involve all colors and backgrounds in student worship? We model diversity on our teams by including women, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians—everybody. It's God's family. And just as importantly, we should start listening to secular music and incorporating those sounds into our worship writing and arranging. Because, folks, the world has become a small place in the last 10 to 15 years. We're mixing Celtic instruments with the Down Under didgeridoo. We're melding Caribbean and Latino rhythms with the sounds of the koto and industrial techno. If you think about it, most "contemporary" worship music is not contemporary at all—in fact, it's found nowhere else on the planet. It's like we freeze-dried plasticized rock circa 1983 and have been feeding that to people ever since. That's what we consider appropriately "Christian"— just like we used to consider organ and choral music the only sounds God would hear. No wonder a lot of our students are bored! Our worship music doesn't represent the diversity and incredible variety of their world.

Webber: The future of worship will be both multicultural and intergenerational, but there are no gimmicks or tools that have authenticity for multicultural worship. You can read Scripture, pray, and sing in different languages—but that's secondary. What this generation longs for is community. If there's genuine love between the cultural groups and a sense that all are worshiping together, that's the key.

Should I lead youth group worship the same way our church's praise and worship leaders do, so the students can get adjusted to their styles?

Morgenthaler: Your youth group is a unique community that God continually fashions. Take the freedom God gives you to celebrate that and to create something new and fresh—a style that honors the Almighty and reflects your generation's degree of brokenness, lack of tolerance for slickness, and penchant for complete honesty. Sure you can get some ideas, some principles from the worship leaders in the adult services—but God loves a new song (Psalm 40:3). What's more, I sincerely doubt your students want something that's been cloned after their parents' services. They have their own voices, and they want to use them.

Webber: This is a tough question. Many youths don't like current praise and worship with its loud, contemporary instrumentation. What they want is ancient liturgy with a contemporary flair. They want mystery, transcendence, quiet, prayer with the laying on of hands, pageantry, participation, stability, tradition, and authentic embodiment.

This is what one youth worker said at a recent conference: "1 tried everything in the book to reach my young people. Finally I gave up and said, "We're just going to have a prayer meeting where we can pray for each other and meet each other's needs. Kids are coming from everywhere—both Christians and non-Christians! They sit on the floor, sing, pray, and anoint each other with oil."

The point is that we're facing a new day with this new generation. Today's teens don't want fun and games: they want encounters with otherness— encounters that touch their lives with the healing touch of God. This kind of worship is the key to reaching the unchurched and deepening the spiritual commitment of the churched.

Worship is going to change significantly in the new millennium, so we'd better get ready for it now—all of us, youth workers and worship leaders alike.



At Biola University, a fifty-minute chapel is offered every day, Monday through Friday, but is required three times a week (M, W, F). Students have also initiated their own, student-led, worship services (mostly praise) on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. Two to three hundred students attend these guitar-based events.

Here are some changes I've witnessed in the last five years:

  • Definitely more student initiative. The trend I've seen in the past five years toward regular student-initiated worship services wasn't evident during the two previous decades that I taught at Biola. I have observed the same phenomenon and the same enthusiasm for worship at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., another evangelical university.

    These student-led services are guitar-based, with mostly Vineyard, Hill Song, and Maranatha choruses. I would like to see more balance (i.e., hymns), but 1 am very impressed with the desire of our students to worship—and it's sincere. Many of the songs deal with brokermess (of some sort) and the need for inner healing, and they are sung with a lot of plaintive emotion.
  • More excitement in worship.
  • Our students know fewer hymns, Biola's students have, for the most part, grown up in conservative, evangelical churches in Southern California all their lives, churches that emphasize teaching and evangelism. In my Introduction to Music class (for non-music majors), I asked seventy-three students how many hymns they knew. First I explained what a hymn was (gave some examples) and told them they just had to be familiar with the hymn—enough to be able to sing the melody. Then I asked them to write down the number of hymns they knew.

    The results: 10 percent of the students know five or less hymns, 25 percent know less than ten hymns, 50 percent know less than twenty, and 75 percent know less than forty. Only 6 percent of the group knew more than a hundred hymns.

    I see this as a massive, significant change. In the cutting-edge megachurches it's not at all unusual to find no hymns sung on a given Sunday morning. Maybe one a month. The result? Many of our students are ignorant of hymnody today.
  • More guitar-based worship. I think a major weakness today is that hymnals (by and large) do not contain guitar symbols or chord changes for guitarists. This needs correction pronto.
  • Less corporate reading of Scripture and less extended prayer. In our student-led worship services, I don't see the practice of reading Scripture corporately. Prayer is very limited—no extended or bidding prayers. A major weakness (I find the same thing in our churches.).
  • Rise of niche churches of a nongenemtional type. A number of our students attend churches where the average age is twenty-seven (size: 300-1,000). I personally see a real problem here.
  • Worship is much more physical. A very important trademark of contemporary worship is the use of the body—clapping to the beat, tapping feet, raising hands, waving hands, kneeling, jumping, and swaying.

—Barry Liesch, professor of music, Biola University, LaMirada, California; barry_liesch@peter.biola.edu;

www.worshipinfo.com—Barry's LA Worship Guide.


Sally Morgenthaler has been active in worship ministry for many years. Founder of Worship Evangelism Concepts, she functions as on-site worship consultant for Denver Seminary and Pathways Church--an urban Denver congregation committed to reaching the unchurched under 35. Her book Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers into the Presence of God was reviewed in RW 39.


Robert Webber (rwebber@northern.seminary.edu) was the Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and president of the Institute for Worship Studies, a distance education school in Jacksonville, Florida. He is author of many books, including the Ancient-Future series (Baker), Younger Evangelicals (Baker), and editor of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. These resources and a monthly "Ancient-Future Talk" newsletter are available at www.ancientfutureworship.com. Dr. Webber passed away in April 2007. 


Reformed Worship 55 © March 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.