It was once a popular notion for churches to carve out a separate service for youths. Instead of joining the rest of the church in a stodgy liturgy filled with hymns and bogged down by a long and preachy sermon, they would come to a concert-like atmosphere of praise and worship topped off with an inspirational message suffused with pop cultural references. The point was to offer the youths an alternative service which was attractive and relevant to them. This had the goal of keeping church youths in church and drawing unchurched youths to church. Now, it seems that this idea has had its day in the sun and is finally biting the dust.
Recently, a friend and fellow youth pastor mentioned that he was trying his best to shut down the youth service in his church. He was of the conviction that putting youths in a separate service from the rest is detrimental to the church and smacks of bad theology. He noted that the church next door to his had already shut down their youth service a while ago and had successfully re-integrated the youths into their regular service. Despite the lack of a youth service, they continue to have a lively youth ministry. He also pointed out that quite a few other local churches of varying sizes have also done away with their youth services.
Why this change of heart? That is because church leaders are realising that sequestering the youths is bad for the life of the church. Since youths do not remain youths for long, they will outgrow the youth service. What happens then? They will exit the youth service only to find themselves in a different environment with a different culture that holds no appeal to them. After all, they have been formed over the years by a different liturgy with a different style of songs and sermons, and have only ever participated in youth activities. Hence, they may face difficulty or feel reluctance integrating into the regular service of the church and into the life of the community at large. Often, this change occurs simultaneously with other transitions in life such as greater autonomy from parents, graduation from pre-tertiary institutions, matriculation into a university, and/or enlistment into National Service. As a result, it is not uncommon for youths to start dropping out of church as they exit the youth service.
Furthermore, the entire church is impoverished when youths are kept in a separate eco-system from the rest of the church. Firstly, it is a great loss of opportunities for them to enrich the life of the church. Most, if not all of them, are able to serve the church at large in diverse and fresh ways when empowered to. A church loses some vitality and vibrancy when the youths go missing. The converse is also true, that the youths lose opportunities for adults to enrich their lives when they are absent. Adults in church have a part to play in guiding them and being role models for them as they involve them in the service and embrace them as part of the community—as the saying goes, it takes an entire kampung to raise a child. Everyone is all the poorer with a youth service.
The turn toward youth services was really a triumph of pragmatics over sound theology. It was about trying to be attractive and relevant to younger persons by incorporating popular culture into the church, but as theologian David F. Wells puts it in his scathing criticism of American churches,
Relevance is not about incorporating something else as definitive in the life of the church, be it the hottest marketing trend, the latest demographic, the newest study on depression, what a younger generation thinks, Starbucks, or contemporary music. None of these is definitive. None should be allowed a defining role in how the church is strengthened and nourished. Studies on contemporary life, whether of a demographic or psychological kind, are helpful in understanding the way life is in a postmodern world, but these studies do not themselves give the church its agenda. At least they should not. The agenda comes from the Word of God. In the rhythms of marketing, and the pandering to generational tastes, this agenda is often being lost. The agenda, in fact, is coming from the culture, from its consumers, from the world.
Wells was referring to churches setting aside theology for techniques to remain attractive to the world. Youth services would be a product of that.
The major theological problem with youth services is how it creates a fissure in the body of Christ. Why privilege one segment in the church over others? If there should be a youth service, then can there also be an elderly service or a women service? If not, why just the youths? Nowhere is it mentioned in Scripture, nor can it be theologically reasoned that youths are to be so privileged as to be accorded a service of their own, or that they should be able to dictate how they are to worship God. If honour is accorded to any segment in the people of God, it is to the elderly. For example, Leviticus 19.32 writes, “You shall stand up before the grey head and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.” This is not to disparage the youths, for Scripture does recognize that “The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendour of old men is their grey hair” (Pro. 20.29). Youths do have exuberance and knowledge to contribute, but older adults are to be honoured because they possess what the youths have yet to acquire: authority of experience and wisdom from retrospection. Yet, all belong to the one body of Christ.
In the Reformed tradition, we baptize children in infancy to receive them into the covenant community of God. The promises of God are extended to them just as they are to us, and so Baptism is also a sign and seal of God’s grace to them. Hence, all who are baptized—including the youths—are therefore part of the church and are to gather as one body for the worship of God. This is in continuity with Old Testament Israel, for children (which include youths) are part of the assembly of the people under God’s covenant of grace. This oneness as the body of Christ is both symbolized and effected in the Meal (Holy Communion) of the covenant community where all are gathered around one table to share of one bread, which is the body of Christ. St Paul explains, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10.17). Just as there is one body of Christ in heaven, so all who share in that one bread are also those who have union with Christ as his one body on earth. Even if some youths may not be able to share in it (as they have yet to undergo Confirmation), the Sacrament remains a visible reminder of God’s covenantal faithfulness in Christ. To separate the youths from the assembly is therefore tantamount to fissuring the body of Christ.
It is for this reason that our church has never had a youth service. Youth Zone (YZ) is not a service, but a ministry focused on age-specific catechesis and formation (in community), so we have always insisted the youths participate in the 8.30 am service before gathering for Youth Zone. Yet it is lamentable that not all our youths participate regularly in the service. We believe that they are an integral part of our covenant community, and because of this conviction, we delight in having them worship God along with the rest of the church. Therefore, it is our prayer that with the encouragement and support of their family and friends they will all eventually do so, to the praise of God’s glorious grace.
Pr Png Eng Keat
April 2, 2023