By Zac Koons
Episcopalians love liturgy, though one thing we might just love more than liturgy is that we love liturgy. We love that we love it. We have it figured out. And we know it. Baptists are Baptists only because they haven’t figured it out yet — that our way is the true and right way to worship.
Which is why I’m surprised this conviction so rarely extends down the hall into the poorly ventilated room of orphaned couches where the youth group meets. When it comes to youth group, our superiority complex seems flipped upside-down. It’s the Baptists who have it figured out. And we know it. We’ve long heard about the crowds of cool kids that flock to play their wild Baptist games, to hear their moralizing Baptist sermons, and to enthusiastically sing chorus after chorus after chorus after chorus of their drum-kitted Baptist songs. And so, it seems, for some time now (of course with some beautiful exceptions), Episcopal youth leaders across the country have stopped being Episcopalians and have started being Baptists. In large part we’ve succeeded — except that our games tend to be less fun, our moralizing is less likely to make any actual demands, and our music, when we’re brave enough to attempt it at all, is excruciating.
My point is this: If we really believe we’re onto something with these scripted prayers and scented candles, why are we keeping it from the youth group? We say that people are desperate for liturgy, desperate for the historic rhythms of Word and Sacrament, yet our reticence to maintain that stance with the kids in the room leaves me wondering whether we really mean it. I worry our affection for liturgy is really affectation in disguise.
I’ve been experimenting with our youth for the last three years with all this in mind, and I offer here an outline of a typical night at the youth group in my parish. I’ve tried to shape our entire evening, in some subtle and some obvious ways, after the pattern of our liturgy for Holy Communion. I offer this not because I feel like we have cracked the code (our youth have suffered an abundance of failed experiments), but in hopes that this might inspire some imaginative conversation — perhaps even some fruitful disagreement — amid those of us who care about the Episcopal Church surviving into subsequent generations.
We’ve installed a small baptismal font beside the door to the youth room. When students arrive, they dip their fingers into the water, and make the sign of the cross over themselves. They love this.
The prelude lasts 15 minutes, which just means that during this time kids straggle in while the music of latter-day Backstreet Boys plays through the AUX cord. Instead of sitting in silent prayer to prepare their hearts for worship, they sit silently on couches and cope with the social anxiety of their friends’ late arrival by staring at their phones — until finally they’re relieved by a companion who can show them whatever’s currently on another phone. At 6:14 p.m. I take away their phones and tell them I’m never giving them back and they know I’m lying. The music stops, and just like when the organ stops, they know formal proceedings are about to begin.
The Greeting takes place at 6:15 p.m. It is not Blessed be God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever, but it is similar, and the kids came up with it themselves. I told them it had to have a call and response, and it had to formally acknowledge, as the prayer book version does, what it is that brings us together as a youth group each Sunday. Why are we all here? They divided into small groups for discussion, and then brought their recommendations to the floor. Several pious suggestions floated around before one student was brave enough to say, “Honestly, I don’t really come for the Jesus stuff. I come because my parents make me. And also I like the pizza. Sometimes the Jesus stuff becomes interesting, but that’s not really why I come.” Five minutes later we had our greeting: The call: “Come for some pizza.” The response: “Stay for some Jesus.”
Following this salutation, I say a short prayer, giving thanks for those gathered, asking that all that follows be acceptable to God as worship. (Collect of the Day)
Song of Praise
Songs of praise are intended to engage not just our vocal cords, but our whole bodies, and indeed our emotions, in worship. It is our space on Sunday mornings to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. Now, most youth groups have no problem whatsoever in the “making a joyful noise” department, and so it is with us. But we are poor singers. Where the Gloria falls in the logic of our liturgy, we play games instead.
But games are more like songs of praise than you might think. They engage us bodily and emotionally, and they invite us into communal joy. Though it probably borders on blasphemy to consider games like Capture the Flag — or more especially our current favorite, a game we call “Who’s the Murderer?” — as offerings of worship, there are undeniably worshipful aspects of our play. There is, on the one hand, the heightened awareness of fairness and justice within the rules of our games; and then, on the other hand, there is the peculiar delight and surprise that comes from “being allowed to have fun in church.” Both of these, I think, are consequences of their being located liturgically. Our games, like the Gloria, represent the climax of our gathering together, the moment we relax into one another’s presence, before proceeding to the Word.
At 6:45 p.m. — or 6:50 if we’re really close to catching the Murderer at 6:45 — we process to the Nave. The procession from the youth room through the preschool to the narthex is allowed to be as loud and crazy as they want it to be — and it invariably is. But the moment we cross the threshold into the church, the kids are expected to be 100 percent silent. The procession moves us from chaos to order, from ordinary into sacred space. Something different is about to happen. It’s time to open the Bible together.
Each student, now silent, walks down the aisle in single file. Some take a simple bow before the altar, some don’t, but all carefully and reverently enter the chancel, and sit on the floor around the altar. New kids are inevitably tenderfoots, incredulous we’re allowed to sit in “that space only the robed people go”; and almost all the kids, no matter how long they’ve been coming, still have a reverent fearfulness about being granted access into that space. This holy shock to the system seems to me exactly the point. The altar, I’ve taught them, is a symbol of God’s presence in our midst, and so while of course we can and should read our Bibles anywhere and everywhere, we believe God speaks through the Bible with particular clarity when we are gathered in this specific place. And that can be very scary indeed.
What follows is a rotation of various meditative methods of reading Scripture, all of which I’ve adapted to better suit teenagers: We do a kind of Lectio Divina, a kind of Ignatian reading, a youth-focused Compline, or a kind of guided journaling. We read from the New Living Translation, which reads more fluidly and is less intimidating for our students who, even if they’re cradle Episcopalians, are not very comfortable holding a Bible. Whatever exercise we’re doing that night, it begins by a ringing of the Sanctus bell and a long period of silence, in which I encourage the kids to pray silently to ask God to open their ears to what he has to say to them tonight.
I rarely talk at the kids. I often give a few lines of context for whatever story we’re reading, or hand out a list of questions meant to inspire their journaling or reflection. I’ve found trying to do any kind of traditional teaching or preaching to be extremely difficult. Instead, I’ve sought to make space in which the kids can have experiences of God themselves. I try to teach them to expect to hear from God when they read the Bible.
The Sanctus bell rings again to indicate it’s time to shift our focus from listening to responding; from God speaking to us, to us speaking to God; from Scripture-sermon to Creed-Prayers-Confession. We split into small groups of three to six and scatter around the pews to answer four questions each around our circle: What was special about this week? What was hard about this week? What are you looking forward to in the next week? And is there anything you’re dreading?
Then they pray for one another within their small groups. You always pray for the person on your right. And you try to remember to pray for them throughout the next week.
We eat pizza every single week like every other youth group in America. We get half cheese and half pepperoni like every youth group in America. But this is not free time. We used to eat right at the beginning of youth group as part of our gathering. We would sit on couches with paper plates and kids would gravitate to their friend groups and their insular conversations. It took me much too long to realize that eating too was a — indeed, the — determinative liturgical act.
So now, just as the climax of the church’s whole liturgy is an act of eating together, so is ours. Meaning: I make them starve until 7:30 p.m. We don’t call it the crust of Christ or anything, but it is intended to echo that feast. And so we don’t eat on couches anymore either. Every week we push all the couches to the side, we set up three long folding tables banquet-style, we surround it with folding chairs, and we eat like a family. Each week we leave the head of the table intentionally unoccupied, so Jesus has somewhere to sit. His presence is signified by a giant wooden cross someone pulls off the bookshelf and sets on the table. We don’t pray for the meal as if this were separated from all the worship that’s come before. We just sit and enjoy some pizza, and enjoy some Jesus.
At 8 p.m. I’ll ask a student to dismiss us. He or she will yell “Go in” and then everyone puts two fingers in the air and yells together: “Peace!”