Creating Worship Gatherings for the Emerging Church

October 5th, 2009

One of the advantages of doing student ministry in a postmodern world is in the arena of worship. Never before has there been such a profound desire among students to experience the presence of God. Our difficulty lies in creating environments for that encounter to most likely to occur.

I've been leading worship for student ministries for five years, and I believe this is the easiest time ever for leading worship in the church. Students are excited and searching for something that nothing else in their lives has filled. I've been involved in leading two high school ministries and one college ministry. All three used the same program format. Instead of the seeker service model of the modern church, the program was simple. The gathering started with 30-60 minutes of worship, followed by 30-60 minutes of teaching, followed by another 20 minutes of worship. All three of those ministries experienced incredible growth—one grew from 20 high school students to over 300 in a little over a year. The college ministry grew from 10 students to close to 2000 in three years.

Differences between Modern and Emerging Worship Gatherings

To understand what worship gatherings need to be, we must understand what they used to be. When I was in high school, our high school ministry was a typical seeker-targeted service. We used secular songs, lots of dramas, a short talk that didn't use the Bible or mention God (because we wanted to appeal to seekers and not make them uncomfortable), and a slim portion of worship. We'd use loud music when students arrived; sometimes each element of the service was connected, and other times it was haphazardly thrown together.

Our services focused on the here and now, emphasized the individual, and used objective reason for all of the teaching. If we could set a list of facts in front of somebody and convince them that we have the truth, we felt we'd done everything in our power to convince students that we were correct and they needed to believe what we did.

Over the years something happened. The landscape of student ministry has changed. Students are now more open to spirituality than previous generations. Some of the values of the emerging church are an emphasis on emotions, global outlook, a rise in the use of arts, and a rise in mysticism and spirituality.

EPIC Worship Gatherings

This past year I read a book called Postmodern Pilgrims by Leonard Sweet. In this book, he uses the acronym EPIC, to describe worship that is Experiential, Participatory, Image Rich, and Connected.

Church Should Be Like a Dance Club
While writing this I am on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland. At the beginning of the week, my wife and I went to a dance club. This club had EPIC written all over it. When you walked in the front door, there were palm trees overhead, sand under your feet, and waterfalls to give you the idea that you were really in Jamaica. The first area was the island room. It was right on the beach with tiki torches and more palm trees. The band was playing island music while people danced on the beach. If you walked further, you could walk out onto a pier and sit in little rafts in the ocean while talking to other people.

As you continued down a hallway, there were several bars and tables where you could sit and talk. In the main room was the dance hall. The first thing you noticed when you walked into the room were the lights and the loud music. In the center of the room was a bar with 10 large TV screens above it playing videos of the people in the room dancing, of the band and DJ, and of people surfing. In front of the room was a large stage with a movie screen above it.

The night started with a DJ who played dance music and a band who played cover songs. They continued to switch back and forth. There were large balloons floating around the room that people were hitting when they came close to the ground.

It was experiential, because the setting was sensory-rich. I felt like I truly experienced Jamaica through the music and images; you could even smell, touch, and taste aspects of Jamaica at the club.

It was participatory, because of what we did. There were people dancing, and you could sing along with the music played by the DJ and cover band.

It was image rich, because of the sights of the bay and pier and video screens around the room with images of the band and people surfing and dancing.

It was connected, because there were opportunities to sit and talk with other people and build community. You also felt connected to the people shown dancing on the screen. There was even a feeling of connection when everyone was singing as loud as we could with the band and the DJ.

EPIC in Worship Gatherings

Experiential says “We've talked enough. Stop talking and just do it.” Bill Carroll defines experiential worship as “interactive, bringing ideas to life, and taking people to a place they've never been.” People need to feel something different when they walk into our gatherings and when they walk out.

Louie Giglio said, “God is moving in fresh ways throughout the world. It's the 'wind of the Spirit' Jesus refers to in John 3. The student culture seems more primed to be blown by that spiritual wind because they are not tied to forms, but more open to full-on mind, body, and spirit connection with Christ. There's a hunger and a driving thirst for an experiential faith—one based in truth yet experienced on all levels of life.”

At our gatherings, we use candles to set an atmosphere, and we use music to our advantage. The music we play when students are coming in helps to set a mood for the rest of the evening. Worship is a big part of our gatherings, and it's not limited to music and corporate singing. Scripture and spiritual practices play a major role in our gatherings.

We'll do Scripture meditations quite often. Once we did a reading of the entire chapter of Genesis 1. I had all the students close their eyes, and before I started reading, I told them, “Imagine that you're at the dawning of creation and how it might smell, what it may feel like, what it looks like, what it sounds like, and what are some tastes that you may experience.” Then I proceed to read Genesis 1.

Scripture meditation can be done by reading the same Scripture repeatedly. It's an incredible experience to have Scripture read over and over for you.

Another way to bring varied types of worship into your gathering is to pray through the Psalms. I'll read a line from a Psalm and tell students to pray silently whatever comes to their minds. After a time of silence I'll read the next line, and they repeat the same activity.

Or in the middle of a worship set we'll have students complete a sentence out loud, such as “I love God because…” or “I want to thank God because….”

As we first started experimenting with different strands of worship, we learned that Christian and non-Christian students are open to trying these things. Henry Blackaby said, “The common factor among many unrelated contemporary movements is people's hunger 'not to know more about God, but to experience God. Not to know more information, but to have a transformational personal encounter with God.'”

One thing to keep in mind as you bring different experiential aspects into your worship gatherings is that it must be guided. Too often in churches, we just expect that people will know what to do. Pastors and other worship leaders will say things like, “We're going to take a minute to pray,” and then just let people try to figure out what to pray. I try to err on the side of guiding too much; people shouldn't feel lost at our gatherings.

Participatory says, “Count me in. I want to do this.” Leonard Sweet said, “Unless post-moderns can complete the sentence for themselves, or at least have the opportunity to hold the microphone themselves, worship will insufficiently help them create new realities for their lives.”

Spiritual practices are especially good. Students are participating in our gatherings when we lead them through these practices.

Likewise, students can participate when we speak. We encourage interaction during our talks. I'll ask questions and have students turn to the person next to them and talk through the answers. Then I'll ask for some feedback or ask a question and let students call out what they think. This can become tricky as your ministry grows, but it's still possible to do with several hundred or even several thousand students. Teens have a desire to feel like they're part of something, that they're making a difference by being at our gatherings. They want to be a part of the discovery that we're trying to bring them to by the end of our gatherings.

Image-rich says “You have to draw the picture for me. Let me see it for myself.”

I can still remember the face of the first girl I had a crush on when I was in 6th grade. I can remember the smell of the grass at the first soccer game I played as a freshman in college. I remember the way Lake Michigan looked when I asked Katie to marry me. I remember the way the Church of the Holy Sepulcher smelled in Jerusalem. I remember the way the nail felt that I held at the place of the crucifixion. And I remember the way Katie looked on our wedding day.

We'll get our ideas across better by using images, whether they're paintings, PowerPoint slides, photos, videos, or anything else that doesn't require reading. We live in an image-rich culture, so we need to have image-rich worship gatherings. This is where visual arts come into our worship gatherings.

One Easter Sunday I did a message on what happened on each cross and challenged the students to try to figure out which cross they were on. Before I got up to talk, we did a drama adapted from a Max Lucado story of the last conversation between Jesus and God in the Garden of Gethsemane. In between their lines, we had a narrator describing the crucifixion. We did the drama off stage so that you only heard the talking. We had soft music playing in the background while a student painted a picture of the crucifixion. On the painting were the three crosses that I used as my illustration for the message. This allowed the students to take home a visual image of what the message was all about, which gave the talk a lot more sticking power.

Connected says “That resonates with me. I want to belong.” This is important because, as Leonard Sweet say, “A postmodern 'me' needs 'we' to 'be.'” This will be something different from a modern student ministry in which we'd try to convince people to believe what we did and then belong to our ministry. Brian McLaren and Leonard Sweet say, “For spiritual seekers today, 'belonging' most often comes before 'believing.'”

There's a large college ministry in Philadelphia that creates an excellent place to connect at their gatherings. When the gathering is over and people walk into the lobby, there's a coffeehouse set up where people can listen to music and talk about what they just heard or what's going on in their lives.

Another way that we do it is to have tables and rows of chairs set up. On these nights, the speaker stands in the middle of the room and turns around in a circle. This allows students to interact with each other at the tables and makes the room feel smaller with the speaker in the middle, instead of students all sitting in rows looking at someone. Students are less likely to feel like an audience and more like participants this way.

This allows larger ministries the opportunity to create community within their gatherings. We need to remember that our gatherings are longer than the actual program; they include the time beforehand and afterward, as well. We need to create opportunities for relationships to be built and community to be enhanced at our gatherings.

Dreaming Dreams
Many pastors feel that making the jump to planning worship gatherings instead of services is too difficult, but it's really not. And it's possible if you're the only staff person for student ministries, too; it isn't something for just larger ministries to do. All the ministries I've been a part of started small, and God blessed them with incredible growth.

If we don't do this, we'll fall farther behind in trying to influence this culture. The landscape of worship in student ministries has changed over the past several years. I'd encourage you to bring more depth into your outreach/worship gatherings. Don't be afraid to try things with unchurched students that you feel only Christians might connect with. Encourage students to follow along in a Bible and connect with the experience you're trying to create.

If we don't start making the jump to an EPIC student ministry, we run the risk of losing another generation of students. There's too much at stake to settle for status quo and continue to do things the way they've always been done.

Chand, Samuel R., Futuring: Leading Your Church into Tomorrow. Baker, 2002
Rabey, Steve, In Search of Authentic Faith: How Emerging Generations are Transforming the Church, Waterbook, 2001
Sweet, Leonard, Postmodern Pilgrims, Broadman & Holman, 2000
Sweet, Leonard, Brian McLaren & Jerry Haselmayer, A is for Abductive, Zondervan, 2003


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.