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Youth Discovering Ancient Worship
Robert Webber

Recently Chris Alford, minister of music at Smithwood Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., called to tell me of a weekend retreat with the young people from his church. His letter illustrates my point. His experience is not an isolated one either, as I've heard reports like this from other churches. I'm going to let Chris speak in his own words. Here's his enthusiastic letter:

"You've pointed out repeatedly that our youth are not "buying in" to boomer worship. And, after all, much of what is being described today as contemporary is actually boomer in style and form. You've commented on the trend you see in youth toward a more contemplative worship and some of the language and patterns of the ancient church. Let me tell you about the powerful week I spent with a great group of kids this past summer. I was invited by our youth ministry team to accompany our group in a discipleship week. In past, the youth group had traditionally undertaken a mission trip, but the new leadership felt convicted to lead our kids on a "Back to the Basics" retreat where personal growth and discipleship were the focus. When the "Back to the Basics" theme was given to me for planning, I knew that I had the perfect vehicle for testing out your theory about youth and worship music.

I started our week together by doing a couple of things: we first gave one another permission to use our bodies, posture, etc., freely in worship, and by talking about the importance of sign and symbol in worship. I also told them that their "worship was precious to me" and I promised not to do anything that would harm or be an obstacle to their worship. Then I had them turn to their neighbors and promise the same. I am certain that this was the key to some of the powerful worship we experienced that week.

The music I used was truly contemporary, as well as simple. Most of the songs were from the contemporary worship movement in England, particularly from the live events at Stoneleigh, and most featured simple, guitar accompaniment. The key for me in choosing it was the powerful, straightforward texts, many of which I thought would be too deep for our kids. I was completely wrong to worry about that.

Each of our morning worship sessions were loosely designed after a traditional morning prayer service. I used some "pre-service rite" time to explain how we would do the corporate prayers, when we would kneel, etc. and we used students to read the Scripture lessons (and this made a big impact upon the group).

Two powerful services to tell you about: We conducted a simple, candlelit communion with a healing service attached.I started the evening by talking about communion in the early church, the idea that we remember the body of Christ, that is the church, with its head, that is Christ, then spent some time talking about the beauty of the healing service. Bob, you can't imagine the impact this had on the kids. So many of them, with tears and with heartaches, came to us for prayer and anointing. And I watched the healing take place. What a powerful experience that was.

Then on another night, and most moving of all, I led the kids in what I called a "veneration of the cross" service. I began by talking about Christ's suffering and death, the great work He accomplished on the cross, and both the discipline and the freedom the cross represents we were talking about "Christus Victor" concepts, Bob. And then, simply, quietly, started some music and invited the kids to consider the cross. What happened next stunned all of us and even changed some lives. At first, no one moved or seemed to have any reaction. Then, one girl approached the cross and knelt. She lifted up her hands in supplication and began to weep. Slowly, others came. Some knelt, some prostrated themselves on the floor, others simply stood. One young man came and kissed the cross, then left a favorite necklace draped over one of the wooden arms. By the end, we were all in tears. And even when the music ended-when it was time to go-we lingered and embraced and cried and sang. And we worshiped.

Now, I know full well that there is a profound difference between reaching someone and getting a reaction out of them - and only God can truly discern a heart - but what we experienced that week was powerful. And it was ancient. And it was simple. And it was real, Bob. What an amazing experience!

You know what was so amazing about it? That a bunch of traditional Southern Baptists worshiped with and were moved by such things-lifting of hands, bending of knees, using responses from the ancient church, sitting in stillness and quiet contemplation! And we weren't trying to attract kids or get someone to make a public decision or even try to grow our numbers. We were trying to worship. And God honored it. And kid's lives were changed.

You are right in your observation and theory about today's youth and music and worship. I experienced it firsthand this summer. And my life was changed too." -Chris Alford

The combination of ancient forms of faith within contemporary stylings is a powerful and intoxicating combination that appeals to the young in this age of postmodernity. As with anything that the Spirit brings, there are bound to be more surprises ahead. Brace yourselves!

Robert Webber is the William R. and Geraldyn B. Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL, and the President of the Institute for Worship Studies. He has lectured on worship in nearly every denomination and fellowship, and has authored or edited more than twenty books on worship including the eight-volume work, The Complete Library of Christian Worship. His current writing project is called The Younger Evangelicals: A New Kind of Conservative and will discuss the climate in which today's young people have grown up and how their theology and worship reflect postmodern culture.