Singing Ourselves Nowhere
The Like-it-or-not Impact of Worship on Identity Formation
Photo by Edwin
The Identity Crisis of a Worship Leader
How many times have you led a song or reading in worship and thought afterwards, Do I actually believe that? As a youth worker and worship leader, I have wondered that many times. For several years the words to Vineyard’s “At the Cross” 1 plagued me. A former youth pastor had taught our group the line, “At the cross, he died for our sins. At the cross, he gave his life again.” Every time we sang it, the question, Again? slapped me in the face. I wrestled with this theology, BUT KEPT SINGING IT. Finally I tracked down the real words, and to my great relief the original read, “He gave US life again”!! Big difference. Looking back, it makes me wonder: what did those students think about themselves and their sins sending Jesus to the cross again and again – was once not enough, after all?
What about you? Have you ever edited lines like “Holiness is what you want from me” 2 to “what you want for me”? There’s some theological distance between those pleas worth considering.
Whether we notice it or not (and most of us don’t), what we sing, pray, read from Scripture, and enact together in corporate worship will, over time, contribute to the formation of the identity of individuals and a community of worshipers. Is this a tough piece of meat to chew? I hope so. I have come to realize how puny (contra-transformational, even) our worship can be when we thoughtlessly “wing it” from week to week. In the end we cheat God and we cheat kids. Put another way, I’m asking this: Through our worship, do kids “get it” when it comes to their identity in Christ? Or are we teaching something else through our songs and rituals? If we’re not careful, we could be singing ourselves – and the students under our care – nowhere.
At the heart of the human experience, we want to know who we are, why we exist and how we relate to others. We yearn to live meaningfully; we long to discover what – and whose – story we are part of. These issues are especially present and powerful during adolescence. Using the metaphor of a tightrope walk, Chap Clark frames the adolescent task of individuation through three critical questions: “Who am I?” (identity), “Do I matter?” (autonomy), and “How do I relate to others?” (Belonging/reconnection). 3 Each child walks the tightrope of adolescence from childhood toward adulthood, desperately needing mature adults to be both guides and safety nets.
The issue of identity, or “Who am I?” is a story of the self. 4 However, the answer to the “Who am I?” question depends heavily on cues from others. The power of a person’s family, relationships with peers and the broader community to profoundly impact identity formation is undeniable. Further, identity is often conveyed through some sort of medium: “an object, an act, a music, an art, a language, a banner that serves as a label, insignia… These tag a human group and… [the mediums] in turn assume the identity of the group.” 5 So our identity development seems to involve some level of personal discovery, interaction with others in the context of a larger narrative, and communication through cultural symbol or ritual.
Christian faith is unambiguous regarding the question of human identity: We were created to reflect the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), so that our very existence reveals God’s glory. This identity is fully realized through the redemption of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Henri Nouwen proposes that true identity is discovered as we hear the voice of God calling us the beloved. These words, “You are my beloved,” reveal “the most intimate truth about all human beings.” 6 As a result, we wear two realities: people who are both created in the image of God, and re-created by Christ’s work of reconciliation (2 Cor 5) to be named God’s children (1 Jn 3:1-2). 7
As congregations, then, we need to ask tough questions about worship: What are we to make of the worship of the Psalms that claim in the midst of crisis we are still God’s chosen people? Or interactions where in a moment of worship, God changes someone’s name, initiates a covenant, or speaks truth about who they are and who God is. How are we communicating biblical images of believers as children of God, ministers of reconciliation, holy priests, the Body of Christ, brothers and sisters, heirs, light and salt, etc.? When we are effective in this regard, we’re faithfully guiding students into the heart of their God-created identity in Christ, encouraging them carefully across the bridge of adolescence into adulthood alongside their families.
Worship as a Spawning Pool (or Cesspool) for Identity Formation
No doubt, church culture has created an abyss of confusion regarding what it means to worship God. Even if we can get beyond issues of music style, the American Church desperately needs a complete reassessment of the meaning of Christian worship. Though that challenge is beyond the scope of this article, we would do well to consider a working definition and application:
“‘Worship’ derives from ‘worth-ship’: it means giving God all he’s worth.” 8
“Just as worship begins in holy expectancy, it ends in holy obedience… To worship is to change.” 9
Worshiping constitutes a transformational acting-out of theology. “When we realize once again that our God is the one who loves us into new life, then we will really know how to celebrate. True celebration, in turn, sustains true humanness. As we glimpse the living God, we are transformed into his likeness.” 10 So why do we worship? Is it something for God, us, the community, or mysteriously… all of the above? (This may sound a bit heretical, but keep reading). If we believe worship is a dynamic interaction and dialogue with God, shouldn’t we come out on the other end as something – or someone – different? For kids, this transformation can happen on their deepest levels of reality: identity, autonomy, and belonging.
If we are not careful, communal worship can actually stunt or warp identity formation. It can reinforce unhealthy leadership models, introduce destructive practices and processes in a worshiper’s life, or help maintain denial of reality through supporting escapist mentalities. These problems clearly embody a gross misuse of worship. 11 Worship can also be used as a tool of oppression by leaders who see it as an opportunity to control others or push their own agendas. This can happen in multiple scenarios: urging the manipulation of certain spiritual gifts to prove the presence of the Holy Spirit; submerging genuine expression of the same; or modeling a one-man/woman-show approach to leadership (haven’t we had enough of this?). Further, when all of our songs and prayers are based on transporting us to a hyper-individual state of spiritual oneness with God, we are likely to miss out on the clearly communal nature of worship, let alone the biblical imperatives to care for the people and world around us as an extension of our worship (Isaiah 58, for instance).
Beyond intentional misuse of worship, additional problems can result as easily from carelessness in worship planning and leading. Our laziness, narcissism, and thoughtlessness in approaching God can rub off, not only in how kids view themselves and church, but also in how they view God. What often results is a type of transactional Christianity based on a hidden theme of performing for God, expecting our fair share in return: “If you give me this, I’ll do that”, or “If I do this, you give me that.” Without thoughtful preparation, even our best attempts at “spontaneity” often come across as an excuse for not really caring about what we’re doing. Or worse, that God doesn’t really care about what we’re doing. Perhaps we should think twice before tossing the keys to our student band and saying, “You plan it, you lead it.” When we do, we are in effect saying, “It doesn’t matter all that much.” I’m not necessarily against student-led worship, but is it really transformative when we abandon them to create a worship environment based on what they like this week? Kids desperately need mentors who actually lead and teach them.
Practical Steps to Incorporate More Identity-Formation Thought into Worship
So how can we nurture a worshiping community that reaches beyond our cultural baggage to discover a God who longs to give a richer identity than this? How can we foster healthy environments in our congregations for clear identity in Christ to be “caught” by the adolescents who participate?
Faithful practices evaluated through our theological lenses. This is ministry with the telos, or end result, in mind. 12 A first step in praxis-oriented ministry is asking good questions. What’s your biblical telos in worship? Then, take a good look at song lyrics, scripture choices, prayer styles and words. What kind of view of sin comes across? What about grace? How is relationship to God portrayed? Do these resonate with your understanding of the truth?
With a ministry team, take account of your communal worship life with its practices, rituals, interactions with one another and with God. Are there any fallacies communicated through the way you conduct worship, or by whom you exclude from worship? Do your services emphasize fragmented families and community, whisking off youth and children to other parts of the church while adults experience “real” worship? The process of praxis includes an evaluative loop through which you continually assess our practices for their faithfulness to the truths we believe about God and about ministry. Regularly asking questions such as these allows the youth ministry team to affirm or adjust areas of ministry as necessary, guarding against unhealthy patterns.
The Body of Christ is always located in a missional-contextual reality. 13 This is basic, but we must not brush past or smooth it over. Accordingly, worship is an incarnational ministry: the good news becomes embodied in a real place and time in ways that transform real people and communities. Take inventory of how your youth ministry is – or isn’t – contextual. How is your theology of worship influenced by your actual community? Sometimes your rituals might smack of inauthenticity because they lack the ability to speak truth into your people.
Identity always includes not only, “Who am I?” (self definition), but also “Who do others say I am?” (definition from others), and “Who are we together?” (communal definition). The questions are grounded in finding out the “we” of whom I am a part. We have been woven into God’s story through the redemption of Christ for all people, and are called to employ sensitivity to the salvation history God weaves through a worshiping community. The question for us becomes: how is God forming new identity among this specific people, in this time and place?
Kenda Creasy Dean notes the contextual importance of some form of “ecstatic ritual” in youth worship, as their developmental and sociological realities tend toward experiences of immediacy. The most common and highly valued ecstatic ritual among adolescents is music. 14 Ethnomusicologists (people who study cultures through the lenses of their songs and rituals) tell us that music commonly serves as an “audible badge of identity” among social groups. 15 Music carries the power of language and story, evident particularly in religious songs, transferring group identity and collective faith history.
Suffering and lament also speak to the realities of the adolescent context. The Church often ignores the fact that adolescents know suffering well: their world is marked by the pains of divorce, abandonment, and hopelessness. The God who suffers is a mystery – yet, an appealing one to a generation looking for something or someone worthy of suffering for, and who is willing to suffer in love for them. 16 Walter Brueggemann has specifically challenged the Church to reconsider lament as a category of worship, and I believe this can be another helpful lens for the youth ministry practitioner. The Psalms hold a full 65 laments, or psalms of disorientation, as Brueggemann terms them. Yet our corporate worship rarely ever includes lament language. “The problem with a hymnody (i.e.: collected songs, rituals, prayers used by a church) that focuses on equilibrium, coherence, and symmetry… is that it may deceive and cover over. Life is not like that. Life is also savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.” 17 Youth get this. In fact, it could be argued that disorientation provides an appropriate label for the adolescent experience. An identity-attentive worshiping community allows space for authentic lament, and hope in the midst of suffering, as part of contextualizing its practices.
How will you know if that is the case with your students? Discerning context requires entering into dialog with students, culture, and scripture, and remaining open to re-tooling forms to communicate meaning adequately. For example, recently I developed a simple survey to collect reflections and observations from students. They were asked to evaluate the ways their youth ministries and churches worship together. The questions were simple, including:
- How important is it to you to be part of a group of people who regularly worship God together?
- What have you grown to understand about yourself, others, your church, and God through worshiping with other people?
- Why do you worship with others?
An interesting insight came out of conversation with some local students following this survey. One brought up the question of whether worship is primarily individual or corporate. She insisted that the people around us “just happen to be there” while we are worshiping God in a solitary experience (an attitude reflected in several surveys). The question was posed, “What would be missing if you were not part of worship at your church? Who would it matter to if you did not show up?” Through the course of the conversation, several students realized that worship may be about a bigger picture than simply “me and God.” Youth long to know the answer to that question – does it matter if I show up? In this scenario, a survey provided a launching point for new thought. Students began considering their place and value in the worshiping life of the church.
Rituals can powerfully confer identity, especially rites of passage that mark turning points in the journey to adulthood. Even the liturgies of the church – which youth pastors can be quick to dismiss – can help frame adolescent spiritual experience within a broader and deeper collective identity. Practicing liturgy invokes acts of remembrance, a key theme of the biblical worship narrative. Remembering God and God’s actions throughout history, through the scriptures, through our community’s history, and together with the gathered Body, means we actively become living reminders of God’s truth in the world. 18 In this process, we learn a great deal. Will Willimon asserts, “Liturgy is education. The question before us … is not whether our people will learn when they worship. The question is, What will they learn when we lead them in worship?” 19
Further, “Rites of passage are ritualized journeys across life’s most difficult boundaries. They give meaning to the changes in the status or role of persons, they reestablish equilibrium in persons and communities after the crisis of change, and they… [transmit] to future generations what the community believes to be the meaning of that change.” 20 The typical rites of passage celebrated in the Protestant church are funerals, weddings, baptisms, and confirmation ceremonies. Though every worship service includes reminders of the Christian’s identity, perhaps the principal way we experience our identity as Christians is in baptism. 21
Baptism offers a response to the “Who am I?” question: “I am the one who is called, washed, named, promised, and commissioned.” 22 And this, by necessity, happens in the context of a baptismal community. Romans 6:4 notes the importance of the ritual for conferring a newness of life through a physical symbolic enactment of burial and resurrection: going under the water and rising again. 23 Adoption is also a key image connected with baptism. Those baptized into Christ thus become inheritors of God’s promises and living symbols of the new creation. 24
Another primary identity-forming ritual of the church is the Lord’s Supper. Eating together in general communicates a sense of familial connectedness. Jesus’ common practice of sharing meals with saints and sinners unveils the centrality of table fellowship for faith communities and its symbolic power. 25 The Lord’s Supper takes this a step further, making it an expression of communion with the Trinity and with other believers, as we remember Christ’s sacrifice. Nouwen believed that our identities in Christ share the nature of the Eucharist: as the Spirit moves in our lives to form us as the beloved, we are “taken, blessed, broken, and given,” – reflecting the actions of the Lord’s Supper. 26 This journey describes an identity formation experience intimately related to the acts of worship.
What other rituals and tools of worship effectively communicate and transpose truths about God and humanity into the adolescent reality? Can we create further rituals of table-fellowship, which serve to incorporate youth into the life of the community? Do baptism and/or confirmation rites include significant opportunities for others to confer on them a new identity in Christ? Additional rites of passage could include wilderness adventures or youth-parent trips. If the church leaves kids without any initiation rites – or only our culture’s cheap imitations and “graduations” – they will be forced to initiate one another, taking on the roles abandoned by appropriate guides.
On a greater scale, youth ministry is due for a paradigm shift. Chap Clark argues for a model based on strategic assimilation, switching the essential task of youth ministry away from the spiritual orphan-creating institution of typical youth ministry. Rather than focusing on “personal decisions to receive Christ”, the goals become more holistic: “To assimilate authentic disciples into full participation in the life of the community of faith and the church.” 27 Though an individual faith is implied as a starting place, the true assessment of our ministry’s effectiveness becomes the level of students’ connectedness to the larger body by the time they graduate. 28
Practically thinking, how many adults in the larger congregation are building into students’ lives through significant relationships? What kinds of tools are we giving these adults to learn how to relate to and mentor adolescents? How can we help leaders model what it means to ultimately enfold graduates into the church, rather than watch them exit in bewilderment? This final suggestion involves more than practical application, of course. It implies a shift that must run to the core of the church. Corporate worship provides a vital link in nurturing these relationships. 29
A few warnings seem appropriate here. First, the last thing we need is to make following Jesus more complicated or obscure. Rites of passage can sound and feel like fraternity rituals (think secret handshakes and group humiliation). Following Jesus should never be like that. Sacred moments do not have to be complicated to be profound.
Second, self-discovery is never ultimately the point of worship. Glorifying God must remain our central focus. This pitch isn’t about putting a new spin on worship “issues,” but rather recognizing what’s at stake when we draw students together on the pretense that we will worship God. One way or another, they will learn from these encounters. The question, again, is… what are they learning? These suggestions stand in contrast to the common assumption and practice of our American theology of worship: primarily an individual, solitary experience with God. Instead, when celebrated in the community of faith, “Worship is pastoral, edifying, corporate, and integrative.” 30 Again, it is not these goals, but rather responding to God, that constitutes our primary purpose in worship.
So, through re-thinking praxis, context, rituals, and assimilation, our worship life can develop into one through which identity is passed on as youth are woven into a larger story and find room therein for their own stories to emerge. Far from singing ourselves nowhere, we will see the kingdom of God breaking through in the lives of our churches.
- What do you think your students are currently learning about God and themselves from your worship experiences and services? What is good about what they’re learning? What do you wish was on that list but isn’t?
- If you created a survey for youth in your care, do you expect that you might uncover similar views of worship (i.e.: that worship is individual, between me and God)?
- What other methods could you use to discover the ways in which the worship you practice in your church shapes the youth in your care?
- This article includes many practical suggestions for worship in your ministry (like careful planning of worship services, including rituals and rites of passage, and assimilating students into the overall church through worship). Which of these do you think you should focus on in the next month? What other practical ideas do you have?