Everyday liturgies: Why youth conform to what faces them

This is the final article in our youth ministries series. If you missed the first two, we explored 3 ways to help your students discern their vocational calling and how to help youth value school as work. We hope this series encouraged you, whether you work with youth, parent youth, or want to know how to better serve the youth in your church or school classrooms. Watch for more series coming soon from our Made to Flourish team, and make sure you check out our other resources at madetoflourish.org and follow us on Twitter

In what seems like a religious identity crisis, many young Christians feel abandoned and alone by the institutions and structures meant to support them: the church and family. Systems theory wisdom suggests that organizations are perfectly designed for the results they are currently getting. As I’ve served in youth and family ministries for 12 years, I have seen some of the results that social systems have had on our young people. What are some of these results? Jeffrey Arnett, author of Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach,  argues that people are taking much longer to mature into adulthood (1). Christian Smith has observed that our family and religious systems have primarily shaped our young people to be Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (2). These are not new facts, but they are important to understand how our ministry to youth must be counteractive to what society teaches and what they learn through culture and their peers.

We want more than a Sunday faith that disappears at school on Monday for our young people. We are passionate to see our young people mature into adulthood at a younger age, more deeply committed to Christ, and equipped with a vision for participating in God’s mission in all of life. So how do we begin rethinking our systems in order to see different results? I believe we can learn a lot from James K.A. Smith’s work on cultural liturgies.

We are often more or less familiar with the concept of liturgy and liturgical elements, which are commonly understood as referring to “the corporate expressions of praise to God or Christ that were developed into fixed forms through constant and repeated usage in the public worship” (3). We engage these liturgical elements when we gather in worship, believing we are being spiritually formed in Christ. However, Smith invites us to expand our understanding of liturgy and consider the cultural liturgies that we participate in everyday — liturgies that are forming, and likely malforming, us.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith describes at length the liturgy of things like the mall, inviting us to recognize this activity as a liturgical practice that is shaping our beliefs and, even more powerfully, our affections or desires. He makes the case that simply by shopping at the mall, and participating in the liturgy of the mall, and it will inevitably malform us towards materialism (4).  Ever since reading this book, I have wondered how we might apply this kind of thinking to youth ministry.

What is the liturgy of high school and how is it forming our students? How are things like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook shaping our students? How do they reflect a liturgical practice, forming our souls either toward the world, or toward Christ? And how does culture affect their lives in both positive and negative ways?

Let’s consider this for a moment. What is the “liturgy” of Instagram, and how might it be forming our students? I imagine as our students scroll through their feed, there is often a host of strong emotions they might feel. As they see curated pictures of friends hanging out without them, they may feel angry, lonely, or isolated. When they see photos of celebrities living the culturally defined “good life,” they may feel envy and jealousy.  And when they see photos with thousands or even millions of likes, they may feel inferior or invisible with a mere 16 likes. Over time, as our students (and adults) participate in this practice multiple times a day, they will, in many cases, naturally be formed by this cultural liturgy. As they practice this, they grow more lonely, jealous, and angry if not counteracted with something better than what the culture offers.

I believe youth workers need to intentionally cultivate an environment in their ministries that equips students to face these cultural norms and practices while being conformed to the image of Christ instead of the world (Romans 12:2).

Here are three ways youth pastors can encourage their students to resist the culture’s pull to conform, and instead encourage them to ponder the path of their feet (Prov 4:26).

  1. Invite students to prayerfully examine who they are becoming. Invite them to consider questions like: As I compare myself to who I was a year ago, how have I changed for good and for bad? How did these changes happen? As I scroll on Instagram, what are the dominant emotions I feel and how does that affect what I desire? As I reflect on the words of my teachers, coaches, friends, and/or parents today, when did I feel misunderstood or misrepresented, and where did I feel affirmed, alive, and aligned with who I believe God has created me to be.
  2. Reimagine the liturgy of our youth services to not simply inform students about who God is and what God desires, but help students desire what God desires. This means praying with and for them, living side-by-side with them, hearing their struggles and fears, and consistently pointing them to Scripture. We only learn what God desires by reading his Word and living within community. As our youth struggle through high school and the transitions of college, we want them to leave our churches stronger in their faith, trusting more in God’s care than culture’s empty promises. We play a part in this journey, and helping them know and desire what God desires is part of that role.
  3. Equip students with spiritual disciplines that enable them to access the transformative power Christ amidst the cultural liturgies shaping them. As we help our students desire what God desires, this also includes teaching them spiritual disciplines that will help them throughout each season of their lives. At our church, we encourage our community to write out and memorize a simple prayer for particular situations that are uniquely malforming us. Each simple prayer as three elements to it: (a) an honest confession of reality, (b) a Christocentric reframing of reality, and (c) a request for God to help. For example, if a student regularly struggles with jealousy after spending time on Instagram, their simple prayer might be, “God I am jealous because I want the lives that my friends have, I am your masterpiece created in Christ Jesus to do good works, help me to want the life you have for me.” These practices, in addition to Bible reading, singing psalms and praises, and living in community with others, will help them grow in Christlikeness instead of the world’s.

Conclusion

Liturgy, in many ways, shapes us. We know this from church history to today — spiritual practices mold our hearts, hopefully, into God’s image, whereas earthly practices and habits shape us into the world’s. Our teenagers are inundated on a daily basis with messages, “liturgies,” from the world, that they need more clothes, money, popularity, likes on Instagram, and status in order to find significance and love. This shapes them (and us). As youth pastors and parents, we get the opportunity to invest in their lives with a different message, reminding them often of the truths of Scripture and what it says about them in Christ. May we faithfully serve them and pray that the liturgies of the church and Scripture grow more appealing and beautiful to them than anything the world or our culture can offer.

(1) Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach, Second

Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004.

(2) Smith, Christian. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

(3) Hawthorne, G. F., Martin, R. P., & Reid, D. G. (Eds.). In Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993, p. 560.

(4) Smith, James K. A.. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Topics: Culture, Spiritual Formation Practices, Students

About the Author

Chris Neal is the director of the Youth Leadership Initiative at Azusa Pacific University, where he has also served as an adjunct professor of youth ministry and vocation. Chris serves as the City Network Leader for Made to Flourish Los Angeles, and will begin his Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Fuller Seminary in the fall of 2018.