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The emphasis of ritual in the American Christian church youth ministry department is underestimated and underpracticed.

The Lost Value of Ritual in Youth Ministry

The emphasis of ritual in the American youth ministry context is underestimated and underpracticed.

The church has already given us two really simple and easy rituals:  Communion and Baptism.

But why have student ministry departments forgotten to stop, talk, do stuff, remember, and laugh together?  I think more youth ministries need frequent rituals that shape their youth group values, identity, and theological focus.  Establishing sacred rituals will set your group apart from every other group.

Rituals are consistent activities that give meaning to the Scriptures and to the faith community.

In fact, rituals greatly help to bring more unity and focus within the group. Youth ministries need experiences and environments that allow for reflection, discussion, and celebration amongst the students.  There is power when a youth ministry can link experiences and Truth and give it meaning.  When there is a tri-linking of: ritual, experience, and Scripture, students begin to enter into the story of God and realize that the Christian faith has deep history.

Designing a youth ministry that incorporates consistent memory makers (rituals), can assist students to remember things of the faith, and connect them back to the faith and to each other.

In Judaism, rituals are at the core of religious belief and practice.  Jewish people have rituals for praying, eating, funerals, weddings, Sabbath, mourning, seasons of the year, family time, holidays, teenage life transitions, parties, etc.  Jews are particularly great at treating these experiences as scared. Jews also intentionally include all family members in all rituals. For example the bar mitzvah.  The bar mitzvah is a Jewish ritual celebrating when a boy turns 13. The boy is thought to have the same rights as a Jewish male.  Basically, the bar mitzvah unlocks a new milestone for the teenager to fully devote himself to the Torah and his studies while being a fully functional member in the Jewish community.

In one of my youth ministry positions, we had a ritual of “initiating” the incoming freshman into the high school ministry.  A week after they graduated  8th grade, a few youth leaders and some high school students and I would drive to each of their houses early Saturday morning and wake them up while filming (with the blessing of their parents, of course).  It was hilarious.  After they woke up and got dressed, we took them to breakfast.  And, unfortunately for them, we played the video of their initiation that Sunday in church.  It was a great ritual for our high school ministry.

Another big ritual I relied on heavily……was celebrating students’ birthdays once a month.  We would throw a mini party making every student feel special.

Perhaps more important are the spiritual rituals you implement into your program.  Every week in my youth ministry, we had a time of reflection on one aspect of God and a time of confession.  Candles and worship music accompanied this silent time.  At first the students weren’t sure what to think of it…but after a few weeks they came to hold the time as sacred.  There was something about the consistency of doing this each week that made it more powerful than if we just did it every once in a while.

About once each month I ended youth group with a time of worship.  Not just worship though music, but a time of worship where students could visit a variety of stations that allowed them to explore different types of worship.  Students started to see the bigger picture of what it means to worship God not only at church, but how they might carry it outside.

All I am saying to student pastors are three things:

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(1) Youth ministries need experiences to help students connect to and remember the Scriptures.  Having rituals gives the students something to look forward to and participate in.

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(2) Have consistent rituals in your youth ministry planning and programming that considers reflection, discussion, and celebration.  These rituals will be critical for their spiritual growth and transitions.  Possible rituals:  Eat, fast, serve, laugh, prayer together, hold a weekly theological class, communion, go somewhere in public together, read scripture aloud, sit in silence, time of confession and repentance, celebrate school and athletic success, have a party for birthdays,

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(3) Try to include families and parents in youth ministry rituals.  Also it may be helpful to think through certain rituals that parents can engage and celebrate with their teenager.  Possible family rituals: 1st communion, baptism, confirmation, obtaining drivers license, middle school graduation, semester GPA, father-son & daughter-mother day, completion of grade, prom/homecoming, 18th birthday, college acceptance,

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Some Questions:

How is your youth ministry unique and memorable?

What sacred experiences does your youth ministry offer?

How does your student ministry point and redirect your students to the Scriptures and Church traditions?

What are great rituals that families can celebrate together?

About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

19 comments

  1. Our ministry is looking at ways to do this. our initial thought is to provide rites of passage resources to families as the first step. An example would be an event in a can to give parents to help them prepare for milestones (adolescence, drivers license, graduation, etc). Rather than doing the event ourself we figured these are family events, that need to be planned and supported by families. we would rather provide those opportunities for them rather than do it for them. Have started this yet but it’s on the planning board!

  2. In our Anglican context confirmation is viewed with a mix reaction. For us it’s really life giving as a ritual, It’s valued by families and is a great chance to proclaim the gospel.

  3. I like your thoughts and I track with you. However, what if we flipped the critique into a question, “What rituals are youth ministries practicing?” The underlying assumption for this flip is that humans create rituals by the very nature of who we are. We are spiritual and relational beings therefore we create relational and spiritual practices.

    So here are the questions that I come up with…
    What does the fall retreat signify to youth about the church?
    What do youth learn about God in the graduation celebration?
    How does the annual “Super Bowl” party reveal the nature of Jesus’ Lordship?
    What does the “Back to School” event communicate about the relationship between the church and society?

    • I agree and love your additional questions. My criticism always starts with observations and questions. Consider yourself ahead of the curve. Most youth ministries are not thinking about this as much nor have the time in their youth ministry program to facilitate environments. I think it does in fact to do with the reality of moving away from attractional models and churches are downsizing.

  4. Those questions at the end are great ones. Unfortunately, I dont think communion and baptism are topics Youth Ministries like to discuss much, and we should.

    But I love the idea of really having those experiences that are like rituals or almost rites of passages for students, I just think they need to be handled in a way that doesnt make them too ritualistic or too much of a rites of passage. Its one thing for an event to create community and enhance it, but its another if someone feels like they aren’t part of the group until they have done x event and gone through that experience. Good stuff as always

    • Amen! I was thinking this in the back of my mind, but I just didn’t know how to articulate how to steer away from “religious” rituals. Ben thanks you for your clarity and filling in the gaps.

  5. This post was killer man! I’m def priting this one off and putting it in my big file of youth ministry tools and ideas.

  6. I clicked submit too soon. Advent is a really good time to start establishing some of those rituals too!

    • I actually thought about this when I read a youth pastors facebook status regarding celebrating advent. Probably should have wrote about this a month ago because advent is a perfect example.

  7. Great, inspiring post! I recently read a terrific little book that is all about incorporating Jewish traditions/rituals into our Christian culture, Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner. Lots of meaningful ideas for what you are talking about :)
    PS- Glad you and your bride are together…

    • Hi Kori!!! I wish I had my hands on that book before I wrote this post. Wow. I am tracking it down as we speak. It will be interesting what Lauren has to say about how Christian culture has embrace/neglected Jewish tradition. Inherently the American Evangelical church as a whole is very Greek.

  8. Great Post Jeremy. I was actually thinking of this topic this week. Especially around Christmas and all and trying to teach students the idea of loosing our consumption attitude.
    I use to do what we called Man Hunt. We would have a few “known” people in the church and on the leadership team dress up like someone else. Homeless, business person, and etc. The group would split into teams and try to find those people. We would video all of this and show the group the next week.

    On more of a spiritual note, I’ve always done communion in our youth programing as well as take most of the group to a senior living place once a month to sing hymns.

  9. I love the idea and agree that ritual is a lost art and discipline in the American church, not just in her Youth Ministries. I always struggled with the tension of ritual becoming routine and losing some of its mean. So, while I maintained some level of regularity of it in my last Youth Ministry, I tried to mix it up so we never got to a place where the teens were expecting communion the 1st Wednesday, contemplative worship the 2nd Wednesday, etc.

    To add another ritual to the mix, I think the Lord’s Prayer has lost its place in the modern Church as well. It should be more of a Youth Group ritual than a pre-game football ritual…just sayin.

  10. Could you possibly elaborate on the “worship stations”?

  11. I think many Student Pastors are so dialed in on relevance that they run past some very foundational concepts that are foundational for a reason. Ritual can become stale, but so can the search for the next cool thing. Repetition aids learning at whatever age. And ritual does not have to be the enemy of freshness/relevance.

    Good word.

    • I completely agree. It is difficult to find a balance in ritual vs. religion. ya know? But if the ritual has a clear focus on why it is being done, then it will have a direct power. plus, i think it is important to know that their faith is rooted in such a deep Christian heritage.

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