When most of us think of “youth ministry,” there are usually several classic images that come to mind: goofy games, contemporary worship music with lots of energy, young youth ministers with cool clothes, and big summer church camps. While these things can be good (and I’m sure a lot of us have plenty of nostalgic youth group memories that look a lot like this), nothing about any of these images is distinctively Anglican.
This then raises a question: is it even possible to have a youth ministry that operates in a distinctly Anglican way? Or are our Anglican distinctives (Prayer Book liturgy, sacraments, celebrating the Church calendar, etc.) reserved for adulthood? Are these things simply not “accessible” enough for youth? Will teens become bored and turned off? If so, is it even worth trying?
For some, the perceived inaccessibility of liturgical worship is the basis for a youth ministry that looks no different than that of the Baptist church down the street. Others have the desire to find an “Anglican way” of doing youth ministry, but they lack available Anglican resources for youth ministry to help them see that desire realized. After all, most of the big names in resources, media, and curricula for youth ministry are produced by low-church, evangelical platforms, especially Baptist or non-denominational ones. Think Lifeway, YoungLife, RightNow Media, the Gospel Project, etc.
All of these can be great resources for youth ministry. I’m not calling for Anglican youth pastors to shy away from using them simply because they weren’t written by Anglicans. However, if this is the only concept of youth ministry that we have or the only pool of resources that we pull from, then what makes an Anglican youth ministry Anglican? How can we offer our students anything different from what they could get at another, non-Anglican church?
As someone who did not grow up Anglican and has spent time in multiple other Christian traditions, it is most important to me that my youth grow up to be Christians, not necessarily that they grow up to be Anglicans. But there is a reason I’m an Anglican now, and I want to be able to model that for youth in the way we do youth ministry.
Presumably, most of us are in Anglican churches because we believe there is something about Anglicanism that makes it a beautiful expression of Christianity and that lends itself well to Christian formation. If this is true, then we need to find ways to impart this to students from an early age. If we raise our kids in nondescript, low-church evangelical youth ministries, we can’t expect them to flip a switch and fully embrace Anglicanism and all its distinctives once they turn 18. And if we try that, what does it subtly communicate to youth?
If the form of our teaching, worship, and spirituality is drastically different in our youth ministries from the church at large, are we telling our teens that deep down we’re embarrassed by our Anglicanism? That we secretly don’t think Anglicanism is “cool” enough or “fun” enough to pass on to kids? Or worse, are we communicating to our teens that we don’t think they are smart enough to understand or appreciate Anglican distinctives?
Because we want to invest in the next generation of Anglicans, we need to raise our youth to become not only mature Christian adults (though that is, of course, our primary goal), but also mature, Christian, Anglican adults. Hopefully, some of them will even feel called to ministry in the Anglican church.
If these are our goals, then we need to find ways to teach our kids from a young age not just what it means to be a Christian, but what it means to be an Anglican Christian. Here are a few ideas I have incorporated into my own youth ministry or seen others do well in theirs:
Observe the Church calendar in youth group.
- Decorate your youth space with colors that reflect the Church seasons! Get the youth involved in changing the decorations, and this could become a beloved tradition.
- Teach lessons every year on various holy days and seasons (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost, even minor feast days could make for interesting lessons). Don’t assume that kids understand the meaning behind these days and seasons just because they are celebrated in “big church.”
- Give your kids devotional materials they can use on their own for the various Church seasons: Spotify playlists, Scripture reading plans, etc.
- Give students ways to worship as Anglicans at home. For example, make Advent wreaths at youth that they can take home and use with their families.
Worship like Anglicans in your time together.
- Do you have small group Bible studies? Maybe use that time to do Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, or Compline together, depending on when you meet. If this would be unfamiliar to your youth, start with a pared-down version of the liturgy to help them learn and get used to it.
- Do you take weekend retreats together? Do a full Sunday service with the Eucharist on the Sunday morning of these retreats. Even if you don’t have a priest on your youth ministry team, you can still do a deacon’s mass with pre-consecrated elements. Retreats are also a great time to introduce kids to Compline or the Prayer Book’s liturgies for family prayer.
Teach your youth about worship and spiritual formation in the Anglican tradition and give them opportunities to participate.
- Do house blessings during Epiphany, and offer to do this in the homes of your youth (with parents present and consenting, of course).
- Teach them about practices they may be unaware of, like confession or anointing with oil. Tell them why these things are important, and create opportunities to experience them. Kids might be shy about approaching a clergy person for confession, but you could create the opportunity for them by opening time slots when they can come without asking in advance.
- Get your youth involved in liturgical roles during worship. Youth can and should be crucifers, acolytes, Scripture readers, chalice bearers, etc., on a regular basis. You could even recruit and train youth for the altar guild.
Make baptisms and confirmations a big deal.
- Baptism should be a big deal, regardless of whether it’s an infant baptism or the baptism of a new believer. When someone is baptized at church, invite the children and youth to sit in the front so they can see. Send gifts or cards to kids on their baptism anniversaries to help them “remember their baptism” each year.
- Confirmation shouldn’t be easy. It is much more meaningful to the youth and to the church when catechumens have had serious preparation (not unlike the preparation that goes into a bar mitzvah for Jewish teenagers). In my time as a youth pastor, I required confirmands to pass an oral exam before their confirmation.
- Give children and youth greater roles in the church after they have been baptized and/or confirmed. For example, the church I grew up in made every youth an acolyte upon their confirmation.
Do instructed Eucharist services on a regular basis.
- This is helpful not just for the youth, but for everyone in the congregation. Youth and adults alike are far more likely to find Anglicanism “accessible” and to appreciate Anglican distinctives if we are regularly teaching and explaining why we do what we do in our worship and what it all means.
- Having regular “Youth Sundays” where youth lead as many roles as possible in the service (ushers, music, prayers, Scripture reading, etc.) is another good opportunity to walk through the Sunday liturgy with kids and teach them about the different parts of a worship service.
Use Anglican books and curricula when you can.
- This doesn’t need to be exclusive. There is plenty of wisdom to be found outside the Anglican tradition, but there is also plenty of wisdom within it! Let’s make sure our youth are aware of these resources.
- N. T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and prolific Bible scholar, has tons of great Bible study resources, especially his For Everyone series.
- C. S. Lewis, another well-known Anglican author, has plenty of books that are appropriate for youth-aged kids and could be well worth a small group study. Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters are two that immediately come to mind.
Finally, two bonus side effects I’ve noticed from emphasizing Anglicanism in youth ministry:
Embracing our Anglican distinctives in youth ministry helps balance out the “mountain top” model other forms of youth ministry often emphasize.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with these “mountain top” experiences we often see in youth camp settings, these experiences aren’t sustainable on their own. Teaching kids Anglican practices like the Daily Office will show them how to be a Christian during ordinary days and difficult days. These practices encourage a “slow burn” type of spirituality that can last a lifetime, rather than a quickly ignited fire that may die out as quickly as it starts.
It keeps us honest when we don’t try to be something we’re not.
Many Anglican churches in North America are on the smaller side and might rely heavily on lay leadership. The high energy, campy model of youth ministry we see promoted in popular youth ministry resources functions best in large, low-church settings. When we try to recreate that in small, liturgical churches, it will feel forced and will fall flat. Instead, we should embrace who we are and do it well. Most kids will recognize, appreciate, and benefit from that authenticity.
All of these things may look different from your typical youth group modes and methods, but they can be incredibly enriching to your ministry and will fit alongside the typical silly games, camps, and fellowship times more easily than you might think. Making youth ministry distinctly Anglican is not impossible, and it will be well worth it when our Anglican teenagers grow up to be well-formed Anglican Christians and even the next generation of Anglican leaders.
Anna Russell is a postulant in the Anglican Diocese of the South and currently serves as (soon-to-be) clergy in residence at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also works in missions mobilization as the program assistant in the Global Center at Beeson Divinity School where she received her M.Div. in 2019.