discussion of middle school worship

a handful of my friends, all middle school ministry experts, have been having an email dialogue about middle schoolers and worship, prompted by this email from sean meade, director of the stuck in the middle events for middle schoolers:

This past weekend I had a great conversation with April at our DRIVE event about what worship songs are really appropriate for jr. high/middle school students. A lot of the songs we sing are WAY too abstract, and they just don’t “click” with what we know about this age and the way they think. I’ve tried to pick songs on my own that I think work, but it’s always much better when we process this stuff together.

So…I thought it might be helpful to compose a list of songs that we feel are “jr. high friendly” for use in worship.

For example, History Maker seems like a great song for Jr. High with clear and understandable lyrics. Any takers?

i’ve enjoyed the thoughtful responses, and asked if i could share their responses with you all in the blogosphere. remember, it’s just a conversation, not a definitive treatise…

Christian Dashiell, urban middle school dude in kansas city responded:

Short answer for people who don’t read long emails: Songs that pull their lyrics from scripture.

Long answer for everyone else: I think that worship for this group comes down to two things. First, is creating a culture of worship. Most JH students have not had an extensive worship experience up until this point, so it is of benefit to find ways to create space where they can start to understand what worship is about and where they can also feel comfortable in worship. Thus, the experience turns into teachable moments that can also be meaningful expression.

One of the things that I have found helpful over the past couple of years is to really tighten up the number of songs groups use in worship. When I was working with Nate, we started the year by picking out 10 songs, and those were the only 10 songs we used for the first 6 months. Then we added two more, bringing the entire library up to a dozen songs. This helped the students because they knew the songs and felt comfortable with them, and helped cut down the concert feel of worship sets.

And now I come back to my short answer of songs that pull their lyrics from scripture. This summer we were starting from scratch in terms of teaching students how to worship. 90% of our kids don’t go to church, and so they don’t really have a framework for what it is about or how to do it. We have a weekly youth-group type meeting each week in the summer, and a big part of the evening is worship. We wanted to be very purposeful about making it a teaching experience, so before every song we would talk about what it meant. We imported the idea of a small rotation, so that after 6 weeks we had used a total of 8 songs. But by the end of those 6 weeks the students were getting it. Part of the deal was that they actually knew the songs, but the teaching moments were interesting to them as well. We would talk about the context of the scripture and what some of the bigger words meant (hardly any of our kids have the “religious” or even english vocab to understand most worship songs) and it was cool to see how they retained that information from week to week.

So that strategy works well in a church setting. Not too sure how it would work in a setting like Stuck. Perhaps you could offer a breakout session for the kids where they discussed and learned about the lyrics to some of the songs you guys use there.

alan mercer, jh guy at christ community in overland park, ka, wrote:

I love what Christian has said here. I believe a small selection of songs done over and over is the best idea (especially for a thing like Stuck). You only build momentum as students get to know the songs and the leaders. I also believe that they simply need to be lead. They will go where you lead them, but you must lead them because they are new to this musical worship scene. They come from children’s ministry, where, stereotypically, they jump and have fun, but are not taken to deeper water. Help them see that this is not only possible, but fun, and rewarding. Help them understand different expressions of worship and then give them permission to get involved in these expressions.

Finally, don’t be afraid to get quiet. Sometimes in our effort to have a great band and a “fun” atmosphere, we miss the chance to take students to water that is a bit deeper. These students can be quiet, don’t need “bleeding eardrum” volume and will use their voice in a positive manner. Give them a chance to get into a slower, quieter set, and then make sure the lead worshiper and band don’t ruin it by thinking everyone needs to hear them all the time :) Sometimes, this takes longer than a three song set can muster – you might need to do five or six slow songs and take 20-30 minutes intermixed with prayer and scripture to allow students to connect. This is not a Friday night session of your weekend, but it can be a Saturday night or Sunday session after you have lead the group to this water for shorter times. They will go where you lead them.

kurt johnston, saddleback’s middle school guy, wrote:

If I was a middle schooler from 1987, I would LOVE History Maker.
Now that I’m done being smart I’ll try to contribute.

Here’s a question our team asks all the time: Which is more important…that they LIKE the song or that they GET the song? So many of the songs our kids seem to really like are songs they probably don’t totally get.

Lately, we are singing a ton of stuff from Hillsong United…if they sing it, we probably do, too. The two current favorites
– Tell The World
– Break Free

i (marko) wrote:

Yeah, I resonate with much of what’s being said here. The place I think so many jh worship leaders go wrong (or right) isn’t song selection, though that certainly is important. I think it’s the issue Alan raises of leadership. I’ve seen those who know wonderful songs that are perfect for jh, both in terms of style and lyrical content, but they assume (wrongly) that leading is the same as it is with adults. Not so. Leading jhrs requires lots of suggestions, lots of coaching, lots of encouragement. For me, this is the difference between a good jh worship leader and a great jh worship leader: knowing how and when to coach and explain and encourage in a way that’s neither patronizing nor assuming too much.

scott rubin (willow’s ms guy) and brandon grissom (willow’s ms worship guy) wrote this:

You know how we’re all fond of saying “teaching isn’t just a 20 minute portion of our gathering… but it’s happening all the time”? I think this is another example of that. And while I agree with Marko that they need the suggestions, coaching, encouragement… I think adults in many places need more of it than they get, too!

I forwarded some of these emails to my good friend Brandon Grissom, who leads our worship at Elevate, and I agree with his thoughts, too. In my humble opinion, he does a great job “explaining/teaching” during our worship times.


I could be wrong but I’m not exactly sure that every student needs to understand every concept in every song. In my experience they GROW INTO an understanding of these songs through their junior high years. Obviously, 8th graders are able to latch onto things that the 6th graders can’t even fathom yet. So does that mean we mean we only do songs with simple, concrete lyrics? I don’t think so. So the better question is – do we have a process for introducing new songs, cultivating a worship culture and teaching on concepts that the songs introduce. Much of the theology that my generation has learned in church is through the music that we experienced. (This could be a good thing or a bad thing) Worship is in many ways, I think, like a foreign language that has to be taught (or caught). In this view – words like holiness, grace, redemption, and salvation are concepts that as students sing, meditate, pray and think on begin to “marinate” in their developing minds and hearts well before they are able to articulate to us any real definition. Which is cool, I think. You have to actually plant some seeds before anything grows.


then, johnny scott, director of ciy’s jh believe, wrote a freakin’ long missive:

I would also rather cut three slow songs to talk about one so students can connect with it in a more meaningful way. I think it is okay to plant seeds with songs in student’s minds to ‘marinate’ as Brandon said; but it needs to start from something concrete and also have an immediate win. For instance, I don’t think students understand the shortness of life and the depth of it’s “valley of the shadow of death” scripture reference in Matt Redman’s “You Never Let Go”. Nor do I think they can grasp the concept of death being sweet when we sing of an “end to these troubles” as I do at 31 years old . . .er young. I do however see that they know pain in their life and it is just as real to them as it is me. They do seek a father who will never let go of them. That is an immediate win they understand that is grounded in the scripture that will grow with them on their faith Journey.

Marko’s comments are the same things he was challenging me with during last year’s tour at times. It was good. I think we become familiar with songs and our students so much that we fail to invite (not guilt!!!) them to participate in worship (physically and contemplatively). The phrase ‘suggest to students’ is key. Jr high students are at a place developmentally where they no longer are satisfied with going through the motions at church because the adults ask them to (churched and unchurched students). I think we should encourage this. Help them realize what they are struggling with without perhaps even knowing it. I’m finding students more engaged when they are told that this worship time is theirs to use to connect with God. Telling them that they DON’T HAVE to sing if they feel the need to just sit and listen for God. Or giving them the permission to go to the sides or back of the room to kneel are concrete ways that communicate we are only providing another way for them to worship God.

Also, one practice I have recently adopted is to take the text of every song in a given evening of programming and put it in one word document without any of the chord chart information. I then read through that message. Many times we pick songs on the ebb and flow or ‘feel’ we are going for. When it comes time for a transition into a slower set we then really think about the words. This practice opened my eyes in a different way to our overarching message on any given night.

This is a small thing that we do but I see big results. I put medium hand clapping songs up front in sets saving the songs that my students are likely to celebrate in active ways on in the three and four spot. People in general like to warm up to an experience. An invitation to jump around doesn’t seem as intrusive after I have warmed up my vocal cords, moved my hands, looked around the room, watched the band for a song, gave someone a high five during a meet and greet time and acclimated somewhat into this cooperate identity. If you blow your best participation songs up front because you just want to come out swinging you will have no steam when the students are up to your speed fasty! They haven’t been at Church all day waiting around. Along the same lines I see a direct correlation between high levels of activity/participation during songs of celebration and involvement in small group questions (or other program elements). The rational here being: if this is a safe place to jump around and let my cool guard down a little bit then it might also be a safe place to share feelings, and so on.

To me the ‘hook’ in songs are the tipping point on weather or not we’ll do it after the filter of: “does it say what we need to say tonight in an age appropriate way”. I want to have kids walk out humming the unforgettable parts of songs or see an upbeat song become a rally point for a small group. There are so many people writing incredible songs that have scripture in them that I just won’t settle for a song I can’t remember the melody too. We should be melody snobs for our kids! For instance, “You Never Let Go” by Matt Redman is a song that seems to strike a deep (and many times painful) cord with many students the very first time when it is set up well. It has an incredible tag that my two year old loves, scripture, hope in light of past hurt but I think this is all delivered effectively because the ‘melodic hook’ is so strong. We are all talking about this because the Spirit works through music, I think that the Spirit, being an artist, is a melody snob too J

Some more songs:

Steve Fee’s “We Shine” (you can lead the students in scream/chanting the chorus really cool on this one with your fist in the air . . . that never gets old)
“Your Love Endures Forever” by Tree 63 . . . hmm might be By the tree. I always get those two tree bands mixed up. Easy Chords/playability for youth bands
And yes, anything by United HillSongs, like “Take it All”

7 thoughts on “discussion of middle school worship”

  1. i am having a great problem with the fact that we are defining worship as singing. as calvin suggests in his blogpost, there ae so many other aspects of worship that can be engaged by students of all ages… singing is just one of them.

    i strongly believe that by focusing our definition of worship as singing that we lose people of all ages. (but especially jr hi/middle school students)
    they miss the kingdom, thus missing jesus because they cannot relate to singing worship.

    many middle school students are just beginning their journeys with God/Jesus. they have yet to fall in love with jesus and they don’t even like themselves much less believe that He really loves them.

    too often singing worship in middle school is like we’ve asked a 7th grade boy to stand up in front and sing a love song to an 8th grade girl he was just introduced to…

    picture that for a moment…a kid who looks ten singing off key to a girl who is a foot taller and looks 25.
    the words “awkward” and “painful” and down right “mean “come to mind.
    one cannot sing love songs to someone he/she doesn’t know or haven’t had a time to develop a friendship/relationship with yet…(and like calvin at random bloggings, some folks would not choose to sing a love song at all in order to express their love, instead they might bake a cake, or write a poem, or create a work of art)

    our first job is to help students engage the love of God in ways that relate to their real lives.
    help them learn to hear and see Jesus in their real lives, not just when they are in church, youth group, or singing choruses

    i agree with jonny scott that we need to give students of all ages permission to engage God as they need to … for me that means providing
    opportunities to express worship in many forms… art, writing in journals or poetry, in and through being in nature, in silence. etc.
    i’ve used lectio divina, art, parable walks, prayer experiences/prayer stations, poetry to help engage middle school students (as well as folks who are 70) along with singing worship and listening to songs.

    music/singing is just ONE aspect of worship and in order to reach and engage students we need to broaden our definition and begin to
    use all our senses to engage GOD and HIS WORD and help folks who just can’t sing, make a “joyful noise “in the way that God has created them to do so.

  2. well, i totally agree, lilly. and at the risk of sounding defensive, everyone in this email discussion would agree also. we’ve had great conversations about worship being experiential, about worship being serving. in this context, i think we were just being lazy with our word choices, since sean’s initial question was specifically about singing — really about song choices.

  3. just wanted to bring up the alternative due to the fact that many folks don’t see beyond the music worship scene. and the words/word choices do matter when a middle school kid can only define worship as singing!
    say hey to the family for me! lil

  4. marko…huge thanks for posting this. As someone who got my worship feet wet in worship with Jr. Highers six years ago and has been leading them in it ever since, it’s great to hear people saying similar things to what I’ve learned. And giving me new ideas and things to think about. I made this required reading for my youth staff and we’ll be having a follow up discussion. Thanks again…

  5. I loved reading your posts. I have the privilege of traveling with my 15 year old as he goes out and speaks to teens. We had an incredible experience during the summer. He spoke at an event for 1,300 middle schoolers with the Church of Christ. I’m thinking, how are they going to pull together music without instruments (no drums, no guitars, only vocals as is customary for COC) for this hormone crazed age group. It was absolutely amazing. We saw these kids abandoned in worship through music in such a beautiful way, this mom cried as these teens and pre-teens ushered me into the presence of God. It was a holy place. The leader masterfully wove teaching, responsive reading and music into one of the most powerful times of worship I have ever had. The kids were ready for it. I’ve lead MS and HS groups for years and have never seen anything like this.

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