It’s not about drama and decibels. Instead, a weeklong worship arts camp is awakening faith and changing the landscape of church leadership.
Brianna Ruiz is a junior at Zeeland West High School in Zeeland, Michigan. She plays guitar and sings at her church, and she’s honest about how hard that was in the beginning.
“A lot of high schoolers think, ‘I’m in high school. I’m not a leader,’” she says. “I’m the youngest person on my worship team—that’s something I was self-conscious about.”
But her confidence has grown over the past few years.
As a freshman, she heard about a new summer program put on by Hope College in Holland, Michigan, for high school students interested in the worship arts. She and a friend signed up. The program, Awakening, is a weeklong camp where students come to develop their technical skills as musicians and artists, to deepen their passion for God, and to catch a vision for their own leadership in the church.
It’s directed by Jim De Boer, who is also a professor of music at Hope. Awakening’s workshops are taught by professional musicians, visual artists, dancers, and preachers from the area. Hope students serve as interns, helping to sharpen the high school students’ skills and acting as mentors and conversation partners throughout the week.
“There’s a lot of high school–age kids leaving the church,” says Ruiz. During her week at Awakening, the group—high school students, interns, and leaders—had a conversation about why that is. Their conclusion, says Ruiz, was that the church has a tendency to make young people “feel inadequate to the rest of the congregation, which is not the goal of the church. It’s for everyone to be equal. … Awakening’s goal is that we [as young people] could be ambassadors for that, to really not be afraid to step out there.”
Now Ruiz is helping start a church plant aimed at reaching other young people. She is also continuing to lead worship. She has drawn inspiration from the home church of a fellow Awakening student, Sydney Mycroft, whose Florida congregation has young people in many leadership positions.
Providing an environment for high school students to make connections is one of the ways Awakening boosts their leadership confidence. For many students, the camp can be the first time they find a community of like-hearted people.
Throughout the week, students spend meaningful time with others who care about the same things they do: Playing guitar, drums, or organ. Writing music. Expressing their love for God through movement. Even preaching. They visit local churches and experience a wide variety of worship styles. They hear from workshop leaders about the structure of a worship service and what elements to include, about effective ways to incorporate art in worship, and about young people’s role in the church—both in the future and today. At the end of the week, the students lead a worship service that they plan together, inviting their families, members of the Hope and Holland communities, and everyone involved with Awakening.
“I was having this experience, but I wasn’t alone,” says Ruiz. “I didn’t know there were people like me. I didn’t know that there were people who wanted to make Christ the center of their life.”
In some cases, students grow to appreciate a style of worship that is new to them—worship that involves the organ or dance, for instance.
“Students love seeing the gifts of others,” says De Boer. Many of this year’s students weren’t familiar with the organ, but still they broke into applause after a peer played a rousing postlude at the end of the final worship service.
In order to make dance more accessible, the dance workshop focused on dancing in community in the context of worship, rather than on dance fundamentals.
“It’s rare to have had experiences with dance as worship, and for those who have, it’s usually as ‘The Dancer.’ … It can be very isolating,” says Jordan Dennen, who led the workshop. Dennen, a Hope graduate, has been an Awakening intern for its first two years. “Ideally, you’re pulling the congregation into worship with you,” she says about leading worship through dance. “The idea is that everyone in the room, regardless of whether or not they’re dancers, is worshiping with you.”
At the heart of Awakening is the conviction that the capacity to lead worship well stems from a vibrant, intimate relationship with God. Because of that, the beginning of each day at Awakening is devoted to time spent in solitude, and woven throughout the technical learning are times to reflect on the presence of God.
“Spiritual formation before musical formation,” says Josh Banner, Awakening’s director of discipleship. Banner creates the week’s devotional curriculum and leads students in reflective spiritual exercises. He focuses on the students’ ability to be in the presence of God apart from the music—even in the absence of music—though he is a professional musician and songwriter himself.
“It wasn’t always about the musical aspect. It was about getting close with Jesus, both with music and without music,” says Abria Franklin, who sings on the worship team at Maple Avenue Ministries, a Holland, Michigan, dual-affiliation church of the RCA and Christian Reformed Church in North America. Since Awakening, her experience leading worship has changed. “When I’m singing, I’m not so worried about what we’re going to sing next. That was a major thing for me—slowing down and taking in everything that God has made around me.”
But make no mistake: Awakening is a far cry from a silent retreat. Franklin recalls one night when all the students were in their rooms, getting ready for bed. Someone pulled out a melodica (a handheld keyboard with a mouthpiece) and played a note or two. Within seconds, everyone was running down the hall to join the music. “There was a full concert in the hallway, harmonies and everything!” she says.
While Awakening does set out to make students more thoughtful, capable musicians and artists, its premise is even simpler.
“It’s nothing trendy that we’re doing,” says Banner. “We’re just doubling down on the basics: how to pray, how to sing to God, how to talk about God, how to share about God.”
Having experienced Awakening twice, Ruiz attests to its impact on her relationship with God: “If you grow up in a Christian home, you’re told to do your devotions, read your Bible. But you don’t know where to go with that. [I’ve learned that] you can ask God to speak to you, you can listen intently. … You can just bask in God’s presence. It’s less of a chore, and more something I want to do.”
Want to go to Awakening? Or do you know a high school student who would benefit from it? Visit www.hope.edu/awakening to learn more and to apply. Awakening 2018 will be held June 10-15.
Curious about other ways to involve young people in the life of your church? Rick Zomer, director of Next Generation Engagement, will tell you that it’s partly about empowering the young people and partly about changing your church’s perceptions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-541-0873.
Photo by Christen Bordenkircher Photography