Published on January 9, 2024 by Emily Snider Andrews and Nelson Cowan  
animate boys singing

This is part four of a five-part series on our learning about young people at Animate. Parts one, two, and three are still available.

Delighting in Agency, Mostly

One of the overarching goals of Animate is to empower teens to be creators and initiators of ministries where they engage their gifts, talents, and interests. This effort is most explicitly evident through the “Toolbox” classes and the “Festival of Worship.” (You can read more about those practices in part one of this series.)

Based on our research with teenagers at Animate, students largely expressed delight in these kinds of high-impact pedagogies and noted a sense of agency that was perceived as real and deep in these practices.

The Festival of Worship was consistently characterized as a process and event that was approached with a nervous energy that was especially connected to the context of working with and then leading an intergenerational group that was not one’s home congregation. This context was described by many as a “safe” one, a lab-like environment designed for student experimentation. It’s “safer” than the student’s home church context, in part, because students recognized that they would not have to re-enter this particular assembly again nor are they concerned with meeting the expectations of their own congregations in the services they will lead.

The process of “building it [the worship gathering] from scratch” was noted by students as a distinct aspect of their work, one that, we believe, was particularly formative, setting it apart from other projects and works (such as “drama club at school,” for instance) that were perceived as having been “already made,” such that “we’re not really coming up with anything from scratch.”

Although student groups were given some parameters for their worship gatherings (scripture choices, alongside recommended resources for designing worship), we believe the act of involving students in the design process from the beginning contributed significantly to the sense of agency on the part of the students, enabling them to feel as though they, too, are worship leaders in their own right.

Contributing deeply and tangibly to the worship gathering in this way was noted as significant, as evidenced by this reflection offered on contributing to worship: “I think that [contributing deeply and regularly] molded my viewpoint of worship today. Now I’m just so used to being involved, that’s how I worship.”

Many students reflected that preparation for this event fostered a nervous, yet enthusiastic, energy that propelled participants with a sense of confidence and excitement. This energy was nervous, since it asked students to engage skills and practices with which students were largely unfamiliar (e.g., designing a worship gathering, practicing it with small group, contributing to its implementation in various ways, leading the congregation in its entirety).

On the other hand, few felt unprepared or disqualified for the task; students reflected on how both the process and product were invigorating and empowering. We have drawn parallels from this process to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological concept of “flow,” described as a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; that the experience itself is intrinsically rewarding, and not simply the final product; and in which an optimal balance is achieved between challenge and skill. In this state, participants are drawn intensely to the work, creating a high-impact pedagogical environment resulting in energy, enjoyment, and empowerment from the event.

This appears to be an apt model through which to clarify the Festival of Worship experience.

While students overwhelmingly described the Festival of Worship as an empowering, high-impact experience, we noted that there were a few who suggested that their home church, rather than Animate’s lab-environment, was actually the “safer” context, i.e., that their home church provided a more comfortable, risk-free environment in which to practice worship leadership.

While no one explicitly named race as a factor, we find it worth noting that this commentary came from a few of our Black teenagers who:

  1. sometimes identified as ones who already regularly contribute to the intergenerational Sunday service of their home church (particularly as a service musician), and
  2. constituted a racial minority within the majority-culture, white space that was Animate.

We would like to explore both aspects more fully with future participants: the level of regular contribution to the home church’s primary worship gathering on the part of the Black student as compared to white students and explore more explicitly the complex dynamics of inviting young Black worshipers to lead in majority-culture spaces. 

Adapting for “Home Church,” Mostly

A final theme from our findings: reflections on the portability of practices. Many students were energized by bringing their new skills, as well as these various components of liturgical difference back to their home congregations. Most interesting to us was the internal tension of them being excited about these skills and practices, but also their estimation that many of these things won’t “work.” Some students brought to mind the imagined perceptions and opinions of adults who might show resistance to such innovations, such as singing in different languages. Others noted some of the musical limitations of their home churches that might inhibit the portability of these practices.

A couple of notable remarks related to home churches: Almost all the students rated themselves as being very involved in their home churches in our survey materials, with most attending their church once or more per week. Further, through the interview data, almost all envisage their future selves as being plugged in to the life of their church (notably, their SAME church) and wanting to become leaders to train the next generation of young people. Considering the data indicating the decline of religiosity among younger Americans (review those studies in part two of this series), this point is worth highlighting.

Next up in this series, we’ll share more about our research findings from our work with teenagers at Animate. This is part four of a five-part series on our learning about young people at Animate. Additional articles include:

What We’re Learning About Young People and Worship at Animate: What is Animate Again?

What We’re Learning About Young People and Worship at Animate: What Our Research Study Looked Like

What We’re Learning About Young People and Worship at Animate: Themes from Our Findings, Part 1

To visualize the Animate experience, check out this short recap video from 2023, and make plans to join us for Animate 2024! Register your interest here, and we will notify you when registration opens.

Emily Snider Andrews, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Church Music and Worship Leadership and Executive Director of the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University.

Rev. Nelson Cowan, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University, is a liturgical theologian, worship leader, and ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church.