I spent last week at the Montreat Youth Conference working with the Jeremiah Project. The “JPs” consist of selected youth from across the country interested in developing leadership skills for ministry. In the past, the program appealed to those with a flair for the dramatic to enliven the morning keynote addresses with skits. This year, there was an intentional shift towards direct involvement in worship. Each and every night, the JPs would lead the liturgy from the opening call to worship all the way through the prayers of the people. The next day, I gathered with them for reflection, Bible study, and prayer.
I thought these teenagers were awesome; literally, I was in awe of what they were doing. When I was their age, speaking in front of 700 people would have been like trying to fly around the rafters of Anderson Auditorium! About half of them were introverts as well; but far from viewing their task as impossible, they truly rose to the occasion. Their growing sense of comfort was markedly noticeable: as the week progressed, I watched their shoulders loosen and heard their voices grow stronger.
This is not to claim, however, that the butterflies ever left their stomachs. One morning during our small group session, I gestured to the ducks swimming around Lake Susan. While they appear calm to us, their webbed feet are kicking like crazy underneath the water! Likewise we try to appear collected and cool during worship but, deep down, our insides are churning. The youth liked this metaphor; they started calling their group, the Ducks, complete with hand gestures and calls.
The official name of the group is derived from the call narrative of the prophet. When God appoints Jeremiah to speak to the nations, he initially protests that he is too young. Ah, but he’s not let off the hook that easily: “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth’” (Jer 1:9, NRSV).
Leading worship should make anyone nervous. The idea that the God who created the heavens and the earth has decided to use you to proclaim a message to others is not only humbling, but represents an awesome responsibility. Perhaps those of us who write and lead liturgy on a regular basis sometimes lose our sense of awe. With repetition comes familiarity, and I worry if the weekly order of worship comes too easily for me.
Towards the end of the conference, Rev. John L. Bell (of Iona fame) empowered the JP Ducks to write their own prayers of the people. He gave them a prompt, “O God, we pray for a future in which…” and asked them to provide one or two sentence prayers.
How would you complete that sentence? I could rattle off several visions in a hurry. But would such statements speak to the hearts and minds of those gathered for worship? Would they whisper, "Yes, that's what I was thinking and feeling"?
I watched with pride as the “JP Ducks” labored over their prayers. They wrote and re-wrote, debating over each word choice with one another. As a result of hours of work, their one sentence prayers were absolutely stunning, both personal and global in scope. They prayed with an eloquence that touched the bottom of the worshippers' souls and left us…full of awe. And so I prayed, “O God, thank you that the future of your church is now.”