PASTOR The Reverend Karl Travis
ADDRESS 1000 Penn
PHONE 817-335-1231
MAIN SERVICE Sundays at 8:15, 9:00, and 10:55 A.M.

Where have all the young folks gone? And if they haven’t left, how can the churches hold on to them? The best solution seems to be to incorporate them into the life and teachings of the church—or synagogue, mosque, or temple—as early as possible, preferably in the company of a good number of peers and under the guidance of a corps of caring adults; to provide them with a range of wholesome activities; and to offer worship services congenial to their age and experience. This, of course, is far easier to prescribe than to achieve, but based on my visit on Youth Sunday a few weeks before high school graduation, First Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth seems to be on the right track.

Youth Sunday, honoring graduating seniors, was part of the “contemporary” worship that First Presbyterian offers at nine o’clock each Sunday morning. As befits its informal ambience, the service was held in the gym at the rear of the church complex. Folding chairs were arranged in a three-quarter circle around a table adorned with a cross, candles, and a large bowl, perhaps a makeshift baptismal font. I took a position about even with the free throw line, at a 45-degree angle from the basket and just outside the three-point arc. (When I looked at the scoreboard, I realized that I was sitting on the Home instead of the Visitors side, but no one seemed to notice.) I estimated attendance at approximately two hundred souls. As one might expect, teenagers and younger adults were in the majority, but all segments of the life cycle were well represented. I saw several graybeards, and the row in front of me held a line of older women, likely widows, whose hair had been done no later than Friday and had been freshly sprayed that morning. They did not look contemporary, but they were in a sprightly mood—even though I suspect they’d been up for hours. Most people had dressed casually, though not carelessly, and ushers, members of the choir and band, and a few others wore bright-green T-shirts.

The order of service was standard mainline Protestant: prelude, lighting the candles, announcements, signing the Friendship book, passing the peace. The primary mark of contemporaneity was the music. Some congregations, particularly charismatic megachurches, feature high-powered Christian rock, with dynamic soloists, deafening bands, and words displayed on video screens. Presbyterians, seldom given to excess, have forestalled development in that direction by wide adoption of an alternative songbook, Sing the Faith, which contains hundreds of “praise” songs whose simple melodies are designed to be sung in unison and work well with acoustic guitar accompaniment. I harbor some bias against these changes, preferring the long, familiar corpus of classic hymns and four-part harmony, but the songs that morning had more biblical and theological content than the “Thank you, Jesus” lullabies of other settings, and most people appeared to be singing heartily. I’ve decided that opposition to praise music should not be a test of rectitude or fellowship.

The theme for Youth Sunday was “Pressing On Toward the Goal.” Teenagers assumed all duties, with girls shining the brightest: Although ten of the nineteen graduating seniors listed in the program were boys, only one had a speaking part, and the four “senior homilies” were delivered by girls, each almost as lovely, poised, and articulate as my own granddaughters.

Kelcy Puls noted that all are sinners and fall short of the glory of God but that if we strive to be perfect, we will be forgiven. We already have a relationship with the perfect Christ, who died for our sins, she proclaimed, and the more we press on toward the goal of perfection, the more that relationship will improve—though it will become perfect only when Christ comes again. She told of going on a summer mission trip to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to help with the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina and being so impressed with a couple who had lost everything in the storm but made lunches for the workers every day, blessing as well as being blessed. Our attitude is more important than the facts of the situation, she said, so no matter how hard things are, we should press on.

The next speaker, Alice Thompson, was the daughter of the church’s director of youth music, a fact that she admitted had shaped her life from the beginning. “Some babies are given Bibles,” she said. “I was given a handbell.” She spoke of arriving at church with her mom so early that theirs was the only car in the parking lot and the doughnut holes were still warm, of rising through the ranks of youth and adult handbell choirs, of playing the flute at an Easter sunrise service when the temperature was below freezing, and of performing at the Washington National Cathedral with a full orchestra. And she said she wholly expected the handbell choir to play at her wedding, not currently scheduled. Toward the end of her presentation, she spoke of the comfort her faith and the church community had provided her at the time of the death of her grandpa, a Presbyterian minister. I’m confident she had also brought a good measure of comfort to him.

Sarah Nedde, one of three Sarahs on the program, each claiming the others as best friends, quoted the Apostle Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 13 on the primacy of love—“The greatest of these is love”—and affirmed that “if we are strong in faith, things will work out for the best.” She admitted that her life had been mostly good and that the few bad things had usually worked out without leaving many scars. She expressed her gratitude to her family for bringing her to church every Sunday since her birth, to the other Sarahs, to her friends on the school dance team, and to the church community as a whole. “God knows what will happen to me during college,” she said, her tone clearly reflecting Presbyterian assurance rather than adolescent puzzlement.

The last speaker, Sarah Richardson, also talked of growing up in church, of handbell choir and dance team, of mission trips and time spent at Mo-Ranch, a Presbyterian retreat center in the Hill Country. She declared that she looked forward to church more than anything in her life and that “our God is really cool. He made the stars and can count them.” She urged us to remember the promises we have made to him and trust him to watch over us. “In the end,” she said, “there is a reason for everything, and God has a plan for us.” She closed by noting the similarities between life and auto racing, her family’s favorite sport. “You begin with the green flag, and you keep going and win with your teammates. When you see the checkered flag, you look back on the struggles and know that it was worth it.” It’s been hard for me to follow NASCAR since Dale Sr. drove the 3 car into the wall at Daytona, but Sarah’s image would likely have pleased the Apostle Paul, who wrote near the end of his life, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

The simple confidence that “all things work together for good” for those who love God, keep the rules, and do their best is difficult to maintain over a lifetime of experience and observation. But an optimistic spirit, a commitment to good works, and character nurtured in a supportive community are rich assets for young folk about to leave the nest. And such young folk as these are a rich treasure to those who love them, grandpas in particular.