Graduation from either high school or college is a significant event in the lives of youth and young adults. Congregations want to recognize them on their graduation, but don’t know exactly what that means or how to go about it. Here is one suggestion for making graduation a significant part of worship.
First, as you go down the list of graduates to issue invitations, you will inevitably discover that some of them belong to families who are on the roll of church membership, but never participate in the life of the church. This is a “sticky” situation. Parents will want the church to recognize their youth, even if they don’t participate in the life of the church. Some of these youth will participate on graduation Sunday because their parents want them to be recognized. You will have to choose your language carefully when you address the graduates. Not all of them have the same status with the church. On the other hand, what do you do with the youth who don’t come? They are on your rolls. They have graduated. Do you just ignore them? This is as much a pastoral issue as a worship one, but it does have to be considered.
As a preparation for the service, it would have been great to spend the previous year in a Sunday school or other learning setting thinking about their faith in light of their senior year and moving out of high school into a new phase of life. The book Faith Exploration for Older Youth and Young Adults (Cokesbury, 2000) is a great resource for this endeavor. (Full disclosure: I am the author of this book.) Give any teens who have never been baptized the opportunity to do so, and plan for a service of reaffirmation of baptism to be part of the graduates’ special worship service.
Ask if any of the youth would like to witness to their faith in the light of this new stage in their lives. You might be surprised how many would volunteer, if given the opportunity. It may be you would have enough youth volunteer to witness that this could take the place of the sermon. Definitely plan to have graduates involved in the service as liturgists, ushers, and so on.
But, you say, the kids graduate in two weeks and we don’t have time to spend a year dealing with theology! So, there are two things to do about that. First, plan to begin a study in the fall, getting ready for next year. Second, plan an informal gathering of your graduating seniors—pizza or ice cream at a nearby park, for example. In this shorter time, ask them to think about how their faith has changed since they were in Confirmation, or over their high school years in general. Then talk about the kinds of faith questions they have at this point in their lives. Remind them that faith is a journey and that they will always be finding new questions, and new situations that challenge their faith. Then explain the reaffirmation of baptism (or baptism itself for those who never received the sacrament) and invite them to participate in planning the worship service as a celebration of where they are in their faith journey right now.
As for the service itself, use a special call to worship evoking themes of transition and journey. Hymns might include “God of Grace and God of Glory” (consider developing a litany that would reflect on the words “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”), “Be Thou My Vision,” “Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters,” “Come, we that Love the Lord,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” Or, invite the graduates to work together to come up with a list of songs that are particularly meaningful to them.
The youth witness—whether it is one graduate or all of them—will provide a moving testimony to the power of God moving in young people and going with them in this new life stage. If the pastor is giving the sermon, it should include references to the graduates, to the idea of faith journey, and to this service as celebrating where they are in their journey.
This is a worship service designed to honor your graduates, give them an opportunity to witness to their faith, and teach the congregation something about the importance of baptismal reaffirmation as we progress through each new stage of the Christian life.