January 17, 2021

Higher Things: A New Model of Youth Ministry/An Interview with Pr. Bill Cwirla


UPDATE: Pr. Cwirla has a follow-up post on worship at Higher Things.

I recently became aware of a youth ministry movement in the Lutheran Church: Missouri Synod called “Higher Things.” I was intrigued on several counts.

HT takes the best of the Lutheran tradition and makes it the substance of student conferences. Rather than hear what they would never hear at church, HT gives students the best of what they do hear at church, done with excellence.

No “big names” do the conferences. Gifted communicators who are all in local church ministry as pastors, etc.

There’s a distinctive denominational focus. Like that or not, the goal is the make better Lutheran Christians, not students who will abandon ship to find what they heard at the conference.

One of the most exciting concepts for me was the idea of a “spirituality toolbox,” made up of scripture, the Small Catechism (and the Confessions) and the Lutheran Hymnal. What would be involved in a “spirituality toolbox” in your tradition or mine? Is such a thing even possible?

Is HT an example of what could happen if generic evangelicalism had a more confessional identity and a sense of its own tradition? Is this one of the directions in youth ministry that we should consider if we want to actually prepare young leaders for our churches, rather than provide more reasons for students to abandon evangelicalism?

Read this excellent interview and check out the links. If you have questions, use the contact form at the HT website.

1. What is Higher Things? Particularly the conference you recently attended. Tell us the core values of this movement.

Higher Things is a grassroots Lutheran youth organization which was started by a group of LCMS pastors in 2002. Our purpose is to be a resource for parents, pastors, and congregations in fostering a Lutheran identity among the youth of our churches by modeling the very best of worship and teaching in the Lutheran confessional tradition. Our name, of course, comes from Colossians 3:1-2: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Our motto pretty much says it all: “Dare to be Lutheran.”

2. When evangelicals hear “youth conference”, they can’t comprehend that it’s not a menu of twenty-somethings with guitars and bands interspersed with youth speakers. How does HT possibly work by going the opposite direction?

Our basic philosophy toward youth work has also been reflected in some of the writings here on Internet Monk. While youth enjoy being entertained, they will lock on to the higher and deeper things if given the opportunity. This is what impressed me when I joined the organization at the Seattle 2004 conference. Youth will rise to whatever level you set the bar.

Our hymnal oriented, liturgical style of worship demands concentration and active participation. Our plenary and classroom sessions are lively and “entertaining,” yes, but they also go to some serious depth. Our conference theme this year was “Sola” – Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone. The class offerings ranged from discussions of “Twilight” and “The Shack” to apologetics, atheism, prayer, Scripture, archaeology, comparative religion, church history, abortion, dating, you name it. We try to offer stuff that addresses their issues and questions now, but also provides stuff they can grow into.

Another aspect to our conferences is that the youth experience the ordinary rhythms of the Christian life, albeit in a much more concentrated and intensified way. What they experience in worship and classroom at a conference is really no different than what they experience in their home congregations. Our speakers and teachers are all Lutheran pastors, youth workers, deaconesses. No superstars, no celebrity Christians, no big name youth speakers. One of the great problems with youth conferences in general is that they put on a show that cannot be duplicated at home. In a sense, conference have become the new tent revivals. Ours are much more of a gathering of youth groups doing what they do at home, only bigger and all together in one place.

3. What is at stake in not creating a separate “youth ministry” culture within the church?

Adolescence is a transitionary period from childhood to adulthood; it is not a subculture. Our task as adults is to get them through adolescence, not perpetuate it.

I compare youth work to a relay race. There is that critical point where the lead runner and the next runner need to be perfectly in step as the baton is passed. They must be running together, side by side. This is what HIgher Things is trying to do, have youth and adults “running together” in worship, in learning, in recreation, having youth get up to speed with adults so that the baton can be passed on to them. The word “tradition” means something handed on, and as we run the race that is set before us, we need to make sure that the next generation of runners is fully up to speed.

4. Tell us about this concept of the “basic tools” of Lutheran spiritual formation.

Traditionally, Lutheran spirituality has been shaped by three books: Scripture, Catechism (Confessions), and Hymnal (the liturgy and hymns). The Treasury of Daily Prayer (CPH) represents these three books in one cover. Our approach to youth work is to apprentice youth in the use of these “tools” – teach them the Scriptures, our Lutheran confessional heritage and the deeper Christian creedal tradition, and the liturgies and hymns that shape our praise. I call it “apprenticing.” If you want to learn a craft and how to use its tools, you hang out with someone more experienced and work side by side with them. That’s what we are trying to do with Higher Things.

5. What are some of your best memories of these events?

Worship. Nine hundred plus young Christians gathering four times daily for the Word, psalms, hymns, prayer. Tears of joy abound, even as I write this. Terrific liturgical organ playing. Music in ministerial service. Youth bringing their violins, violas, flutes, clarinets. The closing Divine Service with all those hymns. Difficult hymns, familiar hymns. The quiet group Compline services breaking out all over campus in the dorms. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace….” Who would think that tired kids would pray and chant at 11:30 PM?

“Hymneoke” – a first for Higher Things. An impromptu hymn sing in the wonderful chapel at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. A bunch of kids gathered at play time around the pipe organ with our organist Chris Loemker pushing the instrument to this really insane level, singing hymns out of our hymnal. Ninety minutes of full-throated praise, and we didn’t get to all the kids’ requests. I think I know what heaven will be like.

The kids. A sea of baptized faces. Squeaky clean kids, kids with hair color not found in nature, pierced kids, sweet kids, edgy kids, noisy kids, quiet kids – all gathered around the Word of Christ and the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Worshipping, learning, playing. Youth and adults mixing it up, enjoying each others’ company, eating together, learning about each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Personal favorite – The hang out talks after a session or in the cafeteria or some stairwell. The “spiral notebook kids” with their inquisitive eyes, asking probing questions – some easy, some hard, some unanswerable. Wrestling with the faith. Digging deeply into the Word. Wanting to know more. A young lady comes up to me at lunch and says, “Thank you for spending so much time answering my questions two years ago. You kept me Lutheran.”


  1. What would be involved in a “spirituality toolbox” in your tradition or mine?

    Prayer of Jabez?

  2. Wow! This sounds like a fresh break from the typical kickin, LOUD music, drag out the latest fad speaker type event that is our modern youth gatherings. I think in some ways we have gotten it wrong in terms of what we think our youth “need in order to be reached”. Give them truth, give them meaningful symbols, simple worship, and watch them respond. It’s really not all that complicated.

  3. The Guy from Knoxville says

    Comment……. what more needs to be said. I have always thought this was possible with youth but numb-skulled folks I’ve had to put with in my SBC background have all but shouted me down for suggesting such things related to our traditon. Been told I just need to go be, and I quote “catholic or something”. No offense intended to our Catholic brothers and sisters – it was ment by the person who said it in a bad manner towards me when it happened. There are times when I would prefer the Catholic over some of the other junk I’ve had to put up wtih!

    Great job in the LCMS on this – keep up the good work! SBC folks, you need to take a look at this and learn something for goodness sake – your tradition in this area is all but gone and it’s shameful beyond words.

  4. Steve in Toronto says

    I was introduced to Sacramental worship at a LCMS mission church at Ohio State in the early 90’s and was greatly blessed by them (for better or worse the congregation has since left the LCMS for the ELCA). Higher Things sound great almost too good to be true. How active is the program on non- Concordia affiliated campus or in non- LCMS high schools? What is the relationship between higher things and parallel ecumenical Christian organizations like Inter-varsity? Does the very sacramental nature of Higher Things worship make outreach to non- christens difficult? Does the LCMS`s practice of “closed communion” make it problematic for Christians who are not confessional Lutherans to participate in its ministry? I recently visited the web site of the church that was such a great witness to me so many years ago and found it has gone all emergent http://www.jacobsporch.com/ ! I don’t that they are alone in thinking that the old fashion worship that I fell in love with was unsuited to campus ministry. I am sadly becoming resigned to the fact that the kind of worship I love will soon be extinct.

    God Bless
    Steve in Toronto

    • Just to be clear, Higher Things stages its annual conferences on college campuses, most recently at Calvin College in Grand Rapids and Trinity College in San Antonio. We are not a “campus ministry.” We do have a network of Lutheran campus ministries called Christ on Campus which serves as a follow through from high school to college. We do not consider ourselves to be an “outreach program” per se, though we do train our youth in apologetics and evangelism. Our conferences are aimed toward the youth of our congregations, therefore communion practice is not an issue. The kids commune with the knowledge and signed approval of their pastors, many of whom are actually in attendance at the conference.

      Our hope is that the rising generation of Lutherans will value the Lutheran tradition so that liturgical worship and confessional orthodoxy will not be soon extinct.

      Also, I think the Higher Things model for youth ministry can certainly be adapted and used by other traditions, though it helps to have a tradition that is able to bring adults and youth together in common worship.


  5. I think it’s arguable that in evangelicalism the wrongful use of camps and special events to undermine the local church has done inestimably harm. When I first read this interview, I became quite emotional because of the years and immense amounts of time I dedicated to taking hundreds of students to events that did little more than equip them to leave their churches or judge those churches by ridiculous comparisons.

  6. Pastor Cwirla, thank you for your leadership in this inspiring organization, and showing that there are alternatives! As much as anything, I think this is what our churches need–someone blazing new trails. Higher Things sounds like it’s doing a great job of returning to the ancient ways. And I love what you said about “apprenticing” the youth…made me think of the confirmation practice William Willimon talks about in Resident Aliens.

  7. My toolboox?
    ESV Study Bible, Westminster Catechism (or the one based on the London Baptist Confession 1689) and the Red Trinity Hymnal (minus the hymns on infant baptism). Probably Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for fun.

  8. aliasmoi says

    The Bible (not picky about translation, but most in my yearly meeting seem to have a preference for KJV), The Journal of George Fox, and Robert Barclay’s Apology.

  9. Ironically, I had planned to blog this evening on how not to do youth ministry. How great that this post comes up on how to do it right.

    I grew up Lutheran and genuinely appreciated the catechism. I remember being grilled on doctrine by the pastor in a one-on-one. In too many churches, the youth can’t form even a basic doctrinal statement, which is why Barna calculates that more than 80 percent of self-proclaimed born-again youth will abandon the faith while in college.

    More power to anyone seeking to counter that hideous percentage.

  10. Encouraging post. Thanks. The idea a hymnal belongs in a toolbox is great. I think I learned more basic theology–and had later learning better reinforced–from the hymns I sang growing up as a Methodist as from any other single source. As a sort of cathecism-device, good hymns are genius.

  11. I agree. The 1956 Baptist Hymnal was a huge part of my early Christian formation. My denomination has issued hymnals in 56, 73 (horrors), 99 (A+) and 08 (lots of choruses).

    I’d say that a true SBC toolbox would have the 99 Hymnal, Spurgeon’s Catechism (as the only catechism I’ve ever seen commonly used) and The Baptist Faith and Message (though I much prefer it before the 2000 revision, and in fact prefer its ancestor the New Hampshire Confession. Both are awful on the Sacraments. Only the second London is usable there.)

    I think someone on here needs to be reminded that the second London was derived from the WCF.

    • Imonk,

      just curious, why was the 73 so bad? That’s before my time.

      • The Guy from Knoxville says


        Find a copy of the 73 Baptist Hymnal and look through it – it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen
        for a hymnal. The new hymn texts (and a new tune or two) were atrocious. 1956 was good
        as has been stated and 1999 was better – compared to 1973 it’s stellar.

        I would submit the athe Celebrating Grace Hymnal that the Mercer Univ with much support
        from the CBF and The Fellowship of Baptist Pastoral Muscians (FBPM) will end up being
        one of the best in terms of baptist hymnals. The current Lifeway hymnal from 2008 is definatley slanted (biased) towards the overly contemporary worship trends in SBC churches – not much to say there as I’m defiantely not a supporter of contemporary worship as currenlty practiced in most SBC churches.

        All that said to say 1973 was about as bad as it gets for hymnals and that horrid rust red cloth cover with the yellow edge pages looked bad as well along with the stuff contained within its covers.

        To everyone else – sorry on the rant again….. it’s taken a long time for me to come to terms with the current worship trends in SBC churches. I’ll eventually get past it.

        The Guy from Knoxville

    • What about the Blue Trinity Hymnal? It has the 1689 confession. I still love the red one with the WCF. Just ignore them baby baptism parts 😉 Maybe it;s time for a good Baptist Hymnal to be placed out there with Spurgeon’s cathechism?

  12. There are quite a few LCMS Lutherans who need to read this.

    • Agreed.Agreed.Agreed.Agreed.

      Signed, an LCMS Lutheran who thinks her fellow LCMS Lutherans need some education.

      • Maybe God has a sense of humor. If you want to learn about Luther’s small catechism, talk to a Baptist; if you want to learn about Rick Warren or Beth Moore, talk to a Lutheran.

  13. ASU Mountaineer says

    Its about time someone figured this out. P & W is the music of an older generation than today’s youth. It really hasn’t progressed any since Maranatha or Petra (both of whom I still enjoy, mind you). Since Creed failed evangelicals the genre has stalled. Singing hymns could be considered rebellious (even liberal) in certain circles 🙂

    As far as my ideas toward the handbook: I’d start off with a New Testament bible or even just the gospels, as I have seen far too many teens give up on the Bible when they run into Numbers or try and grasp Daniel (I thought it just had to do with a lion!?!?) They need to know all of the Bible, just some of it is best kept for group studies and really there is so much of Jesus that they need to soak up.

    • As a pastor of a small rural revivalistic church I can also attest to you that having a Wednesday night service patterned after Evening prayer is also considered liberal.

      Strange but true

  14. >Since Creed failed evangelicals the genre has stalled….

    Huh? Wha?

    • IMonk –

      i think what the writer meant was in reference to a late 1990’s early 2000’s rock band from Flordia. they released 3 albums with overtly Christian images and themes. songs such as “My own Prison.” “One”, “What is this life for?” and the most populer “Arms Wide Open”. the lead singer was raised in a pentacostal home, went to Lee College or University was quickly kicked out as the legend goes and turned to writing poetry to express his frustration with the Church and the hypocrisy he had experienced all of his life as well as the heavy dose of “law” and no grace. the band hit the scenes and resonated with so many Christians who were looking for honesty. Creed was considered by some to be a Christian band signed to a secular record label. they sold over 30 million albums before finally burning out and breaking up. the lead sing Scott Stapp continued a downward spiral of alcohol abuse, but has recently gotten clean and i actually heard an interview that he gave at a church in Orlando about hsi experiences and his journey back to the Christian faith. the thing most interesting to me about Creed is that i really believe they started off with good intentions..taking the Christian message into the world and refusing the Christian label, but only to get caught up in the very thing they were working against….Scott Stapp did disappoint a lot of Christians who thought they had found their own version of Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) or Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin). in the end Scott is just a man full of contradictions and in need of God’s grace. i pray that he has found it and is living in it. Creed has united after a 5 year abscence to record a new album and go on tour this summer. for what it is worth i am praying for them b/c i really believe that God is calling us out of our “Christian” circles and move out into the world for the glory of God. i think that is what the previous post was all about….

  15. Took way too much good out and put a lot of “contemporary” music in that has completely vanished from use. Like “God of Earth and Outer Space.”

    • Funny,

      The 70’s were crazy. I only got to live three years of the decade, but just looking back at the entire decade just boggles my mind even more than the 60’s.

    • And who could forget “God of Concrete, God of Steel”?

  16. There is a summer camp for Anglican/Episcopal High-Church minded kids that really successful at focusing on the denomination at: http://www.saintmichaelsconference.com/. Not that there will be any Anglo-Catholics left in a couple of years, but it worked for a while.

  17. Interesting. Sounds like a positive model for youth ministry, something that we Baptists could learn from. My own experience in youth ministry and among youth tells me that this is sorely needed, not just in the church, but culture as a whole, particularly that part about adolescence being a transitory stage in life, from childhood to adulthood. I know more than a few people who could stand to hear that message.

  18. In my ministry tool box…ESV study Bible (even though i am a Methodist). a copy of N.T. Wright’s “The Challenge of Jesus.” and Piper’s “Don’t Waste your life.” how about that for contradictions??? 🙂 and a copy of Welsey’s 52 Standard Sermons. i agree with a lot of people who say that Welsey is his weakest as a theologian, but as a preacher he may have been one of the greats (no the best, but one of the)…too bad the bloggosphere is too afraid to say that….i believe even Whitfield was impressed with the “fruit” that Welsey’s methods and preaching brought forth.

  19. What would be involved in a “spirituality toolbox” in your tradition or mine?

    – A copy of Experiencing God
    – A Bible for those early morning devotions (the earlier the better)
    – A notebook and pencil to write down all the stuff God is “speaking” to you.

    Sorry, feeling a bit cynical this morning.

  20. Pastor Dt says

    as one who left the evangelical church as a pastor, and was aided in my transition by Pastor Cwirla, I have some strong opinions on the subject of apprentice-ship, or to use an older term (which has been misused often) discipleship.

    Disciple’s walked with their teacher, who was, in both Greek and Hebrew thought – responsible for them, and their mastery of their vocation. In this age of mega churches, we have forgotten the process that has been used – from monasteries in Egypt to Wesley and those in the Great Awakening, to even (gasp ) those in the early days of the charismatic renewal in the Roman Catholic Church. Young and old working together – new Christians of every age, working with those whose trust in Christ’s faithfulness has been tempered by time, and whose understanding of the use of both Law and Gospel is also learned over time.

    It’s not just a process, or a check off of boxes on some master list – but a growing, interdependent relationship of a community – gathered in and by God.

    As to music, for those that bash contemporary – be careful of generalizations – some great praise songs are being written these days, and older hymns are being revitalized (Before the Throne of God Above – covered by Sonic Flood for example) as we break down some of the walls that define different cultures of music….

  21. Thanks for doing the interview, Pr. Cwirla.

    I await the day my now-seven-yr old daughter is confirmed so **I** can go to a Higher Things conference. 🙂

  22. I think my current toolbox would be:

    ESV Study Bible
    1973 Book of Common Prayer+Hymnal

    I don’t use the hymnal much, to my regrets. I’ve got a great contemporary-ish one called “The Gather Comprehensive” that they use at my grandmother’s church. And I’ve been meaning to check out the ’08 Baptist Hymnal, though I’d probably buy it under the more denominationally generic titel “the Worship Hymnal” Back-in-the-day, I used a Jewish prayerbook from Artscroll. I stopped using it because it’s (obviously) not Christ-centered. I still check it for reference sometimes.

  23. Brad Haggard says

    Just wondering imonk, are you aware of Christ in Youth? They are the big youth ministry organization from the (Independent) Christian churches, and I think they have a really strong conference-based model.

    Of course, we can’t be denominational be cause we “aren’t a denomination”…

  24. I’m woefully ignorant on Campbellites.

    Feel free to describe and link.

  25. “Adolescence is a transitionary period from childhood to adulthood; it is not a subculture. Our task as adults is to get them through adolescence, not perpetuate it.”

    This is the core of what is wrong with the concept of youth in both the secular and faith cultures in the US. (Maybe Europe but I have no idea.)

    The “youth” concept to keep the teen years as a long term childhood was foisted on us by Dewey and friends as a way to drive religion out of the schools and culture. He didn’t succeed in that but he did manage to get most of us to consider teens as kids.

    Now when they get to be 18 they don’t know how to act like adults but are told they can make adult choices. And look at the mess we now have.

    Sounds like the LCMS is trying to repair the damage and put the train back on the rails.

  26. What would be involved in a “spirituality toolbox” in your tradition or mine?
    Hmmm… as a Methodist-raised Evangelical Anglo-Catholic…
    – A Book of Common Prayer (though I am more partial to the Church of England’s “Common Worship” series now).
    – A Lectionary (preferably the “ORDO” put out by Tufton Books/Church Union, edited by Fr. John Hunwicke SSC)
    – ESV Study Bible, NRSV Wesley Study Bible, Orthodox Study Bible plus a plain text edition of the Revised English Bible w/ Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals
    – Simon Chan’s “Spiritual Theology”
    – Hymns Ancient & Modern (one of the editions from the early 1900’s that I have)

    I think that sums up my current toolbox. Though, it’s probably more of a “spirituality suitcase” than a “toolbox”.

  27. John Drosendahl says

    I truly wish the church body to which I belong (the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod) were embracing of what the Higher Things group is doing. While the participants/leaders are all of the LCMS (or its sister church in Canada) it is currently not a recognized organization within the LCMS.

    Perhaps this is for the best, since when any administration takes control of something successful, it often over-administrates it to death. I pray that Higher Things will continue on to bless all of my children, including my 7-week-old!

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