I would like to invite you into a world of possibilities. Jeremy Begbie, a distinguished professor at both Duke Divinity School and Cambridge University, often says, “the arts are showing us over and over again the possibilities of transformation…they show us how things can be even in this world [and] even the worst can be woven into God’s purposes.” If this is the case, then what possibilities might the art of Christian worship be showing us?
This past January, I spent some significant time with several communities in the United Kingdom (U.K.) who have been engaged for at least two decades now in a movement called alternative worship. These worshipping communities have created a broad spectrum of improvisations on Christian worship using popular culture, their own specific cultural contexts and of course their Anglican tradition. But how does one even begin to improvise with the vast tradition of Christian worship?
I have compiled eight ideas from my time in the UK that can help break open our imagination for developing creative worship. The most important thread that runs through all of these, however, is risk. Simply put, if you don’t risk, you won’t innovate.
1.Write Your Own Liturgy // Many (if not most) of the alt. worship gatherings have a communal practice of writing their own liturgy with images, metaphors, visual references, and language indigenous to their own location (think social location, geographic location, denominational location). If you find yourself in a place where liturgical forms are more restricting than freeing, even starting with elements of the worship often not typically seen as “sacred” can open up space for further improvisation. The prayers of the people, the invocation or the benediction all offer fairly non-abrasive way in to creative prayer.
2. Encourage the Artist(s) // In the Church of modernity, rationalism dominated. Making room for the voice of the artist to be heard, seen or felt inspired creativity. Artists know better than us “nonartists” (Everyone is creative, whether or not they identify themselves as an “artist”) that exposure to creative thinking fuels further creative thought. The arts are often highly encouraged within alt. worship in a wide range of ways. The result is a creative atmosphere, a culture of creativity.
3. Practice Storytelling // The practice of telling the story of a community’s life together evokes shared memories as well as critical reflections. At times such a community practice even raises a diversity of perspectives about that shared history! Alt. worship has made a habit of telling their stories at Greenbelt (an annual music festival where alt. worship communities converge for a “family reunion” of sorts), resource weekends and in collaboration with local community partners. Make use of the biblical narratives too when telling your story. Remember that the biblical stories are not so much authoritative because they happened, but because they happen…today.
4. Imitate Someone Who Inspires You // Imitation is a powerful tool for improvisation. It is a practice of careful and intentional study. Even when taking careful considering to imitate and replicate, new connections and insights are made. Doing the same routine in a new place invites creative thinking and deeper attention to context. It won’t matter the medium, so think broadly here. Below are several sites that have documented alt. worship gatherings all over the world. Find something that inspires you and imitate it with careful reflection on your own context.
5. Visit Art Galleries // Though it may seem odd, there is much that can be learned from experiencing well laid out and well curated art exhibits. Paying attention to flow, lighting, presentation of the art and background information presented can provide new ways for thinking about creativity. At Grace (London), Jonny Baker has developed much thinking on “curating worship.” For example every Grace service is led by a “curator.” The idea here is that when good curation happens, you experience the difference and yet no one ever knows or realizes who the curators of any exhibit are. Good curation is felt more than noticed on the surface.
6. Create Boundaries and Limits // Often it is harder to be creative with absolute freedom. Rather than starting with a blank canvas, choose an element of liturgy (or other aspect/event of community life) and create intentional boundaries to work within. For example, many of the alt. worship gatherings were limited to the presence of only lay people. This meant that their sacramental practices had to be creative with other areas of the service — such as creating prayer stations, the worship space itself or music.
7.Do Less, Simplify // Similar to creating boundaries, limiting the content to the bare minimum often produces a more creative setting. Create a special seasonal service (Advent, Lent, for example) with the bare minimum. Use the same scripture multiple weeks in a row or use the same prayer repetitiously but in slightly different way. Though many alt. worship services are intricate, many participants often choose a single prayer station or opportunity to express themselves. Another example of this repetitive simplicity can be found at the Community of Taizé where simple chants are repeated over and over again.
8. Create a Change of Scenery // Often times when we are dislocated, we find ourselves with a new awareness of our surroundings. Changing the location (be intentional here) of where worship or another community life event is help to re-imagine what the possibilities are. A change of scenery was responsible for both Transcendence (Visions, York) and for a new rhythms of community life at Grace (London).
As you begin to take risks and develop your own creative worship, perhaps a careful distinction would be helpful. Christianity has a rich history and tradition. In fact it’s quite creative. I want to draw a distinction between traditional (adjective) and traditioned (verb) worship. Like all adjectives, traditional is highly relative and has come to be equated with the static — maintaining the status quo. The later, traditioned, as a verb, represents an active process of engagement and study with a particular tradition. We all come from a tradition. Worship that is traditioned though has been intentionally seasoned (think “flavored”) with the symbols, images, metaphors, language and icons that contain deep significance for Christian faith. But traditioned worship has also been handed over to a new day, a time in which the original must also speak to the present and to the future. That is to say, they become relevant for today and beyond by their very function. And so if we are to develop creative worship that helps us make meaning of the world we find ourselves it, it will be both traditioned and relevant. But those two are never intrinsically mutually exclusive.
Tim Snyder is the co-founder of the Netzer Co-Op, an emerging community in Austin, Texas. He holds the bachelors of arts in theology from Texas Lutheran University and is a graduate student at Luther Seminary. Tim is Managing Editor of GENERATE Magazine. Tim previously contributed an article on the liturgy of the farmers market to The Everyday Journal.
Additional Resources for Creative Worship:
www.smallfire.org // Here Steve Collins has curated the largest collection of pictures documenting the alt. worship movement in the UK.
www.smallritual.org // Here Steve Collins has curated a large collection of articles, videos and other resources from the alt. worship movement in the UK.
Proost (a small publishing outfit in the UK) has published a series of Pocket Liturgies from many of the most creative worshipping communities in the UK. These are great especially if you are interested in writing your own liturgy. visit Proost online at www.proost.co.uk
Jonny Baker’s Worship Tricks is a collection of creative moments in worship from all over the world. You can find those on his blog: http://jonnybaker.blogs.com/jonnybaker/worship_tricks/
For the best introductory guide to developing creative worship, see A Wee Worship Book (4th Incarnation), Wild Goose Worship Group (GIA Publications), 1999).