I've experienced some appallingly bad worship lately. Mostly over seas. I acknowledge that worship tastes vary widely from person to person - one person's meaningful liturgy is another's boring tradition, and the stimulating charismatic chorus singing loved by many is written off by others as soulless repetition - but personal taste is no excuse for poorly presented worship, whatever style-line it might pursue.
Anyone who has followed this column will know that I'm not making a plug for the 'pursuit of excellence' in worship leading here. In fact I don't think poor worship is improved by pursuing excellence. What is required is a different model for putting worship together, regardless of the style being pursued. Those of us who are worship leaders need a renaissance in the way we approach our task. I'd like to suggest we move from calling ourselves worship leaders, to describing ourselves as worship curators, and operate accordingly.1
My thinking about this was prompted by going to an art installation several years ago. The entrance to the art gallery had become a dressing room. We were fitted with a clear plastic body suit (stapled to fit our contours), plastic bags tied over our shoes, surgeon's rubber gloves put on our hands, and the outfit topped off with a white hardhat complete with a full clear visor.
Looking like we were ready for a DIY tour of Chernobyl we were ushered through a door of hanging plastic strips into a huge white space. The floor was white polythene. Walls and ceiling were painted white. Large floor-to-ceiling flexible mirrors along the walls distorted our movements.
A dozen or so big circular paddling pools, each filled with a different coloured paint, were spread around the space. Each of the pools had a fountain spurting paint. Paint sprayed down at random intervals from shower roses hidden in the ceiling. The space and audience were splattered in paint! It was confusing - not what I expected in an art gallery - and wonderful. We were part of the installation. Participants, not just spectators.
The installation was called "I Had a Thought" and I certainly did! All I could think about as we slipped around the paint splashed floor between the pools and their fountains, and stood under paint drips and sprays in our child's-play version of space suits was: "Wouldn't it be great if we could do worship in a setting like this?" Active participation with open-ended interpretation. Room to move physically and cognitively. Creative context and content. Andy Warhol goes to church!
The more I thought about my paint pond experience, the more I began thinking about the possibilities of art as worship, and more significantly, of worship as art. In particular, of worship preparation as an art. What would happen to the worship I prepared if I looked at the task differently?
What if I saw the task not as a mechanical, logical, modernist one - of putting stuff in the right order so it 'progressed' through a form to give a predetermined message with an anticipated outcome - but instead saw myself more like the curator of an art gallery?
A curator who considers the space and environment as well as the content of worship and who takes these elements and puts them in a particular arrangement, considering juxtaposition, style, distance, light, shade and so on. A maker of a context for worship rather than a presenter of content. A provider of a frame inside which the elements are arranged and rearranged to convey a particular message for a particular purpose. A message that may or may not be overtly obvious, may or may not be similar to the message perceived by another worshipper.
So instead of being a worship-leader, or worship-planner, I became a curator of worship. I provide contexts, experiences of worship, for others to participate in.
My working definition of worship is very simple: Worship is a person or persons responding to God. I know it doesn't cover all the bases but it provides a clear focus that I can keep in mind. So my role as worship curator is to provide settings in which people can respond to God. In other words, where people can listen to God, meet God, hear God, sense God, and respond - heart, soul, mind and strength - to God.
I would suggest that worship preparation is primarily about providing a context rather than a content. The context being an environment in which heart, soul, mind and strength have opportunity to respond to God. This is not to deny content (although the Gospel is primarily about a relationship rather than propositions) but to emphasise that the content can be understood in a variety of ways according to the context it's placed in. As an example, the re-enactment of Jesus' last meal with his disciples could emphasise forgiveness, community, transformation, relationship, salvation and so on, depending on the context it is presented in.
Worship has generally majored on content, with little or no appreciation for what the context is doing to that content. What does it mean to talk about loving one another in a building where we sit and look at the back of each others' heads, or to listen to teaching on the priesthood of all believers and 'body ministry' when the service is led from the front by elderly white males?
If the worship producer sees herself as a curator or artist, then context becomes very important. The curator of an art exhibition will arrange the elements of the exhibition in a carefully thought-through context, designing for a particular effect or response, and aware that juxtaposition, distance, light, shade, colour, texture, proximity, background, temperature, space, interaction and words all affect how people will respond. The worship curator, too, needs to consider all these elements of context (and more) in preparing worship for others.
This is the scarey part: any context always allows for a variety of interpretations. Worship leaders (and preachers in particular) have always known this but not talked about it, and worshippers who leave the service without being able to remember the three points of the sermon have often been left feeling inadequate or 'out of touch with God' because they were unmoved by the specific content. They didn't 'get the point'.
By contrast the worship curator encourages a variety of interpretations and outcomes from the worship event. As the context of worship allows for and encourages an open-endedness - the main outcome is that worshippers have met with God in some way - a variety of outcomes is not only acceptable, but desirable. The purpose of the curator is to enable people to respond to God with all their being, and the huge range in people types, personal experiences, time on the journey of faith, learning styles, faith stages and so on needs not only to be allowed for, but catered for.
As an artist would encourage a variety of interpretations of her art (each equally valid), so the worship curator will encourage a variety of responses to God. In worship this is more important than ensuring that a specific content is conveyed. The content is a platform, a starting point that gains meaning and relevance, and perhaps even value, when it is given a context in worship.
Worship is not primarily content that we accept or reject, neither is it something that is done to us or imposed on us, or even provided for us, but rather, it is a context in which we interact with the Spirit of God in whatever ways are appropriate for us at the time.
The alternative can easily be a content laden, directed, linear and narrow approach to worship that generally appeals to a select group who can understand it and interpret it. It becomes like 'high art' - accessible only to those with the right education and training who can 'understand' what it's about.
This raises questions about whether all interpretations have equal validity, and if it is possible for an interpretation to be wrong - for worshippers to 'misread' the worship, and for historic Christian faith to be misrepresented. I think the main safeguard must be that our worship be based around the stories of the Bible. These stories of God's involvement with people through history (and in particular of Jesus' dealings with people) are the core of Christian faith and if we use them as the core of our worship we shouldn't wander too far from the centre. (Providing we are resisting the temptation to always explain what the stories mean rather than letting them speak for themselves.)
Also important here is the integrity of the worship curator. She must have the skills, understandings, insights and trust required to bring parable and punter together in an appropriate and meaningful way. Beyond that, it is a matter of trusting each other, of depending on the Spirit to lead us into truth, and the consistent-over-time retelling of the stories of Jesus to shape us.
In practice the worship we provide will rarely be as open ended and non-directive as I have implied. As soon as the first Scripture passage is read or appears on a screen, guidance is being given and a way of interpreting the context suggested. Perhaps someone needs to formulate a 'hermeneutic of context'.
If you think that adopting the model of worship producer as artist/curator is an easy way out, think again! If my goal is to work with people to provide contexts in which we can worship God (perhaps the best I can hope for is a context in which people may worship God) then I will need to be able to do much more than just shuffle songs and link them by key.
I'll need a deep understanding of who's at worship: who my community is, what's going on for them individually and corporately this week. I'll need to understand something of the breadth and depth of Christian history and of the various traditions of worship. I'll need to know about the power of symbols and ritual and be able to use both wisely. The need to know the stories of Jesus and of God's dealings with people through history is greater, not less. More skills and understanding are required than previously, not less.
I'll never forget going to Maundy Thursday (eve before Good Friday) worship at a large independent Pentecostal church a few years ago. Wonderful facilities and resources. Superb music team. Stunning publicity. Loads of multimedia equipment. I was looking forward to the experience in preparation for Good Friday, the lowest emotional point on the Christian Church's calendar. Our opening song was "Up From the Grave He Arose". The worship leader appeared to have no idea of context. The service was all downhill from there as far as I was concerned.
During the week I wrote this I prepared a chapel service for a theological college. The theme was: God meets us in the desert experiences of life.
My objective was simple: I wanted people to go away knowing in their hearts and minds that the desert experiences of life are most often where God is to be encountered. How would I do that in 45 minutes to mind-weary theological students? I had previously preached a 20 minute sermon on the subject, but wanted to provide a different context for the content on this occasion.
I discussed the concept with a friend and we chose to empty the chapel of all furniture, black out the windows and line the floor with black polythene. Two tonnes of sand was trucked in and spread over the floor. We set up candles in paper bags around the walls and eerie desert wind sound effects played through the sound system. People took off their shoes and socks and stood or sat in the 'desert'.
The service consisted of four Bible stories of desert experiences, each followed by silence, a repeated acapella solo and a one minute 'rant'. As punters left they took phials filled with sand as ongoing reminders of the experience.
I'm convinced that those who participated will remember the theme of that service for a very long time. It took place because the service was approached not from the perspective of, 'what can we do to fill the time?' but from the 'worship planner as curator' model which looked at what we wanted to achieve in the lives of those worshipping and worked toward that.
Approaching worship preparation as an art is risky. There is the risk of failure, of being misunderstood, of being labelled 'trendy' or 'new age', or 'not Christian', or 'lacking in content'. If you've read this far you're probably already familiar with that territory. There's also the risk that you and your friends might end up with worship that enables you to encounter God in a way you haven't for a very long time. As I said, it's a risky venture, worship.
My hope is that the perspective I have offered will provide such a contrasting way of thinking about worship preparation that you will be able to reflect critically on your own experiences and determine a way forward that best suits you and those you seek to worship with. I don't wish to trash other approaches to worship, rather to provide a new perspective for those who have tried other forms and found them unsuitable.
Mark Pierson is a husband, father and grandfather and co-author of The Prodigal Project, a book and interactive CD ROM on new approaches to worship. He pastors the diverse innercity Cityside Baptist Church congregation in Auckland. This is the last of Mark's columns on worship for Reality. Thanks for sharing your insights with us Mark.