alt worship at wisdom’s feast [and a bit about singing…]

this is a pdf of the keynote presentation i used in the alt worship workshop over the last few days at wisdom’s feast. it’s a 6mb file and there are a few things that won’t make sense from the pdf – images that turned into movies, etc.


it also doesn’t have explanatory notes – i don’t do notes, i just go from the slides.

the workshops went OK, i think. i felt a bit out of place, going back to working with a group of [largely] ordained people, and an older group than what i’ve been working with recently, but i really enjoyed it. i really love that my pre-conceptions about who in the group will ‘get it’ are always shattered. [i have a theory about people over 70 that keeps bearing out in reality… about their willingness to explore the new, and their longing for a different kind of worship…]

the big sticking points, one of which almost led to a revolt, were reframing our concepts of community and rethinking our use of music. i mentioned at one point that i hadn’t used singing in worship for years now, and for a moment thought everyone would walk out…

At the beginning of alt worship workshops i normally throw some quotes around – including one from steve collins about planning for alt worship begins with a blank sheet of paper. in the ensuing conversation i ask people what they would find hardest to leave off the blank sheet of paper. singing is the only thing that is always mentioned [in all the workshops i’ve run, i’ve never had an exception to that]. yet when i curate alt worship spaces for those same people, they never mention that they missed the singing. ever.

but no matter how often i say ‘this is alternative, not mainstream… i’m not saying we should ditch singing from worship’, or ‘i’m not saying we should never use singing, i’m just saying we shouldn’t assume we’ll have singing’, people still get quite disconcerted.

these are the reasons why i rarely use singing
– a large part of alt worship is getting people beyond the purely cerebral – moving from the head to body – but most of our songs gets people out of their bodies and back into the cerebral realm… unless we use songs that are really repetitive, songs we know almost by heart.*

– lyrics have an agenda and a message. by inviting people to sing along to something, we’re assuming we know what will be happening in peoples heads at that moment. that seems antithetical to what we do in most of the worship i’m involved with.

– when we begin planning alternative worship the process doesn’t normally begin with asking what the prayer of confession should be, what form the sermon should take, or what hymns we should use. it asks the question ‘how do we create a context for people to encounter God through this story?’. communal singing rarely seems to be emerge as a way of encounter. someone asked whether it was because that was my preference. i honestly don’t think it is. it just doesn’t emerge organically within the context of everything we’re doing.

[of course, given that john bell was in the next room running a workshop that included – as always – beautiful singing, my point was somewhat diluted…]

community is a whole other conversation… how do we define community? do we need to change our language so we don’t talk about community, but we focus more on resonance?

*someone mentioned, which talking about singing and liminality, that in much mainstream worship, the singing is the liminal moment… i wonder whether that’s why people want the same old hymns in worship. it’s not for nostalgia, it’s to have a ‘thin’ moment, to lose yourself… something you can only do in a song which you know as well as you know your own name…


  1. At least half of our church community have never had a church experience before showing up at our place. They love the music part of worship, but none of them sing. Their only experience with singing out loud in public has been Happy Birthday a couple times a year, and perhaps a drunken kareoke number. They are simply not comfortable hearing their own voices out loud.

  2. bec

    Cheryl, I don’t disagree with anything of what you’ve written – my hsuband’s a muso who hates singing in church (although he can sing beautifully), and while he’ll always stand up with the congregation when we sing, he’ll only ever sing if I give him dirty looks. 😆

    However, two things I wanted to raise:
    – when I’ve worshipped with people who live on the street, what they ALWAYS want to do is sing. This is quite possibly to have a “thin” moment, however I’ve found the taize chant “oh Lord hear our prayer” really, really useful in getting people who have almost zero confidence to participate in and even lead communal prayer (oh, and the only song that is requested WEEKLY is “Amazing Grace”!)
    – leading on from this – I’d love to know what you think of taize!

  3. Cheryl

    bec… i think taize is lovely… and perfect for thin moments.

    it’s interesting that you and Wilsonian [comment above yours] have such different experiences and you’re both right for your context… I know from my experience that the women in prison love singing, the men hate it. we sing with the women, we don’t with the men.

    but i’d want to state again that at the workshop i was talking about singing within alternative worship, and even more specifically about alternative worship is specifically ‘postmodern’. which certainly isn’t what i do with people in prison – i’m not sure about the context that you’re thinking about Bec.

  4. bec

    Sorry – I did notice the “alt worship” bit – I should have explained my post better. My thinking is this: I like alt worship (a lot) but I’ve often sat in alt worship services/experiences and found myself distracted by the fact that I found them pretty…culturally biased? (I acknowledge traditional worship is as well). I can’t imagine most of the people I know who live on the streets, or any of the refugees I’ve met, or even a lot of my friends from non-Anglo backgrounds really digging it. I *can* imagine my tertiary-educated, decidedly post-modern friends liking it.

    But they’ve also liked the taize services I’ve invited them to. The thing I’ve found helpful about taize is that on the one hand, the language is “clear” and “specific” enough for conservatives and moderns to connect with it, but also simple and ambiguous enough for postmoderns to connect with it. There’s something about the chanting, candles etc that appeals to a huge range of people – I’d say that the only negative feedback I’ve had has been from pentecostals who have a fear of candles (I kid you not – I have quite a few friends who basically regard having candles in church services as idolatory – I struggle with that one!!)

    My question marks above a lot of what I’ve understood to be “alt worship” have always been about worship style and justice. I want to worship with a diversity of people, for that is part of encountering the Other, and it’s part of building the Kingdom. My concern is that alt worship has often appealed to a fairly highly educated, arty, progressive kind of crowd.

    This isn’t really meant to be a criticism of alt worship, and I’m definitely not advocating traditional forms of worship – I’m just raising some of the questions I’ve grappled with in the past and continue to struggle with.

    BTW – I have noticed your paragraph about community – I’m just not entirely sure what you mean there.

  5. Cheryl

    i’ll come back to the community thing, i need to finish the thought in my head before writing it.

    i’ve probably not been careful enough with language about alt worship in this post.

    i think that alt worship [at its best] speaks into and from within the culture and context of the people who attend. part of the intention for me, when i curate it, is to offer a way where people can see their every day lives in a new way – to encounter a story of redemption, hope, grace that speaks both into [prophetically] and from within [incarnationally] the every day culture within which we live. that will look very different for middle class professionals than how it will look for people in prison.

    i find taize is wonderful for losing myself, for being held by the people around me. but it doesn’t let me tangle with a story, it doesn’t give me a space where i’m confronted or provoked by the ambiguities of the world i spend my life in. i think they’re completely different forms of worship, and both have their space and moment.

    does that make sense?

  6. bec

    yup, it makes total sense

    and I agree with you completely re: the definition of alt worship – the problem is that it’s a term that has, rightly or wrongly, become associated with a type of worship that reflects a specific subculture

  7. Cheryl

    i know. i don’t quite know what to do with the name thing… battle on regardless or look for something new… i guess i’m getting used to living with ambiguous labels… 🙂

  8. Judy Redman

    The label thing is interesting. I was in the US in April and I went to a couple of sessions that were badged as “adult Sunday School”, but they felt sort of somewhere between contemporary worship and alt.worship. I would define contemporary worship as the hymn-sandwich format substituting contemporary hymns for the traditional ones and adding a couple of extra bits like drama, video clips and the opportunity for some sort of dialogue. I think that one of the things about alt.worship is that you start with a theme/concept and look at how you might best convey it to the likely participants so rather than asking “what will we sing?” you ask “will we use music and if so, how?”

    But what happens to alt.worship when it is done every week? Things like Cheryl’s Easter installation in the basement take time, effort, energy and are usually too much for a weekly service unless you have a huge people resource amongst those planning. Do you develop some regular elements that happen most, if not all, weeks? Or a set of favourite frameworks that are selected and adapted according to the theme?

    Incidentally, I don’t mind Taize-style services, but I find some of the Taize music really, really, really, really offputting. Not the melody, but the words. I can sort of live with traditional hymns with words that I find offputting because they usually only expect me to sing things I find problematic once per hymn. Taize music makes me sing them or listen to them over and over and over again. If I try really hard I can sometimes lose the words in the harmonies, but by no means always. 🙂 The one that jumps immediately to mind is Laudate Dominum. God, for me, is not one who dominates, but the way the words fit with the music pushes that idea.

  9. bec

    ^ ^ I don’t use taize chants I’m not comfortable with, and which I think others won’t be comfortable with.

    I won’t sing Onward Christian Soldiers either. 😆

  10. Cheryl

    Judy, i don’t think anyone thinks this should be done every week. most alt worship communities do this kind of thing monthly, and rely on a community of people to make it happen – for whom the preparation is part of their worship.

    i normally begin with the lectionary reading, if i’m doing worship with a church group. otherwise it will be seasonal or random themes.

  11. Judy Redman

    Cheryl, I think you’re right about this for those involved in alt.worship. However, I think it might actually be important to say this when you’re doing workshops for the wider church. I think the mindset in the wider church is that worship happens every week, so if we are going to do alt.worship, we will do it every week. We will make the 7 pm service the alt.worship service and when the leadership team burns out after twelve months either we will be very surprised or we will know that it was just a nasty post-modern trend that we can now safely ignore because we tried it and it didn’t work.

  12. Cheryl

    i certainly say it at every workshop… over and over, actually! along with a whole pile of other disclaimers… that this is not a takeover of mainstream worship, that it’s not a critique of mainstream worship, that just because it changes the role of leaders doesn’t mean that the ordained are a threatened species, etc. etc. I say these things over and over… though it seems they are the hardest things for participants to hear/believe.

    One of the things that makes doing alt worship workshops really hard with those who lead mainstream / established worship, is that they will always look at it through the lens of the mainstream… the mainstream is the norm, and anything else has to be defined through that language / model / lens. The hardest part of last week’s workshop, for me, was that i haven’t moved in church circles for so long, and i’ve forgotten the extent of the translation i need to do in my head to get back into that mindset.

    i also don’t like how my mind works within that mindset… which is an interesting personal reflection. it may show that sometime soon i’ll have run the limit of my usefulness with the church… in which case i’ll go back to plan A: work for a bank and do sacred space stuff in the rest of my life [probably with a much stronger post-christian emphasis]. i have this very strong urge at the moment to be out of the radar of the church!

  13. Cheryl – I don’t forsee the limit to your usefulness with the church – your reflections are far too valuable and hit so close to home. You may come to a point where you feel in order for you to do your work, you have to leave the church. I admire people like you who are able to work within the institutional church – I tried and it about drove me insane. I’m much better on the fringe.

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