These are some (very long) excerpts from the first draft of a report I’m writing for the Commission for Mission who employ me… would love some feedback…

[The preceding paragraph is about the different events I’ve been asked to prepare worship for – Synod meetings, inductions, cutting of ties, schools of ministry, etc.]
One of the things these experiences highlighted was that often the church wanted something new, but they didn’t really want to change at all. I’d often be told i had a blank sheet of paper to work with… but then be asked what hymns I’d like the organist to practise. People wanted something new, but they didn’t want the new to be any different to the old.

I realised quite early on that the alternative worship project was becoming a microcosm of the change that the rest of the Uniting Church was struggling with…

When we did curate worship that wasn’t for a particular event, but purely worship for the sake of worship, we had an interesting mix of people coming along. There were those who came because they had a desperately longing for this. The worship we offer has become ‘home’ to a remarkable group of people. There were also many people curiously peering in from the edge, wanting to know, to dip their toe in, but not wanting to fully commit to being a part of the experience. Some had been burnt by the church too often and they need to tread slowly and carefully. Some thought they might be interested, but wanted to make sure first that they weren’t going to be part of a failure, however glorious that failure might be. The most curious group, however, were the spectators – those who (mostly) were long-standing members of the church – they’d come along, but they would just stand on the edges, watching, rather than actually participating. I’m coming to wonder whether the Uniting Church has become a worshipping church of dispassionate observers… whether we’ve bred that in the church through our mainstream worship, which is largely ‘performance liturgy’ (or where participation involves reading the words in bold to a prayer in a newsletter that someone else wrote on our behalf) … we critique, rather than immerse. The alternative worship we have been offering expects an entirely different kind of participation. It’s hands on. That kind of difference is a very big crevasse to jump… The trouble is, if you don’t get your hands into this kind of worship, it’s kind of hard to understand what it is. Alternative worship is an interaction, not a performance…

There were also a number of people who got involved, and then realised that we were actually talking about something very different to what they imagined. Many people were hoping that they could simply find a list of creative ideas, in order to transform their own worship. Often people would carry a sheet of paper and pen during worship so that they could write down ideas as they saw them… They were hoping for experiences that would offer another creative idea to carry them through another week… We do that a lot in the Uniting Church. We grab ideas, take the sharp edges off them, and make them fit into what we are already doing. It can be a great skill for a church to have. But I’ve also watched a lot of the alternative worship stuff we do be diluted. I know this sounds really precious, but the concept of alternative worship is much more than just the finished product as it comes ‘packaged’. The alternative worship that we have been experimenting with over the last year involves a reworking of our whole theology of worship, leadership, the church… Putting the individual components of an alternative worship into another context is a fabulous thing to do – but we also need to recognise that the changed context (the community and space it’s put into, the understanding of the role of leaders and participants in that community, the understanding of what actually happens in worship) will change what that ‘component’ of worship will do.

What I’d love to know, is how to take people on the journey from being dispassionate observers to active participants in worship… and i’m talking about that participation which is more than reading the words in bold printed on a news sheet… participation where people influence the outcome of worship…


  1. craig mitchell

    I think that this is fascinating and ‘spot on’ as a very gracious critique of the church. I think of that session I ran for the School of Ministry and your worship at the event as well. the spectators we, I think, analysing form (and perhaps content), in the way that an expert trainer might look at a horse to see if it could last the distance (or end up in a burger!).

    I’m sure it’s obvious that participation in planning/crafting brings increased participation. but at the event I couldn’t help thinking that some folk were the kind who sit on the side of the pool and don’t want to get wet. I know I’ve done that too (!), but perhaps we have some folk who’ve made a career out of it. I think that is a problem with leading worship every week. When are you allowed to be anonymous and ‘lose yourself’ in worship?

    For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the overwhelming endoresment of non-western worship styles at WCC gatherings and guessed that, yet again, people are more open to one who is unlike us than one who is.

    I am struggling with the whole “take the show on the road” thing which I know you have struggled with too. at one level it is the easiest way to give people a first taster. at another level, their lack of participation in the process is precisely the problem.

    I don’t think that it’s fair to say that the UC are dispassionate observers – there are many people for whom it is ALL about participation regardless of content, tradition, theology.

    I’d say that your ‘project’ reveals that people crave (in the words of Tom Bandy) “the touch of the holy” and that the church wants to put waves into neat little cups (Bandy again).

  2. Cheryl

    that analogy of the horse is excellent!

    maybe participating in worship is a learnt skill. i think i’ve always worked on the assumption that it’s a natural thing (even though i’m not sure it’s something i do naturally!).

    do you think that anyone has done a study on worship within the UCA?

    one of the other interesting things i’ve noticed this year is how many church-goers would tell me they could no longer bear to go to ‘mainstream’ worship, and how many ministers would tell me they could no longer bear to lead it…

    great feedback. thanks

  3. roddy

    We have two services, one that contains some creativity but really is just a spectator sport. It’s safe and it generally works okay. Different people lead it but it doesn’t tend to be their own words. It’s fairly safe.

    The other service is a contemporary communion service where there is no script at all, just a physical setting, different each time and people are allowed to respond to it. This is new for us. So far I’m the one who tends to place the words in the space but creeping into it is a desire for others to do that so the space shapes the words. This is a minority sport and it’s less safe.

    What we’ve found quite sharply, recently is that those who go to the contemporary communion find it more difficult to fit into the Sunday morning service and that’s probably surprised them. It’s something I didn’t expect, foolishly! That’s what you’ve found clearly too Cheryl. Alternative worship certainly changes the dynamics of leader and participant but for us the style and intent seem so different from mainline stuff that you could talk of a different paradgim altogether. I wonder, Craig, if that has something to do with the acceptance of non-western styles. And I don’t know if you can teach that. Maybe enabling clergy particularly, and other “leaders” to allow folk to explore faith a little more without finding a doctrine to solve the issues, or let a community live a year (or a life time) with questions and see what happens, or be less creedal and more ambiguous day to day, and let go a whole lot and tell people it’s okay to do that without wearing a hard hat incase heaven falls in. But to do that means someone like that to live in that community for a while. Offering tasters starts it, but it’s a whole lifestyle/faithstyle kind of thing that pevades everything which leads to responding in worship in a particular way. At the moment it is gathered, it is minority, it is like the early Christians seeking out others by drawing fish in the sand, or finding a rave venue. It’s a bit subversive because real alternative worship holds too many implied questions about authority, power, ordination and belief.

    Or maybe I’m just cynical in seeing how the majority in a congregation turn their backs on what gives my soul life.

  4. craig mitchell

    hey this is good conversation. the post-liberals believe that participation in worship is a learned skill – that’s the Aristotlean slant on things – learning faith is more like learning a craft than realising a set of universal truths. unfortunately both evangelicals and liberals prefer the latter. I want a bit of both worlds. ie. worship is.ought to be both familiar and unfamiliar to me, both natural and unnatural – the whole grace and sin, formation and transformation, conversion and nurture thing. I think that is part of the reaction to the familiar/other as well.

    I am interested in clergy who go ‘aha’ at ‘alt worship’ as if the blinkers have just been taken off. Again, it’s not so much about style as about seeing a way to approach and explore ‘faith’, God, etc that is neither about presenting, nor about following an order, AND nor about having something so innocuous that it is meaningless. that’s the rub on the ambiguity thing. shaping multi-layered worship is a craft. there’s something to think about there in terms of people learning to work at a symbolic level (AND it’s also what turns some sensate people off – although my theory is that they are more turned off by a contemplative approach than by symbolism as such.

    I’d have to say that as a church we need teaching communities who model something like this. there are too few churches (faith communities) that I could take people to and say “See!”. And they shouldn’t have to follow the travelling roadshow as voyeurs, should they.

    my last comment is that “taste and see” could be good. at the School of Ministry I talked to Alistair about a 2-3 day “alternative worship” experience/retreat/training/etc. i think that has some promise.

    studies on worship have certainly been done – the question is what were they studying….

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