Where Two or More Are Gathered: Exploring Alternative Worship Strategies

by Bradley Sowash

Bradley Sowash is a solo jazz pianist, composer, educator, critically acclaimed recording artist and public speaker. He can be reached at bradley@bradleysowash.com, and www.bradleysowash.com.

The following appeared in the Newsletter of The Center for Progressive Christianity, undated. Information and resources from the Center for Progressive Christianity are available at www.tcpc.org


The author suggests ways to conduct a creative “alternative” worship experience.

Recently, I was asked to lead a workshop on alternative worship for a statewide annual denominational gathering. The following article is a condensation of my remarks at that conference.

How would it feel to participate in an extravagantly creative worship experience? Could a service be designed that mixes church tradition with original ideas? Does alternative worship enhance or alienate the church community? How does it effect outreach? As a frequent performer in alternative worship services and leader of a monthly jazz worship service in my hometown, I am in touch with churches nationwide that are currently exploring these questions. Worship planners tell me they are challenged by the need to balance the new with the old. Consider these recent emails regarding music programming. A Minnesota pastor writes, "I'm hoping the Worship Commission will want to move toward a musical road less traveled."

By contrast, a Pennsylvania parishioner insists, "I highly recommend using old?fashioned hymns because the theology is so good." A more balanced point of view acknowledges, "In my multiracial, multicultural, intergenerational church, we use the old [hymns] as well as the new to great effect." Clearly, rethinking worship traditions isn't easy but change is inevitable if the church is to survive. As a guest performer, I've seen firsthand how well?considered worship revitalization can reinvigorate members, increase attendance and bring back to church those The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong quippingly dubs "The Christian Alumni Association."1

What is Worship? In seeking to rethink the worship service, one might ask; What is worship? The dictionary defines 'worship' as a prayer, church service or other rite showing reverence or devotion for a deity2 - an explanation that leads us nowhere. An encyclopedia offers a more useful description with its definition of 'ceremony' as formal activity prescribed by custom, ritual, or religious belief. Ceremonies serve to unite the members of a group, strengthen shared beliefs, celebrate achievements or milestones in the lives of individuals or groups, or to facilitate discussions. Music or dancing is often incorporated into the ceremonies of many societies.3 I like the illusions to community and the arts here better. Though the Bible contains 102 references to 'worship,' nowhere does it explain what it is.

Inspiration may be found, however, in Matthew in which an unnamed woman invents her own form of worship. Since it was subsequently approved by Jesus, it seems a legitimate source from which to consider the nature of worship.

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. (Matthew 26:6-13)4

This woman's singular act of adoration demonstrates that effective worship integrates creativity, extravagance, understanding, originality, and spontaneity in a manner that is both personal and participatory as well as community enhancing. This conclusion is based on the following observations.

1. Worship is creative. Lacking a structured setting for worshiping Jesus, she invents her own expression.

2. Worship is extravagant. Though the perfume is valuable, she pours it all out for Jesus.

3. Worship is done with understanding. Apparently, she alone understands that Jesus really is going to die. Knowing that she will not be around, she performs a funeral rite on the living.

4. Worship is original and spontaneous. She does not wait for the perfect moment to express her faith. Though she interrupts the fellowship of Jesus with the disciples, she acts on her unique expression.

5. Worship is both personal and participatory. She DOES something which leads others to participate first in protest and later by illumination from their master.

6. Worship is community enhancing. Her act of worship enhances the disciple's understanding and ultimately the continuing Christian community as Jesus predicts in the last verse.



Applications How shall we apply the lessons offered by this scripture? Here are practical suggestions towards applying the points considered above.

I. Worship is creative

"A community can be so tightly organized that the spirit has no room to maneuver. Artist's have a way of loosening up a congregation to create room for the spirit to operate."5 - Rev. James R. Adams, President, The Center for Progressive Christianity

A. Invite Professional Artists in

"Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God".6 - Johannes Brahms * They are the experts -trained and paid to create. For most, their vocational choice amounts to a calling. * They think differently. They are seekers, always inquiring "What if..." * They are not inhibited by convention but can also draw from tradition * They look for resonance -they know how to invite in the spirit. * They are skilled at accommodating the diversity of contemporary culture. * Their presence will inspire non?artists towards more creative worship. * Having made sacrifices to pursue their craft, they understand devotion.

"There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of creative fire."7 - Carl Jung

B. How to Find Them:

"That does not keep me from having a terrible need of - shall I say religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars."8 - Vincent Van Gogh

Artists are often deeply connected to the spirit if initially suspicious of institutions. To reach them, put a notice in your bulletin or newsletter, post flyers in coffeehouses, place calls to the local arts council, high school and college art and music departments. Plan and implement a training event for worship, music and the arts to introduce interested area artists to the particulars of your denominational traditions.

C. Considerations When Working With Artists

"If it sounds good, it is good."9 - Peter Schickele * Look for "good" artists. Artistic expression must first be good, then "religious" or to put it another way, divine inspiration doesn't guarantee good art. * Give artists latitude to do what they do best. Be careful about elevating taste or custom to the level of morality or your own personal taste. * Avoid censorship ? If they go too far and the members are stirred up, then do something different next time. At least they aren't bored. * Push the boundaries a little, If it doesn't work, try something else.

II. Worship is extravagant

"The secret to life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."10 - Groucho Marx

* Pay your professionals. If you can't afford to pay them a lot, then pay them a little. The investment will be worth it when your attendance rises and the offering plate will reflect their appreciation. * Pour out your love for one another and God. It's once resource that will not run dry. Most creative people will work for peanuts or even volunteer if they feel they are appreciated. * Take chances. Do something every once in a while that people will remember 20 years from now.

III. Worship is done with understanding

"Churches that are full of God are likely to find their pews full of people."11 - Marcus Borg

* Form a music and arts ministries steering committee and give them the power to learn about and make decisions regarding worship arts. * Make sure they collaborate with clergy who can feel unsupported in trying new things (we've always done it this way). * Inform yourself with scripture and consultation from those in the know but then go for it. You don't have to be an expert to express your love for God.

IV. Worship is original and spontaneous

"What we play is life."12 - Louis Armstrong

A. Originality

* Let the services be fluid within the tradition. Think "what can we do to enhance this part of the church year or to express the point of this reading? * Form a church arts council to dream up, organize (or regulate) activities. * Try not to narrow your definition of worship. Couldn't an exhibition of landscapes celebrate God's world? What can dance tell us about the miracle of our bodies? * Organize unusual arts worship events separate from regular Sunday services such as a meditation with improvised music or a labyrinth walk with original poetry. * Rotate services ? High Mass, normal, jazz service, contemporary service.

B. Spontaneity

"Great improvisors are like priests. They are thinking only of their god."13 - Stephane Grappelli, Jazz Violinist

* Make room for the unexpected - If you're happy and you know it, shout Amen! * Ask for individual petitions both silent and aloud * Invite outward expression i.e. Red of Pentecost, work clothes for labor day. * Host a jazz service * Ask for theological questions on 3 x 5 cards with the offering and answer a few of them publicly in place of the sermon. * Invite a visual artist to improvise a canvas during a sermon * Improvise music during prayers of the people. Put in the bulletin ? "A time of corporate and personal prayer is now provided. Please improvise your own prayers and offer them silently or aloud as is indicated ? as if the music, like incense, lifts our prayers to God."

Why Jazz Is Appropriate for Christian Worship * Jazz is multi-cultural and inclusive - Jazz was born in America when African rhythm - based music met with European harmonies. Later, Latin cultures introduced a third influence. With roots in several cultures, jazz continues to be performed and enjoyed by people of diverse backgrounds to this day. Jesus was radically inclusive. * Jazz is universal - Jazz is American and we are American. It is altogether right and appropriate to worship within our own cultural context. However, jazz is now enjoyed worldwide. I've performed jazz with musicians from around the world; sometimes even when we did not share a spoken language. God is both personal and universal. * Jazz is spontaneous - The essence of jazz is its improvisation. Performing everything as rehearsed is not jazz. With jazz, you are supposed to play it "your own way." When you listen to jazz, you are hearing raw ideas being given substance even as they must adapt to the musical setting. Many musicians describe a sense of ideas flowing through them rather than from them. In this sense, jazz is sacred as is all of God's work. Jazz imitates God's creation - ever evolving. * Jazz involves cooperation - It is a community that performs and receives jazz. Each musician is expected to both support the others and shine as an individual. Listeners inspire through their reactions to complete the circle. Church is about community. Christians are a community. * Jazz has a range - Sometimes meditative, sometimes celebratory, jazz is a spectrum of emotions and feelings. Without this ability to reflect the full range of human experience, it never would have lasted. Church life reflects this range of experience from the reflective Lent season to the joy of Pentecost, from baptisms to weddings to funerals.

V. Worship is both personal and participatory

"Be still and know that I am God."14 - Psalm 46:10

A. Personal

* Model and encourage all to BE PRESENT, sing loudly, listen to the instrumental music, observe the setting, feel God's presence. * Encourage reflection and silence by framing the experience. Say or write in the bulletin, "As we prepare ourselves for worship, let us observe silence."

B. Participatory

* Plan services that invite activity from many or all rather than only a presentation. * Encourage participation. The spirit visits those who let it in but they may have to be led to it. Say or write, "In Christian fellowship, we celebrate our beliefs by singing together." Or even more strongly, "Please sing with gusto, even a little hand clapping if you feel so moved." * Invite lay readers and lay readings along with scripture * Get kids involved. They can go way beyond just lighting candles. How about a processional with hand painted kites on a feast day? Ask teens studying foreign languages in school to create banners with words from several languages for Pentecost. * Pass out plastic eggs filled with popcorn during Easter season and have congregation shake to the beat. In the sermon, mention how eggs and seeds represent new life. * Offer choices - "Please stand, sit, or kneel as is your custom for prayer." * Look within your own flock for the hidden talents: 1. Got an architect in your parish? Ask one to arrange the space for a festival day. 2. Creative writer or poet? Ask one to rethink the Christmas play or contribute a poem around a reading. 3. Could a gifted seamstress contribute with a seasonal banner or liturgical sash? 4. Ask a craft lover to lead an Advent wreath making activity. 5. Graphic or visual artists could design rotating covers for the bulletin. 6. Program a variety of musical styles in services to allow room for self?taught or untraditional musicians who may currently feel excluded. "Why should the devil have all the good music?" 15 - Martin Luther

VI. Worship is community enhancing

"When worship is functioning as it should, it can be a powerful mediator of the sacred. It can open the heart, shape the religious imagination, and nourish the spiritual life, all within the experience of community." 16 - Marcus Borg, The God We Never Knew

A. Build on existing Community

* Join hands sometimes * Extend the peace * Pray out loud for each other * Provide a forum for announcements * Create pre or post worship environments for fellowship * Bring on those potluck!

B. Use Worship Arts to extend Community Outreach

* Consider how the arts can help reach out to your city or area through worship and presentations. * Grow your own artists by offering classes in painting, forming a neighborhood orchestra, opening studio or informal performance space to a theater or dance company. Result: The neighborhood arts community and their friends come to church. * Consider sponsoring an alcohol free coffeehouse for college students or after school art activities for teens when they are most likely to get into trouble * Organize a benefit concert to raise money for a church outreach or ministry program. * Organize a concert series. You already have a piano and perfect room for presenting music. It's the easiest way to begin integrating the arts.



What to Expect After Introducing Alternative Worship:

"The church will die of boredom long before it dies from controversy."17- The Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong

* Some will be deeply moved. Some will be indifferent. Some may be indignant.

* Regardless of their reaction, a lot of talk will follow. This is good. People will be thinking about their church.

* Word will spread. You may lose a few but you will gain more if the spirit is present.

* Learn from your mistakes. Follow this formula: 1. Do it. 2. Fix it. 3. Do it better.



End notes

1. From his sermon January 25, 2001 at St. Stephen's Episcopal church, Columbus, Ohio.

2. Webster's New World Dictionary

3. Microsoft(r) Encarta(r) Encyclopedia 2000. (c) 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation.

4. King James

5. From an article titled Risking Art, Risking Faith by James R. Adams, President, The Center for Progressive Christianity.

6. From The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron; Perigee Books; Putnam Publishing, NYC; (c) copyright 1992 by Julia Cameron; ISBN # 0-87477-694-5 pbk. Original source unknown.

7. From The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Original source unknown.

8. From The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Original source unknown

9. Oft quoted by Peter Schickele on his National Public Radio show Schickele Mix.

10. From http://www.amazingquotations.com/grouchomarx.html (c) Copyright 2000 ? Amazing Quotations Original source unknown.

11. The God We Never Knew : Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith by Marcus J. Borg; Harper San Francisco; ISBN: 0060610352

12. From The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Original source unknown.

13. From The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Original source unknown.

14. King James

15. Also attributed to Charles Wesley, General William Booth, Isaac Watts, and Larry Norman.

16. The God We Never Knew : Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith by Marcus J. Borg; Harper San Francisco; ISBN: 0060610352

17. From his sermon January 25, 2001 at St. Stephen's Episcopal church, Columbus, Ohio. May have other sources from his numerous books.