Hey Man Slow Down – A Creative Journey With Worship
Welcome to a ‘Grace’ worship service simply entitled slow. The worship space is divided into two halves by back to back projection screens. On one side a VJ (like a DJ but mixing visual images rather than music) mixes slow images and the other fast images. People sit whichever side they relate to most. We take about 10 minutes in contemplative prayer to quiet down in God’s presence to a backdrop of ambient tunes played by a DJ. A glass jar with sand in water is shaken and placed to settle down as picture of what stilling our hearts might be like. An image of the jar is projected on the screens while we listen to Radiohead’s The Tourist with the lyric ‘hey man slow down’ projected over the image of the jar. The story of Mary and Martha is the basis for thinking about the pace of our lives and whether we are naturally more commuters or contemplatives and what pace God might be calling us to. The service has been inspired by Asian theologian, Kosuke Koyama who suggests in ‘The Three Mile an Hour God’ that God’s pace is walking pace. A couple of chants are sung over chilled electronic tracks and we make prayer bracelets and use the Orthodox Jesus prayer as a way of asking for God’s mercy in our lives. In response to the service we are invited to take away a boiled sweet to suck on slowly if we want to ask God to help us slow down or a soft sweet to eat quickly if we felt the need to speed up.
It often feels that there is a choice between two basic types of worship in churches: Liturgical worship that follows a set pattern or structure in a prayer book led by professional clergy is the basic diet of mainline denominations. And blocks of singing led by a keyboard player, guitarist or worship band are the staple diet of worship in charismatic/evangelical/pentecostal churches. On the one hand, the liturgy has depth but repeated week in week out can become very dry and formulaic. But on the other hand, worship led by a band whilst it can be exciting isn’t without its problems – worship easily gets trapped into performance mode, and the range of theology in the songs is often pretty thin. It seems to suit an adolescent stage of faith which is brilliant if that’s where you are at. But when you have been a Christian for a few years, your faith is equally as real but you probably have a different set of questions and struggles. When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, raising kids is a challenge, God is distant, or life is hard this kind of worship can seem irrelevant and disconnected from everyday life. Themes that are commonplace in the hymnology of the psalms – anger, lament, disorientation, exile – just don’t seem to fit with this modern worship culture. I meet increasing numbers of adults who are struggling with this dilemma. Alternative worship (the label given to the sort of worship described above) has ploughed a third way, a way that embraces contemporary (postmodern) culture but whilst re-engaging and reframing tradition at the same time.
Grace is an alternative worship community that has been going for about 13 years. It is a congregation of St Mary’s Anglican church in Ealing. Probably about half of Grace overlap in some way with other services or parts of St Mary’s and for the other half Grace is church. In an Anglican set up adding a new congregation is easy enough to do – in practice 8am, 10:30am and 6pm often have quite different flavours and attendances anyway. And there is increasing recognition that one size no longer fits all. Whilst unity in the church is important it doesn’t necessarily require us all being in the same worship service on a Sunday morning every week. The key to Grace getting started and its continuing success has been having a creative team with the vision to do something new (the team is all voluntary), and then the church leadership taking the risk of giving space for something new and trusting the Grace team. There is no doubt that Grace appeals to and reaches a very different group of people to the other congregations at St Marys.
We need a baptism of imagination about worship. It is too often predictable, uncreative and stuck in a rut. Part of what it means to image God is to be creative. We need to develop communities of worship that celebrate and invite creativity. The word liturgy actually means at its root ‘the work of the people’. In this sense rediscovering liturgy will mean that we develop worship that comes out of a worshipping community’s life rather than worship that is served up by experts or professionals. Something happens when the worship is ‘our’ worship that we have dreamed and made however raw, gritty and real it is. And the range of possibilities for worship is only limited by our imaginations – let loose the DJs, photographers, digital artists, story tellers, film makers, liturgists, painters and so on. In Grace our model of leading worship is based around the idea of curation so someone will take on the task for a service of pulling together a team of people and then work together to create a worship experience. The leader’s role isn’t to be up front and perform but to ensure that all the components come together, to see it all hangs together and to help curate the worship space. Anyone in Grace is welcome to take on this role. This model would be easily transferable to any worshipping community and a good place to start might be to take on curating a service for a festival in the church year which would easily have material to work with. I am constantly amazed by things that people produce in worship when we encourage them, give space, and let go of control. In Grace we have developed a working ethos around the words creativity, participation, risk and engagement.
I love this kind of worship. I find it connects me afresh with God and fires me up to re-engage with the real world. However it is not a new solution to be copied. The important part is not the sylistic aspects of worship – different music, video loops, and so on, i.e. another consumer choice. The real gift and challenge is for us all to get creative and contextual and grow worship that is truly the work of the people in our own communities.
This post was originally published for CPAS Leaders Magazine. Jonny Baker is a leader and member of Grace, an alternative worship community in London, England.