This piece accompanies the conversation I had with Will Small in the Spiritual Misfits podcast. I welcome your thoughts in the comments below or in the Fb grp.
Listen to the podcast episode here or via the player at the bottom of the page.
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If you’ve ever been in a band and are about to go on stage,
then you know how it felt.
If you’ve ever curated an interactive experience and are about to open the doors,
then you know how it felt.
If you’ve ever rehearsed a play or a speech, and the curtain’s about to open,
then you know how it felt.
If you’ve ever been part of an important ceremony and it’s about to get under way,
then you know how it felt.
The tingle. The nerves. The adrenalin.
The sense of panic.
But the sense deeper down that you know your stuff
and there’s nothing more you can prep.
Trust yourself. Trust the team. Trust the audience.
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And when it goes well, it can be ecstatic. A peak human experience.
You’ve created a physical, emotional, cognitive, sensory space. And the audience has willingly stepped over the threshold and immersed themselves.
When music, art, drama and ritual transport people to another world, it’s like magic. It’s a peculiarly unique thing we seem to do as humans. A way in which we step outside of ourselves. It might even be divine.
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So, what if we took all of the above, mixed vigorously, and made this into the mysterious experience we’ve come to call a “church service”?
Wove ancient ritual and iconography with dance club culture in ways that had never been called church before.
Attracted people who would normally never go near a church.
Drew in people with artistic gifts who wanted to help create the music, imagery and videos used so powerfully in the services.
Gave talks that were short, direct and powerful, focusing on things people really cared about: community, politics, social justice, ecology, progressive theology.
Created a community of people living out shared values.
Then you know how it felt to be me — on a Sunday evening at least once a month, in the early 90s in the north of England. I lived in York, and Sheffield was 90mins drive away where they had pioneered this. Now we too were doing it (Visions, spun off from the big city centre church St. Michael-le-Belfrey which had a long tradition of breaking new ground with the creative arts).
It was both exhilarating and exhausting. But that always comes with creativity and breaking new ground. And after all, we were inventing the future of church 🙂
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I’d like to suggest that a religious service can be any or all of… concert, theatre, interactive art, social learning, ritual, rite of passage. We use these material and psychological devices to help us encounter something of the divine. It’s how we’re wired.
Done well, it can help take us into meaningful worship, community and learning. Done poorly — if it feels manipulative, awkward, cringey, hollow, fake —it could be because those designing and hosting that experience haven’t understood their craft well enough, and/or are pretending to be something they aren’t. And if big production values end up sidelining love, kindness and integrity, we’ve also lost the plot.
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The pioneering Sheffield Nine O’clock Service (NOS) inspired many of us — but also proved tragically that no church sub-culture is immune from abusive leadership. It showed that some of the wisest people can be taken in, and that it can be extraordinarily dangerous to sanction any group (“God doing a new thing” etc) — the supercharged lingo of the evangelical charismatic movement that was part of the mix, but helped close down critical questioning and safeguards.
As a network of groups all over Britain emerged, with an annual meetup at the glorious Greenbelt Festival, it grew through the 90s and into the 2000s. Mainstream churches sanctioned it (others condemned it). The Archbishop of Canterbury even requested a service in the crypt at Lambeth Palace when groups from across the country came together. The Alternative Worship (alt.worship) movement morphed over the next 20 years into what came to be dubbed Emerging Church. This history has been documented in articles, books and film. Some groups burnt brightly but briefly, like solar flares. Others were slower glowing and still going, becoming new solar systems. Much of it was creative, beautiful and hopeful. The Church of England went on to launch Fresh Expressions, still going now.
After York, we moved house and reworked the alt.worship DNA in a completely different cultural context, Buckingham parish church in a market town (the story), and then again when we moved to Wolverton, a Victorian railway town on the edge of Milton Keynes, where we helped create Enigma, meeting in homes with occasional larger events, becoming increasingly unplugged and low key in format (something to do with having young kids and busy jobs!).
Fast-forward to now, and us 20-30-somethings are 40-50-somethings. The use of meditative videos and ambient music in services is now commonplace; many churches have introduced participatory activities into services; electronic dance music is just another genre in the contemporary Christian music scene; mainstream denominations all know about emerging church.
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All this left an indelible mark on me. Apart from instilling a love of dance music and video as media to lose myself in, it was exciting to deeply question how much of what people think of as ‘normal’ church culture is just sub-culture, and how much is actual DNA we can’t drop. And it wasn’t just about surface form. We were questioning evangelical/charismatic theology many of us had been schooled in, and drawing on other traditions.
Since this kicked off in the 90s, I’ve felt like a stranger entering traditional churches, they became so culturally alien. I’m hopefully a little more tolerant now. But I still haven’t felt ready to be part of a church for the last decade or so, until we found Meeting Ground last year (hooray!).
I experience a range of internal tensions and debates as I look back…
- Part of me hungers for the creativity again, and the exhilaration of staging events. It was time-consuming, but with the kids all grown up, maybe I’m entering a new chapter of life which could open new options…
- I can see more clearly how much my 20-something identity was tied to being part of a trailblazing movement, and I’m ashamed to say, looking with a degree of pity at ‘the boring mainstream church stuck in its irrelevance’. But especially working within an ancient institution, you don’t break new ground without some cockiness.
- Whichever phase — early 90s Visions, or mid-90s Buckingham/Wolverton — it was exciting to create experiences that were real expressions of the changing people we were, and to see others come alive in creating and attending them. Yes, we can go too far trying to make church cool, but it’s also OK to want a service to be an artistically creative, welcoming experience that tingles the senses, warms the spirit, challenges the intellect, and leads people to want to know more about who and what lies behind it.
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I see an interplay between the two scales of participatory worship we created:
- On the one hand there’s the staging of carefully orchestrated services with the high production values any performing artist aspires to, which have quite a wow factor. It’s the band/art/drama/ceremony DNA, and it’s electrifying when it all comes together to create the kind of together-vibe you get with live performance. That takes time, energy, often some money, like staging any participatory experience. Standards are high, there’s a narrative arc, a sensory flow, a rhythm, so you simply can’t include every idea that people have.
- On the other hand, there’s the low-key, intimate event for the small, core group, created with as much love and energy as anyone has to give each week. It has creative elements that come together in sometimes delightful ways, and it’s meaningful not because of high production values (there isn’t time for that), but because it’s a true expression of the group’s spirituality and community. The structure may be intentionally designed so that no one person is in charge, or even knows what’s going to happen, with a lot of space left for emergence. Or it can be more scripted.
- Perhaps people are simply going to show up at someone’s home with whatever inspired or gave them pause for thought that week: a story, a piece of music, a reading from a book, a conversation, a video clip, a prayer, a poem… They’ll share it whenever seems appropriate, and the juxtapositions can be fun and profound.
- Perhaps there is a runsheet that’s been agreed (or emerges over the week in a shared document) but those responsible for each element can work on it without having to coordinate tightly with others (which is what can add a lot of overheads).
- Perhaps a lot of the event is going to be in conversation, so who knows where that will go?
- Perhaps we’ve decided we’re all way too wordy, so we’re going to work on communicating via other means…
- The central values for such meetings are that everyone’s contribution is valued, everyone is empowered to bring their gift to share, and to grow their creativity. Leading, speaking, writing meditations or liturgy, teaching, playing… is no longer left in the hands of ‘the church pros’. In a safe group, this can be exhilarating, empowering and liberating.
- Smaller events are the bread-and-butter, a sustaining and sustainable format for emerging, creative groups, with bigger events emerging from these if/when it seems right. But the latter springs out of the life of the group, as an authentic expression of who they are, providing one of the public windows onto the life and values of the group.
Well, I wanted to share a bit of my story. I’m deeply grateful to everyone in the Visions community who threw themselves into it all, and to Graham Cray who encouraged my early explorations of postmodernism. I’m still processing what all this meant, I don’t know where it might yet lead, but welcome your thoughts.
Wikipedia has some good links
The Nine O’clock Service: Mixing Club Culture and Postmodern Christianity by Rupert Till, a former Visions/NOS member
Tall Skinny Kiwi alt.worship blog
Jonny Baker alt.worship blog
Sara M. Saleh on Palestine, liberation and poetry – Spiritual Misfits Podcast
- Sara M. Saleh on Palestine, liberation and poetry
- Noah Small on the nature of God, love and kindness (a little episode with big heart)
- Radhika Sukumar-White on lament, suffering and inclusive community
- Michael Frost & Shane Meyer-Holt on the other side of 'mega'
- Mikali Anagnostis and Gabi Cadenhead on Gen-Z spirituality and Marion St
Music in this episode:
“I Lift My Cup (To The Spirit Divine”) by Gloworm 1992 (5 mixes) https://hoojchoons.bandcamp.com/album/i-lift-my-cup-to-the-spirit-divine
“Miserere” by Sue Wallace (composed for Visions services in early 90s). More tracks at: https://suevisions.bandcamp.com