Worship Beyond the Box

by Clair Woodbury

I've just returned from a worship beyond the box. When my colleague at the Centre and I volunteered to do a worship "that would not be boring" for a congregation we are working with, the first thing I did was create an "order of service." After all, isn't that the way 99% of clergy plan a worship. Fortunately, my colleague is a lay person. "Not so fast," was her response. "We need to start with what we want to say."

It was that simple. The result - some sweat and labour later, a worship "beyond the box."

We have been reading the book by Bill Easum and Dave Travis which is entitled … wait for it … Beyond the Box. It has stirred our thinking and released our creativity. In the process, I have begun to see the light of what can happen in worship when "beyond-the-box" type of thinking is set free.

Bill Easum's thesis is that most clergy think inside the box - the boundaries set by denominational practices, the expectations of the congregation, their own fear of attracting criticism, or worry about alienating a matriarch or patriarch in the congregation with the resulting loss of congregational income.

A few adventurous clergy venture just outside the box with their thinking - like colouring outside the lines in kindergarten. There may be some opposition and a little criticism, but it can be managed. Outside-the-box thinkers start alternative services, but using much the same worship formula. They launch new groups, but ones much like already existing groups. They import new programs, as long as they have someone's stamp of approval. They start using projectors in worship, but always within the standard "hymn sandwich" format almost universal to main-line denominations. (The usual hymn sandwich service is more like the Dagwood Bumstead multi-layer creation: hymn, call to worship, hymn, scripture, hymn, sermon, hymn, offering, hymn, prayers, and a final ho-hum-hymn.)

Bill Easum says the decline of main-line congregations and complaints about being bored have reached the point where nothing will save us but beyond-the-box thinking. Get rid of the box - leave it and all the baggage that comes with it behind. Start afresh. Here's our insight how to do that.

The steps are theme, message, team, and package.

First decide on the theme. More often than not, a theme is apparent. New Year's, Mother's day, Father's day, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, church anniversary, Dominion Day, Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, Advent, Christmas - you can probably add others. A theme may come from the lectionary. It can be the joy, peace, hope and love themes that go with Advent. Whatever - get absolutely clear about your theme.

Then say what you want to communicate about that theme in one sentence. We may have hated those grammar classes in grade school, but the humble sentence is the best friend a worship designer ever had. Clarity about the message does two things - it helps to maintain your focus on the one aspect of the good news you want to communicate, and it enables you to create a clear message that the congregation can remember and take with them into their daily lives, the place where real ministry happens.

Next, and this is Bill Easum's idea too, get a team together. We applaud that at the Centre. One of our core values from the very beginning is that "we work as a team, in order to demonstrate that teams work."

The task of your worship team is to decide how to package the message in as many ways as possible. Any worship experience should use at least five media if you are going to truly reach the diverse group of people that constitute most congregations today. Here are a few:

Ø Scripture: Choose a passage that clearly communicates the message, and create a context that points it out even before the scripture says it again. Then present the scripture in a dialogue or a play or just call upon that person with stage experience to truly communicate what it says.

Ø Meditation: Create a talk built around your message that is short, direct, and holds people's attention.

Ø Video: Shoot a five or seven minute video, or select a video clip from a movie.

Ø Music: Pick music that underlines both the substance of your theme and the emotion behind the theme.

Ø Skit: Have a group develop or locate a five minute play or skit that underlines your message.

Ø Slide show: Work up a pictorial presentation that you can project using photos or a pictorial montage that creates an emotional environment for hearing the theme.

Ø Prayer: Choose from many ways to pray, one that creates a sense that we have responsibility along with God in a partnership to "make it so."

Ø Art: Choose an art display that captures the emotional and pictorial essence of your message.

The final step is to assign the task of developing each of the elements you have chosen to your worship team members. The only limit is their imagination.

Worship outside the box can be the answer to your prayers. It may well be the answer to the prayers of congregational members who have suffered through far too many boring "worship in a box" events that give the illusion of worship, but without ever enabling people to encounter the God who always meets us beyond the box.

There is only one danger. The box you call your church building may be too small to hold the people who are hungry for a real experience of God's presence.

Congregational News February 2007 Vol. 13 No. 2

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