I always get questions from students -- how do you transform worship in a church that has a very fixed format or doesn't really want to change? My answer is - transform whatever and wherever you can -- push at the edges, and avoid messing with the sacred cows. Where is there permission to start something truly alternative -- in the youth group, the Sunday night service, or in a small group? You never know, If you create something really meaningful, it may, like a virus, spread throughout the system...and if it doesn't, at least you created something compelling for the participants of that group.
For the last seven months, I've been part of a five-member team rethinking worship in a elderly 100-year old Presbyterian congregation with 75-100 attendees every week. About half the congregation is over 70, and the other half are scattered amongst the younger generations. Our elderly component are Japanese who lived through the internment, the rest of the congregation is mixed, consisting of Asians, Whites, and African-Americans.
Where did we start? First, we got a team in place. On the team were three people who knew the culture of the church at a deep level -- one staff member, and two elders. Another member is a former worship pastor of another church, and I was the fifth. A sixth, a new Fuller student, just recently joined us. For us, it was essential to have church insiders, who desired change, as part of the group. Their insights helped us see where we could push and where we needed to pull back. It was a real dance back and forth. "Yes, we can do that, no, that is too much."
Turning the regular Sunday service upside down was never a real option. But -- what we did have on the calendar was a vaguely understood, ill-defined Sunday each month, 'Family Sunday'. It was a time where the whole church was to worship together (no Sunday school). It was also understood that somehow the youth would be more involved on that Sunday. However, it really was not utilized at all. Maybe a little less formal, but that was it. Family Sunday would be our means for transforming worship.
Beginning with the five of us, we started to meet two hours each week to talk about worship. What were our dreams? What did we like about worship, and what didn't we like? We were in no hurry to begin an alternative service, so we met weekly until we could share a similar vision of where we wanted to go. We were not on the same page, but we wanted to learn from one another. Different desires were expressed – more kid-friendly worship materials, more connecting with the youth – more involvement with the old people.. Some were happy with a fixed liturgy and another wanted to abandon it. But we were flexible to hear from the others and we were all transformed in the process.
This process of talking, thinking, and imagining took us about six weeks -- before we could even begin creating the first service. We became one in the process -- and in all our brainstorming we received one direction from these early meetings -- one driving question that would influence every aspect of our worship planning from there on out. Our question: how might we create spaces for deep levels of participation within every aspect of the worship service?
That question created quite an adventure for us and for the church. I'll talk about what that looked like in a subsequent post...