A method called Alternative Worship

Published in Seven magazine November 2002

So what is this thing called 'alternative worship'? Well, the name emerged a decade ago when the movement was small and semi-underground, by reference to alternative music and alt.groups on the pre-web internet. Back then Generation X was no more than the name of a book, and postmodernism was little discussed outside philosophy and architecture. Why 'worship' not 'church'? Because the initial motivation was dissatisfaction with the culture of worship, an attempt to bridge the gap between what went on in church services and the styles and concerns of the world outside. The impulse was partly missionary, and partly that Christians themselves were feeling alienated by what they were doing on Sundays.

So how does 'alternative worship' differ from 'postmodern church' or 'Gen X church'? At the heart of alternative worship is a method of making church. Rather than designing new forms of church for a targeted market, alternative worship is about letting people make church for themselves, without too many rules about what is and isn't allowed. The point is to get past the conventions of church, past the we-know-what's-best-for-you approach, and into a deeper place where people can bring their whole lives honestly before God.

Alternative worship is more about radical power structures than radical presentation styles. Groups work as teams of equals, whether or not there are ordained persons involved. There are no fixed hierarchies or predetermined roles - no-one is pastor for this-and-that. The team isn't an elite group, delivering expertise to the congregation, but a representative group, creating something on behalf of the congregation. Consequently, boundaries between team and congregation - that is, the *rest* of the congregation - are fluid and hard to spot.

The method works like this:

Get a bunch of people together. Brainstorm what you'd like the next event or service to be about. Whether it's an issue, an experiment with a liturgy, the time of year, the next saint's day, whatever. An idea to build an event round. This idea may be a big long-term project that evolves, or it may be something of immediate interest or topicality that's different every time. Or a bit of both. Just don't get stuck in religious categories.

In coming up with the big idea you'll have argued over whys and wherefores and aspects of it - these become the basis of what you actually do. Your task is to break the big idea down into digestible chunks that people can interact with. Interact can mean listening, doing, praying, singing, talking, making, looking, and more. It's important to allow the [rest of] the congregation to explore, just as you the team have been doing [and will continue to do]. Your job is not to present all the answers ready-made, but to leave space for others to come to their own conclusions and make their own journeys.

So now you agree an 'order of service' or similar - a list of the elements of the event, in sequence. There should be a satisfying shape, a beginning and an end and a legible journey in between. But you won't have figured out each one of these elements in detail yet. So you hand the pieces out to the people available and let them work it out.

Remember, the elements of this kind of event are not role-centred things like music, preaching, prayer etc, but are aspects of a theme or idea. So the event won't consist of a time of music followed by a time of preaching and a time of prayer. It will consist of a time of idea X [which may be conveyed by music, preaching, prayer, all of these or entirely different things] followed by a time of idea Y [communicated likewise, or by throwing paper planes or eating cakes or both at once - whatever it takes]. Which is why alternative worship teams can't be divided up by the usual 'pastor for whatever' categories. Obviously some things require technical knowledge that only a few will have, but in general people just take responsibility for a section and make it happen with whatever talents and ideas they can muster.

This is where you have to trust one another. This is where personal creativity and vision find expression and are offered as gifts to God and the congregation. This is where people find gifts they didn't know they had. This is where people get to use their 'secular' abilities in church. This is where leaders have to let go. The ordained and trained have no monopoly on worship ideas and methods - in fact their training may make them less original about what can work as church content. Of course mistakes will be made and things will go wrong. But nothing's set in stone so what doesn't work can be changed next time. The congregation will forgive you, assuming they even noticed!

Church made this way becomes a space for personal and corporate exploration rather than a schoolroom. The team work as facilitators more than leaders, helping people find their own way with God rather than dictating a path. Central to this process is trust, in God and in other people's sense and maturity. Obviously alternative worshippers are working from a particular image of God; as One who encourages creativity, openness and experimentation; One who is tolerant of errors and can take a joke; One who is patient rather than dictatorial; One who is active in the world and not just in the Church; a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of God.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned youth. Alternative worship proper is hardly ever by or for teenagers, although there are youth services that look something like it. The reason should be apparent from how it's made. It comes from people who feel a real sense of disconnection between their church experience and the rest of their lives - and who know their own minds and take responsibility for their own spiritual journeys. It's not for people who need, or want, instructions and answers handed to them.

Equally I've said nothing about Generation X. While most of the people involved are in that age group, not all are. In Britain, where alternative worship is strongest, concepts of 'Generation X' as understood in America are only partially relevant, especially in the area of cultural expression. It's interesting to see how this cultural difference has affected alternative worship. From the dance culture background prevalent in Britain comes a sense of egalitarianism - an emphasis on groups of friends rather than star individuals. The music providers [DJs not musicians] are relatively anonymous rather than leaders. The music is background more than focus, and is prerecorded - selected rather than made especially. There's no stage. Church events take place at night in dark, intimate environments with projected visuals. Sunday morning is for sleeping!

But it'd be a mistake to think that the alternative worship method imposes a dance culture aesthetic. Church made this way reflects very directly the particular people who make it, allows them to make church very attuned to their cultural surroundings. That may mean dance culture, or something else. Perhaps the crucial legacy of the method is that it makes church that belongs to the people who made it, rather than church designed for someone else, some third party we think it'd be good to reach. The alternative worship approach to mission is, if our church doesn't work for *us* how will it work for anyone else? If it doesn't represent *us* to God won't it ring hollow to visitors? It imposes the humility of starting mission with our own people, rather than trying to be people we're not.

This hands-on approach to church is hard work. The reward for all the effort is church that is a natural part of your life. It's your own worship, you and your friends made it as a gift to God and one another. It's what you wanted to say to God, not what someone thought you should hear. Church can be what it was meant to be - the direct expression of Christians' lives with God and one another, in the world not out of it. Go and do thou likewise.