Treating church as a design problem

Steve Collins, interviewed for 'Curating Worship' (SPCK 2010) by Jonny Baker

Yes it's a long read, it was a chapter of a book - but it's the most complete statement I've ever made about alt worship, art and design. Buy the book and read all the other people's perspectives and insights too!


Steve we live in London – such a fantastic city for art and culture. We have been to a number of exhibitions together over the years. For example one I remember at the Hayward gallery a group of us went to from Grace on kinetic art really inspired us. We’d often say that we were doing the same kinds of things only on a much cheaper budget! And we’d often say that some of the meanings we were opening up had as much thought in them as the things we encountered in these big galleries. How do you think this connection between contemporary art installations and alternative worship came about?


A major part of the original brief for alternative worship was cultural (re)connection. And that meant engaging with the arts of all kinds, and making a space for artists to work within the church in a context of experimentation and permission. The idea was both to read where society was at, through the arts, and to speak to society as Christians, through the arts. So the artists came and did their stuff, bringing their cultural connections with them.

But alternative worship in Britain coincided with a powerful and vital new movement in contemporary art among people of the same age and cultural background. The new movement was above all conceptual and installation-based. What counted was not technical skill or craft, although these were often of a high order, but communication of ideas, in a language taken directly from contemporary life and the media, and using the stuff of everyday life - ashtrays, tights, TVs, bedding, booze.

These communicative environments provided one answer to the conundrum, how do we communicate in church without doing a sermon? Without being dominated by words? 

They also showed us how to make art, and how to communicate ideas, cheaply, even by using trash and dirt. We saw how humble materials could stack up into something profound, could be redeemed. We saw how viewers could interact with art, physically and conceptually, making their own meanings and making (or unmaking) the art. We saw that art could be, literally, liturgy - a work of the people. We saw that art could be made by editing, whether from the stuff around us or from audience contributions, however unskilled. We saw that the meaning of art could be in (inter)actions and sensual impact not just analysis or observation.

So the British art world of the last 20 years has been and continues to be a masterclass in worship techniques! I think we'd have struggled if it had been all about painting, for example. Do you believe in coincidence?


In retrospect what you are saying seems obvious but I’m not sure how intentional it was at the time. Were there particular exhibitions in contemporary art, or artists that particularly influenced the ideas you have brought to developing these communicative environments in worship?

In what sense being an architect has helped your approach to curation? Presumably being an architect has a disciplined way of imagining how spaces are created and used. Looking at some of your pieces on there is a playful re-imagining of church environment in lots of your pieces whether as round the table, in the city, in networks, or a completely re-designed space that has to be small and doesn’t allow large gatherings.

A big part of the role of curation is thinking about space and environment and how individual pieces that artists produce are going to fit in the flow of the space and what the interplay between them will be either physically or in the sense of creating a narrative flow in time. Vaux described themselves as worship architects on their publicity I seem to remember. Perhaps you truly are a worship architect? I’m sure it feels very intuitive but can you reflect a bit on your way of seeing, of imagining in relation to space and environment?


I don't think it was very intentional either! We were magpies, picking up things that might be useful, groping our way forward in alt worship as they were groping their way forward in art.

Some art stuff that sticks with me:

Self storage - 1995, Royal College of Art students curated by Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson - walking miles through a labyrinthine self-storage warehouse in Wembley to discover little installations in some of the units - all sorts of random stuff. So big it took a couple of hours to walk round.

HG - also 1995 - in Clink Street vaults when they were derelict. You were met outside in the street, and invited to step through a small door, not knowing what was inside - and found yourself in an Edwardian dining room from which the inhabitants had seemingly fled halfway through a meal. No explanation, but opening the other door leads to a mysterious journey through incredibly elaborate set-pieces.

Mike Nelson's installations - like HG you step through a door and find yourself in the rooms and corridors of an alternative world, with no explanation - you end up scrutinising every object for clues, and some of it means something and some of it is just scene-setting.

So all of these have the narrative trail, picking up clues, not quite knowing what's trash and what's art or what's around the next corner. They show how disparate pieces and incidents can be strung together as a journey. They use the stuff of the 'real' world - real chairs and bottles and clocks and newspapers - sourced not made. They show how to construct meaning with everyday or available things. Brian Eno: "...that's the real idea of Self-Storage: to take a vulgar, secular space and charge it in some way. It's meant to say to people: you can do it, too... it's really not that hard."

Regarding curation as an architect, it's my editorial skills that are more required than my spatial skills. The way we create services at Grace means we generally don't know what the parts look like or how big they are in advance, so spatial arrangements tend to happen on the night, apart from the occasional set-piece. But a large part of the designer's skill is in editing ideas and forms to produce coherence and meaning.

To step back a little, design (architectural or otherwise) is about problem-solving. The designer starts by analysis and questioning - what does the client want? What do they need (may not be the same thing)? What do they really want and need (they may not understand their desires and situations)? How do time and budget constrain possible outcomes? And so on, in depth. The synthesis of new forms comes after analysis, and demonstrates how well the designer has understood the task - including the unspoken aspects.

There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that a client came to Norman Foster for a new factory, and he redesigned their manufacturing process so they could stay in their old one. What that means is, that in order to design a new factory Foster had to examine very thoroughly the client's existing processes and organisation. And in this case, he saw that improvements could be made which would remove the need for a new building. Note that the client had not seen this - the designer has the advantage of detachment. The designer also looks at the wider context - other people's solutions to similar problems, changes on the horizon in technology or regulation, changes in society that will affect how people work or dwell - all this has to be weighed.

Architecture is generally trying to be a little in the future, to avoid being instantly out of date. Sometimes architects aim for a future that doesn't happen. When appraising architecture, always ask yourself what kind of society it was intended for.

So to bring all this back to church, what I've done is treat the church as a design problem - take things apart, look at the pieces, see if they can be assembled in different ways, respond to emerging contexts, imagine alternative futures to aim for. It's playful in the sense of exploration without commitment to predetermined outcomes (which would prevent genuine breakthroughs). This is very different to the church's tendency to fix its forms for theological reasons. Churches often assume that they already have the right forms, having found out what God really wants. But I think God wants to play.

I'm also aware that spaces and objects shape our behaviour. They embody social arrangements and patterns of use that were current at the time, or were seen as a good thing. So changing the spaces and objects changes what we can do, and what we think we can do. A stage divides people into actors and audience. A table for two is a different social situation to a table for twenty. A beanbag implies a different set of behaviours (clothes, theologies) to a bench, and so on. Which is part of what the installation art is about.


I like the sense that you pick up of saying to people ‘you can do it too... It’s really not that hard.’. I feel like I am saying that to people all the time to try and demystify the whole thing. But it’s still a big leap people feel to dive in. Alternative worship and its approach is still a marginal pursuit.  Perhaps it’s just such a different way of making a world?

You’ve painstakingly documented alternative worship through photography. This has become an incredible archive/record/gift. is in some sense helping to remember and also spark imagination for ideas. Over the years you must have been to literally hundreds of worship experiences, installations, events, services. Are there a few memories that stick in your mind? Could you describe one or two and reflect on why they have struck you?


I think people feel disempowered by things that appear to be big and complex like church. People don't feel expert enough to tackle the 'professionals', especially in a field that stresses the virtue of obedience - and in any case we can't find the time - unless we start to think of the making of church as central to our lives and not just one more thing to be fitted in. Maybe it's like the difference between medicine - something you get from the experts, and health - something you look after yourself.

As you know, I started taking photographs of services to capture some of the beauty that was being discarded after an hour or so of existence. I couldn't convey to people what we were up to, without pictures. The words made no sense, until they had pictures to knock out the other church pictures they had in their heads. From architecture and punk I know how important it is to record a movement for posterity! But I still wasn't prepared for what happened when I put the photo album on the internet. The emails that started to arrive, from Wisconsin or Wollongong, saying how do we do this too... ("you can do it too... it's really not that hard")

As for memorable events: it's obligatory to mention Vaux's 'God is found in the shit' service but i still think it was the best piece of boundary-breaking I have experienced, in terms of behaviour and content. The shock value of breaking certain ecclesiastical taboos, the frisson of things that are 'profane', and yet a powerful and deeply moving act of worship precisely because it brought the 'dirt' into the church and told some uncomfortable truths. I wrote an article for Ship of Fools that concentrated on the outrageous images and acts, but in the centre of it all was a superb piece of contemporary dance using the whole length of the church, enacting Christ's journey to the cross with almost unbearable tension. I didn't even mention this - I rather regret that now. I also wish I had more and better photos, but I couldn't do it without breaking the electrifying atmosphere.

The labyrinth in St Paul's Cathedral was obviously a major event with long-lasting ramifications, but the thing I want to pick out is the experience of lying on the floor looking up into the dome, in a state of relaxation while all the crowds milled around. The labyrinth allowed me to use St Paul's in a very different way, as a living room or leisure space almost, to take possession of it and be comfortable, to gaze and think without hurry. I had a similar experience later when the labyrinth was in King's College chapel, Cambridge (and there was a heated floor there, too!).

These experiences fed into my writings about churches used as chill-out spaces. It's such a different way of interacting with a church building. We usually stand around whispering, unsure of our rights, or we sit upright in uncomfortable chairs to be schooled. In neither case can we experience church as a home, as a place we belong and which belongs to us and where we can pass the time. I think that there should always be floor cushions and sofas under the dome of St Paul's. It would say something very different about the house of God.

In a little bit of contrast to these dramatic events, I still remember Grace's 'homecoming' service from 1999. This was built around Henri Nouwen's book about Rembrandt's painting 'The Return of the Prodigal'. It was classic old-skool alt worship - stations made with slides and candles, each concentrating on one symbolic detail of the painting, in a huge dark church. Meditation, great art, quietness. I only have two photos to show how lovely it was. The station that I made was about 'true north', it had a compass and magnets on a map, which ended up as one of the St Paul's labyrinth stations. It was the original small ritual, the reason for the compass logo on


In some of your reflections on you come up with some wonderfully playful re-arrangements or re-designs of both worship spaces in church and in the culture. In church I am thinking for example of your idea of worship around a table with the pieces needed on it, or of pods, or the one where it is impossible to meet in a big group – that’s a very subversive piece!  And in the city the ideas of spirituality broadcast at points to your mobile phone or networks where the pieces of church/spirituality are scattered around the city. You are very imaginative. How do you come up with these ideas?

The process for creating worship services and installations is a group effort but these are much more solo. How do you flex that creativity muscle, keep yourself fresh in imagining? A lot of these are provocations on a web site. Do you have plans to realise any of them? I’d particularly love to see some of the ones in the city spaces.


A lot of my ideas are simply translations or applications from other fields into the field of church. For instance, the big tables have been done a few times in office fitouts, for firms where people work on laptops and in fluid teams and don't need their own desks. And there are bench systems for desking where the individual worktops are replaced by one long worktop with legs only at the ends - this allows variable numbers of workspaces without changing the furniture. I often have lunch in a cafe with long communal tables - this is like the refectory of a monastery, so there's an easy link. Throw on the table the kind of stuff we routinely put on tables for stations at Grace, and there you have it.

In a similar way, the broadcast and network stuff is a re-application of ideas about ubiquitous computing that have been around for years - in fact some aspects go back to 1960s architectural theory. And a lot is just drawn from my everyday life and work in London, and wondering how spiritual expression can find a place in that.

What's radical, I suppose, is that I've applied these ideas to church. We seem to have got into a position where church buildings and rituals are disconnected from the general flow of cultural and technological change. Nobody thinks it subversive to explore how ubiquitous computing affects shopping or work or sport or art. But spirituality is assumed to be ancient and immutable, something removed from the rest of life, in opposition to technology and newness. Historical wisdom and a critique of society are good things, but Christianity as heritage or escape will be the death of it. It's not meant to be like that.

Two of the principles of alternative worship (or whatever you want to call it) are: 1, your whole life is church and not just one event; 2, apply all of your abilities to faith expression and don't accept compartments and boundaries. I am an architect specialising in corporate interiors. My work is about reinventing workplaces for organisations that are changing, usually in the direction of less hierarchy, greater fluidity, more openness. It's about the relationship between people, spaces, behaviour and technology. So I apply my knowledge to the church as if it were just another organisation or workplace that needs to move forward.

Secular organisations spend a lot of time and money on this, because they believe that it makes them more productive and attractive to staff and customers. If churches were to spend comparably we might see some remarkable results. As it is they seem to be locked into a narrow idea of what they are and do. A lot of that is about maintaining the glorious past rather than creating the vital future. There have been some wonderful new church buildings in the last 10 or 15 years, but I'm always disappointed by the same old schoolroom layout inside, as if what actually happens in the building could never change.

I have myself been involved in actual church building projects, once or twice, and I’m always itching to challenge their organisational and liturgical structure as part of the process (rather as Norman Foster reinvented his client's manufacturing process), but that's outside my remit when all they want is the font moving, which has taken five years to get agreement on. So I put out 'paper projects' - at least the ideas are out there, if anyone wants to pick them up. This is a noble and not entirely futile architectural tradition!


You have talked about the events or spaces and treating worship/church as a design problem. The tendency when people think about alternative worship is to look at the public event, the visible part. You edit the web site and I know over the years you have handled many enquiries and questions from groups wanting to be part of the directory. As I understand it you have to say no to some not necessarily for stylistic reasons but more for reasons around values or process. Could you reflect on that? I think it connects with curation as that is also about process. What is important about the values and process of what has been called alternative worship? Is curation a logical extension of those values?


When groups apply to be on I go nosing around, as best I can, to get a feel for their organisational structure and values, because those are the things that determine whether you're alt worship or not. Surface style is helpful - style reveals where your head is at - so I like to see photos of events and people.

But what I'm looking at isn't style per se, but values communicated in other ways than words. You may have the candles and projectors, but who is in charge and where do they stand, and for how long? How many people make the events, and what [if anything] are those people called?

And because alt worship isn't defined by one style, feel/instinct comes into it a lot. Often one knows that something/someone is part of the movement, even though all the indicators are on the surface wrong. And sometimes something that seems the very essence of alternative worship is not - something in there not quite right - maybe the unspoken values or modus operandi are at odds with the declared intentions. Maybe it's all a marketing strategy.

But remember this is about inclusion in a website mapping a specific phenomenon, and not a final judgment on the worth of the church or person. They may be greater than us in the Kingdom of Heaven, but just not alternative worship. And this is a diverse movement, and people are on journeys, so I prefer to be inclusive.

For me the key attributes of alternative worship are a flat hierarchy and high levels of freedom and trust given to all individuals, so that what happens represents a cross-section of the community not just one or two people. Or it represents one or two people, but a different one or two each time! What matters is not that everybody is involved, but that anybody can be who wants to be - and that everyone is encouraged to get involved somehow. So the first job of the curator is to open up a space where anyone can contribute on an equal level. This isn't about leadership so much as guardianship - the forum needs protection against those who would dominate it or misuse the freedom. You might say that the new form of 'leadership' is partly about preventing certain aspects of the old form of 'leadership'.

But the word leadership is misleading. Speaking of curation acknowledges that we need the organisational and directional functions of traditional leadership, but that they don't have to come from the same source every time. Different people bring different flavours to the task, and the community is richer for experiencing them all. God is complex, and we are too, so one or two angles and approaches are probably not enough.

Throughout Christian history there has been a struggle between hierarchical and egalitarian models of the Kingdom. The monarchical model, which appears to reify the structure of the late-Roman imperial court, has faced a recurrent challenge from a radical egalitarianism which says that, for humans at least, all are equal before God. In support of the latter view is God's biblical tendency to work through the least, through outsiders, to subvert the status quo, culminating of course with the unauthorised rabbi Jesus and his socially dubious followers. Things are hidden from the wise and learned, and revealed to little children. So for me the low-hierarchy open forum of alternative worship is about reconnecting to that biblical tradition, that God might work through anyone and we had better listen up. And after all, I’m one of the beneficiaries of that approach.


Some of the art/worship produced out of small collectives that function on the egalitarian model you describe has been wonderful. Yet it’s always remained quite small or on the sidelines. Does that matter? Or has it had a wider renewing effect in the overall life of the church? I wonder if egalitarian models are smaller because many people want to just come and consume rather than participate.


Small groups get stuff done. Most movements that change anything, whether in politics or the arts, are small groups with a common commitment to a cause or viewpoint. Small groups don't have passengers. I dare say some of the dynamism of the early church was about being small groups.

The other issue is about creating change. Groups working for change or the new are inevitably small because most of us, most of the time, rest content with the status quo. The status quo has formed us, which is why new ideas often seem 'cranky' to begin with (and the vested interests will do their best to make them seem so). It takes a minority prepared to be considered 'cranky' or subversive for long enough to spark wider change - the new has to be normalised somehow in people's minds, It has to become a genuinely possible alternative for people who are not pioneers, and that takes persistence.

I'm quite certain that people want to just come and consume. I often feel like that myself. As we've seen at Grace, the participatory model is better if you can take periods of rest now and then while others take the strain which of course is harder in small groups, so it's a kind of vicious circle.

However, we need to see 'worship' - our gift and service to God - as more than just turning up and offering token participation in something set up by others. We've inherited a long tradition of passivity where things are done to and for us by 'experts' - it's a leap to become responsible for the forms of our spiritual lives. I hope alternative worship is an exploration of how we can do this together, as communities - because we need to do something bigger than ourselves.


Of all the people I know you probably have the best overview of the movement with your recording of what has happened. Of all the experimentation, theological takes, conversations, networks, creative worship and installations what will last? What’s the legacy?


As for the second question - 'legacy' implies something that is over, and I'm hoping that we have a way to run with this thing yet! After 20 years I feel that we are only just beginning to make a real impact beyond the occasional minor sensation. We need to persist - persistence wins respect, because it shows that something has enduring value, can be developed, appeals to more than one audience.

I find it easier to think in terms of what has been demonstrated. One thing we have demonstrated is that a church service can take very diverse forms. People who want to do something different aren't stuck for models any more. Another thing demonstrated is that a community can generate its own faith expressions, and in a participatory way - valid and inspiring faith expressions are not the preserve of the professional clergy and 'experts'. I hope we've demonstrated a different role for the professionals and experts themselves, in supporting their faith communities.

One thing that will definitely last (because it's a function of the age we live in) is the ability of the laity to organise, debate and publish independently of the institutions. This is an effect of the internet rather than alternative worship, but alternative worship got in early and has shown various aspects of how such independent activity might look. We've shown how the functions of the institution, such as leadership, support and theological exploration, can happen through informal networks and personal initiatives rather than command-and-control structures - and that the results are not 'falling away' or heresy (the great fear that sustains the structures).

Of course, what I fear is that the legacy will be a makeover of the existing institutions which offers a bit more participation and sensory pleasure while leaving the power structures intact. I hope that church will always escape codification and control. I hope that the memory of alternative worship, like punk, is that you can always do something for yourself, if the thing that's being done for you isn't working.