A space for experiment

Written for December 2002

I care less and less about whether Christians are evangelical or post-evangelical, liberal or orthodox, charismatic or whatever. I just want to know whether they are open or closed to other ideas and does their faith make them the kind of people who are filled with the reality of God.

[Steve Hollinghurst]

The more I look at it, the more I see alternative worship as a blank sheet of paper.

It's really a place of experiment rather than a particular form of church. It's more about a methodology for dealing with a change of culture than any particular style or theology. So in the long term it might be transient as a coherent entity. There will be lots of different paths starting in the experimental ground called 'alternative worship'.

Even now the movement has many centres and forms and directions. There are many different kinds of Christians making alternative worship, and the results are as varied as the people.

The people disagree quite a bit. What they share is an underlying commitment to open-ended experiment based around power-sharing and creative engagement with culture, without many predetermined ideas about where that might lead. And for different bunches of people it will lead to different places.

But while we're waiting for it to lead somewhere, all this creative ferment throws out ideas - some good, some bad - some with long-term uses, some for the moment only. Creativity is a holy thing. The Church needs it desperately right now, but it needs to be more than instrumental. I hope that one gift of alternative worship in the long term is that we can value creativity in church for its own sake, rather than just to get us out of a fix so that we can impose uniformity again.

We tend to concentrate on what form church needs to take in this or that situation. But alternative worship teaches that how you arrive at that form is as important - maybe more so - as what you end up with.

Maybe the future rules of church liturgies should not be about what you say and where you stand, but about how you figure out what to say and where to stand!

One of the essentials of experiment is giving ourselves permission, or perhaps giving other people permission, to undertake what may seem like a radical process of questioning and deconstruction. All sorts of things are under question - what makes an act of worship, what makes a church, how leadership works, where we look for inspiration.

We need to trust that God is watching over this process and will guide its outcome. Those involved are not losing their faith, but on the contrary are passionate about it - so passionate that they are no longer willing to tolerate aspects of church culture which impede its expression.

The first rule of alternative worship is 'throw away the rulebook'.

Which isn't the same as throwing away the past or tradition. It's about throwing away the rules that told you which past, which tradition. Or which past, which tradition you were not to use. Discarding the rulebook opens the way to more things from the past and less that's new. Or vice versa.

We often confuse the substance of our beliefs with the form in which they are expressed. So changing the form is misread as changing the beliefs. In fact I suspect that involvement in alternative worship does not necessarily change people's core theology. But it does free them to find new expressions of their theology, and it challenges them to separate core beliefs from cultural accretions masquerading as core beliefs. The movement contains charismatics, evangelicals, liberals, catholics - sometimes in the same group. They will probably continue to be so in many senses, since theological position often has to do with personality. But they will have examined and understood the roots of their own convictions, through working on new forms of expression. And they will have learned to disagree without wishing to conquer. If they do change their beliefs, it will be because alternative worship provides an open space that enables and resources personal journeys, rather than through any inherent theological [as opposed to cultural] bias in the movement.

What I would like to see the alternative worship community teaching everyone else (apart from the techie stuff and the deeper uses of symbolism) is tolerance. That whether you are straight, gay, single, childless, middle class, upper class, homeless, disabled, heretic, or just weird - that you will receive the same welcome. That you will not be manipulated, abused, crushed-down, or forced into a mould. That you will be loved, looked-after, respected, and allowed to heal and grow in your own time, not in the time of a church organisation's five-year plan. That God will be allowed to meet with you, and you with God, without our organisation or politics stifling that.

That at times may include conversion, may include healing or prophecy, may include reading and being inspired by Scripture, as well as all the other things we may do. Watching films, going down the pub, raging against the system, crying at the unfairness of someone's suffering, just sitting and chilling and dreaming together. The point manipulation. The point is...tolerance. The point is...allowing the plant to grow instead of crushing it by pulling it out of the ground before its time. That's what I think we could teach others. But before we do, we have to learn it for ourselves.

[Sue Wallace]

One essential permission is the permission to make mistakes.

This is a space for experiment. We don't know what works until we try it. It's pointless to demand success as a precondition for starting. It's premature to close experiments down on their first mistake. It comes back to trust - trust in God, trust in fellow believers. Trust that isn't withdrawn at the first stumble. Think of a child learning to walk. It takes its first steps and falls over. Should we pick it up and never let it put foot to ground again, for fear of hurt? One major discovery of alternative worship is that it is hard to predict what will bring God and people together. The crazy idea works amazingly. The sane and carefully plotted one flops. It should be no surprise, we're exploring new territory, mapping it for the first time. God is playful. Don't take your own plans too seriously. God is protecting. Don't be afraid to step out.