God in your iPod

[December 2006 for Church Music Quarterly]

'alternative worship' and the spiritual soundtrack of your life

what is alternative worship?

It often feels, even to Christians, as though churches inhabit a different world to the one we spend most of our lives in. The language, the music, the way things are done can all seem alien. Alternative worship is a worldwide movement seeking to heal this disconnection between our lives and the ways we express our faith. In order to achieve direct and authentic spiritual expression, communities level hierarchies and structures and open up services to almost any kind of input. The questions are, where (honestly) do you find God? What gifts do you (really) want bring to God and the community? If anything were allowed, not just the conventional church things? Any music or art, any insight or skill?

The subgroup planning a service will be open to anyone. Services are built around an agreed theme or idea, which informs everything that happens. So the event won't consist of singing followed by preaching followed by prayer; it will consist of idea X (conveyed by music, preaching, prayer, all of these or entirely different things) followed by idea Y (communicated likewise, or by throwing paper planes or eating cakes or both at once - whatever it takes). The group brainstorm and discuss until a running order emerges, then people take a section and make it happen with whatever resources they can muster.

church music as movie soundtrack

Alternative worship began in Britain in the late 1980s, at a moment when the gap between popular culture and what went on in church yawned particularly wide. Electronic dance music could not be incorporated into existing worship patterns as a new form of hymnody (as had happened to some degree with rock and pop). However, the multimedia environments of dance clubs and raves, their euphoric proclamation of community and spirituality, often seemed "more like church than church". In particular 'chill-out' spaces and events showed what a church native to contemporary culture might be like - reflective, relaxing, visually and sonically rich but gentle, a relief from noise and activity.

Meanwhile the new coffee-shop culture inspired 'cafe churches' with food, drink and sofas. In such an environment there can be background music, maybe even a live act - but not one that kills all conversation.

So alternative worship is the first church movement to fully embrace recorded music as its normal means of expression. As in a club or cafe a DJ mixes tracks, and live musicians appear occasionally or not at all. The music forms a continuous soundtrack, as in a movie or TV programme, to create atmosphere and shape significant moments. General background tends to be a warm, largely instrumental ambient/chillout mix, over which speech, prayer and activity can take place. Specific tracks may be selected whose mood or lyrical content is appropriate to the service theme or a particular liturgical section. There are no restrictions on musical genre, but context and sequencing will determine whether something works. Groups tend to develop a repertoire of characteristic tracks which form a kind of musical (and therefore cultural) signature for the community.

nothing is sacred because everything is

In alternative worship everything in life is considered a potential place of encounter with God, so there is no sacred/secular distinction made in the music. Much of it is secular stuff, Blur to Madonna to Joy Division via The Big Chill and Cafe del Mar, because people have perceived spiritual content in it, or because it works with what's happening in the service. The result is that worship has the same soundtrack as the rest of life, but the church context changes the way the music is heard. This can be revelatory, and can stunningly transform the way that the same music is then heard in its usual 'secular' context.

live music and singing optional

Live music can still play a part, but musicians will not be set apart on a stage as 'worship leaders'. They may prerecord all or part of their contribution to be fed into the system along with all the other sonic and visual inputs.

Where songs are used they work more like traditional hymns than the modern evangelical 'time of worship'. Services often lack songs entirely, for a number of reasons. Singing is not seen as the chief or only vehicle for worship. Congregational response is not limited to singing. Singing may not fit with what's going on. There is a dearth of Christian songs in the laid-back funky style of much alternative worship, and some groups have produced their own in response. And congregations faced with unfamiliar songs may prefer to listen.

the sonic environment and sound art

The use of music as atmosphere leads to consideration of the entire sonic environment of an event. Alternative worship is very influenced by installation and conceptual art, where people interact with objects or environments. Many services contain installations where members of the congregation may, for instance, put on headphones to listen to someone speaking or a piece of music. A recent service by London community 'Grace' began with a sound collage building from barely audible background noise, through traffic, speech and newscasts to a looped shout sampled from a rap record - then silence. Later, six CD players scattered throughout the church were switched on simultaneously, playing urban noises from crying baby to burglar alarm, and the congregation were invited to go and listen to each in turn to consider, "What comforts me? What do I run from? Where do I hear God?"

Another Grace service illustrates the range of music and sound possible. 'Nine' is an annual variation on the traditional Christmas service of 'nine lessons and carols'. The Bible readings are given to nine volunteers, who have to come up with a five-minute 'something' and/or music inspired by their reading. Sonic contributions this year included a country ballad about Robin Hood, an operatic aria, an excerpt from the Simpsons, the Magnificat sung to acoustic guitar, street poetry filmed in a tube station, Daniel Bedingfield singing 'Silent Night', and 1970s heavy rock group Rainbow!

This apparently outrageous sequence was nonetheless at the service of the Christmas story, tied into activities and video pieces to create changes of pace and mood like the scenes of a TV drama. Between all this and under spoken interludes ran the usual mix of quiet chillout tracks. Contributions were brought in on CD, DVD, USB memory stick or iPod and put into laptops running iTunes and Archaos. iPods could be placed in a Numark IDJ console for cross-fading and mixing. In the after-service cafe, another DJ mixed funk and breakbeats on CD decks for a party feel.

what's going on?

In contrast to the sonic free-for-all of 'Nine', Church of the Apostles in Seattle have developed an entire service based on Marvin Gaye's 1971 album 'What's Going On?' The album's concerns over war, social justice and ecology were developed into a liturgy with reflection, creative prayer, and Holy Communion. Not all of the album tracks were used, or in the original sequence. Several had been extended to allow for indefinite periods of prayer or activity. An extended version of 'Mercy Mercy Me' became a hymn for the congregation to sing along to. Projected visuals featured pictures of Gaye and the song lyrics.

Note that technology as such is not the point. This is about making creative use of whatever's available, stuff you use anyway, from home or work or borrowed. One or two items may be bought especially for church use (often things which connect or mix). Some items will be 'donated' after their owners bought a new one. Now that inexpensive laptops carry music and video software much can be done that was difficult and expensive a few years ago.

whose story?

Since recorded music was invented, all kinds of music have become available to all of us. But every genre of music embodies stories of social and personal identity. So whose life-story does the music in church embody - your own, or someone else's? Music can be a potent representation of our story to God. But the musical menu available in most churches is very limited by comparison to the world outside. In limiting the forms of music, churches limit the life-stories that can be expressed.

Alternative worship attempts to use the actual musical stories of the participants, straight out of their iPods - which may contain church music but will probably be dominated by other kinds. It asks, where is God present in our musical story? And how do we share those stories, as gifts to one another and God?