Worship (alternative version)

September 2000 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools

Maybe you've heard the term 'alternative worship'. What images does it conjure up for you? Alternative rock? Rave in the nave? Priestesses with piercings? Churches filled with candles? Men in black? Bikini-clad dancers? Do you think it's the coming thing, or did you think it had all gone away? No such luck. I'm a member of Grace 'alternative worship' group in Ealing, west London, and this will be my regular column exploring a movement growing quietly but surely in numbers and influence. Future columns will feature visits to services and interviews with movers and shakers, but for this first one I thought I'd better give you some background.

Firstly, a word about that term - 'alternative worship'. No-one much likes it, but it's been around for ten years now and nothing better has come along to command widespread acceptance, so we may be stuck with it. The essential thing to grasp is that we're talking more than a change in style of music here - we're talking about a complete rethinking of what a church service actually consists of - what it's for, how it's led, what kinds of things can happen, what kind of language is used, where people sit and what the place looks like. It's easier to put this creative ferment of in a category of its own - 'alternative' - than to work out how it relates to the other categories. Are they evangelicals being catholic? Catholics being evangelical? Or heretics being Orthodox? All these and more. But the chaos has its theories. Let us begin.

some history:

The term 'alternative worship' emerged in the early 1990s to mean forms of church that attempt to interact constructively with contemporary culture, and not just dress up in the latest fashions for the purpose of evangelism. The most influential example of how to do this was the Nine o'clock Service [NOS] 1988-95, which pioneered postmodern worship based on UK club culture with [it seemed then] enormous success. NOS functioned as a model for how to put together a genuinely contemporary form of church combining cutting-edge theology, new liturgy, media and music, and the stunning results were an inspiration and source of hope to many Christians that the Church could be relevant to real life in the 90s and beyond. Fired by this example, alternative worship groups sprang up not just in the UK but also in New Zealand and Australia. When NOS collapsed in 1995 amid shocking revelations of sexual and psychological abuse, the entire movement seemed in peril; but it became clear that the internal problems of NOS were unique and not a characteristic of the movement, and the leadership of the Anglican church expressed their support. Nevertheless many groups had to weather a time of suspicion and sometimes outright hostility.

what alternative worship is:

NOS may have acted as a catalyst, but many of the groups that followed were fired not by the multimedia aspects but by the thinking that had been done about how Christianity might be reimagined for a postmodern world. Most churches have become profoundly out of touch with the culture that surrounds them, which means that Christians [who after all live most of their lives in the surrounding culture] struggle with church too. People usually get involved in 'alternative worship' when they find that their normal form of worship, of whatever kind, is preventing them from bringing their real needs and concerns honestly and openly before God. This can be as true of modern forms of worship which deny people's real situations as it is of old forms of worship whose relevance has been exhausted. Alternative worship attempts to create spaces in which people can be their true selves in relationship with God and one another, without religious role-playing or escapism. For most, this involves making church out of the elements of everyday life - the issues, the culture, the language, the media, the music. Church becomes more like home - a place where we belong and which belongs to us. And this can help us to see that home, and the rest of our world, can be church - life lived in the presence of God.

who and where:

Many alternative worship groups function as congregations of existing churches. Those that have separated have done so either to gain more freedom to experiment, or because they have been forced out by opposition to their activities. The opposition tends to fall into a few standard categories: suspicion derived from what happened at NOS; fears about the safety or holiness of experiments; a wish to exercise tight control over the life of a church; inability to understand why anybody would be dissatisfied with church; fear and dislike of the new. Groups that stay attached to existing churches often suffer tensions and misunderstanding, but consider it worthwhile in order to speak into and influence the existing institutions and structures.

Alternative worship groups generally lack hierarchy or formal structure, the emphasis being that anybody can contribute. The lack of hierarchies is partly down to theories of community, partly a recognition of our own limitations, and also the fact that many people in alternative worship are refugees from evangelical churches where they have been sat on by heavy leaderships for asking the wrong questions. Some indeed have been victims of religious abuse and have found out the hard way that authority figures don't always have divine credentials. The movement is very wary of people who claim authority or special inspiration. NOS was unusual among alternative worship groups in having a large and elaborate leadership structure centred around one such person, and the abuse that this enabled only confirmed other groups in their aversion to such things. The movement tends to operate as overlapping and open-ended groups of friends.


If alternative worship is about bringing your everyday culture into church, the form that has developed in the UK reflects the dominance of the dance music culture, which has for the last decade been the normal cultural background for British under-40s. This is less true for the Australian and New Zealand end of the movement, who are more diverse in the forms of what they do.

Clubs and raves demonstrated that a multimedia and multisensory environment can carry tremendous spiritual and emotional impact. Club culture also has an intense, if often superficial, sense of togetherness and an unfocussed but genuine concern for spirituality. The sense that clubs were a more openly spiritual environment than churches was an important trigger for many in alternative worship.

However, contrary to popular misconceptions, few alternative worship services involve frenetic music and dancing. The model taken from club culture is the 'chill-out' room - a space with a quiet, soothing ambience for resting in away from the deafening heat of the dancefloor. Chill-out rooms showed just what a church in the emerging culture might be like - a reflective, relaxing place to think or talk quietly, visually and sonically rich but gentle, a relief from noise and activity.

Just as important as a point of reference is installation art. A large proportion of the new art of the 90s was of this kind, demonstrating the possibilities of designed or curated environments to convey meaning and affect the way one sees the world. Most installation art has a narrative structure [explicit or implied], a 'story' or subject beyond formal abstraction or 'just-there-ness', and clearly such narratives can be relevant to spiritual growth or even worship. Some alternative worship events, such as labyrinths, are on the borderline between church service and art installation, partaking equally of both.

Not only can installations form the environment of worship, they can be created as part of the worship by members of the congregation. This is a widespread and delightful practice which allows everyone to be creative and to join together in making something interesting - and often startlingly beautiful. Many of those involved in alternative worship are artists, for whom it offers a far wider field for the exercise of their gifts than a conventional church service.


Alternative worship services generally use music as a continuous ambient not discontinuous songs. The music works as a TV or movie-style soundtrack behind everything, or like having music on for background. One thing flowing naturally from another is more important than musical genre, but the DJ soundtrack approach allows a much wider range of music [latin jazz/famous pop anthem/film theme/symphony] than even the most versatile worship band can supply. The music can comment on what's going on, or change its mood.

A very large part of the music used is secular stuff brought in from home - because people have perceived spiritual content in it, or just because it works with whatever's going on. The result is that worship has the same soundtrack as the rest of people's lives, but the church context changes the perceived meaning. This can be revelatory, and can stunningly transform the way that the same music is heard in its usual secular context. Some would say that the use of secular music in church profanes church, but the experience of alternative worship is that the current flows the other way!

This musical approach does away with the dominance of the worship band. The underlying model is no longer the rock concert - where the congregation becomes an audience tempted to adore the band rather than God! Nor is worship experienced largely as the singing of songs. The music becomes servant to prayer, liturgy, silence and activity.

innovation and tradition:

Observers are often bemused by the mixture of ultramodern and ancient in alternative worship services. Medieval prayers over electronic music, video loops as settings for the mass. But oldness and newness as such are not the point. Relevance is. We have become aware that many older traditions have intense relevance to the situations we now find ourselves in - such as medieval concerns for ecology and imagery. Many more recent traditions have ceased to be relevant and give the impression that Christianity has nothing to offer the world anymore. In a time of great cultural change it's necessary to look at the whole of Christian tradition and discern what might be newly valid or ripe for reinterpretation, and what needs to be laid aside for a time.


If worship connects with its creators' real lives [not just their religious personae], chances are it will connect with other people too. Evangelism is a dirty word in our culture, being seen as a power play. Many people are deeply suspicious of being 'got at' if they set foot inside a church, and are highly resistant to sales pitches, especially from authoritarian institutions masquerading in trendy clothes! Alternative worship services never 'target' visitors but encourage them to take part in the worship at whatever level they feel comfortable - or just sit back and watch. Much of what goes on is accessible to people at many levels and degrees of involvement, and the absence of 'threat' allows people to open up to God without having their dignity impaired. Amazing encounters may follow.

Alternative worship tries to give people 'tools' for honest encounters with God. 'Tools' might mean prayer, pens and paper, a video loop, something to eat, someone to talk to, Holy Communion, or anything else that can help us to meet God in some way. But the tools used in alternative worship have one important characteristic - they don't lead to predetermined outcomes. That is to say, alternative worship seeks to bring God and the participant together - but not to predetermine what the outcome of the meeting might be. This is essential to protect the genuineness of the encounter.

For churches interested in evangelism, there is a danger that worship becomes manipulative, done a particular way to engineer the desired outcome. Many churches are tempted to pick up the latest fashionable tool, use it for a while, and if it doesn't 'work' - 'work' often being defined as producing conversions of a particular kind in a particular timescale - it is discarded as a 'failure'. Not only does this damage the integrity of the tools, it leaves a legacy of suspicion about the real motives behind their use, wherever they are used. And it also denies the people who have 'used' and discarded the tools any longer-term or more subtle blessings.

And it misses the point, because if the tool is good - if there is encounter with God - then 'evangelism' has already happened, in the sense of bringing people to God. [What the two of them do about it then is up to them]. If evangelism is about creating a genuine meeting with God, then of course alternative worship tools can be used evangelistically - but only by not using them evangelistically. Got that?

top / following month’s column >>