Some notes on how to get started

by Steve Collins 2004

These notes were produced for a talk at Greenbelt Festival in 2001 and only just rediscovered. They're not a polished piece because they were produced for speaking from, but I still think they're useful.


why are you doing this?
the usual answers are evangelism or your own worship needs
it should be primarily the latter
the former should be a by-product of vibrant realistic spirituality
this is not about marketing christianity - better to create something that markets itself.

who are you doing this for?
the target audience should include you.
if it's because you can see a need for suitable worship for a group that doesn't include you, involve people from that group at the start and give them the control.
your audience is most likely to be christians to begin with

making a space to experiment
negotiate a space to experiment in - a separate service
it needs to be understood by the church authorities that this space is free - no premature judgements - no tight boundaries
ie trust given to the participants

you need freedom to try anything
you need freedom to fail or get it wrong
you're not foisting your experiments on other people - if they don't like it they don't have to come!
you can feed back successful element and ideas into other services later.

it's easier to experiment successfully if you can control the overall shape and feel of the worship. the context and style of conventional worship will limit what you can achieve. the overall shape/structure of any act of worship carries cultural values, so it's hard to fit in little pieces of alt worship to a conventional setting - the context may undermine the core values of what you're doing. which is why just updating the songs hasn't been enough to make church valid.

your church needs to trust you to experiment with worship
you need to trust your congregation to make good use of what you provide

opposition comes in several kinds.

one comes from lack of understanding. people don't understand why you're doing this, or misunderstand it. many people have difficulty distinguishing between core theology and the forms in which it is expressed, ie they think that correct belief can only be expressed in a particular form of worship. and so your experiments may be taken as proof that you're going wrong. a lot of opposition will seem quite unreasonably vehement because what you're doing is shaking settled beliefs or touching unexpected personal chords.

some responses:
don't be secretive
explain clearly what you are doing and why
try to present it as a positive extension of the church's ministry rather than as an attack or negative critique
point to other successful examples of what you are trying to do
show that you are not going off the rails theologically

a different kind of opposition arises from issues of control and security. some church leaderships are not prepared to allow anything that they don't have direct control over. this results from a fear that things will go wrong - ie they don't trust their congregation to work out their own relationships with god.

this kind of opposition is harder to deal with because it's often irrational or fearful. openness and patient discussion should help, but can still fail. ultimately it's about trust.

if it becomes clear that explanations are getting nowhere, it may be necessary to be open about this - to say as gently as possible "it appears you don't trust us to work out our own relationships with god". they will either say, we didn't mean it like that at all, and negotiate, or they will say yes - in which case you are not in a healthy church.

planning the event:

you can't do this on your own.
you need a group of like-minded people. they need to be committed to exploring spiritual expression openly as equals. let leadership and direction arise naturally rather than being imposed by someone with an agenda.
allow fluidity of roles - don't let people get stuck in boxes.
themes - liturgical calendar or other
no preconceived rules about what can/can't be done in worship - it's often the crazy idea that works best.
this is a chance for everybody to make a contribution. don't insist on technical expertise before letting people do something. it's the idea that counts, and the taking part. let people give their gifts.
take risks
explore real issues
don't be 'religious'
group consensus/editorship
give people pieces to do
no place for control freaks or people who have to do everything themselves - this stems from fear that things will go 'wrong' - learn trust

quality v. inclusiveness is difficult - if someone wants to do something that's awful/tasteless. everyone needs to submit to group judgement and modification of their ideas- this, plus an effort to include them somehow, will help soothe feelings of rejection. everyone has to accept that their pet idea may be ruled out!

size of service
aim for between twenty and fifty people.
if you get too many some get crowded out or feel that they don't have to contribute, and become spectators.
it's important to maintain a sense of communal involvement

the focus
whatever expresses/facilitates your own relationship with god
NOT what's trendy
NOT about technology
exploration of you and god, world and god
therefore will include the new, the fashionable, the technology because it is a normal part of your life and the world around

will also include the old because that's part of life too and contains valuable experience and art
use old things that are valid, not just because they are what people do in church - so rethink. be prepared to question everything inherited.
it's like clearing out the house - deciding what to keep or throw out!

what you produce should be your own not a clone of some other service, BUT it is very useful to start by copying things from other services because it gives you a ready-made start
it's very hard to come up with new forms/ideas in a vacuum, copying will give you a feel for what can happen [and then the ideas start to flow]
once you have sampled the possibilities, you will soon start to alter and adapt for yourselves


foreground [songs or listening], background [mood, filling silences]

style - whatever your group finds spiritually helpful - may be easy listening, ambient, punk - even graham kendrick.
should relate to what you listen to outside church. this can be a powerful way to break down the compartments of church versus the rest of life.

don't divide sacred/secular - just because music is produced by a christian artist doesn't mean it'll work better in church, just that it's more likely to mention god as such. but secular stuff often has spiritual, even worshipful lyrics that sound right in church. keep an ear out for potentially useful music.

songs - don't sing just because it's the done thing. ask yourself why. you don't have to sing.
don't equate worship with singing.
background - often instrumental, not so much songs. beware inappropriate lyrics/noises eg orgasms - you can't always leave an album running.

bands - if you have a good one and what they play helps, fine. if not, use recorded stuff [means you can have radiohead for real instead of hoping that your worship band can manage to sound like them]. can mix eg singer over cd track, live instrument over cd song. needs rehearsal.

usually background, though can have specific images/clips to focus on.
for background, simplicity is best - not startling/distracting
theme to general theme of worship, but can go off at tangent - add layers of meaning
not just religious imagery - bring the world into church

video on tvs usable in daylight, slides not.

song words - ohps are ugly. can make slides, or use software that puts words on screen from computer

esp installation - see as much as you can, buy magazines. will give you ideas even from pictures in magazines. will give you buzz when you realize that your church installation was better than thing in art gallery. a lot of art is conceptual, ie the idea is the real work of art not the object. that's what you are about, so take inspiration.

general principles:

- as good as complexity and a whole lot easier. achieve complexity by buildup of many simple things.

don't get hung up on technical perfection.
freedom from sense of inferiority/inability. the idea is not to focus people's attention on the work but beyond it - it is a tool. more important to convey an idea.

leave space for congregation to act/interpret
don't be didactic. don't attempt to rigidly control how people react/act/interpret - let god speak to them and they to god. [trust]
create worship where people who are not part of the team can contribute/feed back to each other and god
words - discussion/opinions/writing
actions - making/completing artwork, ritual, dance, song

don't separate team from rest of congregation
together we are the body of christ
all have gifts and insights
facilitate rather than lead
invite don't command
allow people to just watch or not be involved - no pressure or compulsion.

not a performance
[although parts can be]
performance excludes participation/improvisation
you want involvement not admiration