How to make it happen: a beginners' guide

by Paul Roberts 2002 [edited 2012]

2012 note: This guide has been retained on the site because it contains much that is still useful. However, some parts of the technological advice are becoming quaint!

Begin here...

Who's this guide for?

I wrote this guide for anyone who is interested in alternative worship, but who hasn't tried doing it before. You may have visited a service which was described as 'alternative worship'. If so, this guide may give you some idea whether that description was accurate or helpful. When groups of people start doing alternative worship, they often need a bit of advice, inspiration or empowerment to really believe they can do it. Believe me, if you want to do it, you can do it.

Who's this guide by?

My name's Paul Roberts. I've been doing alternative worship continuously since 1993, and first experienced it in 1990. I was one of the small group of people who founded the Third Sunday Service in Bristol, England, which became Resonance and has now evolved into Foundation. Over the years I've had the pleasure of getting to know many others from around the world who have done similar things, and some of the contents of these pages reflects the wisdom I have learned from them. Thank you people! After 13 years of doing alternative worship, I still love it.

What this guide isn't for:

I haven't done much introduction to the 'why' of alternative worship. For further information on that, follow the link called 'definitions' on the main menu above.

So off we go...

Building a team

You're about to take steps on a creative journey. Building an alternative worship service cannot be done by one person alone. Neither can it be the fruit of a single imagination. You need a group of people with you. It took me over two years - from 1991 to 1993 - before finding a group of people committed to creating this kind of worship environment. Even then, it may be several months before you all feel ready to make a first step.

Meet together. Eat and drink together. Dream together. Find out what each other is good at, or passionate about. Discover new skills and teach them to one another. Learn what it means to have a shared imagination. Learn good group dynamics: some people may be instinctively better at this than others, so give yourselves time to settle down as a group. Learn to compromise together in the interests of something you can all own.

Finally, when you are ready you need a venue and relationships with people who will support you.

Church support

So - are you going to go it alone, or are you going to be part of some pre-existing Church grouping?

The alternative worship world is divided on this question: for some groups, the world of established Christianity is the very thing that they're trying to escape from. They don't want to be part of someone else's project, with hidden agendas of growing someone's church.

Often, leaders of 'regular' churches see alternative worship as a way of feeding new members into existing church services, after a suitable induction period in the alternative group. This is misguided, for if alternative worship really succeeds, then it becomes an authentic expression of worship and faith in its own right. Anyone who belongs to an alternative worshipping community will see little point joining a regular form of worship at some later stage. That is why, for many, there is too much baggage involved when joining something which is effectively part of a larger, more usual, church setting.

On the other hand, there are also examples where alternative worship has successfully existing alongside more usual forms of church life. For this to work, it is vital that the leadership and membership of the wider church realise that the alternative worship setting is 'real church' in its own right, and allow it to exist as a discrete congregation and develop its own ways of doing things.

It's equally important that those in the alternative worship service realise that they have a responsibility in belonging to a wider community, and are prepared to take the rough with the smooth in that relationship. The leadership of any church that includes an alternative worship service must be fully committed to the people and the vision behind that service, otherwise relationships could become difficult at some later stage.

Venues - church or elsewhere?

The choice of venue is dictated partly by whether you are part of an existing church or not, and partly by whether meeting in an existing church premises is seen as helping or hindering the mission, outreach and appeal of your service.

For groups wanting to put clear water between themselves and regular church, a church venue is the last thing they are likely to want. Whereas for groups who maintain a relationship with a church, meeting in the church might or might not be what they want to do. A number of alternative worship groups meet in pubs and bars, where non-church people feel less intimidated. Others meet quite happily in church buildings, often enjoying the ancient ambience that some classic church architecture can conjure up.

If you don't meet in a church, there may well be cost implications which you will have to face - which can be quite intimidating to a new group. Independent groups will need to be careful of accepting the hospitality of churches unless it is quite clear in the relationship that what you are doing is your own thing, and not seen by the host church as an 'outsourcing' of its own services.