Alternative Worship

Andrew Jones - The Boaz Project

The baby boomers made worship relevant. Gen-Xers made it authentic. The next big shift could make worship non-linear, multisensory and art-driven.

It's called "alt.worship" and it's emerging from an unlikely source - the global alternative Christian subculture.

In an old cathedral in London, in a space with no stage and no chairs, a cross-shaped light is projected over the young people lying on the red carpet. A soundscape of soft chants fills the sanctuary, creating a soothing audio wallpaper. A video loop on one of the projection screens shows first a graceful male dancer and then a computer-generated image of a slowly rotating crown of thorns. Poetry appears under the thorns: "God-man, your soul is overwhelmed to the point of death."

Two girls move through the center of the sanctuary -- one slowly, the other running to the cross where she is lifted up by the others and rotated slowly, then lowered to the floor. Both girls turn and invite the worshippers to come forward and receive the communion elements.

This is a safe place, a sanctuary for seekers who will not be "reached" or "got at." It is also a gallery for artists who deem their work too precious to be colonized into a preacher's sermon. It is a holy space, where the experience of God and each other is not preprogrammed but open to the mysterious interruptions of a God who still speaks.

This is what the English call alternative worship, or "alt.worship." Tonight at the Vaux, worship is curated (not led) by Andy Thornton. Next month someone else will be calling the people to hand over fresh art that reflects the ups and downs of the full human experience. This art will be displayed in a way that makes it possible for every participant to experience God at his or her own pace. The curator can plan that journey to a certain point, but there is an element of the mysterious the curator cannot control.

In a way, "alt.worship."is a return to a simple New Testament pattern of worship, where one offers a song and another a word. And it is a return to the Old Testament worship pattern of

  • multimedia, multi-sensory worship.
  • Simplicity and complexity.
  • Pre-modern and post-modern.

Worship as self-expression

"Alt.worship" is not baby boomer worship, with its polished, culturally relevant gospel presentation. And its not quite Gen-X worship, though they share values like community and authenticity. But "alt.worship." is truly participatory, allowing the worshipers to create and observe the art of self-expression. Emerging from the global alternative Christian subculture, "alt.worship." is cropping up in coffee houses and cathedrals, galleries and warehouses, throughout the post-Western world.

Steve Collins is the curator tonight at the Vaux. He is the creator of London's multimedia labyrinth at St. Paul's Cathedral, a one-hour, virtual-reality experience of God. "Alternative worship is not a style, but an approach," Steve explains on his internet site (www.smallfire.org. "It is what happens when people make worship for themselves, in forms that fully reflect the people they are and the culture they live in. It's an attempt to make a space where people can be real and relate honestly to God and each other, without religious masks or imposed forms of behavior."

The "alt.worship." scene in the United Kingdom began with congregations such as Nine O'clock Service in Sheffield (1988), the Late Late Service in Glasgow (1989), Visions in York (1991) and Grace in London (1993).

New Zealand started later but quickly caught up to England. Mark Pierson is a self-described "renegade Baptist" and pastor of the Cityside Church in Auckland. In the book The Prodigal Project, perhaps the first book on "alt.worship.", he identifies eight underlying principles of alternative worship:

  1. It incorporates participation,
  2. The whole person,
  3. Eclecticism
  4. Multiple media.
  5. Community-based
  6. Culturally relevant. It leaves no room for prima donnas.
  7. It is provisional --
  8. It is experimental and will ultimately become something else.

Steve Taylor, another New Zealander, leads worship that has integrated native Maori cultural forms. His experience could inform American churches that are just beginning to look at their own native culture.

Echoes across the pond

The word "alternative" has a different meaning in America, one tied into the grunge/alternative music scene of the 1990s. Those of us experimenting with different forms of postmodern worship during the late '80s and '90s didn't know what the English had already accomplished. In fact, we are just now discovering each other. Since that discovery, the movement has been mushrooming all over the country.

Recently, in the Mission District of San Francisco, a group of Christians led by Mark Scandrette hosted what they called a house party. It really was a non-linear worship event.

"The night of the party, seventy-five people crowded into our small flat and spilled out into the back yard. Candles led up the front steps. Guests were greeted at the front door, handed the artist's statement and oriented to the various environments of the party. The artwork was hung on the walls in three rooms.

  • A sound installation was played in another room.
  • A 'Creation Station' was set up so party participants could help create a collage with art supplies.
  • Later in the evening, two spoken-word artists performed.

The fact that all the art on display at the house party would be given away during the evening added intrigue. If a guest wanted to take home a piece, they needed to find the artist and hear the story that motivated them to create the piece.

Mark was assisted by some friends from a house church movement in the Los Angeles area. One of those house churches, Ichthus, was started by one of the original Gen-X churches in the L.A. area. When new people came on the scene who preferred to "rave" rather than rock, a new church, a different kind of church, emerged.

Ichthus, like similar groups, calls itself a colony of artists. They meet in their art gallery for various events -- love feasts, electronic music events and "iconic installations," which include non-linear video stations and the use of smell and taste to teach about the Kingdom of God. But they don't host a regular worship service, which makes them something of a puzzle to their Gen-X parent church. What makes them "church" is not their worship events but the meals, art projects and businesses that bring them together on an almost daily basis to share life together.

One of the new spiritual communities that relates to Ichthus is Counterpointe in Denver. Having come out of the rave scene, these believers found each other on the Internet. At Poetica, their occasional worship event, the DJs create a continuous ambient soundscape that is appropriate for the poetry being performed.

Ichthus, Counterpointe and the dozens of other postmodern ministries scattered over the country are generally overlooked by the mainstream. These communities don't look like the modern church and don't choose to define themselves with traditional labels. Mark Scandrette doesn't refer to his community as church, nor does he define his events as worship. In fact, he rarely uses the word "Christian," preferring to use "followers of Jesus" or "people of God" as descriptions that create more understanding.

It is contextual choices like these that keep postmodern ministries out of view from the Christian media and away from the conference circuit. Like their counterparts in New Zealand and England, the underlying theory that supports their methodology is missiological. Regarding the rationale for his type of worship, Mark offers this: "We have spent almost three years now learning and relating to the bohemian arts culture of the Mission District. The party was an expression of this learning and a translation of values and beliefs into a social construct that was intelligible and attractive to our neighbors."

Growing sideways

Postmodern worship was developing throughout the '90s, in coffee shops, art lounges, clubs, galleries, house parties and occasionally a church building. But until now, nobody was looking. Perhaps they were invisible because of the "cold-war mindset," as Thomas Friedman calls it. That is the worldview of modern America that, like the Cold War, puts value on size and longevity. People admire churches that are big, publicly significant and long-lasting. The emerging postmodern churches are just the opposite. Although it is too early to generalize, the trend is for them to be small, intimate groups that grow sideways through multiplication rather than upwards by addition. Rather than having a big presence in public view, they are somewhat underground, choosing to penetrate the culture from within. They are indigenous, organic and flat-structured, often refusing to become institutional. They are seasonal, not perennial. They don't always last in the same form for very long. Their worship revolves around cycles and celebrations, feasts and festivals, rather than regular weekly events. They sometimes demolish what they have created and reconstruct themselves with a new identity.

Postmoderns are holistic thinkers and may not change one part without the rest. They may not change the way they worship without changing the way they think about church and leadership as well. While the mainstream church is open to renovation, postmoderns may prefer another reformation.

Multimedia labyrinth

For the past three years, postmodern worship artists have gathered in Austin, Texas, in March to share their journeys and experiment in alt.worship. In 1999, some of America's leading worship artists came together to install a multimedia labyrinth called "Ecclesia."

Based loosely on Dante's Divine Comedy, it was set up in the four-level atrium of First Baptist Church. A Gothic prayer chapel, poetry, installations of fine art, slides, film and guerilla theatre all ran concurrently. A drum circle on the bottom level ran for two hours. Right in the middle of it was a 92-year-old retired seminary professor.

The labyrinth led worshipers to the fourth floor, where they found a James and the Giant Peach rave, designed by my 7-year-old son. The three DJs used peach-flavored fog and candy to suggest an experience of heaven.

The next year, it was decided to move the focus away from a flashy spectacle. They hosted a house party and limited the worship elements to cuisine and conversation. The story of Boaz and Ruth was told through the menu, and the artists were the chefs.

This year, DJs, video jockeys and alt.worship practitioners gathered from London, Switzerland, New Zealand and around America on March 18 to create "Epicenter," a multimedia, full-sensory worship experience that told the story of sin and redemption. It included the multimedia labyrinth from London's St Paul's Cathedral among the worship stations.

The three-plus-hour evening concluded with communion in the church sanctuary -- but not like any ever held there before. Dirt and garbage was strewn on the tile floor at the front of the sanctuary, symbolizing the sinfulness from which God saves. Participants were invited to enter barefoot and contemplate the sacrifice of Jesus. Then communion was served using a common loaf and bottle of wine wrapped in a plain, brown liquor-store bag.

The way here

The postmodern worship movement in America was informed by the many art and cultural movements that swept through the country during the 90s. In my opinion, the most influential of these were:

  • The rave wave. The first postmodern music culture to become accessible to the masses was the rave movement, which sampled and remixed sounds into a non-linear soundscape in a multisensory environment. The rave movement demonstrated the potential for an interactive multimedia experience -- including worship. Rave culture started in the United States, but it reached the mainstream of English youth culture in 1987-88, long before reaching mainstream America in the early 90s. This helps explain why the English "alt.worship." movement emerged much earlier than in America.
  • Art installations. By demonstrating how art could involve the participants, art installations showed that people can interact with truth and meaning in a safe place. It also showed us that many people would rather learn theology from a housewife explaining her painting than a minister giving a sermon.
  • Art therapy. Stemming from Boston, art therapy showed us that art doesn't have to be performed or displayed to be valuable. It can be a tool to explore what is going on deep inside ourselves. And it is a language for everyone, even non-artists, to express our most profound thoughts.
  • Poetry slams. Starting in Chicago in 1988, the slam poetry movement rocked the concept of the spoken word and enabled ordinary people to become the powerful verbal communicators.
  • Independent film. Called the "punk rock of the 90s" by a San Francisco newspaper, the independent film movement put the power of moving images in the hands of the common people. If only we had i-movies 10 years ago!
  • Storytelling. The power of the storyteller has come of age -- again -- as the rational argumentation of modernism takes a back seat. Digital storytelling, using non-linear images, sounds and the spoken word, tells the story of God in a way that connects with its hearers and puts the focus back on God's narrative.

The way there

The shift from modern to postmodern in worship will require several changes:

  • From linking to layering. In the modern world, time has been considered progressive rather than cyclical. Much of postmodernism has to do with getting rid of progression, of beginning and end. We could say that postmodern worship is more vertical than horizontal. Rather than being a series of events linked together in a chronological, progressive fashion, the elements of worship are curated in a multilayered collection of moments that embrace all the senses, all at the same time. A postmodern worship service probably is more like a stack of pancakes than a string of pearls. Postmodern minds get bored with a single, progressive medium. The problem is not that their attention span is short but that it is broad. It responds best when challenged with multitasking. Ask the question, "What other media could we run simultaneously that would enhance the worship experience?" The various combinations of juxtaposed media will speak volumes. Random connections will arise organically and prophetically.
  • From moderator to curator. The role of worship leader changes. Once the worship leader was moderator, standing on stage, preventing chaos and keeping the service progressing toward its conclusion. Now the stage is either gone or it is only one of several focal points. The inspiration for worship is now coming from the worshipers themselves, who have given you their art to be utilized for the service. You are now the curator, the servant of the people, installer of art and creator of an environment that is conducive to experiencing God. In the past, worship artists - principally musicians and preachers-- were treated like outboard motors strapped to the church stage to drive the worship service faster and funkier. Now they are to be honored by allowing their art to release its inherent message, rather than making it say something that fits your theme.
  • From stage to station. Church buildings, like other buildings from the modern period, were designed to have a large number of spectators watching a man on center stage tell the big story. Postmodern, interactive worship will always be at odds with chairs and a stage. Instead we will find ourselves creating "art stations" that decentralize worship and allow for multiple media and environments in worship. And once we create a culture of participation, the people will start coming to church with their fresh art, or even create it during the service. Why not let the artists set up a sidewalk labyrinth of art that leads to the service?
  • Transitioning to postmodern worship will take time. Few traditional Christians are ready for it, and some may never be. Much more experimentation will take place in the meantime. It's risky. But people are finding that it's worth the step of faith.

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