Pioneers on worship

Monday, 22 October, 2012

A selection of pioneers reflect on their experiences of worship. Sally Thornton, Lorraine Dixon, Simon Sutcliffe and Jonny Baker discuss parachuting, transplanting, borrowing, distancing, emerging, listening, connecting, interacting, expressing, articulating and finding God.

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Sally Thornton: I think one of the greatest temptations of pioneers is to actually parachute in the worship that has sustained the actual pioneer.

Lorraine Dixon: I cannot transplant what you would do in your typical in my case Anglican church on a Sunday morning into the bar and club context in which I find myself.

Simon Sutcliffe: Local worship in fresh expressions or in new emerging churches can sometimes be in danger of borrowing from another tradition or, if it's a church plant, from the original plant that it originally came from. I had a conversation interestingly with a girl who is in late twenties who goes to a church that is a church plant from a fairly lively evangelical church. And their worship is lively and evangelical. And she said do you know the problem with worship at our church is that it was dead trendy in the eighties. And when I looked at who was leading the worship from the front they were all people who would have enjoyed that kind of music and been dead trendy when they were kind of in the eighties.

Jonny Baker: So that instinct I suppose for pioneers or people in mission needs to be resisted. You need to ban yourself from introducing outside songs, your own cultural way of doing things and wait and listen. And it's a hard discipline I think to let that emerge from the culture, the community, out of the forms that they do things.

Sally Thornton: We have to listen, we have to listen to the context. If you're working with elderly people and asking them to sing the latest whatever songs or hymnody in whatever way you could actually be asking them to make such a cultural shift that it's actually cruel. And it is absolutely crucial that you listen to where they're at and yes move them on a little bit, but if we don't do that listening we'll end up with such a dysfunctional church that is all over the place.

Jonny Baker: I'm passionate about worship connecting with culture. It's one of the things I've loved about alternative worship, it's sought to explore how you might do worship that comes out of I suppose the chill-out end of club culture originally, but a very visual culture using different kinds of music, definitely losing a lot of the guitar playing, singing choruses, I've found that a very imaginative, inspiring way to think about worship. But I guess the background to that is very much in mission and thinking about how when missionaries went to other cultures the challenge of whether they then imposed the kind of Western way of doing worship or managed to help people to do worship that grew out of their own culture. And inculturation would be the missions word for that.

Sally Thornton: I think it's really important to be able to take some of those expressions of say grief, like laying flowers by the side of the road, or anything like that - anything that's interactive, that helps people to actually incorporate and express what's going on inside of them. Many people haven't a clue really what's going on inside and need not patronising help but just symbolic ways of expressing something that's going on inside of them. That helps them with their spirituality and their connection with God. Helps them to engage.

Lorraine Dixon: Reviving is a monthly DJ-led worship session that we do in Birmingham and we utilise DJ'd music - in our case we use the music that we love, the music that we DJ, the music that gives us life - so that's, for us, soulful and deep house. And we incorporate that within worship and we use that to riff off. We improvise the worship, we chant, we sing, my colleague Lee VJs - in other words mixes images as you would mix two tunes together into a coherent whole - so taking elements of the culture in which we've been called to be and using that as a context for worship and trying to speak in a similar language that other clubbers and DJs and promoters do but saying something of God within that context.

Sally Thornton: I think we're looking for how people feel, how they express their feelings, how they express their emotions and actually keying in to how you can come alongside, particularly say at times of grief or at times, if there's been a public... a local public outpouring of grief for something that might have happened locally, how are people wanting to express that? So you need to hear that through the papers, you need to hear that through the local media, you need to hear that through going to the pubs, wherever people are meeting, how are they expressing themselves? And what are the key influences that are helping them to actually see what makes them human.

Simon Sutcliffe: One of the presuppositions that we can sometimes arrive with any kind of fresh expression and new type of church is that God's not there and we're going to arrive with God... you know we're going to turn up with God. And our worship can betray that easily. So often, one of my pet hates is when you hear worship leaders telling everybody that we're going to welcome God into the church, as if God wasn't there in the first place. It's God who welcomes us into that space. And the same is true when we're worshipping in a pub or in a little coffee shop, God's clearly there in the first place so all we need to ask ourselves is well if God's already here, how would God celebrate with us in this place. So you take very seriously the culture and the context of the people who you're with and enable them to articulate that in a way that actually makes sense as a worship environment. I guess one of the questions would be then, and this is a question that we fire round with other... when I'm talking with other pioneers, is do... would the church that planted this new church or where it's kind of birthed from, would they recognise anything that was worship or would they just think it was a party going on. But I think there's something quite beautifully gospel about being accused of just having a party when actually you're adoring Jesus or doing something like that.

Jonny Baker: A curiosity and a love for what's going on in the culture should be what we're about, what we're into. I mean again perhaps I could give a couple of missions examples. One I love which is a book lots of people have read is Vincent Donovan's Christianity Rediscovered where he shares the gospel with nomadic tribes in Africa. When it comes to introducing the eucharist there's a lovely chapter in his book where the sharing of the peace is by passing grass around the community and there's a ritual around forgiveness with spittle and dancing's very much part of it, it's gathered round the campfire. He also confronts the culture a little bit because men and women are sat down together sharing, there's something that breaks into the culture, something new. But actually it's his observation of stories and rituals and the way that people explore spiritual themes in the culture that helps inform what's done, so that would be one example. Another perhaps more contemporary example that I thought was really fun but a good example again of listening and connecting with context. Nadia Bolz-Weber who's a Lutheran priest in Denver I think, she was talking to me about a service they do in their community where there are loads of people who are mad on cycling so they have a service called a blessing of the bicycles. And the text that they use for it is in Ezekiel, that vision of a wheel within a wheel and they have this kind of centrepiece of bicycle wheels where they've made a thurible out of cogs and chains and bits of bike so the incense is like, you know... it's kind of playful, fun but, you know, the cyclists live it, they all come to that service, look forward to it, it's an imaginative engagement with their world I suppose. It's that kind of creativity, exploration, connecting with people I think that's the stuff that it's about.


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