structure verses interaction, is this a fair dichotomy?

For year I've been having conversations with friend, blogging-preacher-mom MaryAnn McKibben Dana, about worship. We were in seminary together and led many an alternative approach to preaching and liturgy.  But now she is serving in a traditional context. Recently I asked her to hit me up with a question or two for this blog.

 She writes:

My question comes from serving a traditional congregation that has a lot of potential. I have introduced all sorts of things with them, basic stuff like prayer walls, talkbacks in worship, and the like. Thankfully, I have never experienced resistance to any of these funky things. But... I sense that they put up with this so long as I don't do it too often. I'd rather the interactive stuff be more of the norm, not that there's not structure, but it's a skeleton, not an exoskeleton, that limits our growth.
So I wonder what tips you have for congregations that are open to change, but are coming from a very traditional place (I keep using that word). This is a church that until 5 years ago did the Apostles' Creed EVERY Sunday. In other words, we're starting from scratch. What's the beginners' course for interactive, creative worship design?

I totally get where you're coming from, MaryAnn.  Just this Sunday I was curating sung prayer for a young adventurous church plant that loves alternative shaped music but still didn't know what to do when the wrong bulletins were printed.  And later that evening I attended a casual Episcopalian service where the attendees wanted to read their prayers, hear the gospel lesson, share communion, and be out in 45 minutes.  Neither of these congregations are ready for or interested in weekly open sourced interactive stations.  They might each agree that change is necessary to attract new comers, but that doesn't mean their worship incorporates change any more than your traditional Presbyterian church.  Among many ways of approaching this, I find a key starting point is developing an understanding of worship that engages the participant as a learner, facing new questions.  Does worship incorporate opportunity to encounter unsolved problems, or does your congregation expect worship leaders to solve all the problems before they arrive?  This is not the fault of structure but the fault of congregational expectations (or pastoral expectations, or both).  A great Phish concert, Jazz show, or improve theater will tell you that they plan meticulously, and yet they know that open spaces for serendipity are essential to the actual art happening.  In fact, high levels of interaction usually require structure.Most of us already do this in preaching, we set up a story or metaphor that places the listener in an aesthetic posture of "re-thinking" their presumed categories.  In their clever book on marketing, Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath call this "breaking the guessing machine."  One of the challenges in organized worship gatherings, however, is that people grow accustomed to the guessing machine and find comfort in knowing, resting in the familiar.  See if the rhetorical tools you use to engage the listener can be applied to other worship introductions, and to teaching and observation about the shape of worship. When you can break people's guessing machines when it comes to sharing a cup or pulling out your their wallets for an offering, then you're on your way.

I've spent the last 6 months closely reading Edwin Friedman's A Failure of Nerve in which he describes countless stories of the European explorers of the fifteenth and sixteen centuries.  Though their maps were incorrect, the sense of adventure in these explorers led them down mistaken path after mistaken path.  In fact, over that the hundred year period of extensive exploration, generations of European lived with incorrect maps based on false connections between the continents and major bodies of water  until they finally all synched up into a concrete picture of reality.  The break through into new ways of seeing and knowing our world had been forbidden by imagined bounds like geocentricism and the equatorial myth, and even after those myths were gone, it took 100+ years to rebuild what would become the current image of this planet.  He writes:

"The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.  The willingness to encounter serendipity is the best antidote we have for the arrogance of thinking we know.  Exposing oneself to chance is often the only way to provide the kind of mind-jarring experience of novelty that can make us realize that what we thought was reality was only a miror of our minds.  Related here is the neccessity of preserving ambiguity in artistic expression since, if the viewer's imagination is to flower, it is importaint not to solve the problem in advance." (Failure of Nerve p46)

 

I think the church is in an imaginatively gridlocked system.  When worship leaders (pastors, musicians, lay or clergy)  have to prove their omniscience to a congregation then its a tail tell sign that the congregation has begun to form worship and the one they worship in their own image. Worship, like therapy, is about generalization.  While I don't think therapy is always a good metaphor for worship, in this case it works—the couple that uses "I statements" with enough frequency in therapy eventually uses them at home in higher stress situatations.  Similarly, in worship, our minds and imaginations inhabit a story and a practice such that we then recognize that story in the wider world.  So I'd argue that worship without questions or "room for serendipity" actually misshapes the congregants. Congregants need their "imagination to flower" in worship so that they can find God in the unsolved problems they face in life.

 

Here are some tricks to try that don't require unscrewing your pews or painting faces.  And even when they don't go as planned they'll serve their purpose in rewiring folks to make room for serendipity:

  1. Try using a visual image in worship and asking questions about it that you don't already have answers to.
  2. Allow lectio divina to open some space for the "sermon" to crawl into unknown spaces, and then playfully say, "I wonder where that could lead you the rest of the week?"
  3. Regularly confess publicly when you don't know what you're doing
  4. Meet with some of your leadership (such as a worship committee) and identify various places in your worship gatherings (in the usual liturgy) that you can on some unexpected week, either break a guessing machine, or leave open space for serendipity.
  5. Then slowly introduce creative practices (such as those found in The Art of Curating Worship or Sacred Space ) for one element of worship, during session meetings, bible studies, sunday school, etc.
  6. Invoke responsibility: Always note that people are freely invited to opt in, to join the adventure, but that they can also opt into silent contemplation if they would prefer that over one of the exercises.

Let me know if any of these tips work or what other tips you might have.