Intro 1: About alternative worship

What's in a name?

So what is this thing called 'alternative worship'? Well, the name emerged in the early 1990s when the movement was small and semi-underground, by reference to alternative music and alt.groups on the pre-web internet. Why 'worship' not 'church'? Because the initial motivation was dissatisfaction with the culture of worship, an attempt to bridge the gap between what went on in church services and the styles and concerns of the world outside. The impulse was partly missionary, and partly that Christians themselves were feeling alienated by what they were doing on Sundays.

At the heart of alternative worship is a method of making church. Rather than designing new forms of church for a perceived audience, alternative worship is about letting people make church for themselves, without too many rules about what is and isn't allowed. The point is to get past the conventions of church into a deeper place where people can bring their whole lives honestly before God. Alternative worship is more about radical power structures than radical presentation styles. Groups work as teams of equals, whether or not there are ordained persons involved. Roles aren't predetermined. The team isn't an elite group, delivering expertise to the congregation, but a representative group, creating something on behalf of the congregation. Consequently, boundaries between team and congregation - that is, the *rest* of the congregation - are fluid and hard to spot.

How a service is made

The method generally works something like this:

Get a bunch of people together. Brainstorm what you'd like the next event or service to be about. Whether it's an issue, an experiment with a liturgy, the time of year, the next saint's day, whatever. An idea to build an event round. This idea may be a big long-term project that evolves, or it may be something of immediate interest or topicality that's different every time. Or a bit of both. In coming up with the big idea you'll have argued over whys and wherefores and aspects of it - these become the basis of what you actually do. Your task is to break the big idea down into digestible chunks that people can interact with. Interact can mean listening, doing, praying, singing, talking, making, looking, and more. It's important to allow the [rest of] the congregation to explore, just as you the team have been doing [and will continue to do]. Your job is not to present all the answers ready-made, but to leave space for others to come to their own conclusions and make their own journeys.

So now you agree an 'order of service' or similar - a list of the elements of the event, in sequence. There should be a satisfying shape, a beginning and an end and a legible journey in between. But you won't have figured out each one of these elements in detail yet. So you each take a piece of the event away to make it happen.

The elements of this kind of event are not role-centred things like music, preaching, prayer etc, but are aspects of a theme or idea. So the event won't consist of a time of music followed by a time of preaching and a time of prayer. It will consist of a time of idea X [which may be conveyed by music, preaching, prayer, all of these or entirely different things] followed by a time of idea Y [communicated likewise, or by throwing paper planes or eating cakes or both at once - whatever it takes]. Which is why alternative worship teams can't be divided up by the usual roles. Obviously some things require technical knowledge that only a few will have, but in general people just take responsibility for a section and make it happen with whatever talents and ideas they can muster.

This is where you have to trust one another. This is where personal creativity and vision find expression and are offered as gifts to God and the congregation. This is where people find gifts they didn't know they had. This is where people get to use their 'secular' abilities in church. This is where the official leaders have to let go. The ordained and trained have no monopoly on worship ideas and methods - in fact their training may make them more inhibited about what can work as church content. Of course mistakes will be made and things will go wrong. But nothing's set in stone so what doesn't work can be changed next time. The congregation may not have even noticed.

In this process of group creation, the role of leader is replaced by that of curator, a term taken from the art world. The curator ensures that planning happens and that the event happens, with all of the necessary elements. The curator moulds the various contributions into a coherent whole, without being the sole source of ideas or direction. The curator does not necessarily take the central or most visible role in the actual service.

Church as your own story

Church made this way becomes a space for personal and corporate exploration rather than a schoolroom. The team work as facilitators more than leaders, helping people find their own way with God rather than dictating a path. Central to this process is trust, in God and in other people's sense and maturity. Obviously alternative worshippers are working from a particular image of God; as One who encourages creativity, openness and experimentation; One who is tolerant of errors and can take a joke; One who is patient rather than dictatorial; One who is active in the world and not just in the Church; a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of God.

Alternative worship belongs to and reflects very directly the people who made it. Consequently it's attuned to their cultural context, but it isn't designed specifically to appeal to some third party we think it'd be good to reach. The alternative worship approach to mission is, if our church doesn't work for *us* how will it work for anyone else? If it doesn't represent *us* to God won't it ring hollow to visitors? It imposes the humility of starting mission with our own people, rather than trying to be people we're not.

This hands-on approach to church is hard work, which is why most communities only have their 'main' service once a month. The reward for all the effort is church that is a natural part of your life. It's your own worship, you and your friends made it as a gift to God and one another. It's what you wanted to say to God, not what someone thought you should hear. Church can be what it was meant to be - the direct expression of Christians' lives with God and one another.

Alternative worship and emerging church

In the 1990s the movement was called 'alternative worship' or 'alt.worship', by its participants in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The US equivalent, arising in the early 2000s, used the term 'emerging church'. Both terms have their problems - 'alternative' to what? isn't it about more than worship? how can a church still be 'emerging' when it's established? and so on. Many in the alternative worship movement found the term 'emerging church' more holistic, a better description of what was going on, and it looked for a while as though the older name would disappear.

However, during the mid-2000s developments around the US-based Emergent Village network caused some to see 'emerging church' as meaning a US-Baptist-based, more 'evangelical' format; in reaction, the label 'alternative worship' was taken up again by those from more liberal or liturgical backgrounds. In America 'emerging church' became almost synonymous with Emergent Village, and as Emergent Village was engulfed in controversies and 'emerging church' became a bandwagon and hot potato, the term became problematic and was even declared dead by some of its former champions. No such rites have been read over 'alternative worship', and in any case communities continue to do what they feel called to do whatever it might be called.

In England a third term, 'fresh expression' can be heard. Fresh Expressions is an initiative by the Anglican and Methodist churches to support non-conventional expressions of church community - this includes 'alternative worship' or 'emerging church' communities, but also covers many other things such as cell churches, mother and child groups, weekday services in non-church venues etc.

top | Intro 2: Photographing worship events >>