The Ancient/Future Dilemma

In an old gothic church in south London, images of the city are projected on white sheets that surround a worship space. The images are gritty and urban—towerblocks and street scenes. On the floor is a huge map of the city made out of pages of a London A-Z map. Bread and wine rest on a holy table—in this case a concrete slab on the floor. Encircling the concrete are words of Scripture in a circle projected from above. An urban crowd, age range 20 to 40ish gradually drifts in. A DJ is quietly spinning tunes that evoke an atmosphere. There are no pews, just a hard floor to sit on. It is a fantastic space. This is part of a series called concrete liturgies by a Christian community, Vaux, where they are exploring what it means to express faith and worship in the language of the city.

One wonderful, unforgettable moment is when everyone is invited to draw on the map a journey they have made in the city that week. The ink is pretty thick and stands up from the paper. The lights are turned out, and a UV light is turned on. The effect is magical: the journeys that weave across the city glow in the dark.

We listen to Scriptures on the incarnation, on God’s love for the city and the people who live in the city, on Christ being in us—where we have been in the city, Christ has been. It is a simply stunning moment.

A few minutes later we are invited to interact with some prayer stations for the city that have been set up at various points around the worship space. One involves kneeling at a side chapel and praying intercessions for the city, which are recorded onto a cassette tape. When we gather back together, the prayers on the tape are taken and embedded in a concrete slab that is made then and there. This will no doubt become the table on which bread and wine are placed in a future worship service.

We share a liturgy, the urban mass, that has been crafted in such a way that it connects with the tradition of the church. Yet, the language has been remade to connect with the city. We remember Christ and eat and drink His body and blood, which become part of us as we are blessed and disperse to our homes in the city. This is an example of “alternative worship,” a creative movement that has quietly grown in the U.K. among young(ish) adults over the last 20 years.

In most of the Western world you are likely to find two types of worship in churches. Liturgical worship, which follows a set pattern or structure in a prayer book led by professional clergy, is the basic diet of mainline denominations. Meanwhile, blocks of singing led by a keyboard player, guitarist or worship band are the staple diet of worship in many charismatic, evangelical and Pentecostal churches. On the one hand, liturgy has depth but, when repeated week in and week out, can become very dry and formulaic, seeming to reflect a bygone era, making very little connection with contemporary life. On the other hand, worship led by a band, though oftne exciting, isn’t without its problems:  cult followings of worship leaders have emerged, worship easily gets trapped into performance mode, and the range of theology in the songs is often pretty thin. It seems to suit an adolescent stage of faith that is brilliant if that’s where you are. But when you have been a Christian for a few years, you probably have a different set of questions and struggles. When a friend is diagnosed with cancer, raising kids is a challenge, God seems distant, or life is hard, this kind of worship can seem irrelevant and disconnected from everyday life.

Themes that are commonplace in the hymnology of the psalms—anger, lament, disorientation, exile—just don’t seem to fit within our modern worship culture.

I meet increasing numbers of adults who are struggling with this dilemma. Alternative worship has ploughed a third way, a way that embraces contemporary (postmodern) culture while re-engaging and reframing tradition at the same time. It’s creative, liturgical, contextual and passionate.

We need a baptism of imagination about worship. It is too often predictable and lacking creativity. Part of what it means to be the image of God is to be original. We need to develop communities of worship that celebrate and invite creativity. I was amazed when I discovered that the word “liturgy” actually means “the work of the people.” In this sense, rediscovering liturgy will mean that we develop worship that comes out of a worshipping community’s life rather than that which is served up by experts or professionals.

Something happens when the worship is “our” worship that we have dreamed and made, however raw, gritty and real it is. And the range of possibilities for worship is only limited by our imaginations—let loose the DJs, photographers, digital artists, storytellers, filmmakers, liturgists, painters and so on.

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I recently went to a worship service in Bangalore, India. The building was like an English castle, the liturgy was spoken in English, we sat on pews, the hymn tunes were Western and played on an organ, and the priest wore long robes. In fact, I could easily have been in a cathedral in London a hundred years ago, but I was in India!

This is the opposite of what I mean by contextual. Worship that is contextual is expressed in the language, signs and symbols of that culture so that it feels authentic and doesn’t alienate people. Too often church feels foreign to those outside it because of cultural forms of worship. Alternative worship, on the other hand, has intentionally made worship out of the stuff of everyday life and popular culture to help bring the real world into church and help people put God back into the real world. The heart of the Christian story is the Passion—Christ’s self-giving love supremely shown in His death on the cross. Following in the way of Christ, we are called to be passionate (self-giving) people. True worship, according to Romans 12:1-2, is precisely that—our whole selves offered to God as living sacrifices. That is why this connection with the real world is so important.

I am involved in Grace, an alternative worship community in London, that has been going for about 13 years. We recently had a service we called simply “Slow.” The worship space was divided into two halves by back-to-back projection screens. On one side a VJ mixed slow images and on the other, fast images. People sat on whichever side they related to most. We spent about 10 minutes in contemplative prayer to quiet down in God’s presence, while a DJ played ambient tunes in the background. A glass jar with sand in it was shaken and placed to settle down as a picture of what stilling our hearts might be like. An image of the jar was projected on the screens while we listened to Radiohead’s “The Tourist,” with the lyric hey man, slow down projected over the image of the jar. The story of Mary and Martha was used as the basis for thinking about the pace of our lives, whether we are naturally more commuters or contemplatives and what pace God might be calling us to.

The service had been inspired by Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama, who suggests in Three Mile an Hour God that God’s speed is a walking pace. A couple of chants were sung over chilled electronic tracks. We made prayer bracelets and used the Orthodox “The Jesus Prayer” as a way of asking for God’s mercy in our lives.

It’s hard to capture a movement in one short article but I hope it gives a bit of a flavor. I am, of course, completely biased. I love this kind of worship. I find it connects me afresh with God and fires me up to re-engage the real world. However, it would be a mistake to think that it is a new solution to be copied. The important part is not the stylistic aspects of worship—different music, video loops and so on—i.e., another consumer choice. The real gift and challenge of alternative worship is for us to get creative and contextual and create worship that is truly the work of the people in our own communities.

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