alt.worship

When the center becomes less clear, our gathered experience may suddenly be transformed.

Paradox. It's one of the many facets of postmodern understanding.

Paradox is not the same as "balance," which was a Greek ideal and a tenet of modern thought. Paradox allows two apparently opposite ideas to coexist in peace, without a need to reconcile them through a logical and rational system. Paradox is both more dynamic, and less rational, than the concept of balance.

Paradox in terms of theology can be pictured in terms of the Trinity.. one God in three persons (even if the Latin "persona" doesn't convey what our modern psychological "person" connotes.) Or consider the immanence and transcendence of God... a paradox.

But I want to talk about worship, and more broadly our understanding of the gathered community: the gathered ekklesia. It's an important topic, and one that is heavily mired in traditional ways of thinking and being. We are all heavily conditioned by our cultural experience. This is one place where postmoderns have an advantage.

   "Learn from me, how difficult a thing it is to throw off errors confirmed by the example of all the world, and which, through long habit, have become a second nature to us."    Martin Luther

I was rereading "Cutting Edge" magazine last week, with particular interest in the articles on worship. I was surprised to recognize similarities in what is described as the post-modern worship context and our experience since meeting in our home. The de-centralized, non-linear experience in the context of face-to-face community is strikingly different than the institutional setting.

In contrast, the highly structured and linear "order of service" is one of the things that has bothered me in the modern church context. What bothers me about it?

The order that Paul describes in the New Testament (1 Cor. 14; Eph. 4) seems spontaneous and controlled by the Spirit. It is highly participatory. Any time we rely heavily on structure and preparation, we risk losing something important.

In virtually any formal Sunday service participation is highly limited, and the order is linear and predictable: intro, call to worship, worship and praise, announcements, the sermon, blessing and dismissal. And we say we aren't liturgical!

   "A good conductor does not merely tell everyone what to do; rather he helps everyone to hear what is so. For this he is not primarily a telling but a listening individual: even while the orchestra is performing loudly he is listening inwardly to silent music. He is not so much commanding as he is obedient."

   "The conductor conducts by being conducted. He first hears, feels, loses himself in the silent music; then when he knows what it is he finds a way to help others hear it too. He knows that music is not made by people playing instruments, but rather by music playing people."  Isaac Stern in China

We usually call the large Sunday gatherings of the church a "worship service." The original idea was to be serving God in worship. The entire gathering is usually orchestrated around "word and worship," worship in the sense of songs of praise and worship (in reality all this activity is worship, and the biblical definition is broader yet). In the formal setting, active participation is generally limited to a pre-chosen few, often the same small group of trained leaders who say and do most of what will be done in the 90 minutes or so alloted to the gathering, week after week. The only participation by the congregation is as spectators and "worshippers." The majority of those in the gathering thus remain largely passive.

In this linear and formal setting, the center is word and worship. It's not hard to see.

In the post-modern setting, even as groups get larger than a couple of dozen, things are much less linear and much less predictable. I always believed that this would make the center less obvious. In fact, the center becomes clearer, but it's a different center. The linearity of the rational and structured model gives way to something much more difficult to define. Postmodern worship is more like a participatory art form, where everyone is a dancer or a painter. The center is defined in the process, and not by the end product, and "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

In the postmodern gathering, it's no longer clear whether the center is "worship" or "word" (listen and learn) or just being together. The designated leaders may also no longer be clearly identifiable (though they will still be present). This is a very helpful direction in terms of the real work of the church and the purpose of our gathering, if we pay attention to Ephesians 4 and the dynamic Paul describes.

   Structured or unstructured, planned or spontaneous? Does it really matter? Isn't the main thing that we do gather, that we do worship, and that we do open the word together?

  Maybe not. Maybe the main thing is encountering God together: truly connecting with God, truly connecting with one another.

As I reflect on the last year of our meeting with the church in our home, I realize that when we left behind the traditional center (the functions of word and worship and formal structures of participation) the center changed to the people themselves. We all became players, and the whole world was our stage (apologies to the Bard).

The center became Jesus, His work and His people.

Structure: the Two Edged Sword

So, who cares if it's "structured" or unstructured, planned or spontaneous? Does it really matter? Isn't the main thing that we do gather, that we do worship, and that we do open the word together?

Maybe not. Maybe the main thing is encountering God together: truly meeting with God, truly meeting with one another.

I think there are a number of problems with a structured service, just as there are potential problems with an unstructured meeting. But the real difficulty is not structure in itself, but whether the structure serves the core purposes of the people of God or rather serves itself.

The single largest problem with a structured service is not the structure in itself, but the possibility that we can run through our usual ceremony without any significant contact with God. Since a service can be run entirely according to plan, and since those plans can be entirely independent of God, how do we know if we have really encountered God?

Is it enough to gather, break open the word and sing some songs? Will this in itself be pleasing to the Lord? Perhaps. But it might be even more pleasing if we ask Him what He wants to see happen when we meet together today. Are we open to His changing the plan once we actually meet together?

I've noticed over the years that most leaders are not open to changing the plan, just as many worship leaders are not open to substituting unpracticed songs once formal worship is begun. It takes a great deal of security to make such changes, and it takes a willingness to listen to God and His people during the gathering.

   "If we professionalize teaching, two bad results will inevitably occur: First, things that are easy to learn will be made to appear difficult, and second, things that can be learned in a short time will be stretched out indefinitely to provide some security for the pedagogue."   Socrates

It's tough for professionals. The more training we have, the more we have a stake in the outcome. This isn't only a problem for paid leaders. I happen to hold an MDiv. When things go badly in our home meeting, or when they don't seem to go anywhere, I could feel that my investment is invalidated. I might have a need to appear to be in control. Someone could call my leadership into question. Professional musicians have the same problem. They want to sound.. well, professional. They don't want to have to fumble with words or notes. They want things to flow smoothly and evenly and sound perfect.

We rely on structure for our own comfort more than for God's comfort. A certain amount of structure is helpful to provide security. A certain level of comfort and predictability helps people to relax and to feel safe. And most of us want to be needed. Some structures are designed to limit the input of others so that leaders can lead.

But safety becomes a problem when we are safe from God and safe from one another. When we become safe from intimacy, ministry doesn't happen. We are in danger of a solemn assembly that is just a noise to the ears of the Lord.

Church Engineers or Servants of God?

I want to present a stark contrast here because I've always been struck that the best I can do is rarely the best that God can accomplish :)

When we "engineer" a gathering, we assume a set of needs, connections, and purpose. We structure and time events accordingly. We assume that we have all the information we need, that it is accurate information, and that we can predict the outcome of our efforts.

   When we "engineer" a gathering, we assume a set of needs, connections, and purpose. We structure and time events accordingly. We assume that we have all the information we need, that it is accurate information, and that we can predict the outcome of our efforts.

But is this really accurate? Are we really in control? Are we really so knowledgeable? Peter Senge, leadership consultant and author of "The Fifth Discipline," writes that:

"Almost everyone agrees that the command-and-control corporate model will not carry us into the twenty-first century. In a world of increasing interdependence and rapid change, it is no longer possible to figure it out from the top."

Margaret Wheatley is a leadership consultant for Fortune 500 companies. Her first book, Leadership and the New Science, began to explore some of the implications of the death of the modern world view. Initially Margaret's explorations into the new world were done in a very logical and "modern" manner. But her second book not only explored new directions, it also explored them in a new way, with the feel of a devotional venture.

At this point I am going to quote fairly extensively from Margaret's second book, A Simpler Way, and then reflect on my own recent experience in the house church setting. I'll also borrow from other recent writers who are exploring new ways of being the church gathered.

  "If we look at our efforts to change organizations, we see mostly failure. For almost half a century we've been trying to influence organizations. We still don't know how they change.

   "When there is so much failure in the hands of so many skilled people, it can only mean that we are seeking answers in the wrong place. Collecting more details or enforcing greater rigor still won't reveal wisdom. We have to journey to a different world and see our organizations with new eyes. We have to understand that we live in a world of emergence.

   "Many organizations use multiple assessment tools to categorize people. From such information, managers can assemble dream teams by recipe. We reassure one another that if we combine the right styles in just the right proportions, we can cook up high-performance teams.

   "We don't engage in all this assessment becase we are curious about the many ways people engage with life. We analyze individuals because we want to control them. We need to predict what will happen. What can we expect from this person as a leader? How will this team perform under these conditions?

   "When we realize that the world creates newness in every relationship, we can only laugh at these studied attempts at control. We can't predict what we think we can; we can't know ourselves in isolation. Life seeks systems; systems are full of surprises.

   So are we."

As pointed out above, the center that most gatherings envision is worship and word. Community is assumed to grow out of these events, if it is considered at all. Justice is not usually considered. Participation is limited to a few, based on a certain conception of ekklesia and a specific understanding of tradition and leadership.

   In a carefully crafted gathering, things usually go very smoothly.

  But what about spontaneous connections? What about unplanned outcomes? The greater the structure and the greater the need for predictability, the more the outcome is limited by our own ability at engineering. Are we really SO confident in ourselves?

In a carefully crafted gathering, things usually go very smoothly. There may be multimedia presentations. There may be space given to spontaneous participation with testimonies or exhortations. Spontaneous elements can be integrated in a highly structured context.

But what about spontaneous connections? What about unplanned outcomes? The greater the structure and the greater the need for predictability, the more the outcome is limited by our own ability at engineering. Are we really SO confident in ourselves?

In any gathering, particularly in a gathering where the Holy Spirit is participant, there are many more possibilities than one or two leaders can envision. These will often be excluded. But what if the Lord had a different outcome in mind? What if it had been His intention to engineer events or connections that we did not imagine? Margaret Wheatley comments:

"There is a simpler way to organize human endeavour. It requires a new way of being in the world. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what's possible. Being willing to learn and to be surprised.

"This simpler way to organize human endeavour requires a belief that the world is inherently orderly. Life seeks organization. It does not require us to organize it."

Oh, oh. That threatens me as a leader. I might not be required to hold all this together? Then what will I do that will give me identity? Does this mean that I will have to trust God and His people in a new way? Wheatley's book breathes fresh air over the old paradigms, which simply start to wither away...

"This world of a simpler way has a natural and spontaneous tendency toward organization. It seeks order. Whatever chaos is present at the start, when elements combine, systems of organization appear. Life is attracted to order -- order gained through wandering explorations into new relationships and new possibilities.

"If we can be in the world in the fullness of our humanity, what are we capable of? If we are free to play, to experiment and discover, if we are free to fail, what might we create? What could we accomplish if we stopped trying to structure the world into existence? What could we accomplish if we worked with life's natural tendency to organize? Who could we be if we found a simpler way?"

  Soon after I left the institutional church, I was looking for ways to organize other believers outside the walls. I was afraid for them, and afraid for myself.

   I feared what might be lost. I wasn't sure where the center was, or if it would hold.

   But as I let go of fear, I watched a wonderful thing happen.

If we open our eyes, and if we let go of fear, we can begin to embrace some new rules. I confess that soon after I left the institutional church, I was looking for ways to organize other believers outside the walls. I was afraid for them, and afraid for myself.

I feared what might be lost. I feared that we would wander like ships in the night. I wasn't sure where the center was, or if it would hold.

But as I let go of fear, I watched a wonderful thing happen. People got together. People prayed for each other. People reached out to their neighbors. In fact, some discovered their neighbors for the first time.

People still prayed and read their bibles, but they began asking new questions. And they talked with each other more. Relationships deepened and got more honest. In fact, incredible as it may seem, Christians gathered more frequently in smaller groups, and still had more time to connect with non believers. New ministries sprang up, mostly oriented to the poor.

What might a new set of rules look like? Can we facilitate new structures, without actually controlling what happens? Is it possible that the less control and organization we do up front (the strategic thinking that characterizes those of us with a lot of training ), the better the structures that will arise naturally under the direction of the Holy Spirit?

Much of our religious activity has been cloaked in fear. What if we don't get it right? What if someone else gets it right before we do? When we are immersed in fear, our creativity disappears. We don't hear from the Lord. Our options narrow. We make the greatest mistakes when in this state.

But how then can we find a new way?

Margaret says that we need explorers, those willing to venture where there are no maps. We need tinkerers. Margaret comments, "Tinkerers have skills but no clear plans. They make do with the materials at hand. Tinkering opens us to what's possible in the moment."

"Life's (the Holy Spirit's) tinkering has direction. It tinkers toward order - toward systems that are more complex and more effective. The process is exploratory and messy."

"All this messy playfulness creates relationships that make available more: more expressions, more variety, more stability, more support. Who we become together will always be different than who we were alone. Our range of creative expression increases as we join with others."

Look at the diversity of creation. Do you see a playful creator? Do you see solutions, or just a love for life in all its expressions?

Look at our churches. Do you see the same thing? Do you see diversity and creativity, or do you see homogeneity, stagnation, and boredom? Do you see well dressed middle class believers who hide their lack of wholeness behind polite talk and stylish dress? Margaret continues,

   "We often tend to limit our explorations of what's possible by surrounding ourselves with large amounts of information that tell us nothing new. These measure lock us into learning about a predetermined world. They keep us distracted from questioning our experience in a way that could create greater possibilities."   Margaret Wheatley

"We often tend to limit our explorations of what's possible by surrounding ourselves with large amounts of information that tell us nothing new. These measure lock us into learning about a predetermined world. They keep us distracted from questioning our experience in a way that could create greater possibilities."

Incredible. The more information we have, the more difficult it can be to change. If we already have all the right answers, how can we explore new territory?

Furthermore, how can we gather enough information to respond to a rapidly changing environment? It simply isn't possible. The world is changing too rapidly.

But wait a minute. There is ONE who has all the information and who understands everything there is to know about our world and about us. If we relied on Him in the moment, perhaps a spontaneous order could arise that would have the best possible outcomes.

    "There is an important humility associated with trying to direct our activities by setting goals or measures. Every act of observation loses more information than it gains. Whatever we decide to notice blinds us to other possibilities. In directing our attention to certain things, we lose awareness of everything else."

Again, Margaret hits the nail on the head. Even the most gifted leaders can't anticipate every outcome or every connection. We attend to certain things depending on our own understanding of this moment, this purpose, this history, this need, our own energy level, our own education. Only God can see all possibilities. And only He is completely comfortable with every human need.

  "In the knowledge era, we will finally have to surrender the myth of leaders as isolated heroes commanding their organizations from on high. Top-down directives, even when they are implemented, reinforce an environment of fear, distrust, and internal competitiveness that reduces collaboration and cooperation. They foster compliance instead of commitment, yet only genuine commitment can bring about the courage, imagination, patience, and perseverance necessary in a knowledge-creating organization. For those reasons, leadership in the future will be distributed among diverse individuals and teams who share responsibility for creating the organization's future."  Peter Senge, "The Fifth Discipline"

What about leadership? One of our modern goals has been maximum efficiency. As a result, we have pushed professionalism to a high degree. We want only the best "performers" up front. We want the best speakers, the best musicians. It would increase efficiency if there were fewer actors, so we generally assign leadership to only a few people in any gathering. Is this kind of efficiency accomplishing all the good that we think it is? Not according to Margaret.

    "Simultaneity reduces the impact of any one error. More errors matter less if the actors are not linked together sequentially. ..

    "The simultaneity of parallel systems may look like wasteful redundancy. Yet our fears about redundancy developed from the belief that organizations work best when they mimic machine efficiencies. But what is efficient for a machine has few ties to life. Life behaves in messy ways. In a living system, what is redundant? Who can know?

    "Life requires that we change. It cannot explore new possibilities otherwise. Stable systems provide space for our explorations. But if they do not welcome our explorations, they become rigid and die. This broad paradox of stability and freedom is the stage on which change dances.

    "How do we support our natural desire to organize and the world's natural desire to assist us? It begins with a change in our beliefs. We give up believing that we design the world into existence and instead take up roles in support of its flourishing. We work with what is available and encourage forms to come forth. We foster tinkering and discovery. We help create connections. We nourish with information. We stay clear about what we want to accomplish. We remember that people self-organize and encourage them to do so. "

Non Linear Community

We need new structures, new forms of belonging that facilitate our touching those around us, both those in the church and those outside the walls. We need structures that are less formal, more flexible, encourage everyone to participate and facilitate relationship.

Norm Krauss has written that the central act of Pentecost was not tongues of fire or healings, but the creation of a new community. History proves him right.

"Ministry is the creation of space for community to develop."
Henri Nouwen

In "Cutting Edge" Volume 5, No. 4 Andrew Jones writes about new forms of worship that are springing up around the globe.

..new forms of worship, instead of being linked together in a linear, progressive fashion, are instead "curated" in a multi-layered collection of moments that embrace all the senses, all at the same time. Many postmodern minds get bored with a single, progressive medium. The problem is not that their attention span is short, but that it is broad."

"Various combinations of juxtaposed media will speak volumes. Random connections will arise organically and prophetically." (page 12)

"The role of worship leader is changing. Once the worhip leader was a moderator, standing on a stage, preventing chaos and keeping the service progressing toward its conclusion. Now the stage is either gone or 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 creation of an environment that is conducive to experiencing God.."

"Church buildings were designed to have a large number of spectators watching a someone on center stage tell the big story. Interactive worship will always be at odds with chairs and a stage. Instead we will find ourselves creating "art stations" that decentralize worship... Once we create a culture of participation, the people will come to church with something fresh to give..." (page 17)

Looking back over the past few years, I realized that I had some personal experience of this.

In January of 2000 we were talking with friends about creating an alternate meeting. We were tired of the church scene, frustrated with the leader centered meetings, rigid structure and lack of participation.

Another friend offered us a space to use in his building. We met on Wednesday evenings.

   "A good conductor does not merely tell everyone what to do; rather he helps everyone to hear what is so. For this he is not primarily a telling but a listening individual: even while the orchestra is performing loudly he is listening inwardly to silent music. He is not so much commanding as he is obedient."

   "The conductor conducts by being conducted. He first hears, feels, loses himself in the silent music; then when he knows what it is he finds a way to help others hear it too. He knows that music is not made by people playing instruments, but rather by music playing people."  Isaac Stern in China

After a few months we had developed an informal meeting structure where participation was high, leaders remained in the background, there was rarely a planned teaching, and a variety of centers developed in a small room that averaged forty to sixty people. (The room was about 28 by 60 and had a few couches and about a dozen round tables with chairs. The only limitation was that we could not serve meals there).

I remember some of the evenings in particular. At one end of the room people would be sitting chatting at tables. At a couple of tables people were gathered around others, praying for them. All this occurred spontaneously.

At another table some had a bible open and were discussing an issue relating to their lives.

In the center of the room some people were sitting and worshiping while someone led with guitar.

At the other end of the room, on the couches, people were sitting and chatting, getting to know one another, catching up with events in their lives.

At the end of the meeting, around 10 PM, the remaining refugees headed over to Boston Pizza to fellowship around food. We would often hear later that this was the best part of the evening. We called our meeting "Solomon's Porch."

There were a few times where we met where someone would offer a structured teaching. That was rare.. about three out of a dozen meetings. More often someone would share a brief word of encouragement.. less than ten minutes. Someones two people might share these brief exhortations. On a few occasions we shared the Lord's supper together, though conflicting ideals caused us some difficulty on this point.

"In self-organization, structures emerge. They are not imposed. They spring from the process of doing the work. These structures will be useful but temporary.

"Stability is found in freedom -- not in conformity and compliance. We may have thought that our organization's survival was guaranteed by finding the right form and insisting that everyone fit into it. But sameness is not stability. It is individual freedom that creates stable systems. It is differentness that enables us to thrive.

"To recognize that everything is surprising is the first step to recognizing that everything is gift." Our plans are nothing compared to what God willingly gives us."   Margaret Wheatley

I am really struck by the flexibility we enjoyed at "the Porch." It was partly the result of intention, and partly the result of secure leadership and willingness to risk. Everyone who came loved it, with few exceptions. The ages ranged from 16 to 60, with the majority in the 30 to 45 age group.

   Everything Stern does or says is to help the student become conscious of what the music is. His power as a conductor is the power of music over him. He knows that everyone has the potential to become conscious of the music and everything he does is designed to liberate that potential.  Isaac Stern in China

But this experience of non-linearity and its value is not unique to us. Rob and Wendy McAlpine in Winnipeg, Manitoba describe some of the experiences they had while in Santa Monica, California.

"Every Sunday afternoon, from about 2 until sundown, Rob would take his djembe down to Venice Beach and join the drum circle there. One of many fascinating things about the VBDC was that it was perhaps the only truly spontaneous and multi-ethnic, trans-generational event in all of the greater Los Angles area. Even more fascinating was the reality that on Venice Beach, (to use the classic Vineyard phrase) "everybody gets to play".

"We took the same approach and applied it to our monthly "worship jams", where the various youth & young adult home groups would come together for a night of feasting and spending several hours in worship.

"Imagine the wonderful, harmonious chaos of seven to ten guitars, eight djembes, 2 keyboards, 2 saxophones, a bass, various percussion instruments, dancers, painters, singers, readers of poetry & scripture, a digerido, no set lists, and a minimum of four worship leaders with no rehearsal -- you get the picture. We loved it and it appeared that God was enjoying Himself too.

"And we began to wonder "why can't church be just like this?" (I Cor. 14:26). Where literally, everyone gets to play, regardless of their skill level? Where we are forced to learn to listen to what the Spirit is saying, deferring to one another as worship leaders, and seeing "where will it go this time?"

Similarly, Mike Bishop talks about feasts and parties in relationship to the kingdom of God. "People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29)

"Our community has organized a few parties, which we call Kingdom Feasts. We invite friends, family, co-workers, people from other churches, and anyone else who wants to come. The last one was held at the beach where we cooked a ton of burgers and played volleyball in perfect South Florida weather. Another time we fried up a bunch of shrimp and worshipped into the night. But each time, our focus as participants is to demonstrate to ourselves and our guests that the kingdom of God is here.

The Subversive Community would never be caught trying to coax the world into a church building. It believes the church (which is you and me) exists primarily out in the world just being itself. But we are not passive observers of a world going to hell. We are here to overthrow the world’s assumptions about life and our hope for the future."

Beautiful. Subversive. Why indeed can't church be like this?

Notes

This isn't conclusive, so there is no conclusion :)

The home church seems almost to be designed for postmodern people. Obviously, much of what I have said is easily applicable in any small relational setting, and very much more difficult in a large gathering. Neither do I mean to exclude the value of structured teaching. The Lord gifts teachers to the church, and we ought to find a way to hear them.

Equally obvious, we have erred on the side of information, and neglected formation. Discipleship is necessarily an interpersonal and interactive venture. Yet the Lord doesn't seem to have neglected the occasional lecture (see the four Gospels).

Let Jason Evans have the last word..

"The question many are asking is, "is it really that simple?" In fact, I think it is. Welders, daycare supervisors, housewives, electricians, waitresses and others are gifted to care and guide small, simple churches in their homes, apartments, coffee shops, tattoo parlors, bars and diners across the country. They won't separate the saints from the seekers. They will blur the lines between what we deem secular and what we raise up as sacred. They are gifted to express their creativity in new, unexpected ways and mediums, but not in the walls of our homes and church buildings but out there, in the real world. They are prone to make us uncomfortable and question our methods, which is exactly what Jesus did. They are gifted to teach us through rabbinical-like conversation, rather than monotone dissertations. They are gifted to help us become selfless Christ-followers, rather than selfish commercial-guzzlers. And most importantly they are gifted to take the church into realms us "clergy-types" never could. Who could ask for more?

"Can we humble ourselves to set aside the complicated organizations for a simpler organism? Can we humble ourselves to take our gifts, talents and abilities to serve this movement? I believe that it will allow people to come to Christ, flourish in their giftedness and be a part of revolution across our country that we never expected! So... who’s in?"

If you have particular thoughts to share on any of this, please feel free to mail me at NextReformation.



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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on June 19, 2002