Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Narrative of Worship, Part II

In Part 1, I described what narrative worship is, and where the process of designing narrative worship starts. Here I'm going to give you a practical example.

In September of 2007, I had the chance to lead worship for Santa Barbara Free Methodist Church. The text for the week was the parable of the lost sheep, and our pastor intended to ponder the question, "How lost is too lost?"

So I asked the worship team to ponder this question: what is it look and feel like when we are aware we are lost? We spent the week as a team sharing our experiences of wandering, reflecting on how God had come to find us when we had gone so far away. The story of the Prodigal Son seemed to fit many of our own experiences, to be a parallel to the text for the week. We thought about what it meant to be a long way off from God, to return.

We asked that, contrary to our usual practice, that people remain seated or kneel, to enact where we start when we return to God: kneeling in contrition, or sitting in refection

Then we began with a reading from the voices of the Prophets:
Leader 1: We all like sheep have gone astray...
Leader 2: ...people lost in the Darkness...
Leader 1: ...Everyone to our own way

1: Even now, Declares the Lord, return to me with all your heart
2: Rend your hearts, and not your garments
1: Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate

Leader 3: (Will you respond in this call to worship--) As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, my God
Congregation: Lord Jesus, our hearts can find no rest until they rest in you
And we began singing "Hungry, I come to you for I know you satisfy..." Our next song, Come ye Sinners, invited us to move from contrition to action, from the awareness of our need to the promise of God's sustenance. We did this by using the traditional minor-key hymn tune for the first two verses, and segued to the major-key version written by Robbie Seay. During the segue, we read this text, from Psalm 51:

Generous in love—God, give grace!
You have all the facts before you;
whatever you decide about me is fair.
I've been out of step with you for a long time,
in the wrong since before I was born.
Going through the motions doesn't please you,
a flawless performance is nothing to you.
I learned God-worship
when my pride was shattered.
Heart-shattered lives ready for love don't
for a moment escape God's notice.
What you're after is truth from the inside out.
Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.
God, make a fresh start in me,
shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.

And as we sang the chorus/refrain after the third verse ("I will arise and go to Jesus...") we invited people to stand. We finished with Chris Tomlin's Holy is the Lord ("We stand and lift up our hands...") and Your Grace is Enough. Musically, these songs move from mellow and reflective to driving and jubilant. Lyrically, we sequence the songs to match our bodily posture, going from sitting or on our knees in confession to standing and lifting our hands at the celebration of God's all-sufficient grace.

There are all sorts of ways to bring narrative structure to a worship gathering. As in the example above, you can consider the content of the message and build a narrative around that. A number of weeks ago, I structured our whole Sunday morning gathering using Psalm 40 as a template (and singing the U2 song of the same name as an opener and closer). For our church's recent Good Friday service, I used the classic Seven Last Words of Christ in a tenebrae service, darkening the room with each reading. The point is to listen to the story before you, structuring your story around that.

One more thing to consider: the more willing you are to treat the liturgy as a living tradition and not a script set in stone, the more freedom you have to arrange and re-invent elements for the gathering, and the more vital I believe your storytelling can be. If you don't follow a formal liturgy, you miss the benefit of being formed by the work of generations of saints before you, of the larger communion of the body of Christ. Worship is then only what you invent yourself. (See Jodi-Renee Adam's recent post for more thoughts about this.) Other other hand, if the liturgy becomes a formula, a law, then you miss the reason it came into being in the first place: to structure worship gatherings in a way that forms us into the story of God. To re-use a phrase of Jesus: the liturgy was made for man, not man for liturgy.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Narrative of Worship, Part 1

Thanks to Josh Linman from for suggesting this topic. Part 1, here, will give some of the background on what narrative worship is (and what it isn't), and where we have to start when approaching worship as narrative.

As worship designers, we try to think about putting all the elements of a gathering together so that they fit. Every church does this at the most rudimentary level when they sing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" on Easter Morning. Most churches will not end the service with a "gathering" song, nor begin their church service with a "sending" song. The content of our music--and by extension, the rest of what we do in worship--should exhibit some internal coherence within the service and some external coherence with the season or occasion.

But what happens if we are more intentional about the internal and external coherence of our worship design? This is something we value and appreciate from the pulpit: most pastors will seek to organize their sermons well, perhaps outlining three interpretive points and turning to application at the end (internal coherence). And most embark on sermon series, either topical or exegetical, or alternatively follow a lectionary that reflects the Christian calendar (external coherence). So why would we not think to do this in all elements of our worship gathering?

When I am planning worship, I find it most helpful to think as the gathering (the service) as a narrative, a story to be told. When I lead a creative team, my question is, "What story are we telling?" Storytelling, after all, is how God communicates with us in Scripture, how Jesus teaches those who have ears to hear. Next, I often consider three more detailed questions: "What story are we telling," I follow by asking "where do we start?" "where do we need to be in order to hear the message of the sermon?" and "if we hear that message, what would our response be?" (This is assuming, of course, that there will be a sermon. In our recent Good Friday gathering, we did not have a sermon per se, but a series of texts and reflections.)

This is more than just finding songs to fit a theme, though that is an important step. It is about orienting songs, words, and actions toward a focal point in the gathering, and orienting our gatherings toward a focal point in the season or series. It is structuring our worship with spiritual awareness and purpose.

Designing narrative worship also must be a process of submission, like any creative process. Madeleine L'Engle talks about this creative process in Walking on Water:

If the work comes to the artist and says, "Here I am, serve me," then the work of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist's talent is not what it is about....When the artist is truly the servant of the work, then the work is greater than the artist....When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens.

But before he can listen, paradoxically, he must work. Getting out of the way is not something that comes easily, either in art or in prayer....We must work every day, whether we feel like it or not, otherwise when it comes time to get out of the way and listen to the work, we will not be able to heed it.

So it is with designing narrative worship. We must learn to listen to the particular story that God would have us tell. Unfortunately, we don't often do a good job of listening at a church. One church I'm familiar with always starts with a fast song, and gradually gets slower. To them, you have to start a service with something flashy, exciting. And fast = flashy and exciting. And then to be ready to hear the message, you need something reflective, emotional, introspective; and this, to them, obviously calls for a slow tempo. This rigidity doesn't lend itself to a narrative aesthetic, or rather, it lends itself to only one narrative. And Jesus didn't tell only one parable. The Bible doesn't only one gospel, it has four.

Another example: I remember hearing an organist who always did some sort of modulatory interlude between the third and fourth verses of the hymn, raising the key a half-step, and pulling out all the stops. When we get to the fourth verse of "Crown Him with many Crowns," and we sing "Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways/ From pole to pole, that wars may cease, and all be prayer and praise," we don't want to sing this like a Sousa March. If we listen to the story of this hymn, we will hear that the reign of Christ culminates when the lion lays down with the lamb. And our music should reflect this.

Narrative worship can only happen if we learn to listen, to pay attention not just to the moral of the story, but the contour and structure of the story as well.

Where does this story start? Dispair? Complacency? Thankfulness? Anger?

How do we get from that start, to the place where we can hear God's word to us today? Where we are open to the possibility of something transformative? Does it require confession? Brainstorming? Silence? Movement?

And what is different now that we have heard? What has Christ made new? What captives has he freed, what mission is he sending us on?