I am a member of small Nazarene Church just south of Sacramento, CA. Our meeting space is functional but aesthetically bland. We average around 60 people on Sunday mornings. Except for our children's pastor, we're all volunteers. I'm normally a just band member, but this was an opportunity to design the whole gathering from the ground up (this was my second year doing this).
Our Sunday worship gathering is typically casual-Evangelical: modern-rock style songs in the first half, a sermon in the second half. Our children meet separately during Sunday morning worship, and our youth leave for their own lesson when the sermon begins. .
One of my chief goals was to work harder to incorporate more people into the creative process. This comes from my belief that worship created by community has potential to be a dramatically visible sign of God's working in community.
I often see these special gatherings as a chance to cast a different vision for worship than our usual practice, to whet the appetite for something deeper, broader, more eclectic, experimental and unexpected, more hands-on. So I wanted to bring our children and youth into the process of making this gathering, engaging them more rather than separating them out. I also wanted to make this a better multi-sensory gathering, not so focused on words and music.
These commitments are ways of intentionally counter-balancing my own weaknesses. Too, often, I do things all by myself rather than ask other people, mostly out of a
desire for creative control and a fear of trusting someone else's tastes and judgments. Also, I know I am a new music junkie; prone to going overboard on new songs because they fit the story or the message perfectly. That can lead to neglecting other modes of expression, and a lack of silence, listening, and undirected space.
My brother Phil likens worship design to a Mosaic--you may have a broad idea of what you have in mind, but you really start putting it together when you have the pieces in front of you.
I began this process about 5 weeks before Good Friday, and the first 3 weeks were spent exploring, thinking, and conversing. Collecting the pieces of the mosaic, as it were. Some of the pieces I collected are detailed below, and some, like the ones I mentioned in this CWT discussion on Lent ideas, didn't end up in the final version.
The conversations were a mixture of theological reflection and brainstorming ideas. Being intent involving the Youth Group, I had many conversations with one of the Youth leader. My youth leader friend brought in Max Lucado's book "He Chose the Nails," which she said was speaking to her deeply. Now, I'm not a big Max Lucado fan. So it was a good exercise in humility, listening, and patience for me to take this book and my friend's reaction and see where it would fit in. In the end, the concept--not so much the flowery writing--had a real impact on the direction of the gathering.
Taking these conversations and ideas and synthesizing them into something for our church--this was still largely something I did on my own. About a week and a half before Good Friday, an idea crystallized--an activity that would bring all these musings together. It was a participatory hands-on, full of symbolism but not to abstract. It was kind of thrilling for everything to coalesce, but also a little nerve-wracking, since it meant I had to get everything together in a short time period.
That's when I began bringing in more people to help implement the different elements of the gathering. I asked Youth and Children's leaders to help create some of the visual materials (like a craft project). I organized a musical ensemble--some of them didn't normally play on Sunday mornings, and they agreed to play. For the group activity, I asked for volunteers a week ahead of time to read an overview of the activity and pick one group to lead, based on what resonated with them.
On Good Friday, I went over to the church and, with the help of a few of these friends, set up the space. We did band practice just before the gathering (that's the only time everyone was available), and I asked a few people to do some readings as they came in 10 minutes or so before the service.
Much of my own reflecting centered on how to understand the Cross in today's so-called "post-modern" culture. Judgment is so scorned today, the idea of God bringing punishment for sin upon Jesus might seem to caricature God as a taciturn Victorian headmaster. How would our youth be able to really connect to the story of the cross from a cultural context that says "don't ever judge?"
It seemed to me like the "Don't be Judgmental" mantra really resulted in a "Don't Care" mentality. I wrote this in my working notes:
Sin is what causes us to withdraw, to stop caring, to protect ourselves from getting hurt. But love, Real Love, does care. Real Love does get hurt, because the alternative is a comatose, existence, where nothing matters enough to be sad when it is destroyed. Jesus is God refusing to protect himself,
refusing to withdraw.
refusing to withdraw.
I thought how radical it is to die for something, and thought this gathering might be about exploring what Jesus died for, what his intent and purpose was. It was time to start announcing the service, so I put together the graphic at the top of this post for our Sunday announcements, bulletins and website
I read the gospel stories of Jesus' passion, trying to identify some way to organize the story, to find the structure of the narrative. I identified these ways Jesus suffered:
- Afraid (sweating blood)
- Alone (disciples sleeping, deserting him)
- Betrayed (Judas, Peter)
- Falsely Accused/Misjudged (Sanhedrin, Pilate)
- Humiliated (beaten, mocked, rejected by his own)
- Killed (torture and death)
"Christ is the example of how to redeem suffering. We share in his suffering because he sets the example for us: we follow in his footsteps at each point, confronting our fear, facing ridicule, dying (to self), so that we may participate in the redemption of the world."
In past creative elements I had designed, I found that many members of my church were reluctant to do or say anything in front of everyone, but are very open in smaller groups. I wanted to do some activity in small groups.
I made a list of possible songs, and one that I really set on was "At the foot of the cross" by Kathryn Scott (lyrics | music video). I found the language full of rich imagery: "where grace and suffering meet"..."trade these ashes in for beauty, and wear forgiveness like a crown." The idea of ashes for beauty got me thinking about how I might use real ash to make some kind of picture. The end of the chorus became my kind of mission for the service: "I lay every burden down at the foot of the cross." How, I thought, can we actively lay our burdens down? How can we let Jesus bear the weight of sin--all the things the break us and hold us back--as he really did?
See Linda Sines' blog post on what she created. I did a lot of searching for images, using Google Image Search and Creativemyk, to name a couple. I found this artwork by artist Gregory Eanes using Google Image Search, and I really like the way it abstracted the crucifixion into four different elements. I also was struck by the painting by Emil Nolde shown on the right here.
Music was actually a challenge. I wanted to do my best not to pick a whole bunch of new songs. In the three weeks prior to Good Friday, we introduced "At the Foot of the Cross" (including it twice in those three weeks), but our standard repertoire had little offer in speaking of suffering, of living in the moment of sorrow, of confessing, hurt, shame, grief, anger, and rejection. (Eric Herron just surveyed the 25 most popular worship songs and found some of the same deficits)
One of my favorite hymns relating to Good Friday is "O Sacred Head." I know I'm not going to top Bach's classic chorale harmonization of this, but that kind of music--something I deeply love--just doesn't communicate well in our church, and even if we tried it, we couldn't do it justice. So instead, I wrote a new tune for "O Sacred Head," a kind of scots-irish-inspired folk tune.
Lastly, I checked with our sound/video expert to see if he would be willing to set up the space differently, so that the video would be projected away from the band, letting us in the band stay out of the field of view for people looking at the screen.
Part Two: The gathering as it happened.