(I love the photo above by the way- it was one of those accidental images, taken in the half light of Gloucester cathedral last year.)
I have been thinking a lot more recently about ‘alternative worship’.
I think for many of us, the precursor to these new form of worship and spirituality was charismatic soft rock worship. In the past our spirituality was expressed almost exclusively through weekly climactic events- ecstatic music and inspirational preaching. This form of worship tailed into boredom and irrelevance for many- at the same time as people began to realise that it was possible to rediscover and re-invent many older spiritual practices- and to encounter these in smaller and less hierarchical communities.
Others found their way into alt worship through a dance/club sub culture- which was extremely influential in the early days. Still others were seeking to discover authenticity in more traditional liturgical environments.
Can I point you towards this podcast which digs into the background and history of the movement.
It features an interview with Jonny Baker– who, for those who might not know of him, is one of the movers and entrepreneurs of all sorts of interesting church and community projects, including the worship community Grace, a co-founder of the outlet for lots of resources that is Proost and part of the CMS team who are encouraging so many good things, particularly in the C of E, but also around the world. Jonny has been very encouraging to me personally- around the writing I have done, but also as part of the wider network of small groups doing different mission/community/worship things. A good bloke- with the experience and intelligence to say things that are worth listening to.
This podcast digs into the where alternative worship came from, in all its messy creativity, but also asks where we are now.
I think we are at a point where we need to re examine what alternative worship means- this for both personal local reasons, and for wider ones. In terms of the wider issues first-
The clue is in the title- ‘alternative’. What are we an alternative to? And at what point does someone need to find an alternative to the alternative? it is a term that was formed in change- but of course change soon become establishment, and needs further change.
There appear to me to be different strands already developing. There are some small but high profile urban groups, whose efforts are focused on creating high concept art. These groups are great as exemplars and as inspiration, but most of what they do- in terms of resources, skills and the sub cultures they grow out of- are beyond the rest of us. Perhaps for some they are even alienating and confusing.
Other alternative worship forms appear to be being incorporated and embraced by traditional church- as a way of bringing life and renewal to old structures. Of course there is always the danger that this becomes window dressing for the same old same old.
Then there are groups like mine. Fragile collections of disparate people who are perhaps not trendy or well resourced, but are trying to use skills that we have forgotten that we possessed and (far more importantly) trying to learn how to love each other, despite all the usual obstacles. Here the focus rapidly shifts from doing exciting stuff and being involved in a ‘new thing’, to how we can live with each other in the presence of our hurt and brokenness, and how we can lay ourselves down to worship in a way that is authentic and true despite all this baggage. I suppose this is not alternative worship- it is just worship– perhaps using a wider tool bag to assist us along the way.
For me, this is partly about laying down our ‘art’ and embracing community. Not a thing that I find easy at all. It is also about radical involvement and inclusion- and allowing worship to arise from your context. Our group has many people who are talented ‘craft’ people for example, and a few poets. So we tend to have lots of cutting and sticking and some lovely poems. We are less driven by technology. But should others come who have these skills, the trick will be to involve and encourage…
Some of these issues feel very real and pressing to me at the moment. This for two reasons.
Firstly, Aoradh is still in the middle of a rather developmental transition at the moment. I think we will survive, but at times I have wondered. It is nothing even faintly surprising to anyone who has ever been part of small pioneer groups- all the familiar issues of ethos, focus, the need for honest open relationships and to challenge certain behaviours in a loving and caring way. Oh, and that old issue that we have avoided- LEADERSHIP.
We have been meeting to talk about these things, but this has taken so much energy that we have had little left to be creative and passionate about worship- which kind of defeats the purpose! However, we now have a few things on the horizon, which brings me to the second point.
We are keen to keep our focus LOCAL- finding spaces and partnerships in our own local community. But along side this, we have been invited to participate in some larger national events- like Greenbelt and the new Solas festival. It is an honour to be invited, and also potentially great as a boost for what we are about, and a chance to discover new ideas and friendships. But it also brings into focus some of the issue above.
For instance Greenbelt alt worship has changed. We are being asked to throw ourselves into a creative soup with some other groups to create a day long session. This involves a whole lot of negotiation and on-line collaboration with groups whose ethos and philosophy may well be very different from ours- whose context and constituent parts demand a very different style and approach. Mark Berry has stepped forward to curate and co-ordinate the day we are involved in, and it is going to be fascinating to see how these things come together.
The early discussions have had an interesting effect on my group. We all have different levels of comfort with uncertainty, and some of the e-mails flying round have led to a kind of general retreat, as they have dealt with concepts and ideas that seem beyond us. We are in a developmental phase, but some of my friends are just stepping backwards.
I found myself wondering whether alternative worship is in danger of becoming a showcase for the kind of experiential celebrity driven ‘performance’ that I was glad to leave behind when I stopped leading large scale soft rock worship services.
The heart of this thing (I think) is how we encourage one another as we stumble towards Jesus, and of creating deliberate communal spaces to share this journey.
I have found so much life and encouragement around alternative/emerging/missional practices. But they are just words after all…