How to make it happen: a beginners' guide

by Paul Roberts 2002 [edited 2012]

The worship environment - equipment

OK, so you've been working as a group, and you've got many ideas you've brainstormed over the past few months. You've also worked out among yourselves what relationship (if any) your group has with an existing church. A venue is available. You've allocated a date for the service, hopefully some weeks away. It's time to address the issue of the environment this is all going to happen in.

What equipment will we need?

There are no definitive rules about what equipment is absolutely necessary.' Most groups start off with considerably less equipment than they ideally would like, but part of the fun is improvising. It's possible to begin doing alternative worship with minimum equipment, but to develop multi-media creativity fully you will need some basic infrastructure.

PA and music equipment

This may be borrowed or hired. The quality of the speakers are probably most critical in making it sound good. You will also need quite a few microphones and some long connecting wires. You will also need some sources of pre-recorded sound, such as MP3 players, CDs or laptops with music library software. MP3 players and music libraries allow you to create specific playlists for worship events. However, to avoid breaks in the music and to respond to what's going on in a live event you will need some means of cueing up and cross-fading between tracks, in the manner of traditional vinyl DJ decks. This has long been available for twin CD players - more recent versions allow cueing and beat-synching by hand, to reproduce the experience and flexibility of DJing with vinyl. There are now also DJ 'decks' for twin MP3 players, to cue and cross-fade between tracks but not as yet allowing manipulation of tempo. The classic DJ turntables for vinyl are seldom seen nowadays. Musical contributions for an event are now most likely to come as CDs or MP3 tracks, so the equipment needs to be able to accept these.

Lighting

Remember that this affects the mood of the space to a critical degree. Most services happen in blackout environments, where the lighting can be controlled to a very specific degree. Quite a few services rely just on candlelight, but you need to think of safety: avoiding fire-risks and making exit routes absolutely clear. For those with a larger budget, you may wish to use stage or DJ lighting.

Candles

Most groups use loads of these, and it's a good idea to think of ways of minimizing the spillage of hot wax onto the floor (unless it's a stone or marble floor, most venues don't like being left with a wax-splattered carpet). If the worst happens, make sure you have a cool iron and some brown paper to absorb the spillage. It's also useful to have some seed trays filled with damp sand to plant candles in if you want people to light them.

Finding a cheap source of candles is important, otherwise a lot of money will be being burnt: in Europe (and parts of USA) Ikea stock bags of 50 tea lights for as little as £3.50 ($5.00) which is a good deal. Church candles can be quite expensive. You may have someone who makes candles in your group or church, and they can re-cycle old church candles to make things which look weird, but which are highly combustible.

Incense

The consensus in the West is that church incense smells nicer than joss-sticks, but this may be cultural imperialism! For those from church traditions which don't burn incense, you will need special charcoal tablets (about 1inch diameter) which you need to light with a sustained heat from a cigarette lighter. (The real pros use mini-welding torches from jewellers and model shops which run on butane fuel.) Once it starts to glow, blow on it to help it catch alight. Then place it in a heat-proof metal container, preferably on some sand where it won't scorch anything. When you've got one or two charcoals glowing, then you spoon on about a teaspoon of church incense grains. They burn. It smells nice.

There's no strict necessity to 'swing' incense from a thurible (censer), but if you wish to make one, you could try using a bean tin pierced with small holes to let the air in, with strong string connected to the top. Swinging the charcoal keeps it supplied with oxygen, and helps the incense combust. Don't put too much incense on the charcoal, as it can cause excess smoke causing some people to cough and distract from the purpose of worship. If you want loads of smoke, use a smoke machine from the disco equipment market.

Oil

For basic anointing, only use virgin olive oil, not peanut or other nut oils (allergy to these is common) and certainly not corn oil, which smells disgusting on the skin. If you want to use an essential oil to scent it, follow the dilution instructions carefully (5% by vol. or less), and also be aware that this increases the slight possibility of some people developing an allergic reaction. If you can get myrrh (muron) to add to the olive oil base, this converts the oil into chrism which has long been used in Christian liturgical tradition as symbolic of the giving of the Holy Spirit. You will also need tissues to wipe off any excess oil from the head or fingers.

Gaffer/Duck/Duct Tape

This is essential for anchoring down cables running along the floor. In a dark or semi-dark environment, you should always take this precaution. It's also useful for fixing other things than need to be held down.

Assorted fabric

General sheets, particularly black calico, are very useful to cover unsightly bits in the space. By using black calico as a throw it's possible to use the most unsightly furniture as displays for stations, installations, etc without distracting from the thing you're trying to focus people on.