How to make it happen: a beginners' guide

by Paul Roberts 2002 [edited 2012]

Structuring a service

So what's going to happen in the environment you've just dreamed up?

Because alternative worship is both multi-media and 'multi-tasking' (in other words, lots of things may be happening simultaneously) you need to develop your structure on a service grid. One example is shown in this window - it's there as an example, don't expect to be able to understand all of it. It was based on a service Sue Wallace, Mark Pierson and I put on during the Convocation on Worship and Evangelism at SEJAC in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, on 17th January 2001.

Although alternative worship services are multi-tasking, it's important that at each point in time, the different things happening should have some kind of relationship to each other.

Without this, it will be absolutely impossible for people to have an idea where the service is going. So you need to work out roughly what you want people to be thinking/feeling/seeing/doing during the different stages of the service, but to try to do this without restricting the numbers of possibilities down to a single point of focus or media, except on those rare moments when you want to narrow everything down to a single point.

It's also very important that people have an opportunity to do different things for themselves at points throughout the service.

It's easy to get so caught up planning for presentational things that huge spaces of the service time leave most people as passive onlookers at media. When this happens, you've got it wrong! Often, since a lot of effort goes into producing the media, not enough thought and imagination has gone into designing things that people can do for themselves, or with others - and this should be more than just singing!

So keep thinking what everyone's doing and not just on what is being presented. The 'Action' column should be one of the most important ones in the service. But even this must be qualified - we try to avoid prescribing that people act in certain ways. Many postmodern people are weary of churches which seem to dictate that everyone behaves and feels exactly the same way in worship. They like the 'space' of alternative worship. So you need to strike a balance in planning between leaving everyone as passive observers, and being over-dictatorial.

Beginning and Ends are important, as you've got to negotiate the relationship between worship time/space and ordinary time/space.

In the section on Environment, we've seen how you can design a 'way in' to the worship space which helps people prepare themselves for worship. You also need to give people space to tune into God at the beginning of a service. Also, when it ends, people need to slowly appropriate the worship experience into the rest of life which follows, and so a gentle ending is good - as also is a good steady increase in the beat of the background music.

Since many groups design their services by 'brainstorming', at some point - normally when you put together the structure - you're going to have to do some editing. Remember not to throw away the stuff you don't use, but save it up for use at some later service. Try to edit verbal material first, as it's the most time-consuming way of engaging people in the worship. Image and action are far higher-impact, and should only be cut after the blue pencil has been put through the words.

Ingredients of worship

When you come to design a service, you will need a whole range of ingredients, which belong to one or more of the following categories:

  • WORD-BASED ingredients - such as poems, prayers, meditations, song lyrics, incantations, chants, responses

  • SYMBOL-BASED ingredients - on video, in sculpture, on paper, in gesture, in dance, in artifacts

  • ACTION-BASED ingredients - creative activities, devotional acts (anointing, candle-lighting, etc), writing, praying aloud, singing, walking around, mime, body-sculpture, circus arts (juggling, firebreathing, etc)

  • SOUND-BASED ingredients - backing tracks, background music, sound FX, radio/TV clips, sound loops, live music, singing, speaking and quoting, praying, bible-reading, spoken thoughts and meditations, conversation

  • VISION-BASED ingredients - video and 35mm projections, sculptures, stations, pictures, installations

  • IMAGINATION-BASED ingredients - guided fantasies, thinking, drawing, composing in real-time (words/music), meditations, praying

  • TACTILE/OLFACTORY-BASED ingredients - anointing, laying-on of hands, incense, holding stones and other natural objects, molding clay, handwashing

It's the responsibility of the planning group to put this together into something coherent that helps everyone act as a single worshipping body. Somewhere, you need structures of cohesion.

Structures of Cohesion

The best known of these are:

  • Service Theme
  • Ritual Structure
  • Labyrinths and other installations

Service themes are commonly drawn from a bible text or a theological point of examination. The planning then involves marshalling the ingredients around the theme to illuminate it as part of the worship experience, and lead to prayer or some other response. Themes are an example of using cognition to keep people with each other.

Ritual Structures emerge when groups start to use services which have a basic structure which is repeated from one service to the next, but into which various elements either are injected anew each time, or where items evolve slowly over time. This isn't like the traditional 'liturgy' because those really were based around just fixed words and the ceremonial actions of a few ministers. Alternative worship allows continuity and variation patterns across a much broader diversity of media, and involves everyone in a much more active way. Ritual structure uses habit and consensus to keep people with each other.

Labyrinth - this is an enormous installation which frames the whole act of worship. People work their way around a labyrinth, plotted out on the floor or in 3D, using various resources dotted throughout the path to guide them in prayer. Normally it's necessary to lay on either some refreshments or other activity, since a labyrinth can only hold so many people at one time. Other installations could also be used this way, such as a guided walk, different 'rooms' which the service traverses, or other physical structuring. Labyrinths and their ilk use physical structuring to keep people within a shared worshipping experience.

With all these structures of cohesion, the idea is to keep people within sufficient boundaries to make a shared experience, which allows for both diversity and continuity from one person experiencing it to the next.