Steve Collins: Small Fire

September 2000
Worship (alternative version)
Other Small Fires

Comment on this column MAYBE YOU'VE HEARD the term "alternative worship". What images does it conjure up for you? Alternative rock? Rave in the nave? Priestesses with piercings? Churches filled with candles? Men in black? Bikini-clad dancers?

Do you think it's the coming thing, or did you think it had all gone away? No such luck. I'm a member of Grace "alternative worship" group in Ealing, west London, and this will be my regular column exploring a movement growing quietly but surely in numbers and influence. Future columns will feature visits to services and interviews with movers and shakers, but for this first one I thought I'd better give you some background.

Firstly, a word about that term – "alternative worship". No one much likes it, but it's been around for 10 years now and nothing better has come along to command widespread acceptance, so we may be stuck with it. The essential thing to grasp is that we're talking about more than a change in style of music here – we're talking about a complete rethinking of what a church service actually consists of – what it's for, how it's led, what kinds of things can happen, what kind of language is used, where people sit and what the place looks like.

It's easier to put this creative ferment in a category of its own – alternative – than to work out how it relates to the other categories. Are they evangelicals being catholic? Catholics being evangelical? Or heretics being orthodox? All these and more. But the chaos has its theories. Let us begin.

WHAT ALTERNATIVE WORSHIP IS – Many people find that the forms of worship available in their church prevent them from bringing their real selves and lives honestly and openly before God. They find themselves having to play roles and wear masks, while hiding their actual traumas and talents. This can be as true of modern forms of worship which deny people's real situations as it is of old forms of worship whose relevance has been exhausted. Alternative worship attempts to create spaces in which people can be their true selves in relationship with God and one another, without religious role-playing or escapism.

For most of us, this involves making church out of the elements of everyday life: the issues, the culture, the language, the media, the music. Church becomes more like home – a place where we belong and which belongs to us. And this can help us to see that home, and the rest of our world, can be church – life lived in the presence of God.

STYLE – IF ALTERNATIVE WORSHIP is about bringing your everyday culture into church, the form that has developed in the UK reflects the dominance of the dance music culture, which has for the last decade been the normal cultural background for British under-40s. This is less true for the Australian and New Zealand end of the movement, who are more diverse in the forms of what they do.

Clubs and raves demonstrated that a multimedia and multisensory environment can carry tremendous spiritual and emotional impact. However, contrary to popular misconceptions, few alternative worship services involve frenetic music and dancing. The model taken from club culture is the "chill-out" room – a space with a quiet, soothing ambience for resting away from the deafening heat of the dancefloor. Chill-out rooms showed just what a church in the emerging culture might be like – a reflective, relaxing place that is visually and sonically rich but is also a relief from noise and activity.

Just as important a point of reference is installation art. A large proportion of the new art of the 90s was of this kind, demonstrating the possibilities of designed environments to convey meaning and affect the way we see the world. Nearly all alternative worship services contain installations of some kind, and sometimes entire events, for example labyrinths, are on the borderline between church service and art installation, partaking equally of both.

MUSIC – ALTERNATIVE WORSHIP services generally use music as a continuous ambient, not discontinuous songs. The music works as a TV or movie-style soundtrack behind everything. One thing flowing naturally from another is more important than musical genre, but the DJ soundtrack approach allows a much wider range of music (latin, jazz, pop anthem, film theme, symphony) than even the most versatile worship band can supply. The music can comment on what's going on, or change its mood.

A very large part of the music used is secular stuff brought in from home – because people have perceived spiritual content in it, or just because it works with whatever's going on. The result is that worship has the same soundtrack as the rest of people's lives, but the church context changes the perceived meaning. This can be revelatory, and can stunningly transform the way that the same music is heard in its usual secular context. Some would say that the use of secular music in church profanes church, but the experience of alternative worship is that the current flows the other way!

This musical approach does away with the dominance of the worship band. Nor is worship experienced largely as the singing of songs. The music becomes servant to prayer, liturgy, silence and activity.

WHO AND WHERE? – Alternative worship groups tend to be small and informal in structure, in order to promote creativity and give everybody chance to contribute and explore. The movement as a whole tends to operate as overlapping and open-ended groups of friends. Most groups function as congregations of existing mainstream churches, despite the tensions that can arise when trying something new inside conservative institutions.

INNOVATION AND TRADITION – Observers are often bemused by the mixture of ultramodern and ancient in alternative worship services. Medieval prayers over electronic music, video loops as settings for the mass. But oldness and newness as such are not the point. Relevance is. We have become aware that many older traditions have intense relevance to the situations we now find ourselves in – such as medieval concerns for ecology and imagery. Many more recent traditions have ceased to be relevant and give the impression that Christianity has nothing to offer the world any more.

In a time of great cultural change it's necessary to look at the whole of Christian tradition and discern what might be newly valid or ripe for reinterpretation, and what needs to be laid aside for a time.

EVANGELISM – IS A DIRTY WORD in our culture, being seen as a power play. Many people are deeply suspicious of being "got at" if they set foot inside a church, and are highly resistant to sales pitches, especially from authoritarian institutions masquerading in trendy clothes! But if worship connects with its creators' real lives (and not just their religious personae), chances are it will connect with other people too.

Alternative worship services don't "target" visitors but encourage them to take part in the worship at whatever level they feel comfortable – or just sit back and watch. Much of what goes on is accessible to people at many levels and degrees of involvement, and the absence of 'threat' allows people to open up to God without having their dignity impaired. Amazing encounters may follow.

For churches interested in evangelism, there is a danger that worship becomes manipulative, done a particular way to engineer the desired outcome. Many churches are tempted to pick up the latest fashionable form of worship, use it for a while, and if it doesn't "work" ("work" often being defined as producing conversions of a particular kind in a particular timescale) it is discarded as a failure. This has left a legacy of suspicion about the real motives behind the use of contemporary culture in worship – people assume that it's just bait to catch recruits. But alternative worshippers do church this way because it's who they are and how they live.

Alternative worship is not done to impress the unconverted. It tries to create honest encounters with God, encounters that leave both parties free to manoeuvre, no strings attached, no predetermined outcome. So if evangelism is about creating a genuine meeting with God, then of course alternative worship can be used evangelistically – but only by not using it evangelistically. Got that?

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