Steve Collins: Small Fire

December 2001
A weekly work of the people
Previous Small Fires

Comment on this column WHAT DO YOU leave in when everything else gets left out?

One of the big questions facing any creative worship group is, "how often?" Is a monthly act of worship enough, or do we need to do something weekly for the sake of community?

Much depends on where the emphasis of your group lies. If you want to demonstrate artistic excellence or endless creativity, then a once-a-month spectacular will be more manageable. If modelling Christian community is important, you will want to worship together more often.

In practice, groups that start in one place move towards the other. A group that starts out as an occasional experiment with worship style moves towards community through spending time together and developing a theology. A group that starts out as a community develops distinctive worship that demands increasing creativity and resources, and draws outsiders.

But one thing seems certain, no group can manage full-blown spectacular reinvention of worship every week. So the pattern is invariably one big service and three less ambitious ones per month – maybe one will be a social evening down the pub under the excuse of building community!

Still "SPECTACULARS" ARE difficult for two reasons. One is the time and effort required to set up a special environment. Maybe if the basics could be left in place, big things could happen more often, but for most groups that's a future dream. So the weekly worship has to have a simple setup.

"Still" by The Mass at St John's, Long Eaton (pictured) is a good example – a music box, some candles and two slide projectors on the balcony. Enough to transform the space, psychologically as much as aesthetically. Music and lighting alone can go a long way.

The other problem is the pressure to create substantially new content for each major service, including everything from details of stations to overarching shape. Even doing this once a month is tough. Most groups have to rehash old ideas and borrow from other groups from time to time to get them through. An unsought side-effect is that good ideas get stronger, become traditions almost, through being passed back and forth, restaged and adapted.

But a weekly service needs a repeatable pattern, simple but satisfying, that needs little forethought and burdens no one much. "Still" reduces this to simple written instructions – the church is a prayer space. You are to be silent in it. Other than that, use the space as you wish, without disturbing others.

WE USUALLY USE the word "liturgy" to mean a fixed form of words, but as Resonance have demonstrated [Small Fire July 2001] it can mean any repeatable structure. Liturgy originally means "work of the people", and when we take the two meanings together we get the idea of liturgy as a stable expression of identity.

In other words, the reason why this particular form can be repeated service after service is that it is a genuine "work of these people" – it is a real expression of who the people are and how they relate to each other and God, underneath any extras that they might add from time to time.

So developing a good liturgy requires a stable group of people to have an identity. Too few makers and it risks shallowness – one or two people's inevitably limited vision imposed on others. The development of a liturgy signals the transition from an experiment to a community. But what of those groups whose stable core is committed to continuous experimentation? Back to that wide definition of liturgy – deep structure rather than surface content.

For some groups, continuity lies not in content (specific words, images or actions), but in style, technique, sensibility. That's style not in the sense of applied aesthetics but as an innate aesthetic resulting from consistent underlying concerns. Look and feel can be as expressive of theological/cultural positioning as overt content – and is equally the result of choices and values.

This is why the look and feel of church services can undermine their overt content – love versus a hard pew – and why updating liturgical surfaces is not enough.

So what is your group's real liturgy – its recurring, meaningful features? A particular choice of words, or images, or movements? Or something harder to define but recognisable to anyone walking in the door? What makes your worship feel different from other people's? What does it communicate about your knowledge of God, this feel, this scent or turn of phrase? You are incarnating something to the world. They are reading off God from what you do and are.

And coming back to the "once a week" situation, what are the things you really have to do to create that "work of the people" each time? A service like "Still" can be minimal because its creators know just what to leave in, when everything else is left out, for their people to meet God. What could be left out, and what has to be left in for you to meet God?

You might be surprised by the result. It may not seem anything like church, but it is.

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