Unfinished Worship

All around us, media providers are scrambling to make their products interactive. You don’t just watch the news-you e-mail your opinions and photos. You don’t just listen to the radio-you text what you are up to and what you thought of that song. You don’t just view TV talent shows-you decide the outcome by phone vote or, even better, you audition to be the star! In music, bands like Radiohead have provided the individual ‘stems’ for some of their tracks and invited fans to remix their own versions, and then post them back on the band’s Web site (and then, inevitably, people can vote for their favorite). 

All this is chasing to catch up with what people call Web 2.0-Internet sites like Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Twitter-where you provide the content, sharing your films, thoughts, music tracks, photos, writings, etc. People can comment, collaborate, and respond with their own versions. No longer do people go online to merely consume information – they want to share as part of a like-minded community.

“Interactivity is hard-wired into the postmodern brain itself. This is the key to cyberspace; it is an interactive forum of communication, a two-way media,” says Leonard Sweet in Postmodern Pilgrims (2000, B&H). He quotes musician/producer Brian Eno as saying that “unfinished” is probably a better word than “interactive”-people want to participate in the outcome of the thing they are engaging with. 

How about church? How interactive are your services? How “unfinished”? Most often, the person at the front dictates what and how people ought to sing, pray, think, and respond. One or two people will provide the “content,” and everyone else is expected to absorb it. Where is our Church 2.0? Paul says to the Corinthians, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” (14:26) Today, many church leaders are afraid to even open up the meeting to extemporary prayers or testimony from the congregation-it’s seen as too risky, uncontrollable, and potentially off-putting to seekers.

Yet what if the benefits of interaction outweighed the risks? My wife Sara used to run a church youth group, and they found our “adult” worship services alien to their way of learning and being community. “Why did nobody ask us what we thought? Why did no one in the congregation speak to me throughout the service?” Even beyond the postmodern generation, people feel valued when we let them share an opinion or question. Those on the margins can be included when we ask them to use their gifts to shape the worship or teaching. Genuine community can be forged, even in the biggest venues, if we can pastorally yet boldly lead people into worship that is less performance-orientated and more relationship-shaped.

We’ve been experimenting with some simple ideas for unfinished worship, posting them on our site for others to try and adapt for their context. Follow the links for more details: 

Psalms Praise: This idea gives the congregation a safe way of speaking out words of praise using the Bibles in their hands. We’ve used it in loads of different settings, from a room with 10 people to 600 young people (using radio mics) at the New Wine conference.

“He’s My Savior”: This “unfinished” song from Joel Payne never fails to inspire a unique response from the congregation as they help to write the lyrics. You can listen to the music and download a chord chart or lead sheet from RESOUNDworship.org.

Testimonies/Praise: Encourage people to write down short statements about what they are grateful to God for in the past week. Let the band/musicians keep playing quietly as a few of you take turns reading the testimonies out loud. We’ve interspersed the reading of 3-4 praise items with the choruses of “The Splendor of the King” or “Awesome God.”

A variation on this idea that we used last Sunday was to have people write down prayer requests for personal or wider issues, collect them in, and use as the basis for front-led intercessions. As with all these ideas, it needs wise and pastoral leadership.

Using Technology: The visuals you display don’t have to all be decided by one or two people beforehand. Richard Lyall has blogged for us about spontaneous visuals. Consider how you could use this in a service-e.g., people could share a Bible passage, expression of praise, or a thought related to the teaching via your screens. 

Community Art. There are countless ways in which you can encourage each person to make their own contribution (cut out a shape, tear an image from a magazine, shape some clay) which can be gathered together and shaped by a skilled artist into a piece which represents the diversity and unity of the people gathered.

I’m feeling increasingly excited by the potential of “unfinished” worship to release everyone in the congregation as a potential worship leader, as people offer their own praise, prayers, and responses. Of course, I would undermine my whole point if this article didn’t remain “unfinished”-go to engageworship.org and comment with your own interactive/unfinished worship ideas.

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Sam Hargreaves leads engageworship.org with his wife Sara. He will begin as part-time Lecturer on the London School of Theology's "Theology and Worship" degree in September, and he is also a leader with the RESOUNDworship.org free song website. Their book How Would Jesus Lead Worship was released in February 2009.