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I am proud of the ideas we came up with for Easter holiday services back in the early nineties. As a “creative team” we truly owned our title. And, it was our sincere desire to come up with new – dare I say sensational – concepts for Easter Sunday worship.

For instance, one year we created a full-length dramatic presentation featuring Wayne and Garth (Party on!). Another year, we based the entire service on the Fox TV show called Herman’s Head. Full-length, original scripts. Theater lighting. Elaborate sets and staging. No matter what the theme, we always included six to eight “special musics” performed live by very gifted musicians.

My own unique contributions to our holiday worship brainstorming sessions include such brilliant program titles as: Get Off Your Keister, It’s Time for Easter and Stop Laughing… Easter’s Not Bunny.

(Right now seems like a good time to pause and watch one of my favorite YouTube holiday videos: Incidentally, this is a great example of how the right soundtrack – “Aviva Pastoral” by Nathan Larson – can make or break a video. Contrast to this version.)

In many ways, our creative brainstorming was driven by our goal to reach the “lost”. We knew that mid-Spring every year all the Chreasters* came out of hiding and decided they had better go to church. This reality always seemed one of those blessed examples of divine grace, that God would place in the hearts of so many heathen the notion to attend a local church instead of sleeping in.

It was a no-brainer that if we were going to put so much effort into our Easter programs, we ought to make sure people knew about them. I mean, a lot of local churches were starting to climb on the willow-creek-model-band-wagon and we were all trying our best to create an artistic and effective ‘show’ in order to see lots of true conversions on Resurrection Sunday.

In short, there was a lot of competition.

So, our church did what any other strip-mall chinese food restaurant or small claims insurance lawyer would do: we made flyers.

And, we put them everywhere. On car windshields in parking lots. On cork boards in the local coffee shops. We even did some door-hanging. Of course, occasionally people were home when we came to ‘hang’ in which case we would verbally make an invitation. But generally, the flyers did the job for us.

Now, fast-forward about 15 years. Last week, I came home to find several colorful little pamphlets hanging in plastic weather-proof baggies on the main door to our apartment complex. I assumed at first that it was the newest campaign from Dominoes. (You do know they just changed their recipe, right? Oh yes they did!). In fact, it was a flyer inviting me to a Good Friday worship service at some local church.

I sort of cringed. No wait, I DID cringe. It took some internal reflection to tease out what exactly spawned my visceral reaction. Here’s what I found deep down inside…

It’s simple: I just don’t like being invited to an event by a piece of paper. I REALLY don’t like to be invited to a church service by a piece of paper. Is there a more impersonal way to invite someone to a gathering that, in theory, is supposed to be of the utmost importance? Being invited to church by a flyer is like being invited to your own wedding by a magazine ad. (Actually, that might be kinda cool if you could pull it off).

Come to think of it, this invitation didn’t feel like an invitation because it actually wasn’t an invitation. Though it used words like, “We invite you…” on it, and it included similarly personal and friendly language inside, I am convinced that what was really going on is that I was a consumer being targeted by a seller. Instead of Chinese food or dirt-cheap lawyering, I was being sold religion.

When we call it what it is, we quickly see how wrong it is. Still, somehow we have learned to justify our religious marketing by naming it part of our ‘strategic evangelization plan’. What has caused us to resort to such tactics?

We need to stop and remember that we are the Church. We are the People of God, his manifest presence in the world. We are empowered by the Spirit to be witnesses of the good news through both word and deed. The Trinity has entrusted us as ambassadors of God’s reconciliation mission (2 Cor. 5:17-20). Jesus is making all things new – women, men, children, and all of Creation. The old has gone. The new has come!

Does all this sound like an appropriate topic for a door-hanger flyer?

Undoubtedly, some may think I’m making too big a deal out of this. “So what?” you may say. “It’s just another culturally relevant way to let people know that the Church is there for them.” Some may even reason that a flyer is better than a relationship since it gives people space and an opportunity to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation and conversation. After all, human contact is often messy.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that the Gospel is not a product for sale. Nor is church simply a building in the neighborhood to which someone can be invited. The Church is people. It’s living, laughing, loving, people. It is humans serving one another in the manner and example of Jesus. Once this reality is fully grasped, the absurdity of mixing worship with marketing flyers becomes painfully obvious.

Maybe it’s too late for you to ‘take back’ all those Easter flyers you put out this year. That’s okay. God is widely known for repeatedly redeeming our poorly chosen actions and methods. So, take heart.

Meanwhile, remember that every day is a “holy-day”. Will you choose each moment to become a real live ambassador of reconciliation and good news (a.k.a. a vital part of the Church in the world)?

Or, will you remain an evangelical marketing executive with a flare for graphic design?

*Chreasters = people who only attend church on Christmas and Easter.

Dr. Gregory House, that cranky medical diagnostician from TV Land once said:

“Ideas aren’t soda cans. Recycling sucks. Take an old idea. Shine it up. And, add something new.”

When he said this, House was in a meeting with his brilliant and ever-patient staff. He was criticizing them once again for not living up to his medical diagnostic standards. Their brainstorming in the case of a rapidly deteriorating patient was failing to capture his imagination. (If you haven’t seen the show, this is the predicament for every episode). So, House suggests a method that works not only in diagnostic medicine, but also in art, science, business, and any situation requiring a unique solution.

He wasn’t really knocking recycling. He was hawking innovation.

Now, innovation is one of those terms that we in worship-arts circles throw around almost as haphazardly as “missional”, “emerging” and “postmodern”. It has been diluted by overuse and has lost its zing. It has come to improperly double as a word for creation. It has also evolved into a reference to something that is generally, really great. (“Boy, that was a really innovative service!”). But, are these correct uses of the word? I am inclined to quote another profound philosopher from the world of TV and movies, Inigo Montoya:

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, what is innovation and how is it relevant to worship?

Innovation is not creation ex nihilo. It is a blending of two or more existing elements to yield something unique. Innovation can also be taking a single existing element and tweaking it somehow to yield a fresh version.

The word innovate comes from the Latin innovare, which literally means “to make new”. This always makes me think of one of my favorite Jesus quotes: “See, I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5). Evidently, Jesus was an innovator since he was (and is) in the process of renewing creation.

You might say that humans never create in the strictest sense. We only take parts of what God has already provided in Creation and combine them or tweak them to reveal a new manifestation. It is often taught that part of the Imago Dei in us is evidenced through our creativity. Perhaps, we might more properly say that we display God’s image with our innovativity. (Someone needs to tweak the old idea of a manger scene just so we can say the words “nativity innovativity”).

What should be our motivation to make things new?

Humans innovate to make life easier. We also innovate to be more efficient – though this doesn’t always work out the way we envision it. We may innovate simply to have more fun. Scientists innovate for progress. Business leaders innovate for the bottom-line. Artists innovate for beauty’s sake. Why do (or should) church and worship leaders innovate? To what end? The answer is: So that God may be worshiped well. We innovate so that all we practice when we gather ultimately points to God and reminds us who he is, affording us the opportunity to respond authentically.

Aside from the desire for your church to worship well, why else should you innovate? Maybe your feel your worship is boring. Maybe changes in culture – both global and local – are necessitating an innovative approach in your worship (George Barna’s “Revolution” is an excellent, concise discussion on these changes). Maybe some other aspect of your church has undergone innovation and this requires worship innovation in response.

Once you understand innovation and you determine the need to innovate, it can seem overwhelming, even impossible to begin. Let me share with you two practical approaches to worship innovation: curating and renovating.

We start with curating. In the art world today, a curator acquires objects appropriate to a given collection. They research, collect, and organize the various pieces to make a cohesive whole. Curating, when applied to worship can function a number of different ways. In the case of innovation, curation means renewing your collections of rituals (worship services) by finding existing rituals to use in place of your old ones. Practically speaking, this could be as simple as finding and choosing a fitting song you’ve never used before. For instance, say you are creating a service on God’s guidance. You might find the old Celtic hymn “Be Thou My Vision” and choose to insert it into your worship service. This is worship innovation in the simplest sense.

One of the beauties of curation innovation is that you do not have to be a skilled creator. You do, however, need to make wise decisions about what kind of rituals are needed and appropriate for your context, and have an idea where to locate them. This is a good place to start.

Though simply curating rituals can work fine in almost any situation, many pre-existing rituals are better with a little contextual tweaking. I call this tweaking, “renovating”.

When you renovate a kitchen, you bring it up to date. You replace old appliances – stove tops, ovens, refrigerators – with new technology, discovered since your original kitchen was built. You change the cracked and scuffed linoleum to more durable stone tile (if you have the money!). You alter the color scheme from mustard yellow and brown to a light blue or taupe to bring your cooking environment out of the 1970’s and into the present day.

When we renovate a found historical form or ritual, we do similar activities. Our renovation might include updating archaic language in written prayers. It may include editing out portions of text or video that are too long or not focused enough for our immediate context. This kind of innovation might also include changing the musical arrangement or feel of a song to make it more relevant for those who will be singing it.

Taking our song example “Be Thou My Vision”, we might decide that doing the old hymn as it appears in the hymnal does not suit our context. Renovating it could mean altering the length of each phrase so that this song – which has no refrain – is extended to a more comfortable length. It might also mean choosing not to do verses with gender specific language, such as “Thy my great Father, and I Thy true son”. It may even mean altering the melody just enough to add a little pop sensibility.

Renovating means examining carefully our selected ritual to locate anything that may need changing, in order that communication may be improved – so that people may connect with the Spirit of God.

Where are you and your church in the innovation scheme? Are you mostly curating toward liturgical innovation? Have you done any renovating of existing forms for your unique cultural context?

It’s time to move beyond innovatory novitiate toward becoming a nouveau initiator of innovation action. Say that ten times fast.

Is technology appropriate for incorporating into worship? If so, how much and toward what end?

This is a loaded question. First of all, technology connotes ‘electronic media’ in most contemporary church circles. One immediately thinks of presentational technologies – anything that can be projected on a screen, for instance video, song lyrics, still images, etc. However, technology in the purest sense refers to those methods or ‘techniques’ we utilize for accomplishing something. In this truer sense, printed books are technology. At the advent of the printing press, it is certain that these compact, hand-held, widely available, compendiums of an author’s thoughts were considered ‘technological’ more in the modern sense – as we consider computers today.

A medieval scribe.

A medieval scribe.

Actually, another ‘technique’ that was quite controversial in the Church was the writing down and copying of Scripture. It seems almost silly today, but some – including major Church pundits – were not at all too excited about moving from a more ‘reliable’ oral tradition to the fixed, but open for unguided interpretation form of written tradition.

So, technique or technology is really just the idea that humans develop and are constantly developing new ways to accomplish tasks.

The task we are discussing is gathered worship. So, what techniques ought to be considered for use in the service of worship?

The general answer is, ‘all of them’. But, more specifically, I think each technology must be run through an ideological grid before it is employed toward the leading of the praise of God. The first, and most important question of the grid should be: What is worship? (Or, you might ask: What is the goal of worship?)

Simply put, worship is the dialogue between God and humans, in which God initiates the conversation and humans respond in cyclical fashion. The goal, then, would be to facilitate this dialogue (to the extent to which we can).

Once we have agreed upon our goal or definition of worship, there are more questions to ask that are specifically relevant to evaluating the technology in question. For instance, we might ask:

How will this technology help us ‘hear’ what God is saying to us?

Traditionally, we hear what God is saying in numerous ways: the reading aloud of the Word, words given by the Holy Spirit through individual worshipers, the Spirit again speaking through the preacher of the Word, etc. These all have to do with speaking and listening. What other techniques might we use for ‘hearing the Word of God’?

In the Middle Ages, most church goers were illiterate. On top of that, the Mass was said in Latin, which was not understood by most present for the Eucharist. The common people spoke whichever vulgar language they spoke. How did these worshipers ‘hear’ the Word of God?

In fact, they ‘saw’ the Word, to ‘hear’ the Word.

Bas relief stone carvings – which can be seen today in cathedrals all over Europe – depicted vignettes from the Gospels. Stained glass windows also depicted scenes from the life of Jesus, or Old Testament stories. Statues of saints reminded worshipers of the faithful ones who came before. The shape of the cathedral interior, the placement of the altar, and the seating arrangements (all technologies by the way) ‘spoke’ of the holiness of God, the reverence of the Meal, and God’s relationship to his people. These technologies ought to be – and have been – critiqued for their effectiveness toward hearing the Word of God.

A final interesting point here is that a really good and true evaluation of one techniques effectiveness is not eternal. While the images in a Roman cathedral may have been duly effective, by the time the Reformation had come and changed many hearts and minds regarding the uses (or abuses) of images, these became less and less helpful and perhaps more distracting to Protestants who assigned negative feelings to such non-verbal communication.

And, yet again, in our present age, images are familiar and prevalent. In fact, our culture is ‘image saturated’. Once again, it is necessary to judge the credibility and effectiveness of images. And, this must be done from one culture to another, and every time major cultural shifts take place.

Other important questions include:

How will this technology in question help us respond to God?

In the case of images, these can be viewed and reflected upon toward the offering of prayers. If practical, worshipers might even create their own images as prayer-offerings to God from their hearts. Negatively speaking, images tend to be limited in conveying complex ideas. In this sense, images may not always work as a communication tool for responding to God.

What are the possibilities for distraction?

Images that are offensive to some are not offensive to others. Those who plan worship must be well-versed in the values and sensitivities of their congregational body. Also, images that are displayed poorly or just wrought with a lack of skill can deter people from either hearing God or responding to Him.

Does the chosen technology/media change the message that is being communicated in a destructive way?

Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, all media take an intended message and alter it in some way before it reaches the receiver’s ear. In the case of images, the question becomes, how does a picture of something differ from a verbal description of it? What is gained or missed when a picture is employed instead of actual words?

We could go on listing these questions for there are many. But perhaps now we can better answer our initial questions posed here:

Is technology appropriate for incorporating into worship? Yes, in fact it is likely impossible not to employ some technique in worship.

If so, how much technology? This depends on which technologies are attempted and also what cultural sensitivities are at work in the society in which the worship will take place.

And toward what end? The end is worship -dialogue with God. We must always determine whether or not our technologies are promoting dialogue with God, or instead promoting entertainment and distraction.

I attended a Pecha-Kucha event last night.

Pronounced “pay-chak-cha”, this phrase is Japanese for “the sound of conversation” or “chit-chat” as some have said. It refers to a specific event-method for presenting art-design projects and ideas. Each artist is allowed to present 20 slides/images for only 20 seconds each, amounting to 6 minutes and 40 seconds of presentation per participant. This corrals the often tangential, wheel-spoke thinking of designers and “keeps the interest level up, and gives more people the chance to show“.

Started about seven years ago, Pecha-Kucha nights are a world-wide phenomena. I believe they now take place in about 200 cities globally (a number I heard last night, which is updated from the 100 cities their website boasts).

The event I went to last night was called, “Femmes Fatales” and was put on by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design. There were 17 designers who presented – originally 18, but one fell ill. I arrived late, which was apparently okay since things didn’t get started until about 7:45 p.m., 45 minutes after the scheduled start. This was nice, since there was beer and wine (for a donation) and many people seemed to be chatty and glad to socialize after coming from their places of work.

I entered the long, narrow room of the new LA Forum Gallery, formerly managed by Woodbury University’s Architecture program. The space was filled with a bunch of Hollywood types (always wanted to say that) with thick-rimmed glasses, colorful A-line dresses, and either no make-up or too much. Everyone had a bottle of beer or a plastic half-cup of red wine. I scanned the dimly lit room to find some light coming from a small doorway at the very end of the hall. Sure enough, I found the man with the cooler and suggested donation cup. Read the rest of this entry »

Prophets are misunderstood in America today. I don’t mean that what they say is confusing. I mean that our modern conception of what a prophet is and does fails to live up to the traditional definition of prophet as revealed in the Old Testament.

There are two dominant ideas about prophets today. The first sees prophets as mainly ‘future-tellers,’ mostly of scary things to come relating to Jesus. The second view prevalent today imagines prophets not as those concerned with the future, but rather ones ‘righteously indignant’ about social injustices abounding in the present.1

According to one contemporary theologian, neither of these diverging visions truly articulates the biblical conception of the prophetic role. Instead of acting as harbingers of end-times doom or conversely angry church politicos, Walter Brueggeman claims that the

[t]ask of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousess and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.2

According to Israelite tradition, prophets were all about ‘evoking perceptions’ about reality. How did the prophets do this? In ancient Israel, they often used passionate words to convince the hearers about the way things ought to line up in God’s economy. Some prophets took action (in the case of Ezekiel very strange action) that metaphorically and tangibly conveyed an alternative perception of reality for all those who were witnesses to the prophet’s life and ministry.

If the above critique is true, who then are the ‘real’ prophets of our age? We could assume it is the religious pundits and preachers who purvey their visions of God’s reality before eager ears. This may be accurate in part. However, our world no longer deals exclusively in word-driven communication.

Technology has turned our society away from being a culture of words. Our world – now brimming with videos, sounds, pictures, computer screens, movies, the internet, and more – is not one of words alone, but of multi-media language.

I believe that today’s prophets are the ones with mastery over today’s media language, who at the same time understand God’s ‘alternative’ to the popular consciousness. These are the ones with the powerful potential to “nurture, nourish, and evoke” a new and true vision – a vision of the real kingdom of God. I am speaking of the twenty-first century artists–of-faith.

The artists-of-faith are precisely the ones in whom I am investing most of my time and energy. While continuing to ‘help churches worship better’ (since 2003) I am adding a new aspect to my ministry through Church Resource Ministries (CRM). I am gathering women and men to start Arts Collectives. These are simply groups of diversely gifted individuals who invent new and culturally saavy ways to inspire spiritual dialogue among their neighbors.

This task is significant since almost 100% of Christian artists are currently only using their skills for church services.

Instead, I am calling artists who are worshipers and leaders out of church to not just lead believers, but to lead culture.
————
1 Walter Brueggeman, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 1978), 12-13.
2 Ibid., 13.