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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.

There are so many things not to like about Los Angeles… the smog, the traffic, the hoards of people, the traffic, the fires and earthquakes (in fact, just this week I was jolted awake by a 4.4 at 4 a.m.), and did I mention the traffic?

On the other hand, I truly hold it a privilege to live here. I live in a part of the city where I can walk to get where I need to go most of the time. It’s also near-perfect weather for much of the year. Another reason I count it such a privilege to live here is what happens in the air this time of year in Pasadena.

Right around the middle of March, the blooming begins. Pasadena is known as the City of Roses, but there are so many other fragrant flowers and bushes everywhere you turn, filling the air with a brilliant bouquet. With eyes closed, you might imagine you’ve just set foot in the corner florist.

Walking this week, I was confronted by the fragrance of a bush that ran the entire length of the block. The scent was so strong. I literally had to take a moment to consider whether or not breathing such odorous air was good for me. Of course, I quickly realized I was being silly. Smog is one thing, Star Jasmine blooms, another.

The scent of early Spring buds has another key difference from carbon monoxide: I WANT to smell it. In fact, I find myself stopping to snort the scent-filled air as if I were a hopeless cocaine junkie. The smell is distracting. It is intoxicating. I cannot get enough.
(Just now, a waft of blossom-air just greeted my nose through the window next to the table where I’m sitting. I think I’m high now.)

But why am I so urgently drawn to such a simple thing as the smell of a flower? Part of the reason may be that I associate this wonderful smell with an important time in my life twelve years ago, a time that was both difficult and full of beautiful life-changing experiences. The amazing reality is, the Spring blossoms in Pasadena enkindle my emotions and transport me back to an earlier period. And, they seem to do so more effectively than seeing, hearing, or touching anything associated with that time in my life.

These olfactory experiences are powerful, but they are at the same time elusive. I recall numerous past encounters with specific scents and knowing without doubt that they are connected to particular past experiences. Yet, in those moments I also recall struggling to pinpoint exactly who or what the person or place is that my mind is associating with that particular smell. Without fail, before I figure it out, the sensation is gone.

Why are these scent-sory moments so powerfully redolent and so mysteriously elusive at the same time? The scientific explanation for redolence is that unlike our senses of sight, touch, or hearing, the senses of smell (and taste) are directly connected to our brain’s hippocampus – the center of the brain’s long-term memory. Our other three senses are filtered through the thalamus – the part of the brain associated primarily with language and consciousness.

For the mysterious elusiveness, we must look beyond the the olfactory gland. A second – some say “vestigial” – organ has been located in most humans. It is called Jacobsen’s Organ and resides just inside the human nostrils. It was discovered as recently as two centuries ago (by Jacobsen, who else!) because it consists only of two very tiny pits, one on each side of the septum. Some believe that this organ feeds a primal part of our brains, enabling the capacity to monitor minute physiological changes in those around us. Perhaps Jacobsen’s Organ provides physical evidence for that “sixth sense,” which makes some of us so sensitive to the “invisible”. I smell dead people.

All of this scientific insight causes me to wonder why we typically use so little smell (and taste) in our gatherings relative to sound, sight, and touch. Think about it. What is primary in your gathering? Chances are you think first of sound. The music. The preacher. The verbal responses. Even video. Of course, video is also visual. There are powerpoint/keynote/media shout/pro-presenter presentations. Images and words are projected. There are seasonal decorations and colors. There is the furniture and architecture. And, somewhere in-between the sights and sounds we locate touch. Hands are shaken. Hugs are given. (We mostly only joke about sharing ‘holy kisses’). In some communities hands are laid in prayer. Baskets are passed hand to hand, and often so are the bread and wine. Which brings us to taste.

However, once we get to taste (and her partner, smell) it becomes more difficult to make a meaningful list of sensory examples. Sure, we taste the bread and wine. But, the tasting experience really rises or falls on one’s church heritage. Fresh hot loaves, baked on-site with sweet wine that has been allowed to breathe – a fine tasting experience. Stale bits of cracker with Welch’s – not so much.

Some communities like the one I’ve been attending, have a hot meal every time they gather. Hospitable aromas fill the warehouse as those who’ve agreed to cook enter with their Corningware and crock-pots. Together, we share the taste of hot food that is always creative and always an excellent prelude to further worshipful acts.

Short of community meals and communion, how else is the Church of the twenty-first century going to engage noses to the glory of the One who knows us? (Sorry, it had to be done).

Maybe through a call for more “culinary artists” in worship. (I like the term “worship chef”). There is already classic food symbolism found in the Passover Seder and the Eucharist. But, with all the thousands of tastes and smells available to us, why stop with bitter herbs, wine, and bread?

How about “worship florists” who work for more than funerals and weddings. Let’s save on the extra boxes of donuts some Sunday morning and spring for some fresh flowers once in a while, the fragrant kind, and something other than Easter Lilies and Christmas Poinsettias.

Perhaps it’s time to bring back censers (stationary vessels for burning incense) or thuribles (censers swung on a chain for spreading incense) to stimulate the old, olfactory. (You’ve GOT to see this). Incense brings the added visual beauty of rising smoke, representing the prayers of the people.

Or, MAYBE, it’s time for some young, whipper-snapper-worship-leaders to come up with fresh ways to engage our sense of smell in gathered settings to the glory of God.

The English word “redolent” is a curious word. It is an adjective that means ‘strongly reminiscent of something’. It derives from the Latin “redolent” meaning, “giving out a strong smell”. Somewhere along the line, translators made the connection between smell and memory.

If worship is largely “remembering” (who God is, what he has done, what he has promised to do) and then responding, we would all do well to innovate more “strong smelling” worship forms that are redolent of the Trinity.

I was hanging out with Asher today in his bedroom with the window open. As a plane flew overhead, he spoke the “word” he uses to refer to planes.

“Dool”, he said.

I think that stands for ‘duel engine aircraft’.

Anyway, planes fly overhead all the time and he always points up and says his word. Today, however, the plane sound was immediately followed by another familiar city sound – that of sirens. That is, it’s familiar to me. Somehow, Asher hasn’t heard these as often in his short life. He simply gave me a puzzled look. I’m sure he’ll soon have a word for sirens, too.

I’m not sure what he was thinking, but for me, a very specific past experience came to mind. I suddenly remembered something that I hadn’t thought about for quite sometime.

planeBack before I was married to Nathalie, we had a small group – like a simple church – which was made up mostly of her girlfriends who worked with her at Moose McGillycuddy’s bar. What I remembered today was what one girl used to say when ever sirens were heard.

“God Bless,” she would utter, almost under her breath.

I also remember that Nathalie picked up on this at some point. Based on accompanying utterances (usually also whispered) I found that this public expression of blessing was really a spontaneous prayer for those who may be injured in whatever accident to which those public servants were being called.

This memory got me to thinking: What other daily liturgical practices do we engage in without even noticing it?

The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia. This word, used in the Greek city-states long-before Christian worship existed, means “public works”. The Assembly of the city-state would assign specific projects to its rich citizens. These assignments were works designed to enhance public life.

When the term was co-opted by Christians (it appears thoughout Scripture and is often translated “ministry” or “worship” in English) it came to refer to specific works done in the context of a public worship service. The Liturgy of the Mass involved (and involves) specifically ordered acts of worship including prayers, music, and rituals. Even Baptists have “liturgies”. These basically consist of whichever practices are regularly used for worship, however “informal” we might label them.

Reflecting back on the original concept of liturgy as “public works”, I started thinking: Is there some kind of unique daily liturgy that each of us follow as we go about our busy lives? Do we perform “public works” – in the midst of others, on behalf of God?

Now, I am not talking about some official daily public works, such as the Daily Offices (prayer practice structured throughout the day at specific hours, originating in medieval monasteries). Rather, I mean: The casual words we speak and actions we perform on a semi-regular basis that somehow refer to our faith or point us and others to God.

“God Bless” at the sound of a siren certainly fits this category.

So would the blessing of someone when they sneeze. I also feel compelled to pray for strangers when I see ambulances at the scene of an accident. Our mealtime thanksgivings are certainly in this vein. What about non-prayers?

If we view our city as our “cathedral”, we might imagine that walking out our front door constitutes an “Act of Entrance”, just as the procession of clergy is, or call to worship songs are. Following the fourfold worship pattern, our “Word” piece, would have to do with the ways we listen for God’s voice as we tromp around the city streets. Do you hear Him in your server at breakfast? The news articles peeking out from the newspaper dispensers? Is he audible even in the midst of honking horns and blaring sirens?

In most churches, next comes some kind of “Eucharist” piece. Even if it doesn’t include the bread and the cup, this “Thanksgiving” time is typically focused on gratitude for the work of Christ on the cross. What is our eucharist of the streets? Perhaps it is our grateful response to that reoccurring (often nagging) realization that if it were not for Grace, we would find ourselves begging on the streets like that homeless woman, or yelling in anger at that shop-owner for getting our coffee order wrong. What is our grateful response to our daily state of grace?

Maybe we respond with a tangible act of blessing as we invite the homeless woman to share a bagel and some coffee with us. Maybe it is another silent but focused prayer that God would meet the angry man in his anger and the cursed barista in her derided spirit. With some intentionality, it is very possible that through these simple liturgical acts (public works) we could be remembering His body and blood and proclaiming his death until he comes again.

Finally, comes the Benediction – or “Sending into the world”. In our ‘world as sanctuary’ this part of the fourfold service seems a bit askew. Haven’t we already been “sent” as we walk along the alleys and sidewalks? Yes, but it seems that we often forget our “sentness” and our mission. Maybe all of the public works listed above – and the many more we haven’t mentioned – all function to remind us that we have gone into the world, and it is here we are to preach the gospel.

If necessary, using words.


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