One year ago the church I attend (First Baptist Church of Prineville) applied for and received a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Worship. The vision of the proposal was to engage each of the five generations that are part of the congregation in interactive worship. As the project leader for this project, my desire was that the congregation would truly worship together using all of their senses and all of their spiritual gifts, thereby growing deeper in knowledge and experience of God. This, I found out, was easier said than done.
True to its Baptist roots, First Baptist Church has a history of biblical preaching, singing hymns, and eating together at potlucks. The church is over 140 years old, and time in our rural town moves slowly. Tradition tends to be valued over experimentation. I knew that convincing our congregation to get involved with interactive worship would be a challenge. Trust needed to be built.
Before introducing interactive worship to our congregation I had many discussions with the church’s leadership team about finding the “right” balance of control and freedom in worship. I explained that our congregation was full of latent worship potential — that is, people didn’t know that it was okay to respond to God with their whole lives! We agreed that interactive worship could be used to open up new ways of responding to God in worship and break certain worship habits that were stifling spiritual growth. However, inviting the whole congregation to engage meant letting everyone be involved, including the weak, the weird, and untalented. This was scary. It meant being okay with a certain amount of messiness for the sake of spiritual exploration. After a number of discussions the church leadership team expressed being willing to try out some new ideas to engage people in worship… but we weren’t so sure how the congregation would respond.
To test our theories we began with a few simple worship exercises to be shared during our Sunday morning worship. One week we created an artistic “river of prayer” (shimmering blue cloth) flowing from the cross located on our front stage. During the time of communion we invited the congregation to write prayers on blue paper provided in the pews and to drop them in the river of prayer as they came forward to communion stations. This was a simple gesture…but as we received comments from people we found that our first foray into interactive worship was effective. The “river of prayer” helped the congregation to think differently about prayer and provided a way to respond physically and symbolically to the preaching of the word. While there was some additional movement of people around the sanctuary during this exercise, it certainly didn’t erupt into unbridled chaos, and it didn’t feel uncomfortable; in fact, to many it felt like a new-found sense of freedom. The next few weeks we continued with slightly different forms of “call and response,” providing paper cards in the pews, a theme for reflection, and an invitation to the congregation to respond.
After getting a few successful experiments under our belt we felt ready to move deeper into interactive worship. In the fall of 2014 we designed a special evening event, called “The Worship Lab,” that would build on the concepts taught and practiced in the Sunday service. The Worship Lab introduced many new worship stations and allowed for much more open-ended worship. Stations included magnetic poetry as prayer, a meditation and devotion tent (set up on the church lawn), interactive visuals controlled with Wii remotes, a puzzle consisting of prayer words, a communal painting project, and a confessional shredder. Additionally, we provided a meal prior to the event, and a dessert afterward — welcoming attendees to the worship space with hospitality.
From the feedback that we received (through a brief survey provided during our post-event dessert reception) and from watching people during the event, we saw our vision realized. We had people from every generation worshipping together. We saw hearts growing and minds expanding in a Godward direction. People seemed more free, more light, more open to the Holy Spirit. The following comments were indicative of the experience.
I enjoyed it very much. I like the opportunity to try different forms of worship, the call to confession, then opportunity to meditate and then to actively express thanks.
It was very different, but in a good way. Don’t know what I was expecting, but the multi-dimensional format was excellent.
Family friendly and engaged multiple intelligences. Well thought out and executed.
Success! We saw a growing vibrancy in our congregation throughout the months after beginning our experiments in leading interactive worship. Rather than starting a worship war, the trust we developed allowed us to lead in love. This gave us permission to continue leading deeper into new areas of worship.
In January 2015 we began leading our congregation through a series of spiritual disciplines. We found that spiritual disciplines were something that our congregation saw as positive, and spiritual disciplines require action (hence interaction…responding to God). Our weekly Sunday morning teachings on various disciplines were accompanied with interactive elements — some within the sanctuary and at the beginning, some in our gathering area outside of the sanctuary.
What we found in the first few weeks is that while the spiritual disciplines teachings were a big success and warmly received, the interactive stations outside of the sanctuary area were virtually unused. Though some of the stations used outside of the sanctuary were the same stations used during the worship lab they didn’t “work.” The big difference? Context. The context on Sunday morning was different enough that by placing stations outside of the sanctuary we put them out of reach. The congregation is not used to, or comfortable with being self-directed and moving about the building during our morning worship time. Additionally, we did not lead and communicate strongly about the station, and our placement was in a logistically difficult area that easily became congested before and after the service. All told, the stations outside of the sanctuary was a flop — but our analysis of why it was a flop led us better understand how to lead interactive worship.
Introducing interactive worship is not an easy thing. It takes theological insight, clear communication, an eye for user interface design, in-depth knowledge of the context and congregation, and a willingness to take risks. While this might seem like a nearly impossible task, with God all things are possible! Despite the challenges, we have found that God has led us and sustained us on our year-long journey of leading interactive worship. He has changed our hearts as we have grown in our understanding of leading worship. He has done the real work of transformation in the hearts of our congregation. All together, we have all encountered God in rich and vivid ways that have been unexpected, but truly wonderful.
Paul Gratton is a songwriter and worship leader from Central Oregon. He is also a co-founder of Weiv, an interactive software company, and a doctoral student at George Fox University. You can find Paul’s music at ywmh.org and download some of his free visual worship tools at weiv.co.