Worship in the Big Tent
Playwriter and worship pastor Christopher Greco reflects on the effective use of interruption, surprise, spontaneity, narrative eclecticism, motivated participation, and intergenerational collaboration as tools to engage congregants in worship in the face of significant disparities in age, culture, and Christian tradition, or lack thereof.
In Imagining Multiple Models of Ministry with Youth series, pastoral leaders from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their ministry work with and for youth through the lens of several key values: youth agency, theological practices, role of parents, intergenerational relationships, and multiple pathways.
It was early 2020, weeks before the world as we knew it would flip and be flattened. In the span of two months, our school community gathered for three wildly divergent chapel experiences that to some perhaps felt like a three-ring circus. In the first ring was an elegant, creation-themed experiment in visio divina featuring student piano and choral performances, live painting by a student, and a gallery talk by a guest art photographer. In the second ring was an irreverent send-up of Solomon’s court by a team of student actors who used improv games to satirize Wisdom’s age-old conflict with Folly by riffing on Proverbs. In the third ring was a local hip-hop artist performing and then brokering an honest conversation with students of color about race, the gospel, and life in the U.S.
These vivid memories of undeniable student spiritual engagement are worth excavating as we rebuild and regather mid- and post-pandemic. The effective use of interruption, surprise, spontaneity, narrative eclecticism, motivated participation, and intergenerational collaboration are keepers for us. By granting ourselves permission to create new liturgies, we opened up new conversations and possibilities. I offer these reflections for any who are likewise struggling to engage every person in the room in worship in the face of significant disparities in age, culture, and Christian tradition.
Interruption and Surprise
It's a gift to be able to interrupt a work or school day to pause and reflect on the goodness of God. However, it’s not easy to call a diverse community like our school to a focused, communal full stop without some nodding off or disengagement. There is a real danger that chapel could become a habitual time in the week to mentally check out. Since it is impossible to structure worship in a way that meets every person’s cultural expectations and momentary needs for headspace, we must begin by interrupting those expectations and capturing their imaginations.
The three outlier chapel experiences mentioned above were part of a year-long Calvin Worship Grant to increase individual engagement by exploring the intersection of tradition and spontaneity. Consider Jesus’ comparison of the new and the old in Matthew 6. He spoke of wildflowers that are here today and gone tomorrow, in contrast to the seemingly ageless splendor of Solomon and his wisdom tradition. Jesus upholds the value of both, but clearly tips his hat to the present moment rather than the tradition as being more potently beautiful. Jesus surprises us here, as he does in many other situations, and we are wise to follow his example.
For this reason, our methodology to engage students was experiential and experimental rather than didactic and pre-scripted. These contrasting and arrestingly artful chapel experiences were designed to interrupt traditional chapel expectations without attacking their foundations. Perhaps more than anything else in a worship experience, we need to be surprised by the living God. This requires us to hold our traditions lightly and to heed the real-time feedback we receive when chapel gatherings lose dynamism.
The Risk of Spontaneity
I don’t want to idealize our “Improverbs” chapel. It is more accurate to acknowledge how it went off the rails, including a regrettable moment when a student said “Mommy, I hate Jesus” in response to the prompt to impersonate the “World’s Worst Child.” Contrary to what some people may have heard, the student was not stating that he himself hated Jesus or that he approved of children hating Jesus, but he went with the first idea that came to him in response to that prompt. That’s the danger of improv! The fact that these words were uttered during chapel was mortifying and was the subject of an apologetic Slack message to the entire faculty and staff from this theater director. At the same time, the misstep revealed a commendable level of trust shown toward students in our commitment to partnering with them. This incident provoked many students to respond by talking about what they love and don’t love about chapel. Of course, no one fell asleep that day.
I don’t wish that experience on any worshiping community, but a more innocent version of the same principle can happen when a student miscues a lyric or struggles with a candle that is sluggish to light. Sometimes the most alive and memorable part of a gathering is the moment something goes wrong or goes off script. How we recover from our spontaneous mistakes or our spontaneous strokes of genius can bring everybody in the room into the present moment. If worship is to be true and authentic, we can’t do it outside the here and now with all its risks and uncertainties.
Robert Webber’s trademark term “blended worship” encourages us all to embrace other traditions and not be afraid to mix them with our own. An unfortunate downside of this metaphor is that we all know what happens in a blender. Think of blueberries. As soon as you include them, the color of your smoothie will take on a purplish color regardless of whatever else you add. When it comes to worship, the metaphor of braiding might be more useful. When we mix worship traditions, we violate their original context and intent in some way, so we run the risk of losing their flavor and distinctiveness and watering down their potency. However, when narrative creativity is deployed, as was the case in our visio divina chapel, unlikely elements such as a botanical photograph, a Chopin mazurka, a madrigal, a painter working live, a Broadway song, and scripture can be braided together to produce something exquisite and God-exalting.
Effective eclecticism necessitates setting the context and providing cohesion. The onus is on the crafters of the worship experience to let the gathered community know that they are likely to be surprised, and that when it happens they are invited to invest that energy into their worship of God. In this way an unlikely element could follow any other element as long as the watcher is guided to understand the purpose of the juxtaposition and the narrative throughline of the experience.
There’s a lesson here from the theater that can enhance our worship experiences. Every audience is motivated to piece together the disparate elements of a story to make sense of it. If the story lacks some kind of driving suspense as well as an earned payoff, it will lose its audience’s investment. When the experience is too predictable, the audience may tune out. When it lacks cohesiveness, it is likely to lose energy.
Inclusion and eclecticism are not ultimately about style, but about people. Our school is at a historic juncture. Serving three hundred students in grades 6 through 12, Lexington Christian Academy is seventy-five years into its mission of integrating rigorous college-preparatory education with rigorous Christian faith. Our students and faculty represent more than seventy different worshiping communities from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal traditions. And there are a fair number of students from no Christian tradition whatsoever. Therefore, we must gather in a “big tent” if we are to honor God by enlisting every tongue and tribe in our midst to join in praise. Sadly, we don’t hit that elusive mark often. We end up reverting to popular, monocultural worship expressions that can speak across differences but don’t captivate every person and don’t leave those in the margins feeling seen and known.
Two weeks from this writing, our entire school community will gather in person for the first time since those three chapel experiences in the distant past of 2020. We will celebrate the surprising entrance of God to the scene as a baby. Questions swirl: What do we remember about being together as a school community? What might we expect? What have we missed? How do we pick back up? During the 2020–21 school year, our chapel experiences were mostly virtual or cohort-based and delved necessarily into conversations about politics and race because of what was happening in the country. COVID interrupted everybody’s learning, of course, and taught us things we didn’t know we didn’t know. So far this year, our middle and upper schools have gathered separately for worship to maintain safer distancing.
Motivated Participation and Intergenerational Collaboration
After a year’s hiatus, chapel band has rebounded, driven by student talent, desire, and leadership. More than a dozen students volunteered within the first two months, and more are expressing motivation to join after every chapel. The ethnic diversity of our chapel bands reflects the demographics of our student body more accurately than ever before. Student participation in leading the chapel worship experience is absolutely essential to our community. Because we graduated every previous member of our chapel band, we had to start from scratch; this required adult talent, desire, and leadership as well. If the students had been left on their own to figure out the personnel, the song choices, the arrangements, the complex rehearsal scheduling, the technology, and the daunting interpersonal challenges of leading worship in our big tent, they would have been demoralized. In both the middle and the upper school, two faculty members are partnering with students to rebuild, to rehearse, to plan, and to reimagine chapel worship together. While the ultimate goal is to have an entirely student-led chapel experience in the upper school, the truth is we are not in a hurry to hand over the reins. Something special happens when we accomplish goals together, when we respond to each other’s ideas, and when we get surprised by God in our midst and by voices of the other generations around us. As a school, this intergenerational collaboration is the lifeblood that drives us in all that we do in the classroom, in the rehearsal hall, and on the sports fields. We don’t want to abandon the younger generation to have to figure out everything on their own; rather, we seek to mentor them through the venue of chapel planning and execution.
The pandemic interrupted and surprised all of us. We all have traversed significant challenges in being together and staying together as worshiping communities. Our pent-up hunger for live interaction combined with diversity across race, ethnicity, and tradition demand innovative strategies. If we are to include and engage everybody meaningfully, we can’t simply do what’s always been done. We must work together through trial and error, dialogue, disagreement, and discovery. While our school hasn’t mastered these challenges, we are grateful for the occasion of the past two years.
For our upcoming Christmas chapel, we are readying our chapel bands and other student vocal and instrumental groups, readers, and prayers. Our collaborative, multigenerational team is poised to embrace this moment as an opportunity, one unlike anything that has come before, with faith, courage, and the willingness to get it wrong. We expect God to demonstrate that he is in our particular midst by surprising us in delightful, all-inclusive ways.