Public Art as Prophetic Word

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the sermon. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Shawna Bowman

When we consider the sermon moment we often think first of the spoken word, whether an extemporaneous litany or carefully crafted prose. In the predominately white and western Christian communities I’ve been formed by, we have historically privileged the voice of a single preacher and depended upon the auditory (and hopefully eager) listening and learning of a gathered community in worship. This method of preaching and proclamation is beautiful, rooted in tradition, and has the capacity to inspire, form, and stretch the theological and spiritual imagination of our people.

And… and… it is only one of so many ways we human beings can engage with God’s dream for us and with God’s dream for the world. Rather than use words alone to demonstrate what I’m suggesting, I will invite you on a multi-sensory journey. Let us move for a moment from a stationary pulpit into the streets and look with fresh eyes and open hearts for a prophetic word preached in the visuals of street arts, graffiti and public installations.

As an artist/preacher, I am interested in cultivating an honesty about our own power and perceptions as we approach either the task of preaching or receiving a prophetic word. I invite you to carry these questions with you as we begin our journey into the streets:

Who decides what is acceptable “street art” and what qualifies as graffiti or even vandalism? Who and what artists are commissioned for particular and planned pieces of art and when does an artist risk a prophetic word or statement over and against the institutions who “own” public space? When is it the right time to break the rules, even the law, to risk a prophetic word or piece of visual proclamation?

YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL

Chicago based artist and designer Matthew Hoffman has been the custodian of a public art project that began in Chicago but has expanded across the globe in recent years. The project began as stickers and now includes public installations with the simple statement: you are beautiful in all kinds of shapes and sizes. It has turned up on the sides of buildings, in parks, along Lake Shore Drive, and has been re-created and imagined by kid artists in public school students and public artists around the world.

You can visit versions of the work here. Take a moment and soak them in! While the artists may not have set out to offer a sermon, take a moment to imagine how prophetic a word this truly is. How does the message “you are beautiful” resonate with our biblical story? How does God’s own voice shine through this particular invitation to embrace our beauty?

WHAT WE DO IN LIFE…

One of the most famous and yet anonymous street artists currently creating and curating work across the globe, known only as Bansky, calls their self a “quality vandal,” and their work appeared first in the UK and recently in Bethlehem, Palestine. The artist offers critiques on the status quo, and observations on systems of oppression and violence often revealing the way human beings in positions of power are complicit in upholding them. I love this because it reminds me of some of Jesus’ best parables. Simple yet prophetic, offered in a way that catches us off guard and invites us to see ourselves and the world through a fresh and potentially liberating lens.

You can visit more of Banksy’s work here. Take a moment to absorb each piece as it moves across your screen. Can you see God’s prophetic words peeking through these installations? How is this artist offering an alternative narrative to what many of us experience and put our faith in, in our day-to-day lives?

LARGER THAN LIFE

We know a prophetic word can change our thinking and can move whole communities towards hope and transformation. Chicago public artist Max Sansing creates public murals that are works of reclamation and representation in his community and across the city. He painted this particular mural in the neighborhood where he grew up. Sansing says, “I know a lot of times we get portrayed as certain things, and I wanted to reinforce we could be larger than life.” Isn’t that often the role of a prophetic word? To give voice, worth and hope to a particular people and in a particular context? To hold God’s dream up for the people to see, not only as a beacon but as a mirror? To say, “look, we have all we need, right here.”

You can learn more about this particular mural here, and explore here how Sansing and another street artist, Sydney James from Detroit, use their artwork to impact culture, encourage diversity, and engage youth in their communities. Can you hear and see God’s invitation to embrace the fullness of our human experience in their work? Do they disrupt, confirm, or challenge your assumptions about God’s dream the world?

AN INVITATION

Next time you encounter public art in the form of murals, installations, or graffiti take a holy moment. Breathe in the color, the imagery, the form and shape and listen for the prophetic word speaking through the work. Let the work wash over you like liturgy and let God’s dream for the world bubble up in your imagination!


Shawna Bowman is an artist and pastor doing ministry with the creative and justice-seeking folks at Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Shawna is co-founder of Creation Lab, an arts incubator and working studio space at the intersection of creativity, spirituality, and prophetic imagination, also in Chicago. Shawna is also Associate Director of Field Ed & Experiential Education at McCormick Theological Seminary.

The Intentional Practice of Imago Scriptura

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the scripture reading. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Edward Goode

“You need to pray the Psalms.”

Those were the words of a prayer partner friend after I had been sharing about some of the most difficult challenges I had faced both personally and in my pastoral ministry. My response was something like, “yeah yeah” because he said once again…

“Ed…You NEED to pray the Psalms.”

That night, he texted me asking if I had prayed Psalm 1. So I opened up my Bible app and read it so that I could reply back that I had. But something stirred as I read “…but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by steams of water…”

What stirred in me was a picture I had taken a few months earlier of a tree that looked to be growing out of a lake. As I opened up my photos on my computer and found a picture of it and I felt like I was looking at Psalm 1. It may not have been the way that my friend intended it, but I prayed Psalm 1 at that moment. (Side note – I later found out that the tree is actually dead…oops.)

I copied that photo into my journaling app and wrote a few words about it and what stirred in me. The next day, I read Psalm 2 about taking refuge in God and thought of the overhanging branches of a row of live oaks in South Carolina I had seen. The next day came images for Psalm 3, then 4, and several months later I had gone through all 150 Psalms both in my own personal journal and posting them to my blog. As I did, I began to hear from others about how the images helped them to “see” the Psalms in new ways.

Through this new practice, the Holy Spirit transformed my experience of Scripture. As I read the passage in the morning, I started to make it my practice to take a picture of something from that day that reflected the Scripture. As a result, the words stayed with me and truly dwelt in me throughout. I wasn’t just reading to say I had read it but it was reading it to see it became incarnate in my life. It moved Scripture from being an intellectual exercise to something that engaged me more fully – intellect, body, emotions, time.

One of the struggles that people have with the Bible is finding the places where it intersects with “real life.” This practice helped me to find those intersections. Simply put, it is the practice of intentional looking for where God is all around us. Over the years this practice has grown where I am seeing Scripture around me even when I am not intentionally looking for it. Sometimes it has been a sunrise or sunset and sometimes it has been a cup of tea on my desk or a broken branch on a tree.

In the years that have followed, I have continued this practice in my own personal life but also have begun to find ways to integrate it into the worship life of the congregations I’ve served, to lead people in visual devotional practices, youth group activities with kids and their phones, and so forth.

Within worship, this practice can widen the experience of Scripture for a congregation. Scriptures can be shared with the congregation in advance and members are invited to respond in prior to Sunday or during the service itself with their own pictures of how they’ve “seen” those Scriptures around them during the week. Sermons could be crafted out of the images that are shared by the congregation as well. Congregational members can also share their images on their own social media feeds as a way to share their faith and be invitational to others. Like my own personal experience of it, this practice can allow Scripture to be experienced more fully by a congregation – engaging not simply the intellect but the emotions – engaging not just in an hour on Sunday but throughout the week between the Sundays.

I was asked a few months ago about what this practice has done for me and simply put, it is helped me “see more.” My physical vision hasn’t changed but my spiritual vision has. This, I believe, is one of the core desires God has for us – to widen our vision… to see the beauty and wonder of God all around us, to see Scripture come to life within and through each of us, to help us to see more of the opportunities that God places around us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world, and to draw upon the life-giving movement of the Holy Spirit.


Edward Goode is one of those PCUSA pastors enjoying the blessing of our denomination’s full communion relationships as he serves as interim pastor at Christ Church UCC in Ft Thomas, Kentucky. He and his wife Amy (also a PCUSA pastor) have three teenagers who keep them humble, busy, and continually in prayer. In addition to being a husband, father, and pastor, he loves to be outdoors with their dog, Scout, and his camera (currently unnamed). You can follow him at imagoscriptura.com, @revdarth on Instagram and @edwardgoode on Twitter.

Hymns as Songwriting

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as a hymn. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Drew Wilmesherr

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” – Richard Wright, “American Hunger”

Songwriting is as much a passion/calling as it is a craft. Sometimes the lyrics are a jazzed up kangaroo, ready to burst out of the writer’s head and into the listener’s ear. Sometimes the lyric is a sedated panda, heavy, unyielding, and difficult to move forward. But catching rainwater of lyrics, when you have the right tools available, can be refreshing and life-giving without drowning in a blunt force flood of clichéd metaphors.

I love a fresh metaphor in worship music. John Mark McMillan writes in his song, “Baby Son,”

The inn is full, the out is dark
Have you no room inside your heart?

What a beautiful line to communicate so much! There’s clever wordplay of “in” and “out” and the space to fill in who we’re allowing in and who we’re locking out.

Or William Matthews’ gracious articulation of a faith journey through grey areas of life and faith, “In the Grey”:

The place, the place, where I love you in the mystery
and you rewrite my history in the grey

There’s honesty and encouragement to sing this as a community of faith, like Jeremiah or Lamentations, to say I have no clear black and white answers, but I still love you.

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” – Orson Scott Card

Pat Pattison (lyric and poet professor at Berklee College of Music) defines metaphor as “… a collision between ideas, one crunched into another…” (Songwriting without Boundaries). Basically, all of corporate worship songs are a metaphor. We’re singing about the Indescribable Divine using the limited language of our even more limited experiences. Having just finished the Christmas season, we probably sang songs about inn keepers without any room for parents with a newborn baby. Even though there are no surly innkeepers in the Gospels, it’s still a great metaphor for the way we treat people even today at our borders, or even the way we allow the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to take up residence in our head and heart. It’s a relatable metaphor, because we can imagine a full hotel on a long journey, or even simply being turned away from a full room.

I love co-writing metaphors for songs, especially with people who have lived through experiences different from my own. They bring fresh language for common experiences, and sometimes they relate uncommon experiences through very relatable images. I once co-wrote a worship song with a hip-hop artist who was using a lot of club and party imagery as a prophetic vision of the Isaiah mountain in Isaiah 2. Peace and abundance in the language of thumping beats and full dance floors. In the book How to Rap by Paul Edwards, hip-hop artist Immortal Technique explains, “Hip-hop was born in an era of social turmoil and real economically miserable conditions for the black and Latino people living in the hood of America, so in the same way that slaves used to sing songs on a plantation about being somewhere else – that’s the party songs that used to have.”

When we engage in worship songs beyond our hymnals (as extensive and deep and wide as they are), we hear the experiences of our common God through the uncommon and current languages of our brothers and sisters who might not occupy our pews with us on Sunday mornings. When we sing the songs of others, we breath and speak as they do, and find ourselves connected in our art. And I usually find a dialogue taking place between groups of people where bridges might not have been before.

“Sing to the LORD a new song, because God has done wonderful things!” Psalm 98:1 (CEB)

Singing a new song, as Psalm 98 instructs, gives us a glimpse into the way God works in the world, the way God addresses our fears (like desiring an escape from poverty). Let’s write our songs, let’s sing the songs of others, and let’s find God in the lives of those living beyond our walls.

For more resources on lyric writing, see Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics: The Essential Guide to Powerful Songwriting.


Drew Wilmesherr is a Top 40 Mashup of West Virginia and Mississippi. He was designed and made in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s made of collard greens, guitar strings, 808 drums and stories about Jesus. He went to Middle-Tennessee State University (go Blue Raiders!), where he studied English and Recording Industry Management. In between classes and projects, he attended the Presbyterian Student Fellowship at MTSU, making lifelong friends, leading worship (the guitars and synthesizers kind), and discovering a passion for ministry and the person of Jesus. He recently graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity. And if you get him started on what the future might look and feel like, you have to let the jukebox play the whole song out (he won’t stop talking about it).

Passing the Peace: A Daily Practice

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the passing of the peace. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Heidi Thompson

What does it mean to pass the peace?

What I know is that during Sunday worship, when it is time to pass the peace, I stand and greet those around me with a handshake, a smile, and a phrase that includes “peace.” When my heart is full, this is easy and a real joy to reach out to others with the peace and the love of God. On a day when I am not so full, or I am in a church I have never attended or surrounded by people I do not know, I may hesitate and hope others reach out to me, and feel disappointed if they don’t. I try to remember this when I see others hesitate.

When we pass the peace in worship, we don’t reach out only to those we know or feel comfortable with. We pass the peace to anyone seated near us. Many of us look for those we don’t know, and pass the peace that we may get to know them, and allow them to feel welcomed and connected to our congregation. What if, rather than seeing this as a part of worship on Sunday, we could see passing the peace as how we are in the world?

For me there are two levels for looking at this “simple” worship practice. One level is what actually happens when we reach out to another with a handshake and a smile and the word “peace.” We are making a connection with another; we are weaving the cloth of the church community. There is no greater human need than that of connection and belonging. When we make that effort, when we connect with another, we are doing our sacred work.

The deeper level is what is in our hearts that we communicate in our handshake, our smile, and our words. Are we really passing the peace of Christ?

I am saddened by the divide that is growing in our communities and nation, when I see fear and anger being used to keep us separate and to cast aside so many as having no value. It takes the threads of all of us to address the needs of today’s world. It takes differing viewpoints and an understanding of those we may not agree with. The 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering theme description reminds us that, “Our call is to recognize the value of each thread in all its complexity, each thread’s necessity to God’s design.” And yet, when divisions are deep how do we weave together with those we can barely tolerate?

For me, peace is the key. Jesus taught, “Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace I give you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

I believe that peace is the opposite of fear. And I see fear as the basis of all that is being used to divide and limit us in today’s world. It is the fear we are different and separate and not good enough; and it is the fear that nothing is certain and we will not be okay. I contrast this with what I know of God’s love: that we are more than good enough, for we are the fully loved children of God, and that our needs are, and always will be, met by One who is capable of more than we can imagine. We are not separate; we are one with God, and vitally connected to one another. We know God’s divine peace.

What if everywhere we went, we went with an attitude of passing the peace. If everyone we found ourselves with, whether we knew them or not, whether we felt comfortable with them or not, we would pass the peace in whatever way seemed appropriate – with an extended hand or a hug or a smile, with either spoken or unspoken words, passing on the divine Spirit of peace and love. What if every time we took an extended hand, we in our hearts passed the peace, with love and non-judgment, allowing someone to feel welcome, if only for a moment, in a world that is angry, afraid and divided? Emotions are contagious. Just as fear can spread, so can love and peace.

Is it possible to make passing the peace our way of being in the world? It will take being grounded in our belief in God’s love for us and caring for us, so that we do not fear. And in that place, we will be peace, and our daily practice will be passing the peace and the love of God to all we meet. And this is how we will weave together differing viewpoints and build bridges across the divides.


Heidi Thompson is an elder who worships at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian and Second Presbyterian in Baltimore, MD. For over 30 years Heidi has been a computer software consultant and adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins University teaching financial modeling. She writes and teaches about the gifts of fear and the dark emotions, and other things that make us uncomfortable.

Confession through a Queer Lens

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the confessional sequence. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Max Hill

As a queer person, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with authenticity.
Not all spaces are safe for full honesty about my identity.

Time home with certain family members just causes stress.

As does living in a seminary community among students with a diversity of theological beliefs about my body, my expression, and those I love.

And so does walking into an unfamiliar worshipping community and not knowing if such a space is one that I can relax in or

if my walls of anxiety are a warning that this isn’t a place where I can be all of who God created me to be.

Photo from Maryland Presbyterian Church Facebook page

So I negotiate.

Not always consciously, but it always happens.

I ask questions about what I need to wear and how I need to perform that day.

Should I paint my nails? Put on makeup?

Those little things that help me to feel like myself – or

is it better to do what’s safer

To wear my boy clothes? To keep my nails and face bare?

And if I do that, do I need to hide the rainbow tattoo on my arm?

This negotiation can be exhausting and draw me away from worship.

So maybe a more meaningful worship is happening amongst those where I don’t have to hide –

my queer family.

I’m lucky to have a queer family of faith.
People that I can go to and it doesn’t occur to me to negotiate outward expression or and put up an internal wall of protection.
People with whom I can just put on “Thank U, Next” by Ariana Grande and vogue the night away.

The drag queens, butch queens, femme boys, trans persons, and those of nonbinary identity and expression in our churches all negotiate themselves almost to the point of extinction. Not all of us have the strength or opportunity to live authentically in our places of worship.

But what is worship when we hide?

What is confession when we are not giving all of ourselves – when we are not SO honest and authentic that we can feel it in our bones?

The authenticity of queer identity and expression is not the act of confession – because it’s an authenticity that doesn’t hinge on our imperfections.

Queer identity and expression is not an imperfection.

But it’s something our confession can learn from.

In confession we get honest – or we’re supposed to….

We speak together of our failures and admit our faults.
Those of queer identity and nonnormative gender expression know what it means to not always love ourselves. We know how easy it can be to internalize the isolation of not seeing ourselves in the world (or in the pulpit).

Those lucky enough to have the strength and resilience to thrive know what it means to unpack the shame placed on us, to take the harm we inflict on ourselves and lay it down.

And what more is confession than radical authenticity? To be authentic is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to trust and hope for grace.

Confessional vulnerability is exactly what our worship needs. We need to break our liturgy open and examine ourselves.

Because when we do, we can truly experience the grace that Christ shows us.
The grace to dance.

To laugh.

To live.

To be.

Negotiation forces us to examine ourselves deeply.

Examination allows us to know ourselves intimately.

This way, we can harness the strength to accept Christ’s love and grace.

Our confession can learn more about how to know yourself intimately from queer, trans, and nonbinary persons.

We know how to proclaim as Brooke and Carmen Xtravaganza do in Paris is Burning, singing, “I am what I am, I am my own special creation!”

And we know how to show grace to those that can’t see our authenticity as beautiful.

Thanks be to God.


Max Hill is passionate about relationships, community building, and the intersection of faith and identity. He has recently served as the Student Minister for Contextual Exploration, Community Engagement, and LGBTQ Belonging at Maryland Presbyterian Church outside of Baltimore. He has also served as a Student Pastor for LGBTQ Fellowship at Broad Street Ministry and Brick Presbyterian Church in the City of New York. Before that, Max was a grant writer and New Worshiping Community founder/facilitator with United Campus Ministry at the University of Arkansas. Max is in his senior year at Princeton Theological Seminary.

Call to Worship and Paperless Liturgy

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the call to worship. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elizabeth Pruchnicki and Billy Kluttz

Let us introduce you….

Pantomimed digging. Laughter. High fives. Spontaneous prayers. These are not uncommon ways for us to gather ourselves for worship at Immanuel Presbyterian Church’s weekly evening service.

Often, we begin worship with a single phrase; the leader motions for the congregation to respond. Liturgical leaders build prayers, sometimes already written, but often improvised. The congregation continues to respond with one voice, sometimes repeating the phrase or responding with their own broken words, prayers, or images. We might add a simple dance or movement. We might add clapping or instruments. We might hum underneath.

No matter how we open worship at 5:30 pm, we’ve decided to open worship together and everyone participates. Paperless liturgy is an integral tool, and we think it can be a resource for your church as well.

Why paperless liturgy?

Photo from Immanuel Presbyterian Church Facebook page

Historic: The first Christian liturgy was paperless! The earliest Christian worship didn’t rely on bulletins or hymnals. That’s good news for all of us as we seek to model our worship after our historical foundations.

Ease of use: Paperless liturgy requires no knowledge of prayer books, hymnals, or your weekly bulletin layout. Visitors and longtime members are set on an equal plane.

Accessible: Paperless liturgy cuts down barriers to participation, allowing non-readers, children, people with vision impairment, and others to more fully participate.

Engaging: It’s easy to zone out when the congregation is reading together from a bulletin. It’s harder when you’re actively engaged in the worship experience; it’s not for spectators. If worship is the work of the collective people of God, our liturgy should be, as well.

Expansive: Not just for the call to worship. At Immanuel, we’ve used paperless liturgies for call to worships, communion, prayers of the people, confessions, and more! Imagine a great prayer of thanksgiving where people’s hands are free to lift alongside their hearts. Envision a confession where your congregation looks at one another, and those they’ve wounded; it’s connectional. Paper-free liturgy can be a helpful addition to any segment of worship.

Adaptable: Do you reprint your entire bulletin when a major event or crisis happens on Friday or Saturday? How do we edit an opening prayer after a tragedy? Paperless liturgy allows your worship to reflect context. Important things happen between the time you print your bulletin and the time the congregation gathers for worship. Paperless liturgy gives us the flexibility to incorporate the totality of who we are and what we’ve been through each week.

Less is more: Smaller bulletins are better for the earth. It’s no secret that paperless liturgy makes for shorter bulletins. That not only means less paper and ink, it also means less work putting a weekly bulletin together. Perhaps some weeks you won’t even need to print a bulletin!

Empowering: Anyone can be the leader. If a child can’t read, they can still teach a phrase or give instructions for an improvised prayer. If an older adult can’t hold a hymnal, they can still be a leader. Let paper-free worship be a tool for including everyone in worship leadership.

Types of paperless liturgy

Consistent Response: This is the easiest and most natural type of paperless liturgy. Often done during the call to worship, consistent response is the bread and butter of paperless liturgy.

With consistent response liturgy, the worship leader begins by telling the congregation what their response will be. It should be something simple and easily remembered. A common go-to is “Lord, in your mercy; hear our prayer.” Have the congregation practice once before continuing the liturgy. The congregation repeats the same line throughout, so even if they don’t have the recitation memorized immediately, it’ll catch on quickly.

Feel free to add a particular gesture, sound, movement, or clapping to the refrain. If the liturgy is about working hard, have the congregation get involved by with a pantomined dig while they say something simple like,”the work is our prayer, and our prayer is our work.” Anything will do, and get creative! Consistent response liturgies are a great place to involve full body movement or additional sounds like clapping or whistling.

Call and Response: The congregation repeats varying lines following non-verbal cues. I often lead this type of liturgy by saying, “repeat after me” and then I’ll hold my hands close to my chest while I say my lines, then I’ll open my arms to indicate that they are ready to repeat after me. I’ll do that in our preface for the varying call and response lines. For example, this piece is cut from a paperless communion liturgy we created:

Worship Leader: You are invited (hands clasped together)
Many: You are invited (Worship Leader hands opened out to the congregation)
Worship Leader: You are needed (hands clasped together)
Many: You are needed (Worship Leader hands opened out to the congregation)
Worship Leader: You are wanted (hands clasped together)
Many: You are wanted (Worship Leader hands opened out to the congregation)
Worship Leader: You aren’t just invited, You are needed, You aren’t just welcomed, You are vital [continue with the full liturgy, until it’s time to repeat those phrases again]

This form of paperless liturgy requires trust between the worship leader and the congregation. Call and response requires a combination of consistent response and an increased reliance on gestures and eye contact. Remember that paperless liturgy benefits most from repetition.

Improv Responses with Pre-written Openings or Special CuesWe often use this type of paperless liturgy for confession. The worship leader opens a dialogue by asking the congregation to name a sin. She’ll open with a line such as, “We recognize our participation in systems of oppression that unfairly keep the marginalized and impoverished disenfranchised. And we name those systems here.” Then she’ll remain silent for the congregational naming. We might also offer areas of concern and wait for improvised responses from the congregation.

Fully Improvised LiturgiesOther weeks, we might fully improvise a paperless liturgy. An outline or suggested theme facilitates leadership, but we find that less is more. For example, an outline for an improvisational call to worship might read:

  • Naming of God and Divine Attributes
  • Thanksgiving
  • Petitions
  • Aspirations and closing

This collect-style outline allows even inexperienced leaders to create an improvised liturgy.

Tips and best practices

  • Lead by example, not explanation.
    • Begin a paperless liturgy with the liturgy, not an explanation. Do not say, “and now we’re going to try something different.” People will learn through doing. Say as few words (outside of the liturgy) as possible. Trust the Spirit.
  • It’s not going to be perfect.
    • If the congregation misses a cue, respond positively. Take a breath and try again.
  • Gestures are important (so is eye contact).
    • Try different body postures and gestures to cue the congregation to respond, to be silent, to wait. Help your worship leaders reflect on how they can creatively use non-verbal leadership cues in paper-free worship.
  • Start by going semi-paperless.
    • Paperless liturgy works best if it’s introduced bit by bit. Start with an improvised prayer of invocation or illumination and work to incorporate paperless liturgies as the congregation becomes comfortable relying on eye contact and gestures instead of the worship bulletin.
  • Be creative. The only limits for paperless liturgy are your imagination.

Conclusion

We did not invent paperless liturgy. But we are, perhaps, its greatest enthusiasts. We’ve borrowed and repurposed ideas from lots of great liturgical leaders and scholars. In a similar way, we hope that these ideas are a starting point for your congregation. Take what we’ve suggested, change it, and let us know how God works through paperless liturgy in your community of faith.  


Billy Kluttz works as Evening Service Coordinator at Immanuel Presbyterian Church (USA) in McLean, Virginia and Community Music and Arts Director at Church of the Covenant (PCUSA) in Arlington, Virginia. Billy is passionate about creative community engagement through liturgy and music. He is currently certified ready to receive a call in National Capital Presbytery.  

Elizabeth Pruchnicki is pursuing her Master of Theological Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary. She combines an academic passion for public theology with parish ministry as the Director of Youth Ministry at Immanuel Presbyterian Church (USA) in McLean, Virginia.

Worship Outside the Box

by Katy Stenta

“Worship outside the box” is a blog series meant to explore the myriad of ways we find and experience God. To me, worship is all about accessing God. God may be omnipotent, ever-present and everywhere at once, but that doesn’t mean we always feel like we have access to God.

Worship services are, in theory, designed to provide a variety of access points to God through speech and silence, companionship and meditation, singing and listening to music. But church happens other times too: in my church’s parking lot, during the free playgroup in our building, during conversations with AA members who are hanging around the church. One of my favorite experiences of church was the More Light Presbyterians reception at the 2015 NEXT Church National Gathering, which happened to be the very day that LGBTQ marriage was ratified; a bar full of young Presbyterians celebrating the queer community is one of the rarest forms of church I have ever experienced.

Being Presbyterian, I am very conscious of those things that we prioritize in worship and what we think are the elements that automatically make worship happen: words and language are hugely emphasized. Pieces of paper or screens help us to stay decent and in order, and many things are recited by the corporate body together.

However, for those individuals who are visual, those have trouble reading/speaking/hearing, for those who have trouble standing, and those who have trouble sitting, there is much to be desired in a worship service. As the mother of a basically non-verbal nine-year-old boy with autism who loves church, I get to think about all of this a lot.

If worship is providing ways to access God, then its important to think outside the box, the church box, and even the reading/neurotypical box. Where can we allow creative access to God? Where can we open the door to the work of the Holy Spirit? Where can we learn from other individuals’ spirituality?

When we write liturgy, do we examine it to be the most accessible of texts? Does it include everyone? Does it encourage welcome? Do we include images to help our non-verbal individuals? Is the text large enough for everyone to read? Do we have a predictable enough structure to make everyone feel comfortable, but is it open enough for those who need wiggle room?

One example from my context is that we have been writing bulletins for our new inclusive worship community, TrailPraisers. We try to include many elements: moving and non-moving, verbal and non-verbal, loud and quiet, participatory and martyr.

Examining and re-examining how and when and where we do liturgy is essential to expanding our growing knowledge as to how to access God. That’s where a series like this is essential, and I am hopeful that there will someday be ways for us to conference/create/congregate for a larger and exciting way to talk about worship and access together. Hopefully this blog series provides insight and inspiration for you to find more ways to access God and provide that access to others as well.


Katy Stenta is the pastor of a bigger-on-the-inside church in Albany, NY where she has been the solo pastor for 8+ years. She is the mother of 3 children – Franklin, almost 11; Westley, almost 9; and Ashburn, 7 – and is married to a librarian, Anthony. She loves big and creative ideas and to read as much fantasy as possible. She is also the co-founder of TrailPraisers, a developing inclusive worship experience for all faiths, ages & abilities.