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?
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 Cues: We 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 Liturgies: Other 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
- 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.
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.