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.

Sharing the Piece of Christ

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gretchen Sausville

“It’s all about the bread!” – Jack, age 14

“No, it’s all about the brownies!” – Kim, age 14

“If brownies were around in Jesus time, he would have been breaking and sharing them!” – Maisie – 15

“Why do we need bread, when we have a bowl of brownies right here, and hot cocoa over there… this is our understanding of communion!”  – Tim age 16.

2015 communionI was 7 years into my call, and my Princeton trained ears perked up. I began reconciling the teachings of my beloved professors and the interpretation of communion through teenagers eyes. I had been classically trained in the formalities of the bread and cup, using the elements that were local to the community gathered. I was also taught that that pop and popcorn does not a Lord’s Supper make, but had anyone ever really considered brownies? Luckily for my purposes I had received session approval for this “communion meal.” I left it to the youth of my church to plan worship using their own interpretation of traditional practices, as I have always done with youth retreats. After all, communion led by youth on a retreat is not really communion, right?

The next day they were pleased with their worship service, which embraced music, scripture, sermon, prayers, and the most important piece in their eyes, brownie communion! They had spent the better half of a day planning it, and it was a perfect 30 minutes. Then Maisie said, “It’s not like they would actually let us do any of this in church, like church church. 8:30 maybe, but definitely not 10:30!”

My heart sank! These young adults had just created and led worship, using all the same pieces they see in the sanctuary on Sunday, but felt their expression of theology would not be accepted or permitted by the congregation they were exploring membership in. This is when I challenged them. If they could tell me what they wanted in worship on a given Sunday and the theology behind why they would do it differently, then they could speak knowledgeably and confidently to to session about the possibility of brownies for communion.

Soon, their fears were replaced with smiles, and I had an arsenal of information to take to session of worship and music committee. Six weeks later, after they were confirmed, we passed the “piece of Christ” in response to the rite of Confirmation. The confirmands came to the communion table and took the over flowing plates of brownies they had made and passed them out to the congregation in worship, as an act of worship. It was sweet and spirited, and enjoyed by all. There were no complaints to be had, only requests from the octogenarians to do that more often!

The brownies on Pentecost four years ago led to a shift in how we welcome not only young ones, but everyone into the worship life of the church. The brownies on Sunday lead to “Hearty Feasts” being prepared for certain communion Sundays. A hearty feast table is filled with fruits and nuts, honey and olives, sweet and savory breads, including brownies, and drinks of all kinds. At the table generations mingle together, speaking and sharing and eating the sweet and savory pieces of life.

We have moved our Fat Tuesday pancakes to Ash Wednesday so that we may break bread together and share communion around tables as an act of worship. Maundy Thursday has become a service of communion at one continuous triclinium table. It is not a seder, but a simple service, around a simple meal rooted in sacrament and scripture. Liturgy is said, prayers are prayed, bellies are filled, and God is glorified.

We still hold the traditions of generations passed and generations present together. We have also found balance, giving ears and voice to the younger generations, the reformers of the future. The shift has brought forth new language in the liturgies of baptism, communion, and confirmation based on our congregation’s understanding of ancient words for a modern day. A thesaurus has become a welcomed and well used addition to my book shelf.

Worship has the power to unite us, and when we focus on the community, the communion with one another and God comes naturally. Jesus had bread and wine, we do too.  We also have brownies and hot cocoa; pancakes and orange juice; and challah and merlot. The same God is glorified through all.


gretchen sausvilleGretchen N. Sausville serves as Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, CT.  A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she is passionate about preaching and creative worship, helping people think about faith outside the box, and developing interfaith conversations and partnerships between Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  When not at work she is often performing on stage, traveling abroad with her backpack, cooking, or practicing yoga. Gretchen lives in West Hartford with her puppy, Beaken, and blogs at thestandbyetraveler.com.

Fellowship and Worship as Messy Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Suzie Gerrard Fletcher

Five years ago, I moved to a rural charge with three United congregations in the Church of Scotland.  The Sunday School as was had ceased to function during the vacancy, and soon after I arrived, it was decided we would try and do something completely different: Messy Church. An interested group of folk gathered for a training course and three months later held our first Messy Church. It is a great opportunity for people of all ages to worship together, and to create a sense of belonging. Broadly based around fellowship, it is both a fun and creative way to introduce people to Jesus through hospitality, friendship, stories and worship. And, to share together in a meal, which for many families and churches, is a rare occasion in this day and age.

Messy Church is its original form is a fresh expression of church that began in a Anglican church in Portsmouth as a way of being church for people who don’t do traditional church, for whatever reason. It is a church of all ages… and lots of churches have picked up on the idea and been able to adapt it for their own situations, both in the UK and overseas. It has grown and estimates are that well over 500,000 people belong to Messy Church, and that number is growing all the time. A typical session includes an introduction, crafts, a celebration (worship) and a hot meal.

In our situation, we have a craft leader and worship leader (myself), and should have had a catering team. We generally meet on the same Sunday from 4-6pm in the afternoon every month (some do it on a weekday or Saturday). There’s a brief introduction to the theme as folk are gathering and then everyone is let loose to go and explore eight different activities which help to tell the story in different ways. The emphasis is on crafts, being sure there is something for all ages and genders, and the adults come alongside and take part whilst lending a hand to younger children. We have a person at each table (ages ranging from teenagers to the elderly) to help explain how their activities relate to the story.

After about an hour, we call everyone to the front of the hall, as our hall is separate to the Church itself, and have a time of singing songs, telling the Bible story in a creative way, a participatory prayer and Messy Grace (blessing done in a circle), before we line up to share in a meal which we serve around one large circle of tables because our numbers allow for that.  The materials used are very helpful in organising each session.  

About half of those who come have/had some loose connection to church, whilst the other half have not. For most of these families, Messy Church is church and apart from special services, they do attend on Sunday morning, and after education of the elders aren’t expected to.  This sort of fellowship is new and different more many in the UK, and it is wonderful to see God at work in generations of people who might otherwise have never known much of the faith.

Messy Church is enabled, resourced and supported by BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship), a registered charity, as one of its core ministries.


suzie fletcherSuzie Garrard Fletcher is a parish minister in the Church of Scotland, where she serves a united charge of three small rural congregations. She graduated from Presbyterian College in 1996 and has a dual degree (M Div and MA in Christian Education) from Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, as was, and went to Scotland for a year, but she and her husband loved it so much she applied for admission to the Church of Scotland and has been working in Scotland since her ordination in 2001. They have three small children, with another on the way, and enjoy family life in a small village on the North Sea, with the convenience of the beautiful historic and cultural city of Edinburgh, just forty miles away.

And A Child Shall Lead Them

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gretchen Sausville

Her name is Lily. She is a bright eyed, fair haired ten year old who began worshipping with us 6 years ago. When Lily and her parents first came to Westminster, we knew that this was not an average four year old. Lily was unafraid and outgoing in church, completely comfortable with her surroundings, endearing herself to everyone in the church family. She boldly spoke during time for children, enthusiastically sang hymns, chatted about the sermon to her parents during worship, and was less than thrilled to miss any part of the Sunday morning festivities.  Lily brought her parents to all church events, and knew everyone’s name in the congregation by the time she was five. If she didn’t know your name, she made sure that you knew hers!

child reading bible smallAs Lily grows, so does her faith and presence. Lately, she plays the Steinway piano in the sanctuary as folks traipse out into the hall for coffee hour, as her younger friends run through the sanctuary. She is the first to raise her hand when questions are asked, the first to draw a picture for the worship bulletin, the first to help the now 4 year olds navigate worship stations or “the good stuff” at coffee hour. She prays boldly for friends and pets and gives sermon feedback regularly. Not every child is like Lily, yet Lily has encouraged every child to be themselves at church. She has inspired a younger generation to be known, to be proud, and to be kids in church. In so doing, Lily has inspired the older generations too, reminding them that church is where every age and stage are welcome. She has chosen church members as her “grandparents for the day” at school, and calls up Granny Annie, who lives across the street, to take her to worship when her parents are unable. Lily loves church and the church loves Lily.

Recently, I received a call on a Friday evening, that Lily was in the hospital, the fever had come on quickly and she was very sick. As Lily sat in the hospital that night, her body fighting infection and fever, she prayed boldly, and she requested her parents call the pastors and Granny Annie. Little did she know, they already had, and prayers for this little one where being shared and lifted up amidst the congregation. Lily’s prognosis was pneumonia and several more days in the hospital. When her fever broke, Granny Annie and I went to Children’s Hospital to see her.  We had to wear gowns, masks, and gloves, a sight that made Lily laugh. As I prayed, she prayed too, clutching the hand of one of her favorite church people, Granny Annie. There in a tiny hospital room, the generations of the faithful were gathered, led by a child’s faith.

On Sunday, Lily’s absence was palatable. Her many adoptive grandparents were concerned and asking what kind of cookies to make her, her teachers planned their visits, and Lily sent a text stating how sad she was to be missing church! Later that evening, the call came that Lily was home, she had taken a turn for the better, and the only thing her parents could attribute it to, was the prayers of the church community.

Lily is special to our church family, as are all of our young ones. The young ones remind us how to be children of God and lose ourselves fully into God’s love and community. They remind us how to reach out to one another, unafraid to share our hurts, our fears, and our joys, as an act of worship. They remind us of our need for a church family and that donuts are always good at coffee hour!


gretchen sausvilleGretchen N. Sausville serves as Associate Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, CT.  A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she is passionate about preaching and creative worship, helping people think about faith outside the box, and developing interfaith conversations and partnerships between Presbyterian and Jewish communities.  When not at work she is often performing on stage, traveling abroad with her backpack, cooking, or practicing yoga. Gretchen lives in West Hartford with her puppy, Beaken, and blogs at thestandbyetraveler.com.

An Intergenerational Experience of the Church

by Ellen Crawford True

If I close my eyes I can see the hallway of my home church. The linoleum tiles are slick under my 3-year-old feet as I run to hug my best friend by the choir room. In the blink of an eye, I see the loving exasperation on my confirmation class teacher’s face. I’m too busy chatting with her son to listen to her celebrating the legacy of John Calvin whose serious face stares at me from the slide on the screen behind her. Blink again and I hear basketballs dribbling on the gym floor on a chilly Thursday night in January while my patient coach urges us to run a little faster and play a little smarter. (They can’t cut you from a church team, even if you have a non-existent vertical leap and are five feet tall on a good day.) I can feel the air swirling around me as four other classmates and I dance in the sanctuary while the choir sings a Christmas cantata. Another blink, and I am walking down that aisle to say my marriage vows moments after the church ladies–armed with safety pins and stain remover–have finished fussing over me and making sure everything is just so. Two years later I am kneeling in that same aisle to feel hands pressed on my head and shoulders while prayers are lifted at my ordination. It is the same place where we celebrate the resurrection at my mother’s memorial service, the same place where the church welcomes my daughter at her baptism.

Jess Fisher-2In each of these moments I see the faces and hear the voices of men, women, and children who have been church. At its best, my experience of faith has always been an intergenerational one, long before such a notion was trending. There were coaches, parents, Sunday school teachers, nursery workers. There were preschoolers and junior highs, circle leaders and the men’s bible study that gathered every so often on Friday mornings in my family’s living room. That was church for me. In many ways, it still is.

In recent years there has been an intentional move to recover this intergenerational emphasis in the church. Some of this movement has grown out of necessity: it doesn’t make sense to have Sunday school divided into too many different age groups when there are only a few children, one youth, and a handful of young adults present on Sunday mornings, so we look to be and do church all mixed together. But the more powerful motivation has been to regain something that gets lost in the larger world. Just as we are too often segmented and separated by gender, class, race, orientation, and ability, we are divvied up by age. As is the case with every division, something crucial and sacred is lost along the way, at least for me. My faith is deepened when I get time to color with three-year-olds. My heart is lifted when I laugh and pray with seventy-year-olds. I am challenged and encouraged when I hang out with and worship alongside people who don’t know the same eighties movie references I do, people who couldn’t name a single Prince song until just a few weeks ago. Something sacred happens when we do church together. I see holiness when I watch those three-year-olds and those seventy-year-olds color, laugh, pray, and tell stories together. In those moments, I catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

In the coming weeks, we will hear from a variety of voices from across the church as they reflect on intergenerational ministry. Like every other buzzword in church circles, it’s not about a one-size-fits-all program. It’s not a silver bullet that will solve all of our problems or alleviate all of our anxiety. But in their reflections, we will hear hope. The posts will be written by pastors, seminary students, educators, and church members about what it looks like for the church to do and be church together, what it feels like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body, what it can mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next.


EllenCrawfordTrueA native of Nashville, TN, Ellen Crawford True graduated from Davidson College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. She has served churches in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. She’s a fan of grits, biscuits, running, dancing, and Steph Curry. She lives in Camp Hill, PA with her husband Dave, their daughter Abby, and their dog Homer. She serves as Pastor and Head of Staff of Christ Presbyterian Church, also in Camp Hill.

New Life for Dry Bones

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

This post was originally shared on Carolyn’s blog, “Deep Thoughts of a Common Household Mom.”

by Carolyn Gibbs

I sat down at the table. The man next to me muttered, “Might as well hang me now.” The woman to the right of me picked up the block of clay in front of her and started kneading it enthusiastically. I looked at my block of clay and waited for instructions, like a proper Presbyterian. Yep, that’s the gamut of likely responses in an “Arts in Worship” workshop at the Next Church National Gathering.

fear creativity crossroadsI was eager to attend this workshop, thinking it would give us ideas on how to incorporate various kinds of art into our worship service. It turns out we were going to make art ourselves! How fun! Or how threatening! Or both!

Despite the fear, I immensely enjoyed responding to scripture through painting, even though I have zero artistic skill. I feel a great longing to be creative in connection with worship. I think that I am the only one who feels this way. To paraphrase the prophet Ezekiel, “my bones are dried up, my hope is lost, I am cut off completely.” God’s creative breath of life is in our worship, mostly through music, but perhaps we are missing out in not exploring other forms of creativity.

A longer description of the workshop is below, for those who are interested.

How do you like to express your creativity? If you are part of a worshiping community, would you be willing to participate in an art project as part of worship? Or would you make sure you had to be out of town that day?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As the workshop started, we were encouraged to fiddle around with the block of clay in front of us. We had no instructions regarding the clay. We continued to work with it if we wished, as we started the discussion. There were two tables, with about 8 people at each table.

First we discussed how non-artistic adults generally feel about doing art. Art (and any creativity, really) is viewed as fine for kids, but adults just don’t go there. This workshop was about why adults should go there.

The workshop leader must have had a time machine on my life. She described exactly what happened to me in second grade art class, when we painted a scene on a tile. I was quite pleased with my scene of ducks and grass. The art teacher denigrated it; the words are long forgotten, but the feeling is not. Almost all of us encounter something similar on the way to adulthood. Our human capacity for judgment and comparison takes over, and those of us who don’t have artistic talent stop making art at all. It’s just too scary and painful to endure the judgment from others and ourselves.

Then we talked about confronting that fear and leaping into creativity. Making art unleashes freedom, joy, and wholeness, and that’s just for starters. If you believe that you are created in the image of God (the original creativity maven) then exercising your creativity is an excellent way of showing it. Why should only kids be able to do this?! Why should only those with innate artistic talent be able to do this?!

In our workshop it turned out that the clay was just a warm-up to our main activity – painting a large banner. Like most art, our painting was to be based on other art, and was to follow rules. We were instructed to base our painting on our response to the Bible passage about Ezekiel’s vision of God breathing life into dry bones (Ezekiel 37).

We had a few minutes to discuss what images the passage evoked in us. I think this discussion helped a lot, when it came time to start painting. But before starting to paint, the rules:

  • First, paint on the space in front of you. Paint your own response to the passage.
  • After a few minutes, everyone is to move two spaces to the left and continue painting. You may not erase, obliterate, or cover up what the person before painted in their spot. You may embellish and extend their painting, or start painting in a new spot. After a few minutes, go two more spaces to the left and extend that person’s painting. Finally, return to your original spot and fill in spaces as you see fit.
  • No talking! This meant we could not collaborate. We could not form a committee to plan what to paint, or where. (That is extremely un-Presbyterian.) It also meant we could not offer any evaluation of each others’ art. We could not issue comments on our own efforts. This was crucial – no compliments, no criticisms. A compliment of one person’s art could be construed by someone else as an implicit criticism of their own art. (“You liked her art, but didn’t say anything about mine.”)
  • The workshop leader told us where the top of the banner would be. She also said that there were pieces of tape running across the canvas, and she had prepared our canvas by painting blue over the whole canvas. After our art expressions had dried she would be pulling off the tape, creating bold lines across our art work.

fruitful_worship artWe started painting. At first I felt that familiar sense of self-criticism. I started by drawing a kindergartenish slab of grass, thinking of “the fruitful land” from the passage. Being more of a “words” person than a “drawing” person, I wondered if I could dare to write a word instead of just painting shapes and colors. I dared. But which word? I chose “fruitful”. I felt I should paint it upside down (my area was at the top of the canvas) so that the word would be displayed right side up. This was challenging.

After a bit it was time to switch spots. I was perplexed after switching. It felt wrong to mess with what someone else had painted. It almost felt as if that spot was now sacred. Instead of painting within that person’s area, I tried to extend from that area, reaching more into the middle of the canvas.

By the time we switched again, I was feeling more bold, and reached into the middle to start a new shape. I painted the words “new life” in the middle of the canvas. Then I decided to paint a cell to represent a form of life and honor my sweet Younger Daughter and her interest in cells.

When we were finished we had a great sense of ownership and accomplishment at having created a work of art together. I do not know or care if it is beautiful in the eyes of the world, but it is ours, our expression of the scripture. When our canvas was displayed in the worship space the next day, I again felt like a kindergartner, proud to have my work up on the refrigerator.

new life worship bannerI just have to add that I believe that it is good and right to have beautiful art, created by truly talented professional artists, in our worship spaces. It can be appropriate to evaluate sacred art and display what is inspiring. In fact, if we non-artists are to do art, we need the professional artists, who figure out things like how big the canvas should be, what kind of paint is best, how long to let it dry, how to display it.

Our workshop group did not create our banner in order for it to be evaluated or compared to professional art. It is valuable in that we ourselves made it as an expression of our connection to holiness. For me personally, it felt like new life for my dry bones which are longing, aching, yearning to be creative in worship.

To see more photos, visit Carolyn’s blog.


Carolyn 2016-02-29Carolyn Gibbs serves as a ruling elder at Hiland Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, PA. She blogs at commonhousehold.blogspot.com and enjoys expressing her creativity through writing, raising children, and trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

Paracletos and Coaching in our NEXT and Present Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month will focus on the art of coaching and the practice of ministry. Some posts will layout insights or frameworks of coaching and some will be stories of coaching that transformed a pastor or congregation. We hope they will inspire you. We hope that inspiration will turn into actual movement in your own life and ministry so that we might move closer to that vision of the church we long for, closer to the vision of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

by Tom Tate

Our annual statistical report to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this year records 156 members at Plaza Presbyterian Church. Many are older. Many are no longer able to get to church. Some have moved to be closer to family members but won’t give up their membership; and we won’t give up on them, either.

homecomingForty-eight people worshiped at Plaza on Transfiguration Sunday 2016. Twelve of them were not yet members – four were first time visitors; four attend regularly but have not joined; four are choir section leaders. All of us gathered around the communion table for the last part of worship where we sang and prayed together, celebrated the Lord’s Supper, received the blessing, and passed the peace. Fifteen minutes following worship many of us were still visiting, not yet ready to head home.

Without a coach for the past few years that Sunday experience might never have happened.

Jeff Krehbiel, pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C. and our coach, came into our lives in June 2013 as part NEXT Church’s Paracletos experiment. Coaching was part of the vision for that program and a concrete way NEXT came along side us to support us in ministry.

In September of 2013, after only a couple of months of coaching, and following a summer in which we were unable to use the sanctuary because of air conditioning problems, we engaged in a two-week process in which we removed some pews, moved others, and changed the look and feel of our sanctuary. (You read that right – only two-weeks for a transformation of our sanctuary.) Today, worship in our seventy-year-old sanctuary has a fresh intimacy for us. It’s almost as if the change has communicated in a way that stimulates us with creative ideas for embodying the values of the Gospel.

During the Paracletos year, Jeff got to know the Session and me and lead a retreat for about forty members. It was there we established a new direction for our church which has become an integral part of our worship and community life. Our once-a-week, thirty minute phone conversations during the first year kept me grounded and focused. They proved so useful that they continue still. Without the coaching I am quite certain the positive things happening inside the church as well as in the community around us would not now be taking place.

We have discovered that we want to be a congregation that recognizes that God is calling us at this moment in time, not just for something out there in the future.

There’s new life in our Room In the Inn homeless ministry that provides hospitality and a warm place to stay during the coldest three months in Charlotte. We have reached out to community members, parents from our Week Day School, friends, and family to be partners in this ministry, helping us serve others as Jesus taught us.

Last November, when a regular visitor suggested that we have “Cookies and Carols” for thirty minutes each Wednesday evening during Advent, we jumped at the idea and gladly got to know twenty-five folks who live nearby and are presently unchurched. We are becoming a resource for worship for many, if not for all.

When a former member recently returned to Plaza she wanted us to become involved with the parents and children living in a nearby shelter. We said an enthusiastic “yes!” to monthly meals and fellowship that have drawn members together who had not been previously engaged in the community and are helping us define what it means to be all accepting and present in the community, learning to identify and respond to the needs of others and ourselves.

We took over the medical transportation ministry for older adults in our part of Charlotte when the agency that had been providing it went out of business. We are becoming a renewing resource for ministry for many, if not yet all.

And the Session has a greater sense of community, purpose, outreach, and faith than ever before as we are seeking to be a living testament to Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Gospel.

While we’ve all benefitted from Jeff’s coaching it is transforming me. Every week we talk about how things are going. Every Friday morning I reflect with Jeff regarding where we are and what I’m doing. The result is encouragement, guidance, perspective, challenge, and help for the week and the ministry ahead.

The result of our initial work with Jeff as coach and NEXT Church as partner has been a new vision for us, a vision that is continuing to inform everything we do, everywhere we go.

At this moment in time, God is calling us
to be a living testament to Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Gospel;
to better serve others as Jesus taught us;
to be present in the community,
identifying and responding to the needs of others and ourselves;
to be all-accepting;
to be a renewing resource for worship, education, and ministry for all;
and to communicate in a way that stimulates us with creative ideas
for embodying the values of the Gospel
everywhere we go.

To be coached, or not to be coached was not even a question three years ago at Plaza. The reality of being coached, though, has breathed new life into our congregation. It has literally changed lives, especially mine.


Tom Tate is pastor of Plaza Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC and a member of the Charlotte Mecklenburg school board.

Greatest Hit: Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple… Re-Writing the Rhyme

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on welcoming guests to worship is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource for you.

By Ashley-Anne Masters

A little rhyme I learned as a child goes like this, “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” There are hand gestures to go along with it to up the dexterity ante: Face hands toward each other. Lock fingers together facing down. Hold both index fingers straight up against each other. Fold thumbs inward against each other. The index fingers make the steeple, thumbs the doors, and other fingers the people inside. When the thumbs separate they represent opening the church doors to look at the people inside.

steeple smallAt NEXT conferences in Indianapolis and Dallas I heard much talk of wanting what’s next for the church to include hospitality, people of all ages, and sustaining life instead of attempting to prevent death. I’m in favor of all those, and have learned about the impact of all three from sitting in the pews instead of standing the pulpit lately.

One of the realities I’ve come to appreciate about not currently receiving a paycheck from a church is that do not have to arrive early on Sundays. As part of my self-guided continuing education while seeking a call, I intentionally show up 5-10 minutes late to worship services at various churches.  I do this to experience how visitors and/or latecomers are treated. In some churches I’ve been pleasantly surprised and in others I’ve been offended when I did not receive a bulletin and nobody passed me any peace.  As clergy, I happen to know insider language and cues, but if I didn’t, I might feel awkward even in the friendliest congregations.

A few Sundays ago I arrived at my scheduled 11:06 to the church I most frequently attend. I walked up the steps with two women whom I did not know. We entered the narthex and were greeted by closed doors to the sanctuary. The women looked at me and said, “This is our first time here. Do you think it’s alright to open the doors or are we too late?” I jokingly made a comment about how people come to this service up until 11:45 and opened the doors for them. Once inside we were given bulletins, and I walked with them to an open pew so they wouldn’t feel alone walking down the long aisle.

The doors of the sanctuary were likely closed because it was a crisp, breezy, fall day and someone didn’t want the sanctuary to get drafty. For all practical purposes that makes perfect sense, too. But I can’t help but wonder if those two women would have turned away had someone more familiar with that congregation not been there when they arrived. Would they have opened the doors? Would they have tried again another Sunday? Who knows, but I do know that closed doors, even for good reasons, do not send the message that this is a gateway into life, hope, and hospitality.

As I settled in to my seat next to the two women, the childhood rhyme was on repeat in my head. Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people. The problem with that is not that the church is a building with a steeple, doors, and people. It’s that someone on the outside of the potentially intimidating sanctuary has to open the doors to see the people inside.

I’d like to receive a paycheck from a church again, and I live in a city with a serious winter season, so I’m not about to suggest we remove all doors from all church buildings. I say we rotate the hinges, leave the sanctuary doors open, and let the Spirit blow where it will. I realize that practically speaking it may mean leaving our light jackets on while seated in the pews, but I consider that a small price to pay for hospitality. Let’s just make sure we aren’t layered in Members Only jackets, as insider language is not welcoming, nor are we the church of the 1980’s.

While we’re at it, let’s tweak the rhymes we teach our children. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. The doors are wide open to welcome all people.”


Ashley-Anne Masters is a freelance writer and pediatric chaplain in Chicago, IL. She is the author of Holding Hope: Grieving Pregnancy Loss During Advent and co-authored Bless Her Heart: Life as a Young Clergywoman with Stacy Smith. She blogs at revaam.org

Looking for more? Here are other resources from NEXT:

A Whisper of Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lori Raible

What is saving my ministry right now? Under the veneer of the rosy-cheeked, puffed-up, perfect show? Under the wide blanket of collective anxiety and fear? Just under the surface of baby-joy? Under the frenetic pace of life as we plead with the dusty donkey to pick it a bit?

The donkey seems so slow.

I would by lying if I said it is the innocence of my children’s faces. I would be faking it if I said it is the anticipation of joy, or the expression of community as we prepare to celebrate. It would be dishonest to say it is giving and receiving.

star ornamentsOf course the collective measure of such blessings express a truth that otherwise may not be evident. But right now, in this moment, it is a desperate hope that saves my ministry. A hope that the promise of the incarnation is not only true, but also conjoined to the promise of the cross: Already, and not yet.

I will not leave you, ever.

The promise itself is strong enough, but sometimes my hope feels flimsy.

If we make it to the manger, will we find Job there? What about poor Jeremiah sinking in the mud? King David in his grief over the death of his son? Hannah weeping in despair for a child she cannot conceive? Guilt-ridden Peter? Lost Judas? Doubting Thomas?

I wish Herod would change his mind. Can you imagine?

Already and not yet.

This year I have no words. Trust me, this is a miracle in and of itself. Call me Zacharias, but this is the type of yearning that is better sung than spoken.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a singing voice either. What sustains me is that other people do. That’s the thing about church. When I can’t gather the courage to ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain,’ I hear choirs singing on my behalf.  Three year olds sing off-key: ‘clop, clop, clop, little grey donkey.’ Willa May Young, Ellen Harris, Joanne Cole, Ed Thomas, and Ed’s dad, Herman who is 88 at least, they make magic with Comfort, Comfort You my People.

I have no words to match the truth one hears between the notes. Between the words of those advent hymns, I hear a whisper of hope that is so deep and so profound that I am left speechless. Shamelessly I rely on a host of angels, to sing the words so I can listen for the promise of delivery in the face of what seems to be an unimaginable labor.

Still. Still. Still,

Wouldn’t that be something?

O Come. O Come Emmanuel,

My heart aches with that hope.


LRaibleLori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes.