The transformation in worship at Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ began with a Bible study—a wacky one at that. During my first year at SCUCC, we started a Wednesday Logos program for children and youth. Logos is an ecumenical, nationwide program that goes by different names in churches (ours is called B.E.A.C.H.). The basic program contains four elements: Bible study, worship skills, recreation, and dinner. The program is run primarily by laity.
Just before our program started, there was one gaping hole: no one had come forward to lead Bible study for our middle and high school youth. Since I had just arrived from Princeton Theological Seminary fresh from my Ph.D. studies in the Hebrew Bible, all heads turned to me. “Eric, how would you like to lead Bible study for the middle and high school groups?” someone asked. I was just naive enough at the time to answer, “Sure, I’d love to! I’ve never taught youth before. It sounds like fun.”
I was pretty excited about the whole thing until I met the youth themselves and assessed their interest in, and commitment to, studying the Bible at somewhere less than zero! Panic set in.
I don’t particularly like using prepackaged curricula to teach any form of class, but in this case I was so desperate I sorted through piles of published youth-oriented Bible studies. Much to my dismay, I found them to be utterly boring or overly conservative, or both. So I cleared them off my desk, got down on my knees, and prayed. Hard!
I asked God, “What is at the center of our youth’s world?” I figured that if I could discern what was at the center, I could step into it, on their own turf, bringing scriptures along with me, letting them speak naturally within the world of our youth.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that if anything is at the center, music is part of it—rock, pop, alternative, rap, even country music for some. Happily, at the time I was listening to much of the same music, which emboldened me to step into the center of their world using music as our common meeting place.
I started something that has become known as The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study (WMDBS). Each week we would focus on a particular song and one or two Scripture passages. My criteria for selecting a song were simple: (1) are the youth currently listening to it, and (2) does it express anything meaningful about life? Theologically, I assumed that if a song expresses anything meaningful about life, there must be a way of engaging with it fruitfully in Scripture.
Having selected a song, we would play it on a boom box (usually at high decibel levels!), following along with lyrics I had printed for the group in advance. When the song was over, I would ask, “What are the major thoughts, emotions, and messages you find in the song?” Responses would be written on a white board behind me.
Then we would turn to one or two Scripture passages I had chosen in advance. We would read each passage, then ask the same questions we had of the song, noting responses on the white board.
Finally, after discussing both the song and the scriptures in isolation, we would set them in conversation, asking, “What similarities and differences do we find between the song and the scriptures?”
The purpose of the WMDBS was not to say, “Look at your evil, devil music compared to the great and awesome scriptures.” Nor was it to say, “You see, it all just says the same thing anyway (so why read the Bible?).” Rather, its purpose was to engage faith and everyday life using the Bible and popular music as conversation partners.
Can you imagine what happened? It worked! By “worked” I primarily mean three things:
- The youth actually showed up each week, rather than every once in a while—when they had nothing “better” to do.
- The youth often brought friends—sometimes even their “significant others.”
- Most important, the youth got it.
By “got it” I do not mean to imply that when they hear, say, Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn” on the radio, they think of Romans 8:28-39, which I had paired with this particular song. Rather, I mean that when the youth hear a song we covered in the WMDBS, they remember. They remember that faith engaged the heart of their everyday lives in a fruitful way—in a way that mattered very personally to them.
Once our youth understood the relationship between faith and everyday life, the wheels started spinning. Rapidly. They wanted to get more involved in church. They started attending other church functions and events. They volunteered to teach Sunday school. They helped with church mission projects.
Yet despite our youths’ newfound enthusiasm for seemingly everything having to do with church, there was one place the youth absolutely would not go. Worship. They avoided worship like you or I would stay clear of a nuclear reactor meltdown.
“Is worship that bad?” us older folks asked. At the time, we had a single, traditional service at 10:00 Sunday mornings. And no, worship really wasn’t that bad. By any other measure, the service appeared to be doing just fine. It enjoyed broad congregational support. It had lots of energy. It was growing—not rapidly, but steadily enough that we knew we would be forced to start a second service within the next couple of years to accommodate everyone. Our youth were the only ones not coming.
The Plum That Became a Hand Grenade
I fretted over our lack of youth participation in worship. I fretted particularly since I couldn’t simply do what churches typically train you to do: blame the youth themselves. After all, the youth had proven beyond doubt to be highly interested and willing to participate in areas where they readily found a connection to their everyday lives.
One day I was driving home from church listening to music on my car’s CD player. As I continued to puzzle over our lack of youth involvement, a “plum fell from heaven,” as the Buddhists say. The “plum” took the form of an inner observation: “Eric, this happens every week. You pull into church, turning off the rock or jazz on your CD player, then go inside and offer what you have to offer. Afterward, you pull away from church, turning back on your rock or jazz, and that’s where it stays all week long.”
“Yes,” I thought, “that’s pretty accurate.”
Another “plum” fell, taking the form of a question: “Does the music you listen to all week long move you spiritually?”
“Yes, definitely,” I responded. “If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be listening to it all week.”
A final “plum” fell, which I experienced more like a hand grenade: “If you’re listening to this music all week long, and if it’s moving you spiritually like you say, then why is there a firewall around worship? Why aren’t you bringing it into the sanctuary, especially when your congregation isn’t listening to ‘church music’ during the week either?”
I could not answer this question. I had no idea why music or, for that matter, any number of other elements from everyday life were held at bay at the doors of the sanctuary. Frankly, I had never seriously considered it a problem before. I am a child of traditional, mainline Protestantism. So-called traditional worship makes sense to me. I relate to the hymns, the liturgy, the sermon. Yet as much as I love these things, I must admit that neither I nor the majority of my congregation listens to “traditional” worship music during the rest of the week, nor do we have much interest in reciting responsive readings or listening to more sermons outside Sunday mornings.
I thought about all the complaining we ministers and academics do about how good church folks in the mainline church don’t seem to bring Sunday morning into the rest of the week. Could it be that the problem
is not the failure of our laity to bring Sunday morning forward to Monday afternoon, but the failure of church leaders to bring Monday into Sunday? I suppose there is some sort of “splendid isolation” one can feel about stepping into worship that looks very little like everyday life, but at what cost? At the cost of everyday life itself?
I was so distressed about these questions that the very next day I called our music director and youth leader, Alan Murray, asking him to help me think through these issues. As a result of our conversations and a little fund-raising from a few families in the congregation, a handful of youth and adult leaders launched a monthly worship service for teenagers that became known as Alt.Faith.
Worship as Experimental Laboratory
Our basis for starting Alt.Faith was not only to do something wonderful for our youth, but to test out a hunch that has since become one of our foundational pieces of worship theory. The theory is this: bring everyday life into the heart of worship, and people will bring worship into the heart of their everyday lives. Life itself will ultimately become an act of worship.
Alt.Faith thus served as an experimental laboratory for what worship for all ages might look like in the future. We found that with youth we could really push the envelope. We could try all kinds of new ideas that might prove to be complete disasters if inflicted upon our “traditional” folk. We could take risks, working on little more than hunches and intuitions, knowing that we could either succeed wildly or—just as important—fail miserably and not lose half our congregation and budget along with it.
Through Alt.Faith we tried all kinds of experiments. We hired a rock band who did not know “church music.” We experimented with multimedia—something about which I’d previously sworn, “Hell will freeze over before I ever use it in worship.” The sermon became like a World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study on steroids. Youth brought in poetry and quotes from books they had been reading. We drew on a wide variety of arts, including drama and dance. Whatever we brought in, we were determined not to let it be used as mere “religitainment,” but to make it core, message-bearing material. We invited all of life into the dance of faith.
During the two years of Alt.Faith’s existence, we experienced a number of wild successes and miserable failures. Both! Yet looking back, it really did not matter whether we failed or succeeded each month because, either way, we learned something we did not know previously about worship.
Our greatest finding was that the original hunch was absolutely correct. You can bring everyday life into worship in such a way that worship goes back into everyday life. Worship in this mode is capable of reframing life, setting the human story into deep relationship with God’s larger story. When this happens, the dividing line between the sacred and profane becomes quite fuzzy. One discovers the sacred within what was once thought to be profane, and the profane itself is readily transformed by the sacred.
Sometimes people would ask how we could bring secular music or non-Christian art forms into church. I would respond, “Just open your Bible and you’ll find your answer.” If the Psalms can affirm that the seas, hills, and forests are all capable of praising and glorifying God though they be inanimate objects without minds or souls, how much more can human beings do these same things without being consciously aware of what they are doing. It simply takes the lens of faith to perceive it. We discovered in Alt.Faith that worship can provide such a lens.
Excerpt from From Nomads to Pilgrims: Stories from Practicing Congregations, copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go toour permissions form.
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