Posted 1 years 133 days ago ago by Marcia McFee 2 Comments
You are a Ritual Artist
I am what I call a ritual artist… and so are you. I say this because there is an art to facilitating the worship of the people of God–an art to telling the faith story in ways that transform lives. This art lives in a particular context that is different than any other medium. Rather than the lecture or concert hall, theater or gallery, we create for sacred spaces where people come yearning for an encounter with the Holy. It is an art form that holds together the patterning of a rich history, the demands of a relevant present and the hope for a liberating future.
I had the privilege of growing up in the First United Methodist Church on Main Street, Adrian, Missouri. This little rural church encouraged me as a young artist to sing, play the organ and piano, dance and do pantomime in the context of the church’s worship from a very young age. I know the roots of my ministry began there. And then I had the privilege of having a first career in professional theater and dance that took me all over the world. I had both a strong church and arts grounding as a young person. Being a ritual artist is like breathing to me. But some of us come to worship planning and leadership from one side or the other–art or ministry.
Some of us came from arts backgrounds and found ourselves in the world of theology as we began to answer a call to involvement in the church’s worship. Some of us came at this from a call to ministry and found out that worship required us to be artists. No matter which end of the spectrum you came at it from, we find ourselves in the same place: we are ritual artists whose palette of words, music, visuals, and action moves people to discipleship in Jesus Christ.
Over the course of the next six articles (collect them all and use as team discussion starters), we are going to explore what tools are in our “worship design studio” as ritual artists–as preachers, writers, musicians, visual artists, and dramatists. We’ll dream about what “holy hardware” we need in order to create worship that transforms lives. And we’ll offer ourselves permission to be ritual artists, giving ourselves time to be inspired and energized by the work rather than burned out and stressed out by it. In this first article, I’d like for us to talk about the advantages of “planning together and planning ahead.”
The Community of Ritual Artists: Planning Together
Our greatest asset and most precious resource in this artistic enterprise is what I call “the community of imaginations”–the people themselves. No one tells the same story in exactly the same way, right? As you listen to someone else describe an experience at which you were also present, you probably notice that although you shared the same space and time, you actually had different experiences based on your perspective. So it is with our own experiences of the Gospel Story. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” The more we engage the community of imaginations as we plan to tell the Story, the more faithful we are to that definition and the more expansive we become in the possibilities for communication of this life-giving narrative.
In order to get more of the community involved, I like to use a seasonal planning model. There are many reasons to plan for chunks of time rather than one Sunday at a time–we’ll explore these in depth over the course of this series of articles. One of those reasons is the ability to rotate some folks on and off “seasonal teams” who would never have time to commit to a year-long worship team. New perspectives, ideas and energy infuse the “core team”–those whose job it is to work on worship all year long. Within the seasonal team, it is important to have a structure of roles in place in order to create a process that is productive and helpful and in order to avoid the debilitating pitfalls of planning “by committee.”
“The Visionary” (a managing-the-content role) is the one who can name a direction if the herd seems to be heading in too many directions or some have strayed off the path. Most likely, this is the pastoral staff. When working in a team, the flow of ideas can be amazingly rich. At some point, we have to “simplify” in order to facilitate a clear and powerful message. It is important that everyone know that we will certainly come up with more ideas than we can utilize in one season and, if needed, the Visionary will take authority to move the process along. The Visionary is also a spiritual leader who helps to set the spiritual tone for the team’s collaborative work and encourages and leads the team to pray together.
“The Seasonal Team Leader” (an organizational role) helps to organize the meetings and details for a season. This person may change from season to season or it may be one or two persons consistently through the year. Their strengths lie in scheduling, deadlines, detail organizing and communication between team members.
“The Scribe” (a nitty-gritty get-it-done role) - This person takes the team’s work and puts it in draft script form, makes edits and finalizes. Basically, this is a “get on the computer and get it all down so we can see it” role. This may be the same person as the Visionary or the Seasonal Team Leader or someone who is good at synthesizing and terrific on a keyboard (and I don’t necessarily mean the piano kind).
“The Interest Groups” (resource roles) are made up of all the members of the team, including those listed above, who work on creating and implementing various artful aspects of worship (I’ll be writing about each of these individually over the next 5 articles). As you invite persons to join a Seasonal Team, keep these categories in mind:
- Words - These persons love verbal expression and will be working to find and/or create readings, litanies, prayers, etc. that expound on the scripture and theme for the season. This interest group includes the preacher(s).
- Music - These persons will focus their efforts on combing through music resources for congregational, choral, ensemble, band and solo material that brings home the message and offers a combination of new and familiar experiences. It is imperative that the music staff be involved in this group.
- Visuals - These persons are focused on everything visual–from objects and symbols to colors, fabrics, environments, lights and media images.
- Dramatization - These persons are involved in facilitating “ritual action” like communion or baptisms and baptismal remembrance, as well as any readings and/or music that might be dramatized, danced or signed by an interpreter. These persons must work closely with the Words, Music and Visuals groups.
- Action Response - Call it evangelism or call it publicity: “how will the word get out about the season and theme coming up?” This team communicates with the wider church and considers how the theme can be woven into the whole life of the church: what particular mission project would be appropriate with this theme? how can Christian education or the youth group or a particular small group ministry get involved in a way that supports the theme?
Depending on the size of your church and seasonal team, your group will be configured in different ways. If you have 8-10 people working on a team, you could have a couple of people in each of these interest group categories. If you have 4-6 people on a team, you will have to configure it differently. For example, you could combine Words and Action Response, and combine Visuals and Dramatization. Or combine Words and Dramatization, and Visuals and Action Response. If you are a really small team, you may spend time moving from one category to another together or simply organically pay attention to them all throughout the process. Regardless of your team makeup, I encourage all members to initially brainstorm ideas for any or all of the categories… great ideas can come from anywhere!
The Process of Ritual Artistry: Planning Ahead
Artistry takes creative process. Too often we don’t give ourselves enough time to actually have and enjoy that process. Worship becomes what I call “plug and play”–the hymns, anthems, readings, sermon get “plugged in” to the order without much time to think about how all of the pieces fit together to form a whole and powerful message. I’d like to encourage you, as ritual artists, to engage a more focused process–one I call “intentional design.”
Intentional design sees every part of the worship as integral to the message and understands that one part builds on another. Here is my creative process:
Brainstorming is the first step. The point of this time is not to settle on the first good idea but to get lots of good ideas so you can decide which one will bear the most fruit and be the most formative for your community. The most extroverted and fun-loving person on the team could be the one to guide the brainstorming process. But the Visionary (pastor/preacher) is the one who sets the “starting point.” Starting points may be the liturgical season, the lectionary, a sermon series idea or a particular context.
Naming the Direction must happen before the team’s process can go forward. A strong overarching theme for the season with ways to move deeper throughout is identified. The question is: “What will be the most poignant, meaningful and memorable direction for this year, this community, at this time in our spiritual journey?” The Visionary of the process will be the one to direct the team in this time of discernment (or may be the decision-maker based on the team’s brainstorm). Every good jazz musician knows that you must have a strong structure in which to create. This is it. Literally, these are titles and synopses (a couple of sentences) for each service.
Resource Gathering happens when we have some concrete word images to “mine” and explore. It is time to begin to gather possible materials. Interest groups comb resources for music, visual ideas, media images and clips, special ritual actions, and ideas for incorporating the theme into mission, education, evangelism and small group life. You will end up with much, much more material than you can ever use but this becomes the “palette” for your first drafts. If you have two or more services with vastly different repertoire (i.e. “style”), you will want to gather resources appropriate to each service. But having one theme will maintain the spiritual journey of the congregation as a whole.
Shaping and Editing First Drafts is sometimes the hardest part because this is where we have to decide what stays and what goes from the plethora of resources gathered. We begin to put pen to paper (or fingers to computer keyboard) and weave the services together. Attention must be given to a balance between repetition and innovation, familiar and new, and theme-based material and not (if the central symbol is “life-giving water” for the season, you can’t have EVERY song be about water… this gets ridiculous and predictable). Some resources can be repeated elements throughout the season (for instance: a song for Gathering, a way of doing the Prayers of the People, a common visual setting, a Benediction song).
Finalizing Scripts and Detail Organizing requires some evaluation of the drafts for flow, smooth transitions, ebb and flow of dynamics, attention to diversity of expressive languages and most of all… SIMPLICITY. At this point in the process, I say to myself, “simplify, simplify, simplify!” We too often pack our worship because there have been a lot of good ideas. But remember my other mantra, “too much of a good thing is STILL too much!” Is there time to fully embody each part of the worship that is planned AND leave some wiggle room for spontaneity in the moment?
Printing Worship Guides, Rehearsing and Worshiping is when the ritual artistry of preparation meets the artistry of improvisation. Actually moving through things in the space (what I call a “cue-to-cue” rehearsal) and the willingness to “tweak” if needed ensures that sensory-rich worship goes smoothly enough to facilitate the most important goal: the worship of God by God’s people. Trust the work you’ve done in preparation and let go and let the Spirit take hold. In my experience, things will happen that you never dreamed of–in spite of the preparation and because of the preparation!
Fellow ritual artists, I look forward to continuing the conversation–exploring how we can tell the Story in vital ways in order to form vital disciples.
Marcia McFee, Ph.D., is a worship professor, consultant, designer and leader. She travels extensively in order to teach workshops that are aimed at equipping the local church with resources to create meaningful and memorable worship. She lives near Lake Tahoe, where she regularly holds worship design and leadership retreats. Marcia also provides inspiration and worship design help all year long with the Worship Design Studio Online Worship Design Studio Online.
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