Posted 1 years 16 days ago ago by Marcia McFee 0 Comments
The Art of Ritual Action
I am going to let you in on something I’ve never admitted to anyone. I secretly desire to have an action figure made of my likeness called “The Liturgical Flow Queen.” When people first started calling me that, I felt all the embarrassment I used to feel when teased about my glasses or braces as a kid. But then I began to embrace my friend’s and colleague’s comments as recognition of something that was obviously noticeable in the worship that I designed or led–things flow in a way that make the ritual feel more like a journey rather than a checklist of things “to-do.” If there was an action figure like that, I’m sure the facial expression would be the “Marcia nod” – which anyone who has worked with me would recognize as my little cue for music to come in (or end!) or for someone to begin to make their way to their next position.
Actions speak louder than words
Of all the ritual art forms we’ve explored in this series of articles, the direction of the action of the worship as a whole is really where I am most at home. Like the director of a film, I hold the big picture of the worship–where it needs to go in the ebb and flow of dynamics, energy and participation and how all the pieces fit together smoothly as a congruent whole. This is also something that I know most churches don’t pay enough attention to–and I understand why. We have spent so much time focusing on the separate pieces of our worship that we forget that each piece gains meaning and vitality from its greater context–the way it functions and speaks in relationship to the other parts. For instance, an anthem or song of response that moves directly out of the end of the sermon seamlessly becomes an integral part of the Proclamation of the Word. Spoken and sung expressions work together to offer a powerful experience of the Gospel.
Most discussions of action in worship would focus on the obvious art forms of drama and dance. But once again I want to ask you to open your perspective. So far in this series we’ve talked about how words, music and visual arts must be seen in greater roles–language is also visual and visceral, music and its dynamics play a part in our spiritual formation and visuals produce an ethos or a “feel” that communicates a message. So, too, even the most basic and simple actions of our worship (or lack thereof) are powerful and shape our understanding of ourselves either as active disciples or passive church-attenders.
Parker Palmer has said, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of acting, you act your way into a new kind of thinking.” We spend a lot of time focusing on the content of our worship (words, tunes, images)–as we should–but what may be even more important is the way we do those things. We may sing a good song about being community, but do we actually look like community? Or do we sit in rows, never interacting with one another? Just turning to face each other as we sing can help us literally embody what we proclaim. We may talk about the call to serve others but if only the clergy serve communion every time, we may be communicating the idea that only the professionals are called to serve in ministry to the world. Indeed, actions often speak louder than words.
The ritual art of dramatization
One of the tasks of a ritual artist who deals in actions is to continually ask the question, “How can we embody that which we proclaim?” In the last article, I used the phrase “beyond banners” to describe a more 3-dimensional way of thinking of the visual arts. Likewise, I want us to imagine drama and movement in a much broader sense than a comedy sketch or even a passion-type play. I’m not excluding those, of course, but there are other articles that you can read for more of a “how-to” on that. Let’s think “beyond skits.” When we seek to add drama, we are standing in a long tradition of the purposes of worship. Ritual seeks to take a concept and give it tangible expression through a set of symbols–and some of the most powerful symbols are the embodied kind.
For instance, to work with several people in voicing a reading, prayer or litany is to symbolize how God works through all people. Hearing the Joel passage, “I will pour out my spirit on all people” with an child’s voice saying “your young ones shall see visions” and an older voice saying “and your old ones shall dream dreams” helps us to hear this passage in a deeply meaningful way we see the potential of that child and others in a new way and we are reminded of the wisdom of our elders. All this “pay-off” for just giving a little thought to how we can enhance that reading. To teach the American Sign Language for “peace” as a gesture for the passing of the peace for a season is to offer a new perspective on what peace requires as we turn our hands over, seeing one side and then the other, before the smoothing-out gesture at its close.
Each of these examples shows how we can move worship from simply “going through the motions” to deeper realizations along our spiritual path. And things like this don’t take 10 rehearsals or getting people to agree to memorize lines. Enhancing the dramatization of meaning in worship in simple ways is something we should be continually seeking to do rather than waiting for the invitation to produce a “special presentation” (one of my least favorite ways to describe the role of drama and dance). This is your invitation to see yourself not just as an actor or dancer, but to embrace your role in the ritual art of dramatization.
Think like a director
Our attention to the actions of our worship is more important than we realize. Dramatists and dancers can help us keep this focus at the forefront of our planning. I know my background in theater and dance has developed my sensibility to these things. As I mentioned above, we often relegate those with drama or dance experience to participation in “special” presentations. But I want to suggest that you, my fellow thespians and choreographers, can help the whole worship team in an ongoing way. Besides the examples above which described drama as an embodiment of meaning, the ritual art of dramatization also refers to a focus on the nitty-gritty details of the action of the congregation and leaders and how that action can “make or break” a worshipful moment.
We’ve been “thinking like filmmakers” in this series–comparing each ritual art form to a particular team member of a film crew. Deciding how and when people get from A to B, thinking about the location of a particular dialogue that will make meaning and movement in the story, making sure that things run smoothly and with an economy of time and energy are just some of the things that film directors and editors do, both in the planning and shooting process.
When I design worship, it is from a director’s perspective that I create the first draft. After I’ve had help from the team with the resource-gathering process, I begin to “storyboard” the worship, actually seeing it in my mind’s eye as I begin to shape the order and flow of the elements. This process has been nurtured by my training as a choreographer and actor. Design isn’t just about the individual “steps” or “lines.” Completing the worship design is about the movement from one thing to another. I had a wise dance teacher say to me one time, “Many dancers can do a triple pirouette. What makes a dancer an artist is knowing how to get out of the triple pirouette into the next step in a breathtaking way.” Here comes the Flow Queen’s favorite expression: “it’s all about transitions, my friends.”
It’s all about transitions
The initial drafting of the worship is the first place that attention to flow happens. But a crucial practice for making sure the flow works in an embodied, real, way is what I call the “cue-to-cue rehearsal.” This does not take place around a table in the church office as you talk through the service. This happens in the worship space, with key leaders actually moving their bodies through the space and “feeling their way” through the in’s and out’s of each part of the service. There will be decisions made in this process that you never would have thought of otherwise. Sometimes I discover that I need to make a brief instruction to the congregation at an earlier point in the service because I don’t want to interrupt the flow of the action later. Sometimes I edit a written prayer or litany because I realize that what felt like the right length as I sat in front of my computer is interminably long as we stand and speak it. If I realize that I have too much of one medium back-to-back (wordy-thing followed by another wordy-thing), I may decide to break it up by weaving the refrain of the previous song in between. Each of these examples are difficult to correct in the moment of the worship itself and we end up saying “if I had it to do over again…”
Editing happens in the planning and rehearsal process, but also in the moment. This is where we differ with the cinematic arts. We don’t have the luxury of hours of time in the editing room, making it just perfect. We have to hone our skills of paying attention to the vitality of the moment and adapting at times to the “now” that is live worship. But if we have walked through it already and are comfortable with the “what’s next,” we can be more fully present in worship and more able to attend to the surprising events that inevitably happen in the midst of community and the Spirit!
The new “usher”
No, I’m not really talking about just the folks who pass the plates. I’m talking here about those who help facilitate any ritual action of the community. The more we utilize sensory-rich forms of communication and the more active the congregation becomes, the more we need confident and hospitable folks to facilitate these things. Whether we’re offering communion in a different way than usual, having a reaffirmation of baptism service, going to stations to light candles, offering anointing with oil, footwashing or any of the more participatory ritual actions that so many churches are doing lately, there must be a team of people who have plotted out traffic patterns, discerned how many stations needed for the amount of people present (so it doesn’t take an hour to get through the line!) and are attending to those who are not able to move in the same way as others. The biggest complaints happen (and so they should) when a new or infrequent ritual action hasn’t been carefully thought through and the mood turns out to be chaos rather than meaningful meditation. Again, those of you who have experience in staging a play or choreographing a dance can be a real asset in this task. (For a look at a video of me talking about worship “vitality killers” including inattention to flow, click here to watch this video).
I want to do a word play with this word “usher.” To “usher in” something is to offer a revelatory experience. The church’s relationship to bodies and actions in worship has been a difficult one (but that’s a whole other article). What I want to encourage is the notion that besides the actual art form of drama or dance, there is an art to ushering in a renewed sense of worship with “every ounce of our being” that is integral to the whole. There is an art to extending a non-threatening invitation to follow along with a few basic gestures of sign language. There is an art to inviting people to the freedom of their own interpretations of a dance. There is an art to discerning if a dramatic piece or video compilation really fits with the message and how it can be woven in with other elements rather than being a gratuitous use of a interesting piece that “sorta” works. In my years of introducing drama and movement into worship, I have learned that in some ways, this task takes more intentional preparation of the congregation than anything a preacher or musician has to do in practicing their art form. Learn to speak about your dramatic arts in ways that will “usher” people into a deeply meaningful experience.
The work of the people
Did you notice something? I haven’t talked about budget at all. That’s because the focus on the actions of our worship is about people, our greatest asset, and that is… priceless. Whether you have a large or small budget, your worship can be enhanced immeasurably by spending time attending to the “work of the people” in active, participatory and engaging worship of God that forms disciples for their work in the world. See you next time!
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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