Recognizable & Fresh: Not Traditional vs Modern
On day one of a new appointment the new probationer minister asks the church council ‘What’s the most important and urgent thing that you want me to do? The answer…‘Bring some life to our worship.’
Easier said than done, and around the Connexion there are many churches and ministers who want this to happen. But there is a recurring issue on how to make it happen. At Rawmarsh Methodist Church in the Rotherham & Dearne Valley Circuit we began on the oft-repeated journey of trying to ‘bring life’ to our worship, across a congregation of c.60, predominantly elderly, long standing members, in a deprived area…you know the story. But we were all surprised how it turned out. Somehow we introduced many new things without alienating older members, yet attracting several younger people and re-establishing a flourishing junior church, attracting many ex-members back, and re-invigorating not only our worship life, but our wider spiritual and community life also.
The most obvious change was the use of PowerPoint to provide a visual input into worship, not just for the words for hymns and songs, but also for other aspects of the service. The kind of things we introduced included video clips from films, songs to be listened to with words and illustrations to ensure lyrics are understood, games for children’s addresses, illustrated bible readings, pictures and moving music to lead into intercessions, musical versions of the Lord’s Prayer, quotes during offering, and many others. We also introduced backing tracks for certain songs as a regular part of the worship, where the arrangement was able to bring something our organ and musicians couldn’t.
Below are a few things we learnt along the way, readily admitting that it took well over a year, at least three complete failures of what we tried, and a regular, persistent but reducing number of unforeseen errors ever since.
The starting point was to reject the terms ‘Traditional’ and ‘Modern’. Everyone agreed that they were clumsy, divisive and unhelpful in agreeing a way forward. We rejected the idea of trying to get a ‘balance’, believing that it would not provide something we all liked...but would more likely provide something nobody liked. Instead we agreed to aim to produce worship that was ‘Recognizable but Fresh’. There was common ground established in believing that both existing worshippers and new worshippers would both feel most welcome in an environment that they still recognized as ‘church’, but every element could be presented in a varied and fresh manner.
Our programme of change stemmed from 6 core convictions, which may be highly contentious with many…but proved common ground across the vast majority of our congregation.
The Hymn Sandwich is Good not Bad – structure in worship is inevitable and necessary. At least the hymn sandwich is open about structure and order. There is a great deal of flexibility within such a pattern if used creatively. Sticking to this principle allows our worship to be recognizably Methodist, even when the elements are very ‘fresh’ indeed.
Every element of the service can-and should- be great. Commonly the greatest amount of creative energy is invested in the sermon, but it constitutes only about a quarter of our time. Carefully designed visuals and appropriate music provide moments of spiritual impact throughout the service
Technology should serve us… and not the other way around. We never used new technology unless it improved something. To just use it is not an improvement in itself, it must add something. e.g. Just the words on a screen is not a major improvement on a book…in fact we lose the ability to re-read lines from previous verses. Words should be illustrated, or decorated to lead us in understanding and worship.
Style must never replace content. Don’t bother using something if it is not excellent. Something is not better, just because it is visual, instead use PowerPoint and video sparingly so that there is a positive reaction when it is used.
Most-yes-most people, see the need for change. Change is rarely the issue…how to change and what to change is almost always the issue. So we were very careful to listen and take on board every possible comment we had without ever letting up, or giving in.
New and existing congregations essentially want the same thing… There is the continual tension in any act of worship to offer two of Christ’s instructions, ‘Come to me you who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ and ‘Take up your cross and follow me’. Summarised in our mind as…Do we offer comfort or challenge? We reconciled the tension by agreeing that our worship would best honour God by ‘making people feel safe enough to be challenged’.
We know that there is much more to be said on each issue here, but this was our common ground upon which we felt we could build.
Some of our better decisionsL~
Wise quotes (c.8/9) about the sermon subject from various attributed sources, with a music backing, during the offering adds an uncontentious, worshipful element to the service. We always give Jesus the last word.
Children’s addresses were the easiest place to use PowerPoint resources, especially with quizzes, and ‘name that tune’ type games. We also play music if the children are ‘doing’ an activity, such as racing or building.
We used PowerPoint for each song, but continued to encourage the use of hymn books, still putting up and announcing hymn numbers. Some will always prefer books, and that’s fine.
Words for songs/hymns plus two other PowerPoint features is enough. Any more than that feels like a slide show.
We don’t use PowerPoint during sermons (except when showing a picture is better than explaining it) to give variety to the presentation style.
We don’t put up a title to every part of the service. We feel that it makes adults feel like we are treating them as children.
Any single presentation is timed between 2-4 minutes. Any shorter makes congregations wonder …’why bother?’…any longer feels too long.
Ideal for family worship, Carols by Candlelight, Remembrance day, Welcome and Farewell Services.
We spent time carefully designing a default slide, which would be on screen when there is nothing else playing…so that we avoided the ugly blank screen dominating the sanctuary.
Some of our basic rulesL~
Using PowerPoint has to make things better than they already are…not worse. Just using it is not an end in itself. Remember not using PowerPoint is much better than using it badly.
Typeface, slide design, and slide transitions really matter. No one will ever comment on it, but they contribute to whether the service feels uplifting or tacky.
Don’t use too many ‘fun’ typefaces…they quickly become irritating. The aim is for the typeface to be NOT noticed.
Using PowerPoint will not transform worship by itself, it can only make a small contribution to a wider programme of committed preaching and prayerful preparation.
Work very hard to get the screen to look as though it is part of the church.
Ideally don’t use a screen at all and use a blank part of the wall and project white text on a black background…
It takes a great deal longer to create PowerPoint services.
Design is more than sticking a few pictures on a slide. We look at how the TV companies do it…then pinch their ideas. Also backing music on TV and film soundtracks have been used to bring another dimension to worship.
Some of our dos and don’tsL~
Don’t experiment with different slide and text transitions… stick to Fade smoothly, and vary only the speed. Spinning and Bouncing text only works with lively kids songs. Let powerful words speak for themselves.
Don’t use Powerpoint in sermons – makes it feel like school.
Don’t buy a cheap projector. Buy the most powerful you dare afford to ensure that colours and images can be seen. Washed out images are pointless if people have to work out what they are looking at. If they don’t engage the eye, then they won’t engage the heart.
Don’t fight a battle over using PowerPoint unless the material is very good indeed.
Don’t use PowerPoint for the words in Holy Communion. For many of our members this is the most important part of worship, and therefore the area where they would ‘fight’ the most. Also it is the place where there would be the highest number of opponents. So avoid it, and concentrate on less contentious areas. This is a poor and unnecessary battle to fight Also we feel that using a book is another variety of communication, which adds to the experience of worship.
Don’t get too depressed. Things will go wrong… a lot… to start with.
Do work very hard to reduce errors though. We don’t get many chances to get it wrong.
Do introduce new stuff during the offering. uncooperative people are too busy finding their sweets for the sermon, to be offended.
Do use it during children’s addresses – kids, and people that love kids, really get it.
Do check everything over and over and over and over….
Do listen to every request and criticism, and do what you can to accommodate…for example someone was unhappy about having songs with lyrics being played during the distribution of communion. So now we only use instrumental tracks during communion. We find this adds more variety during the service. So we are grateful.
Our worship has been renewed, feeling ‘fresh’ and yet remaining recognizably Methodist. For us this has given us a common ground to develop as a church family and we are so grateful to the Lord for guiding us into new expressions of his eternal creativity, growing closer to him and each other in the process.
Alistair Sharpe is Methodist minister in the Rotherham and Dearne Valley Circuit
METconnexion, Winter 2008, pp. 16-18.