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Curating Worship, Culture, and the Church

Curating Worship, Culture, and the Church


by Timothy K. Snyder

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from LF Summer 2011

It has become common to think about worship styles as merely a matter of taste or preference, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to think about our worship. After all, most of the language we use to describe worship styles invites more questions than it answers. For example, take the common designations “contemporary” and “traditional.” Traditional? Which tradition do you mean? The historic liturgy? Which one and whose history? Contemporary? Contemporary compared to what? What happens when “contemporary worship” is a thirty-year-old movement? A closer look at recent trends in worship practice reveals that there are actually whole families of responses to contemporary global culture. Some of these families of responses include liturgical renewal, Celtic spirituality (perhaps better described as neo-Celtic), contemporary Christian music, global music, and alternative worship in the United Kingdom, often referred to as “emerging worship” or “emerging church” in the United States. Each one of these families can be explicated, in part, as attempts at faithful responses to the increasingly global culture of late modernity or what some have termed postmodernity. The focus here will be on the creative wisdom of one of these responses: alternative, or emerging, worship. 

I grew up in a unique Lutheran congregation: Hosanna Lutheran Church in Mandeville, Louisiana. Since the early 1990s, this congregation has been involved with the contemporary worship movement. Later, as a student at Texas Lutheran University, my roommate Jeff and I created Intermission, which we described then as a “worship experiment.” Through this experiment, Jeff and I (and others later on) sought to create a space to explore some of our most pressing questions of faith. The two of us shared the common experience of having led contemporary worship in our home congregations, but intuitively we knew that Intermission had to be different. It had to be a space for uncertainty, doubt, and risk but also creativity. We knew that we needed to create a space that we could engage as full participants and not find ourselves so fully absorbed with worship leadership that we ourselves never worshipped. 

So we formed a “creative team” and committed to (1) a weekly pattern of meeting together and (2) never repeating the same liturgy twice. It was an exercise in limiting ourselves to a pattern not so much for continuity as for discontinuity, creativity, and innovation. That limiting, to our surprise, led us into a renewed engagement with tradition, church history, and our Lutheran heritage. Since then, I and others have been exploring a framework for thinking about and leading worship that is patterned after Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:52, comparing the kingdom to a treasure, with things both new and old to be found in it. [1] 

“Worship imagines a world, nothing less,” writes Jonny Baker, a leading voice in the alternative worship movement. [2] The question is, however, what kind of world is imagined? Is it a world that imagines faithfulness to a tradition for tradition’s sake? Is it a world that leaves behind the richness of the Christian faith and the durability of its forms? Is it a world that speaks to today’s cultural context? These questions among others are the kinds that have framed a movement that began in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s and is now active in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia. The movement began as an attempt at fresh thinking and practice at the intersection of worship, mission, and community. 

Perhaps the most interesting innovation of this movement is a new way of thinking about and practicing worship leadership. Called “curating worship,” it is a way of leading worship from behind the scenes. With its conceptual origins in the world of art, curating worship attends to both the world that is imagined in worship and the particular environments, experiences, and events of worship. Concretely, this often means careful attention to space, audience, and context. But it also means careful attention to history, genres, language, and tradition. At its best, curating worship is the creation of a bridge between the historic liturgy and today’s cultural context. 

What is really innovative about this way of thinking about and practicing worship is that it is not simply a matter of good worship planning. Good worship curation is felt but not seen. When there has been good curation in an art gallery or museum, it is unlikely that anyone will even think about the curator. We know of famous artists, but who has ever heard of a famous curator? This subverts two of the most common images of worship leadership: the presiding minister and the worship band leader. Baker calls these three very different approaches “genres.” As a genre, curating worship creates a context, an environment, and a way of arranging the various parts of worship into an experience, an event. [3] 

Worship is an event, though it is a more peculiar and far more subversive kind of event than we often think. At times, thinking about worship as an “event” may evoke notions of the entertainment industry, high production, and consumer culture. Yet worship in the Lutheran liturgical tradition is centered on word and sacrament. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and preaching are events that imagine a world. 

One of two recent books published on this idea of “curating worship” contributes poignant insights to a conversation at the intersection of worship, culture, and the church. [4] In Curating Worship, Jonny Baker interviews worship curators in the United Kingdom to shed light on some important insights from the creative processes of alternative worship communities. In an interview with Nic Hughes and Kester Brewin of Vaux in London, one of the most avant-garde collectives, Brewin teases out the complexity of designing worship spaces when he says of Vaux: “It was a space that accidentally produced design, rather than a space designed to produce accidents.”5 The Vaux collective, now retired, produced some of the most visually stunning spaces for worship. Often, participants engaged the space as they would an art gallery. At times the worship stretched the liturgy to its limits. 

In another interview, Sue Wallace of Visions in York writes about creating an alternative worship in the historic York Minster and digging deep into the Anglican tradition to find resources for liturgy. The result, called Transcendence, is a multimedia liturgy using dance beats mixed by a live DJ as the musical setting to Rite I of the Book of Common Prayer. 

These two interviews represent just a sampling of the richness found in Curating Worship. However, they show a dynamic relationship with the historic liturgy, one that is engaged in a balancing act between worship, mission, and community. Vaux had no ordained leadership and yet understood itself to be a part of the Anglican Communion. Transcendence represents a unique blend of something new and something old. Incense, traditional vestments, historic liturgies, and of course the cathedral itself represent a strong relationship to tradition. Yet the musical setting borrowed from club culture is an effort to speak to people today in new ways. 

As this new genre of worship leadership has developed, it has brought forth a much larger conversation concerning what it means to be church today. Shifts in culture have demanded new strategies. For Lutherans, worship in the language (and not only the verbal language) of the people has always been valued. At the center of local Christian communities is the practice of worship. Worship, culture, and church are in a constant improvisational dance. That may seem like a jump, yet perhaps if worship does imagine a world, it should come as no surprise that it raises serious questions concerning what kind of world is imagined. Curating worship, then, offers a new strategy, a new genre for worship planning and leadership. Its practice creates not only imaginative worship but also a more imaginative church. 

Timothy K. Snyder is a lay minister at Hope Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and managing editor of Generate. 

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[1] Thanks to Jonny Baker of Grace (London) for this biblical image. 
[2] Jonny Baker, Curating Worship (New York: Seabury, 2011), 13. 
[3] For a deeper albeit complex understanding of “event,” see Dirk G. Lange, Trauma Recalled: Liturgy, Disruption and Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009). 
[4] See Jonny Baker’s Curating Worship, and also Mark Pierson’s The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader (Minneapolis: Sparkhouse, 2010). 
[5] Baker, 91.

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