Prayer in a Theater and Bluegrass in a Sanctuary

I went to two worship services last Sunday. They included things like a theater, incense, icons, bluegrass, and popsicles. Stick around and I'll explain a little more.

This past weekend I was in Denver/Aurora for the 3rd of 4 research site visits during my sabbatical.1 I was working primarily with Mosaic Church of Aurora, a recent church plant in neglected areas of Original Aurora. I worshiped with them on Sunday morning, but while in the area, I also took the opportunity to visit an evening service of House for All Sinners and Saints, the ECLA church founded by the iconic, tattooed Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber (who was unfortunately not there due to being on sabbatical herself).

Besides the fact that I've enjoyed this summer's temporary break from my usual position up front in worship leadership, these two worship experiences demonstrate that worship in any form can be rich, and can serve to dispel a few myths about worship.


It was not a "normal" Sunday for either congregation. Mosaic's congregation is meeting in a small theater they were temporarily allowed to use. Their purchased facility is right across the street, but this picture shows why they're not using it right now. In partnership with The Fields Foundation (not related to me that I know of), and with the support of city leaders and contractors with whom they're good friends, they are making this currently gutted building into a community "Opportunity Center," in which they hope to worship and with which they hope to serve the immigrant community, the homeless, and children and families (among others).

There were 30-35 people there. The sound system consisted of one microphone. Also on stage were two chairs, the communion table, and an offering box. Their musician was out of town, so this service had no music except for Amazing Grace a cappella at the very end. Several of their dedicated homeless members were absent that day as well. If I had to do percentages, the service was about 50% prayer, 40% dialogue, and the remaining 10% would be communion at the end. Early in the service the pastor invited me up to talk about what I've been learning throughout my sabbatical, and we prayed for each other's ministries.

The pastor often invites someone up to have a dialogue about how God is working in his or her life. This Sunday, it was a woman named Stephanie, a Native American single mother who shared about how much this congregation means to her and how she was celebrating being 10 days sober. As she shared this and about her struggle with finding consistent work and making it through life, the love and support from the congregation was palpable. They cheered for her victories, shouted "we love you," and surrounded her with hugs and prayers.

Other parts of the prayer and dialogue were about the direction of the church and their hopes for transformation in this part of town. People shared their hopes, frustrations, and asked questions. One thing was clear to me: they were not there for a fantastic worship experience. They were there because they were compelled by the vision of the church and knew they were part of the work of God. I was reminded of Fuzz Kitto's short video about mission and worship in which he declares, "'Without mission, worship doesn't make sense. We're just coming together to be entertained."


Sunday evening, it was bluegrass week at the House for All Sinners and Saints. As I walked into the old, historic Episcopal church, I heard a guitar, a mandolin, and a bass playing a combination of spirituals, old hymns, and folk songs. Some people were eating popsicles--an item they give out in the summer due to the lack of air conditioning. Given the national popularity of this congregation's pastor, the crowd was much smaller than I was expecting (roughly 60-70), although this was not their only service. I wouldn't be surprised if it is better attended when Nadia is there. The average age in the room couldn't have been much higher than 35. The service meets in a wooden-floor room about half the size of a regulation basketball court. On a table near the entrance was literature, Christian paintings, and an iPad set up to receive donations via credit card. Chairs are set up in a circle around a table that has a cross, candles, communion elements, and incense. Among the chairs was a colorful rug with toys on it where children are welcomed (no separate class or room for children). No one showed annoyance during the service when the children shrieked. 

Like Mosaic, the only piece of technology there was a microphone that was used by guest readers. House for All uses many of the ancient traditions of the church. All attendees were given a printed liturgy that has the readings, chants, and litanies for that day, following the Revised Common Lectionary. Some of the printed books are specially marked for those who are willing to lead part of the service (I volunteered to do the gospel reading). They rely heavily on participants in worship in this way (their website says they are "anti-excellence, pro-participation"). Worship began with a few songs, followed by the day's scripture readings. Between and during liturgical readings, short lines were sung in the bluegrass style (that are normally done more as ancient chants). The gospel reading was the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23), and one of the readings was a poem written by a second grader about planting and growing.

A Methodist minister who was filling in for Nadia gave the sermon on the Matthew text, in which he was very honest and open about the ways that he can be the different types of "infertile ground" for the "seeds of the word." After the sermon, there was "open time," something they always do. It's a time for personal reflection and prayer to be used however one pleases. Some suggested options were sitting in silence, walking down the hall to the full sanctuary and praying there, writing down prayer requests that were announced later, or taking part in a simple hands on activity related to the theme for the day, which on this day was a table with vases representing the different types of ground on which the seeds fall in the parable. Worshipers could take seeds and put them in these vases that had reflection questions like, "What rock of shallow joy keeps you from rooting yourself in God's grace?"

I made my way to sanctuary, which is an old and beautiful venue rich with symbols including paintings, holy water, candles, stained glass, and crosses. Most worshipers who had come in were kneeling in prayer. One young man went over to pray in a corner in the front that had a votive candle rack in front of an icon of Christ.

After 10 or 15 minutes we all returned for announcements, a few more songs and litanies, and finally communion (for which one could choose between real wine and grape juice). They declare each Sunday that their communion table is "open, without exception." As the pastor spoke the words of institution, he held his small child in his arms for part of it, and as he did so the child was excitedly reaching for the bread. I couldn't help but appreciate the image.


Pastors and church goers alike can conceivably go most of their life without having to experience the anxiety of walking into a worship experience in which you don't know what's expected of you. It's a healthy thing for us to experience from time to time. Without experiencing things that are different, we slip into thinking that our way is normative. This is especially important when we consider the increasing numbers of young people who have never stepped foot inside a church. We often underestimate how important it is that people know what happens in our services. Even if this is not an actual reason we're seeing a return to liturgy in some churches, it might be one reason people appreciate it: there are no surprises. You can simply follow along and you're free to reflect on the meaning.

Also, in both of these churches, it was very obvious that they welcome everyone without exception. The diversity was refreshing. It has been said that people can tell, within the first 2 minutes or so, whether they will be welcome in a church. We communicate it with our words and actions, but we also communicate it in other ways without even knowing it, like the name of our church itself. People are broken, and we look for safe places. In our own churches, are we really "a house for all sinners and saints"? If so, how do we communicate it? Are we a family of believers who love each other and enter into each others' joys and sorrows, or are we separate families who are each coming for whatever the church has to offer, occasionally venturing into our normal cliques?

But here's the most important thing for me: both of these churches dispel the myth that engaging young people in worship is a matter of finding the right venue, music style, preacher, etc. The first church I visited didn't even have music, and the preaching at House for All was not polished. But plenty of young adults and children were present in both.

These churches represent something quite different from the "seeker sensitive" model of church in which we tone down the churchy stuff and use different music to make it as familiar to the rest of culture as possible. I got the feeling that these faith communities were not interested in apologizing for being a church with a 2000 year old history and a deep connection to those who have come before. Pastor Nadia, in a widely read post from a few months ago, wrote,
If in your congregation, regardless of size, prestige or property, if the Word is preached and the Eucharist shared and water poured and forgiveness of sins received, then congratulations, your congregation is a success. So when the numbers crunchers and church consultants say the church is dying…may I suggest that we only say this when we forget what the definition of church is.
But these churches also recognize that anything that is given to God can be used in worship. Creativity and art (not just music) are embraced as a way to connect with the divine. There is certainly something to be said about Leonard Sweet's acronym for effective worship: E.P.I.C. - Experiential, Participatory, Image Rich, and Connective.  Worship is experienced, not just heard; participated in, not just watched; based on images, the things we best remember; and connecting us to others around us, not just looking at the backs of their heads.

Think of the young child enthusiastically reaching for the bread. That's a good image--not just for the younger generations but all of us. We want to be connected to something meaningful, and we long for things like truth and love and grace. We want to be a part of something that is using our gifts to try to transform lives. For these churches, their worship is directly tied to their broader mission. Getting someone to a worship hour is important but not the end goal. They have a bigger vision for a specific community that they pray and talk and preach about in worship. You get the sense that you're going to miss out if you don't connect with them during the week.

In other words, these churches are missional, and that's what I found attractive about them. When you get right down to it, the intrinsic, often sub-conscious mission of today's struggling churches is to grow - more butts and in the seats and more dollars in the plate. It's an understandable reaction to decline, but that's not a very inspiring mission. I've never felt the urge to go be a warm body somewhere. But I have felt the urge to join in and participate with God's real, tangible, transformative work in the world. I am going to be interested in a church that is courageously entering its community, taking it literally when the scriptures say that God makes "all things new," and thirsting to be a part of that work. It's messy, but it's our calling.

To what is your church inviting people?

1 Thanks to my wonderful congregation who I've served for 8 years this August, I'm on a summer sabbatical. The research portion of my sabbatical is funded by the Pastoral Study Project grant from the Louisville Institute. I'm studying how churches are finding ways to engage in community ministry using the model of Asset Based Community Development

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