Learning from Creative Tension: Observations on Alternative/Emerging Worship in England

Ron Rienstra and his family spent a semester in London, England, in 2004.

In early 2004, as often as I was able, I escaped our London flat to visit self-identified “alternative” worship gatherings. I worshiped with these groups of Christians and often met with the leaders afterwards in a local pub to chat about what they were doing and why. Reflection on those visits has led me to identify three common features of alternative worship and to wonder how the larger church might learn from what is going on at one of its growing edges.

1. Together/Alone

Worshipers seek an encounter—to meet and to speak to and to listen to God. That encounter happens both in the stillness of our own individual hearts and in our collective song, prayer, and action. An interesting feature of the emerging/alternative worship I experienced was the creative way they embraced this tension between being together and being alone. The focus in many services was on the individual; there was little corporate singing, and particular ritual actions (such as candle-lighting) were done by members of the congregation serially, not simultaneously. Yet the services themselves were almost all held in beautiful old church buildings (rather than a community center or rave hall). This serves to connect worshipers with the living memories of those who had prayed there in centuries past. (See “Building for Memory,” p. 10, for a discussion of how and why buildings hold memories.)

This tension between together/alone is expressed in other ways too: the labyrinth at one church, for example (see photo), had the congregation gathering in the same room and walking the same path, but each worshiper at his or her own pace, listening on headphones to a labyrinth guide in a decidedly individual experience. And in the Thomas Mass (see RW 67, pp. 14-16) the congregation follows a corporate liturgy, after which there is a significant block of time reserved for individual responses. There is, in many emerging worship settings, an honest acknowledgement that even corporate experiences in worship have an unavoidably individual character, which should be neither ignored nor manipulated.

2. Sacrament-ish

One of the commonly acknowledged features of emerging worship is its focus on embodied, multi-sensory, sacramental actions. In various services we engaged in all sorts of wonderfully creative, symbolic activities that enabled us to worship with more than just our minds. We painted psalms, thought about who we followed on life’s journey as we made footprints in a sandbox, smelled incense wafting heavenward along with our prayers, watched video loops of a growing plant, listened to peaceful “chill” music, built the house of God with Legos, looked at icons in a tent, and ate bread and wine at the center of a labyrinth.

Many churches could emulate this sort of holistic worship, but this last rite—and others like it—were somewhat troubling. Many of the alt services I attended made use of sacramental elements in their worship installations without actually celebrating the Lord’s Supper or actually baptizing new members. Many services offered no connectedness with church tradition in Scripture or liturgy: no institution, no prayer of thanksgiving. The horizontal, communal element with others was downplayed; we ate, drank, or washed by ourselves. One of the worship planners told me they didn’t use any words surrounding the eating of the bread and wine because “we can’t decide on the words to use.” Another told me that he uses the bread and wine conscious that it is not a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Rather, he said, it is a ritual that evokes the sacrament. What we did was often beautiful, even powerful, but oddly vestigial. It was not genuinely sacramental; it was sacramentish.

Even so, Christ is free to be present to his people by whatever means he chooses; and for those who are wounded by past affiliations with the church (as many I met in the alt church are), merely hinting at the church’s unity in the sacraments—unrealized now, promised in eternity—is both painful and powerful.

3. Art and Technology

Most worship services depend, to some extent, on technology: heat, light, even the electricity to run the amplifiers or organ bellows. What is interesting in emerging worship is the choice made to wholeheartedly embrace technology or to eschew it. Congregations who go the former route do so not because of a nerdy fascination with gadgets, but because technology is part of everyday culture, and thus has become a natural medium for new forms of artistic expression: looped music, homemade films, projected digital images, and the like. These communities are experimenting with the very Reformed notion of redeeming new art forms and using them as tools for worship. One service I attended used six TV sets, four slide projectors, a sound system with gigantic mixing board, and two computers. All this technology creates a particular aesthetic ambiance that some communities embrace.

Others, however, are leery of technology-heavy worship, recognizing that every new layer of technology and artistic endeavor has a cost in time commitment and the threat of a seriously distracting technological glitch. And always there is the possibility that technology might become an end in itself. Still, low-tech doesn’t guarantee a low-glitch service. One candle-lit prayer service I attended was frustrating for all present because the level of illumination made it almost impossible for the leaders to read the Scripture lessons.


It remains to be seen whether alt worship is a passing fad or a portent of postmodern things to come. What we see now may be a signal of a paradigm shift in the way folks do worship in the coming century. On the other hand, emerging worship may be more like experimental poetry: some folks learn from it, but it never has pervasive influence. It will take time to discern whether it is even possible for the broader church to adopt and adapt techniques, technologies, practices, and priorities from the alt movement. We will have to wait with humility as we see what emerges when the emerging and established churches learn from each other.



Emerging or Alternative?

The words emerging and alternative are often used almost synonymously for experimental and self-consciously postmodern communities and their worship. However, “emerging” is the more common term used in North America, while “alternative” is preferred in the U.K. Though there are some crucial differences between them, much of what is write.


Modern Versus Postmodern

Emerging worship is informed primarily by postmodern sensibilities. One very postmodern way of identifying the distinction is through a list of evocative and descriptive opposing words (rather than through logically connected analytical prose paragraphs). This list, compiled from a number of emerging church websites, offers a postmodern view of how emerging church worshipers see themselves:

Modern Postmodern Modern Postmodern
Moderating leadership
Curating leadership

Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra has been a regular contributor to Reformed Worship over the years. He is the director of worship life and professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America , author of Church at Church, and coauthor with his wife, Debra, of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Together they have three grown children, a multiplicity of living-room instruments, and a tame backyard they are slowly rewilding.

Reformed Worship 79 © March 2006 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.