(Note: This article was originally written before COVID-19. The ideas contained are now applicable to a time, whenever that may be, when we all can gather again.)
In my previous post, I introduced my church plant Cypher Church, and discussed how we’ve intentionally shifted our community away from a worship event. Not only have we removed weekly services, we’ve also changed how they look. Only once in our three year existence have we done the conventional “5 songs, 20 minute preaching” thing.
So what do gatherings look like?
I will share some ideas, but with one caveat, that you read the first part of this series where I mention how asking, “what does it look like” is the wrong question to ask. But for the sake of equipping others with some ideas that could work in your context, I’ll share some of our practices.
Firstly, we should ask “why” bother re-imagining church services? Here are two thoughts. One, we need to re-invent institutional rhythms to meet God in new ways in communal worship. Secondly, and to a lesser extent, we need to consider how modern society connects spiritually. Re-imagining worship therefore helps those in the church and eventual newcomers.
Although I don’t advocate for using the service as a chief engine unto mission (discipleship is), it’s a useful connecting point particularly when done well. “Well” doesn’t mean excellence in production, rather, a curation of spiritual encounters. What do re-imagined expressions look like? I share these with a few more caveats in mind.
- First off, these ideas won’t work in your context. You can re-imagine them to fit your unique community, but you can’t copy and paste.
- Secondly, note we meet once a month.
- Thirdly, we have built an expectation from the start that how we gather changes frequently.
Change is the norm, not the exception.
We do have some key characteristics that don’t change.
- Each event has a theme, a single idea, and we usually follow the church calendar to center our expressions.
- Someone will share the Gospel which replaces preaching, and that proclamation takes 5 minutes and fits the theme.
- Lastly, we center every gathering around Jesus. So although the format is unique, Jesus is the center.
- Because we always have newcomers, we’ll explain at the onset how the evening will work. Plus, since we practice new expressions, everyone needs some level of explanation on how to participate.
Who connects into our church? It would be easy to say it’s the artistic crowd who welcome the forms of worship we create. But that’s not entirely true. Initially, we were focussed to the hip-hop community, albeit by accident. We are deeply multi-ethnic, are comprised of established Christians, dones, and the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. We are basically the church full of the demographics that others churches can’t figure out. LGBTQ, multi-ethnic, millennials. But that also means we lack demographic diversity (no really young, no really old, no families). We also have an above average number of artists, which means everyone is broke.
Without further ado, here are some of the ways we gather at Cypher Church.
Cypher Church’s name is a play out of hip-hop terminology. The cypher is literally a circle that artists (usually rappers) bring their skill to “battle” each other. For the first year, that’s what our gatherings looked like. We included rappers, lyricists, poets, dancers, and musicians in our mix. Rather than battle each other, we asked everyone to lift their gifts, lyrics, and songs as an offering to God. A subtle shift that seemed to work.
Initially, it helped that we attracted a critical mass of people from the hip-hop community who knew the unofficial “rules” of the cypher. Without enough people to keep the “vibe” going, the cypher can flop. That happened a year in. Our response wasn’t to force the gathering. Rather, we switched formats to match the people who stuck around.
I sought the community for inspiration and leveraged the creators in our midst. We value art as a redemptive act of restoration and beauty. We don’t feature a quiet artist who paints at the front of service for a week or two. Rather, artistic expressions become the central mechanism for all to participate. One evening we had a paint night where we listened to God, while blindfolded, as our fingers moved over the canvas.
What did this expression produce? Simply having an expression that’s different isn’t the point. How the community connects with the event is. We had comments of, “I’m too worried about painting outside of the lines,” or “I can’t do that,” or, “It’s going to look terrible.” Admissions of our own vulnerability and inadequacies emerged as we painted. God has an answer for those longings.Simply having an expression that's different isn't the point. How the community connects with the event is. ~ Rohadi Click To Tweet
Empathy Through Movement
We have a woman who created a movement exercise called “Empathy Through Movement.” Could we translate this into our environment? We talk about empathy, hear it preached, but have you embodied the practice of seeing one another through movement in worship? Our empathy evening generated visceral reactions.
Seeing one another through movement worked in ways I still can’t even describe.
The experience only works, however, if we could get everyone to move. If your preference is to sit and listen to a preacher, then this evening wasn’t for you. When you think about it, most of the Christian worship experience (apart from standing to read words on a screen as a band plays a song) takes place while seated. Why? Doesn’t this detract from a more holistic worship experience?
Stories and Spoken Word
We’ve had evenings that interacted with various stations similar to an Easter “stations of the cross” liturgy. We’ve long highlighted the stories out of community, understanding that testimonies speak loudly, especially in an age where many fall into the “never churched” category.
Poetry and spoken word expressions are other tools we try. For a more introverted community, these are easy to plan and execute. Describe a theme, give people some time to create on their own, and then come together to listen to what God has spoken to those who wish to share. Our last spoken word gathering was themed around “Deconstruction.” The words shared particularly on what it means to be an “outsider” as Christians of color was awe inspiring. God has a place for the outsider.
All of our God moments happened through the exploration of different worship expressions. We haven’t invented anything in our approach by the way. We merely affirm the gifts and abilities already present in our midst.
Wins and Challenges
First the wins. People are being saved, being transformed, healed, baptized, and are discovering deeper community with our church. People who’ve walked away from faith are coming back. People who were never “churched” are finding Jesus.
Every single gathering for 3 years has always boasted someone new. (I don’t know if that’s something to boast about, but my old evangelical formation says it’s something you’re supposed to count.) We’ve found that it’s the people we don’t even know who become our event evangelists, bringing new people along with them.
The challenges? We started off as an introvert’s worst nightmare. We’ve since dialed back. Also, ministering to the “least of these” is tough. Although our gatherings aren’t cost intensive, new Christians have little appetite or formation to support activities of a church monetarily.
Ultimately, what we’ve tried has succeeded beyond expectations. However, it’s all a moot point if the fundamentals of mission and discipleship aren’t being answered. Our worship events aren’t central to our church, which we re-iterate constantly. Worship is important, but if you’re not going deeper in community, you’ve missed the primary purpose of the church. And if you’re not re-imagining gatherings, you will eventually face challenges connecting with anybody beyond the safe confines of the building walls.Worship is important, but if you're not going deeper in community, you've missed the primary purpose of the church. And if you’re not re-imagining gatherings, you will eventually face challenges connecting with anybody beyond the safe confines of… Click To Tweet
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