Worship on the Edge

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The Bible offers a picture of ever-emerging new forms of worship: Cain & Abel, Noah’s sacrifice, Abraham & Isaac, Jacob setting up the stone altar at Bethel, the Aaronic priesthood, the temple, the rise of synagogue worship during the exile, the early church, and so on. In each era and cultural context the faithful have sought to worship God in spirit and truth—in ways which are authentic and which enable us to put God at the centre.

Modern vs Postmodern Worship

Modern worship was, and is, authentic to its cultural context. Martin Luther’s dictum that, “the ear is the only organ for the Christian” is followed. Liturgy is seen as a succession of words; even in the most ‘catholic’ worship word tends to subdue image. Hierarchy is represented in the worship layouts, whether or not pews are present. Congregations are seen as collections of individual passive consumers, whose role is to respond and not to initiate. The great commandment is to worship God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, modern worship to focus on either mind or heart (or occasionally on soul or strength).

As we move from a modern to a postmodern culture these things will need to change. Worship on the edge tries to engage the whole person in ways which are culturally relevant and authentically Christian. Ideally, therefore worship on the edge has God and community as its foci. The approaches and techniques should spring from a truly missionary impulse; to worship in ways which enable people to honour God in a ‘language’ which is their own.

The comfortable structures of Anglican liturgy, whether elaborated in anglo-catholic fashion or emasculated in evangelical emotionalism, are omnipresent in the C of E. Worship on the Edge treats these structures with respect but is not afraid to engage with them in creative transformations. Postmodern worship both respects the heritage of the Christian past and is also keen to ‘re-mix’ liturgical forms in new ways.

Postmodern worship is also more participative than modern worship; sometimes radically more. Participation is not li9mited to the ‘service’ itself. In alt.worship and other emerging churches the whole community takes responsibility for creating and leading worship. The gifts of the group are the gifts that will be offered in worship. Other forms of worship in the edge are not so radically committed as this but there is still an increasing tendency for groups of people, lay and ordained, to work together on services.

Scripture-based worship

In all the modern liturgies the sermon if firmly ensconced as a core item in the service. It is seen as the climax of the service of the Word, betraying how firmly we are still embedded in a reformation mindset. Scripture-based liturgies place the Bible at the centre, using the whole liturgy to enable the congregation to experience scripture and to respond in worship to God. (Note the pattern of Isaiah 6: firstly the prophet experiences the glory of God, then he responds in confession and, after absolution and challenge, with a commitment to action.)

Some scripture-based liturgies have a sermon, some have a series of ‘mini-talks’ which act as commentary on the action, just as in a documentary film, and others have no preacher or narrator at all. For more information see Tarrant 2003 and the associated website. In 1997 I experimented with a liturgy for Morning Prayer based on John 4:4-42.

Alternative worship

Alternative worship, often now known as alt.worship after the fashion of internet newsgroups, is a cultural phenomenon. Its origins are often traced to the Nine O’Clock Service (NOS), which started at St Thomas, Crookes in Sheffield in the mid-eighties (Howard, 1996). Led by Chris Brain, a group of young people who were dissatisfied with existing forms of worship and familiar with rave culture started to create services which were multimedia, used contemporary music forms, and had a wide range of styles from loud rock to quiet contemplation.

Although the Sheffield experiment ended in 1955 in distress and controversy, many other alt.worship groups flourished. Most use video, rely heavily on ritual and symbolism, and adopt an experiential approach to liturgy. Worshippers are not seen as passive consumers of pre-packaged predictability as is common in mainstream churches but rather as co-creative participants in an ongoing drama.

Indeed, one characteristic of most alt.worship groups is that liturgy is collaboratively constructed. This is because liturgy is seen as an expression of community and of that community’s response to the love of God. Typically, members will get together to plan the next act of worship. The theme or topic will be decided or announced (there is no reason why alt.worship should not follow the lectionary). People will then volunteer to develop worship for that session, probably because the theme speaks to them (or the Spirit speaks to them through the theme). This collaborative aspect of worship is perhaps the most significant different between alt.worship and traditional worship.

An example of an alt.worship service

Alternative worship often involves ‘prayer stations’—discrete areas in the worship space where different activities can be carried out. This service, run by Grace at St Mary’s Ealing gives an idea of how these prayer stations can be used. The service took place in the church hall, which joins onto the church (Grace often hold their services in the church building itself). In one room, tables had been set out, café style, and the service started here, with people relaxing and enjoying coffee etc. The following description comes from Kimball 2004:219 ff:


On arrival people are welcomed by team members and invited to wait in the café for the formal beginning of the service. When enough people are present, one of the team members welcomes them to Grace and gives a short introduction to the theme of the evening. Another member of the team then reads the story of the meeting on the Road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35.

The worshipers are then invited to visit the stations at their leisure, but not all at once so as to avoid overcrowding. They are told they will have an hour or so to go through the stations, which removes “deadline” pressures from those who wish to think and pray in the worship room or socialize in the cafe. The feel of the gathering is friendly and informal throughout, but more quiet and prayerful in the worship space. The team mixes with the rest of the worshippers at all times except when speaking or facilitating.

The stations

Each station has the relevant Bible verses as well as the other things described. Many stations have additional material not recorded in the order of service. Team members are responsible for their own stations and can elaborate or change as they wish within the theme. Much of the final form and content is as new to other members of the planning team as it is to regular participants. On this occasion the stations have a sequence as follows:

Station 1: The hiddenness of God [Luke 24: 13-16]

This station is about the “dark night of the soul,” and how the experience of the absence of God can be legitimate and not the result of sin. There are “magic eye/stereogram” books conveying the idea that God may be present, but we do not see. There is also the story of the dwarves who cannot see AsIan’s kingdom (from 17te Last Battle by C.S. Lewis).

Station 2: Downcast [Luke 24: 17-18]

This station contains the “bitter herbs” from the Passover meal. Worshipers are invited to taste these and read Psalm 22.

Station 3: Storytelling [Luke 24: 19-27] part 1

The disciples on the road to Emmaus were consoling one another by telling stories and remembering Christ. Worshipers are invited to write about a time in their life when they met with God, leaving their stories to be read by those who follow. The station consists of a polling booth fortuitously left in the church that week so people can write on their cards in the booth and pin them up on it.

Station 4: Storytelling [Luke 24: 19-27] part 2

About the power of hearing God’s story, how this strengthens us in dark times. In a second polling booth is a CD player with headphones. The music is “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me” by Gavin Briers.

Station 5: Welcoming the stranger [Luke 24: 28-29]

Who is the stranger for you today? Have you ever encountered Christ in or through a stranger? The worshiper is invited to contemplate 10 photographs of different kinds of people.

Station 6: Breaking bread [Luke 24: 30-31]

A loaf of bread on a table, flanked by candles and an open art book showing Caravaggio’s painting of the moment when Christ breaks the bread and is recognized by the two disciples. The picture is also projected on the wall behind the station. There is a meditation about recognizing Christ; there are many copies of this to take away. Worshipers break and eat pieces of the bread.

Station 7: Burning hearts and telling others [Luke 24: 32-35]

How are you going to tell others about Christ? How will you express your faith to others? There is a short piece of writing to think upon, and worshippers are invited to light candles and pray for others.

As well as following the “road,” people sit or lie in the centre of the room to pray, write, or think. Others are still in the cafe or have returned there.


The practice of moving from station to station in alt.worship has led to a revival and reconceptualisation of the medieval practice of walking a labyrinth as an act of devotion or pilgrimage. The labyrinth at Chartres cathedral is perhaps the most famous of these.

Postmodern labyrinth typically consists of a pathway laid out through a space, in a church building or hall. Along the pathway are a number of stations which invite the pilgrim to participate in activities or reflections. These may be organised according to a an explicit theme, or bible reading, or may be implicit, perhaps following some liturgical sequence such as encounter, response, repentance, praise, intercession, mission.

 Labyrinth is like a cross between alt.worship and the sort of processional liturgy familiar in ‘stations of the cross’. The major difference is that labyrinth is not contextualised as corporate worship but is generally offered as an event open for one or more days. People come when they wish and participate as they wish.

Liquid Worship

Both labyrinth and the kind of alt.worship illustrated above have one thing in common with traditional worship: they follow a linear pattern. Liquid worship is nonlinear. In a service of liquid worship there will be a number of stations (or ‘zones’) and people can visit them in any order they choose. Some will go to one or two at the most, others will ‘flit’ from station to station. In liquid worship there is nothing to stop you visiting the same station two or three times.

After a liquid service I devised with a group of others (it started linear, went liquid at the point of the sermon for about 25 minutes, then brought everyone back together for the ending), one man remarked how good it was to be able to choose how to learn and reflect rather than having to sit passively and follow someone else’s thoughts. On the other hand, a woman at the same service complained that she missed having a ‘proper’ sermon. Perhaps I should have done a ‘talk’ in the vestry as one of the stations—that would have given even more choice.

It has been suggested that liquid worship can help bring about true all-age worship by offering zones which match the styles appropriate to different age groups within the congregation. It may also help to develop liturgical awareness in a congregation—because structure is imposed by others, worshippers rarely give it a thought. In liquid worship they have to make choices and therefore may come to a heightened understanding of the importance of structure in liturgy. Liquid worship can also offer people the chance to experience styles of worship which they have previously ignored or shunned, because they know that if it does not suit them they can easily leave one zone and go to another.

Café Church

In traditional church people sit in rows facing the focus of the liturgy—the altar or the preacher, depending on your tradition. They do not connect with one another except in awkward little rituals such as the peace. Fellowship happens before or after the service, not during it. Café church attempts to incorporate both ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ elements by seating the congregation at small tables in an informal and relaxed atmosphere, serving coffee and tea before worship starts. Café church often uses elements from alternative worship, making use of video, meditation, and symbols. It may also concentrate on simplicity, trying to do “church for people who don’t do church.”

An outline of a café worship Harvest service can be found here.

Further reading

Alternative Worship

Baker, Jonny & Gay, Doug 2003, Alternative Worship, London: SPCK.

Howard, Roland, 1996, The Rise and Fall of the Nine O’Clock Service: A Cult Within the Church?, London: Mowbray.

Kimball, Dan 2004, Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations, El Cajon, CA: emergentYS Books.

Leach, John 2005, How to Use Symbol and Action in Worship, Grove Worship Series W184, Cambridge: Grove Books.

Pagitt, Doug 2003, Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church, El Cajon, CA: emergentYS Books.

Roberts, Paul 1999, Alternative Worship in the Church of England, Grove Worship Series W155, Cambridge: Grove Books.

Jonny Baker’s blog: http://jonnybaker.blogs.com/

Alternative worship: http://www.alternativeworship.org/

General information: http://www.emergingchurch.info/index.htm


Tarrant, Ian & Dakin, Sally 2004, Labyrinths and Prayer Stations, Grove Worship Series W180, Cambridge: Grove Books.

Online labyrinth: http://www.yfc.co.uk/labyrinth/online.html#

Liquid Worship

Lomax, Tim & Moynagh, Michael 2004, Liquid Worship, Grove Worship Series W181, Cambridge: Grove Books.

Ward, Pete 2002, Liquid Church, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson & Carlisle: Paternoster Press.

More information: http://www.grovebooks.co.uk/resources/worship/W181-Resources.html

Scripture-based liturgy

Tarrant, Ian 2003, Scripture-Based Liturgies, Grove Worship Series W 175, Cambridge: Grove Books.

More information: http://www.grovebooks.co.uk/resources/worship/W175-Resources.html

Richard Seel July 2006