C21hurch Session 7

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Session Seven—Worship on the Edge

It may seem strange to have a session on worship in this course. After all, isn’t worship something that Christians do, and therefore inappropriate for our focus on the unchurched? But in practice there are two reasons why we need to focus on worship.

Firstly, unchurched people who come to faith do not just abandon their culture; so we need to find ways in which new Christians can approach God that are authentic to their own experience and world-view. Secondly, and more importantly, those working in the mission field in the West are finding that a lot of people become members of a worshipping community for some time before they are willing or able to make any commitment of faith.

In 1994 Grace Davy wrote a book on patterns of believing in Britain. She subtitled her book, believing without belonging, to represent the fact that many more people express belief in God than actually belong to any organised religious group. However, we are finding that increasingly, people take a journey which could be described as belonging?believing?behaving. First comes attendance at, and acceptance into, some form of gathered community which has worship at its heart (it might be a fresh expression of church, or a cell group, or an Alpha course). Next may come an awareness of God and an understanding of Jesus and the Spirit, leading to some profession of belief. Finally, often after some years, a growth in discipleship leads to behaving in a Christian manner. Given this, it is vital that we are able to provide culturally-consonant worship.

The changing form of worship

The Bible offers a picture of ever-emerging new forms of worship: Cain & Abel bringing their offerings to God; 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’s worship in homes; 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.

This session is entitled Worship on the Edge, a term which is used as a convenient catch-all phrase to describe a number of contemporary approaches to worship which have one thing in common—they all try to respond to contemporary culture in ways which lead to a form of worship which allows people to offer proper honour and response to God while remaining authentically true to their own experience and condition.

Modern vs Postmodern Worship

Modern worship was, and is, authentic to its own cultural context. Martin Luther’s dictum that, “the ear is the only organ for the Christian” is followed. Liturgy is seen as a linear succession of words and actions; even in the most ‘catholic’ worship, word tends to subdue image. Hierarchy is represented in the worship layouts, whether or not pews are present. Modernist worship is devised and performed by specialists and congregations can be seen as collections of individual passive consumers, whose role is to respond and not to initiate.

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 twin foci. The approaches and techniques should spring from a truly missional impulse: to worship in ways which enable people to honour God in a ‘language’ which is their own.

Postmodern worship seeks to move beyond the past but not to overthrow it—it both respects the heritage of the Christian past and is also keen to ‘re-mix’ liturgical forms in new ways. It is also more participative than modern worship; sometimes radically more. Participation is not limited to the ‘service’ itself. In the alternative worship characteristic of the emerging church 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 on 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 creating and presenting services.

Scripture-based liturgy

In modern protestant worship the sermon is firmly ensconced as a core item in the service. In the liturgical churches it is seen as the climax of the service of the Word; in ‘free’ churches the word is even more central, betraying how firmly we are still embedded in a Reformation mindset. Scripture-based liturgies also place the Bible at the centre, but in a radically different way. Instead of a single voice proclaiming the scripture, the whole liturgy is designed 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, there is a commitment to action.)

The aim of a scripture-based liturgy is to match the liturgical structure to the narrative structure of the Bible text. So if a Bible passage has two people meeting, then interacting, then parting the corresponding liturgical structure could be greeting, teaching/prayer/sacrament, dismissal.

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. As an example, here is the outline of a service I devised and led at St Mary, Ealing in August 1997 (some years before I ever came across the term ‘scripture-based liturgy’).

Note how much this still owes to modernist thinking: lots of ‘input’ from the front, not a lot of participation, and so on. Yet its impact was huge; people mentioned to me years afterwards. This is due, I think, to the fact that it used the structure of the Bible story to drive everything else.

Café Church

The term ‘café church’ is heard ever more commonly nowadays, though it is actually used in two separate but related senses. Firstly, there are those Christian communities who are experimenting with meeting in cafés or simply running cafés as an act of service and discipleship. The café forms a ‘third place’ (home is the ‘first place’, work is the ‘second place’) as described by sociologist Ray Oldenberg (see Frost 2006:56). A third place is somewhere people can meet and hang out. The bar in Cheers and ‘Central Perk’ in Friends are well-known examples. Starbucks spends a lot of time and money attempting to be a third place. In this kind of café church people can come and enjoy themselves and not necessarily realise that there is a Christian connection. But relationships get built, friendships form, and gradually there are opportunities for exploring faith (see page 41 above for an example of this kind of café church).

The second usage, which is the one relevant to this session, relates to a style of worship. 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, and perhaps during it as well.

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.” There are a few things to remember, such as the fact that there isn’t really a ‘front’ if people are sitting around tables. Someone will always have their back to any given point in the room. Of course they can turn round but this isn’t necessarily ideal.

So think carefully about service sheets and song books versus PowerPoint. Service sheets may clutter up the tables, video projection requires everyone to face the same way—although a few carefully-placed flat-screen monitors could offer the best solution.

If a sermon is to be preached it might be better if its delivered from the table where the preacher is sitting. Using a hand-held radio microphone and offering an ‘open mike’ time when anyone can contribute may well fit better with the café ethos. Put a time limit on contributions. There is always the possibility that non-Christians may say something you’d rather they didn’t but this is a risk which has to be taken. Café-style offers the possibility of having a mix in the service of table-based prayer, discussion and well as worship which engages the whole room.

Xpressions Café

In the Chet valley benefice in South Norfolk, café church is taken a little further. Xpressions Café is in some senses a hybrid of the two types of café church mentioned above. It consists of three parts:

Alternative worship

Alternative worship, sometimes known as alt.worship after the fashion of internet newsgroups usually traces its roots 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 1995 in distress and controversy, many other alternative 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 but rather as co-creative participants in an ongoing drama.

Indeed, one characteristic of most alternative 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 alternative 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 alternative worship and traditional worship.

Visions, an alternative worship group meeting attached to St Michael-le-Belfrey in York, write:

We are part of a movement rather loosely termed Alternative Worship, but the name doesn't really say enough—we mean that our response to the Divine Presence has to be born from our own experience together, as individuals and as a community, and not simply accepting whatever forms of worship are given to us.

However, that is not to say we reject the past, rather that we see Christian traditions as a rich field of possible resource to draw on. But we also draw on contemporary culture in finding expression for our spirituality. The writer Len Sweet describes this sort of worship as being EPIC, and that certainly suits us:

Experiential        We aim to be a place where people can experience God rather than just talk about Him.

Participative      You’re not an audience, you’re part of the worship and always get a chance to interact if you wish.

Image Based       We use all available media (and lots of pictures) to enhance our worship.

Connected         We don’t wish to bury our heads in the sand. We want to connect with each other, God, and the hurting people around us. To support each other in a world where we can all feel a bit isolated sometimes.”

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. This particular service took place in the church hall, which joins onto the church (Grace often hold their services in the church building itself, as the photograph shows). 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 Aslan’s kingdom (from The 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 Bryars.

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 alternative 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.

Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has only one pathway; there are no dead ends. In the Chartres-style labyrinth, shown in the photograph, the walker gets successively close to the middle and then moves right away from it until eventually ending up in the centre of the labyrinth.

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 hybrid of alternative 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 alternative worship illustrated above have one thing in common with traditional worship: they follow a linear pattern. Liquid worship is nonlinear. The term seems to have been coined by Pete Ward (2002:96). In Liquid Church he draws attention to a couple of interesting aspects of traditional church worship.

Firstly, in the middle ages it was common for people to ‘hear mass’. This was a multi-media spectacle, certainly as visual as verbal, with smells, elevation of the host, colourful vestments, bells, chants, and so on. Ward, citing Eamon Duffy, says that it was not uncommon for mass to be celebrated simultaneously at both main and side altars. The masses were timed so that the elevation could be witnessed several times by the congregation. Indeed, since this was before pews had been invented to keep people under control, they could wander from altar to altar as the spirit moved them.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in Orthodox churches today. In a church he visited on a small Greek island, people come and went as they pleased:

Inside the church a variety of activities was offered. Worshippers could kiss the sacred icon, light candles, eat the blessed bread that was available, fill small bottles with holy oil, and wander around the church—this offered the possibility of more icon kissing. The service was conducted while all this took place. As the singing and chanting continued the priest read petitions quietly in front of the altar. At one side of the church people were writing prayers on small pieces of paper, and these prayers eventually found their way to the priest….This was a corporate moment, but it was also decentred. The static and largely passive congregation that is characteristic of solid church seemed a million miles away. ((Ward 2002:96)

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 (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 or videoed a brief homily and then looped it—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.

The example of Xpressions Café, given above, is another approach to liquid worship. In a sense, the whole thing is liquid: people come and go as they please and move from area to area as they choose. Liquid worship is not only for younger people. At the very first Xpressions Café one of the oldest members of the congregation was seen looking at the menu and saying to her friend, “I’ll tell you what, dear. We’ll go to this session, then we’ll come back and have another coffee, and then we’ll go to that one.”

An example of liquid worship

Lynn Fry, of East Harling, runs a monthly service using liquid worship at its heart. It also has café elements. In effect the café becomes one of the zones in the liquid worship. Here is a sample service sheet:

Welcome to Soul Cafe’!

We’re hoping that café-style church will help us bring people together while recognising that people learn in different ways and are looking for different things out of our gatherings. After our worship time with the music group, worship takes place at a series of zones around the church. You have to decide which zones you would most like to visit. You may decide to spend all your time in one place or try to visit several. Today our worship is based on Creation—thanksgiving for all God has done and saying sorry for the way we waste or spoil the things he has made.

We will gather together at 6:45 for a short act of worship.

The service started at 6:00 pm and lasted about three-quarters of an hour. People were together at the beginning and the end, with the liquid part lasting about 30 minutes. Both children and adults were catered for. The service has proved to be very successful, especially with younger people.

The one serious complaint has been from those who feel that they are not getting enough ‘teaching’. In a consultation with the leadership team at East Harling I firstly invited them to consider the role of teaching in their church life. Is the Sunday service the best time for it? At the time there were no midweek Bible study or cell groups in the life of the church; perhaps these might meet the expressed needs better. Secondly, why can’t teaching or preaching be part of the worship? The preacher could be in a quiet area offering a talk or Bible study as one of the zones. Or a short talk could be pre-recorded or videoed and played on a loop in a suitable area. If noise insulation is an issue, headphones could be provided.


Worship on the edge never stays on the edge. What is ‘cutting edge’ today becomes mainstream tomorrow. The approaches outlined here are already on the way to becoming mainstream. It may be a little while before the Liturgical Commission offer guidance for alternative or liquid worship but many quite traditional churches now use aspects of both.

Session Seven Notes—Worship on the Edge

Scripture-based liturgy

Tarrant 2003, Scripture-Based Liturgies—Tarrant presents five sample services: Luke 24, an ecumenical Easter communion; John 6, a communion liturgy; Acts 8, service of the word with baptism; Philippians, an office; Hebrews, morning prayer. There are more scripture-based services at the Grove resource page (including a fuller version of the one I wrote in 1997):


Café church

George Lings has published two editions of Encounters on the Edge on Café Church (2007a, 2007b).

The Fresh Expressions website offers a brief introduction to café church and a couple of case studies of different approaches to café church:


A brief note on some of the practicalities of café church can be found on the alternative worship website:


Andrew Jones offers some interesting thoughts (his stuff is always worth reading):


An example of a café-style harvest service which I did at Bacton in 2005 can be found here: http://www.emerging-church.org/cafe_church_harvest.htm

For information about Xpressions Café, go to the Chet Valley Churches website at: http://www.chetvalleychurches.org/xpressions_cafe1.htm

Alternative Worship

The quote from visions can be found at http://www.visions-york.org/visions.html

Baker & Gay 2003, Alternative Worship—as well as a brief but good introduction to the alt.worship scene this book contains a number of worship resources based around the church year. There is some excellent material and a CD-ROM is provided with words, images, movies and songs.

Buckingham Shum 1996, Alternative Worship for the 40s-90s?—Jackie and Simon Buckingham Shum describe the introduction to a parish church of ‘alternative worship’. They write to encourage folk who want to be more creative in their worship, but whose churches have never seen anything more alternative than the ASB. http://seaspray.trinity-bris.ac.uk/~robertsp/altworship/altworship/simonbs1.html

Howard 1996, The Rise and Fall of the Nine O’Clock Service. Detailed and seemingly fair account of the success and failure of the Nine O’Clock Service (NOS) which was started by Chris Brain at St Thomas, Crookes in Sheffield. Offers a warning for the church about the abuses possible in fresh expressions of church but also points to the pioneering work done by NOS.

The grace website: http://www.freshworship.org/articles has a number of articles of interest. The one by Steve Collins on getting starting with alternative worship has some useful and practical suggestions.

Roberts, 1999, Alternative Worship in the Church of EnglandRoberts characterises alternative worship as having the following characteristics: multi-media environment resulting from intense creativity; use of visuals; use of sound; collaborative leadership; breadth of liturgical resources. He traces the history of the movement from its roots in NOS and then considers the underlying philosophy, seeing the inevitable parallels with postmodernist approaches to text and the importance of shared interpretations of the Bible. He ends with a consideration of the role of alt.worship within the more formal and regulated structures of the C of E.


Tarrant & Dakin 2004, Labyrinths and Prayer StationsTarrant & Dakin start by offering a few definitions and then move into a brief history of labyrinth and prayer journey, such stations of the cross, in Christian worship. The rest of their booklet is practical, offering ideas and encouragement for creativity. They end with some examples of labyrinths they have created. An excellent introduction to the topic.

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

Liquid Worship

Lomax & Moynagh 2004, Liquid Worship—After exploring a number of examples and options for liquid worship—whether for a small group or whole church; for a whole service or part of it—Lomax & Moynagh explore the rationale for this kind of approach. They claim that it can have a number of positive benefits including reducing self-indulgence, offering a chance to develop good liturgical principles; offering possibilities for all-age worship and recognising that the Spirit ‘never leaves identical fingerprints’. They also argue that liquid worship encourages us to re-think our notions of community and can help us develop closer and more authentic communities. They end by suggesting some principles for getting started with liquid worship. There is more information at the Grove resource site: http://www.grovebooks.co.uk/resources/worship/W181-Resources.html

The work by Eamon Duffy cited by Pete Ward is Duffy 1992.

Further reading

Kimball 2004, Emerging Worship—looks at the emerging church worship scene in the US, with some references to the UK.

Leach 2005, How to Use Symbol and Action in WorshipUseful little book focusing on the use of the senses in modern worship. After offering a brief theological justification for multi-sensory worship, Leach looks at the environment for worship and then offers a number of practical suggestions for using symbols and actions in different parts of a service.

Pagitt 2003, Reimagining Spiritual Formation—inspiring account of the life of Solomon’s Porch, a new church in Minneapolis. By telling stories of how the church tries to engage with people in new ways the pastor, Doug Pagitt, shows us how they approach spiritual formation through worship, hospitality, physicality, dialogue, hospitality, bible study, creativity and service.

Jonny Baker’s blog: http://jonnybaker.blogs.com/ has lots of useful hints and provocative ideas. A must if you’re interested in alt.worship.

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

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

Small fire is a site with lots of photos from different alternative worship events: http://www.smallfire.org/index.html