Embodied worship: The first trial run


If you’re new to the idea of ‘Embodied worship’ – you can read some background on it here.

This is the story of how I used it for the first time with a group of unsuspecting workshop participants at the South Island Ministry conference.

So I began writing pieces of music that were sparse lyrically, but still rooted in the classical liturgy, which is itself, inspired by the big-story of God’s salvation. First we are called by God, drawn out of darkness and into relationship, this is the story of Creation, this is the story of the Lost Sheep, this is God’s first move that precedes all our moves. Its the move that sets the scene for everything that is to come, and it happens before we ask for it or seek it. So to reflect this call, I wrote this piece called, ‘Come home’

Once God has reached us, we go ‘wow, this is awesome.’ This is the movement of thanksgiving and praise. For this I wrote the piece, ‘You bought us home.’

Once we’re home, safe and sound, it isn’t long before we realise that we aren’t a perfect fit in God’s household. We look down and see that we have traipsed mud all over God’s carpet, so to speak. Like Isaiah in Isaiah 6, we’re convinced we don’t belong and that we aren’t good enough. This is the movement of confession. It is utterly necessary because it opens the door for God’s forgiveness, when he says, ‘You do belong, you are forgiven. Whatever you need to be here, I have provided.’ For this movement I wrote the piece, ‘Late, but not too late.’

But it couldn’t just be about more worship music. And this is where the ’embodiment’ came into play. Each song came with some suggested postures or movements. Since I was the one making the suggestions, they were pretty basic! For ‘Come home’ people were encouraged to scatter around the sanctuary space, and then to gather together at the front where I had piled cushions. The only instruction was to come when they felt ready and to ‘make themselves at home.’

For ‘You brought us home’ I invited people to think about what it might mean to express their gratitude with their bodies. Some people knelt, some danced, some stood with their hand lifted.

Then finally, for ‘Late but not too late’ I encouraged people to make themselves really small, while they confessed, but then to stand up, straighten their shoulders, to stand unashamed and forgiven as they heard God tell them of his love and grace.

I didn’t know what to expect. These people hadn’t really signed up for this. But boy, I could never have envisaged them taking hold of it so beautifully. Perhaps because I didn’t know what I wanted to happen, that meant that people were genuinely free to respond creatively. Because I gave some very simple possibilities for people who didn’t have any ideas, it meant everyone could take part.

One guy who didn’t get up and move around told us afterwards, ‘I thought I was opting out, but instead I ended up seeing you all act out this Story, and I realised I wanted to be a part of it even more!’

Another participant, Murray, wrote these words as he reflected on the experience,

First and foremost, I think we would admit that when we come to church, even on the days we don’t want to, our being there is an act of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that spoke, forming and filling  creation gathers us and continues to speak, leading us into the mystery of God revealing both Godself and the Kingdom. Yet for many of us I would suggest that being present, gracing the congregation with our attendance and our very being there is enough and would seem like the end of the movement.

Regrettably, the ‘sit in the back pews’ crews aren’t near as intimidating as those occupying the best seats, confessing to be one of these, we think worship is our favourite songs, our favourite sounds, we take offense when a child cries or an ambulance goes screaming past, how dare anyone or anything invade my moment.  Somehow we can think that worship is our space, that God enters and dwells in me and nothing shall come between me and what I’ve made it.

For those in both the front and the back, there can be no next step. So, I want to suggest worship is the outworking of accepting an invitation, an invitation to enter Holy ground, a sacred space that shares only when we participate in community, when we enter and share our space with the space of the other.

Yet, for me at least, I fight this movement, it begins with believing I am not worthy, I have nothing to offer, or have nothing of value, I cannot take one step in this movement, in my own strength I alone cannot do it, I don’t deserve or have any rights.

However, this is not my party, the invitation is to follow Jesus, so he comes and he meets me, he says “Follow me, I will take you”. This is the beginning of the movement, I follow only because I have been invited, Jesus makes a space for me in the company of others, he gives me a place to stand, then and only then do I feel there is any value in my offering, only in the company of the heavenly courts can what I give be accepted. 

In the acceptance of the movement the exchange is complete, the community acknowledge and embrace my poor timing, my tone deaf noises and my extemporaneous outbursts, yet strangely I noddingly approve of their beauty and confidence. Even as I catch my breath, someone else has arrived, ironically I affirm their fears and insecurities, only to be nodded at, affirmed as beautiful and confident, at last the movement is finished, we are all at one with our God.

See what I mean? This went real deep, real fast with people. It told me that this was something I needed to keep at and develop. We made some space, and God came and dwelt in it with his people. Its an old, old story, but I’ve yet to come across a better one yet.

I want to connect with choreographers and children’s workers and see if we can’t make something happen that has room for people to come and participate in the telling of God’s story of love for God’s world. I don’t for a moment see this replacing our sung worship, but I do see it invigorating and augmenting it. It enables people to be part of something beautiful without having to have mastered all the details and doctrines (as if we ever could).

Next on my list is a piece that invites us to listen to God word, perhaps a communion piece (could it really be embodied without it?!), then an intercession and sending piece. So I’m halfway at the moment, but thoroughly excited about where this could be leading us. Stay tuned!

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