Brainstorming 3/4: Stirring Things Up!

Brainstorming with a group of people is a lot of fun and can stir up lots of ideas if you have some simple structures, or “forms,” in place. There’s nothing worse than starting brainstorming from a dead stop. Here are some things to “stir it up” and get the fun rolling!

Reminder: Brainstorming isn’t the same as the next step of resource-gathering. In other words, if you have given yourself the luxury of enough time to steep in the metaphors of your theme, you get to discover together what some of the spiritual lessons will be throughout the season. You don’t have to start coming up with concrete ideas (“let’s use this hymn, that litany, this song”) just yet.

Warming Up

It's important to get our tongues wagging before we get to the subject matter at hand. Warm-ups help us free up our thought patterns without the pressure of coming up with “profound” ideas. I’m part of an improvisational practice called Interplay. One way we warm up is by shaking out a right hand, shaking out a left hand, a right foot and a left foot, then shaking out “what you’re sitting on!” This happens quickly, easily, and can be done seated. Then we shake out our voices, just making crazy verbalized sounds (leaders have to lead this strongly, making it easier for others to feel less inhibited).

Then we get words and thoughts flowing. My favorite warm-up form is to partner people up and give Person “A” a subject to “ramble” about. I pick something common about which everyone has something to say such as “food” or “automobiles” or “travel.” I invite those persons to talk to their partners about that for 30 seconds in sentences or a list of words or phrases–whatever comes to their minds about it. After 30 seconds I ring a bell or pound a drum. Roles switch, and I give Person “B” a different word. On the second round, the words I give start to head in the direction of the theme (but very indirectly) that we are going to be brainstorming about. For instance, if the worship series theme has to do with “journey,” I might give words like “baggage” or “detour.” This gives folks an opportunity to begin to come at the theme in a light-hearted, no-pressure way and to make the brain start firing around the main “anchor image” of the theme in a back-door kind of way.

Brainstorming Forms

There are many forms for brainstorming, and I constantly come up with variations. Forms are important because any good improvisation and creative process benefits from common starting points and boundaries. Forms help us make connections we never would find without guidance. Here are some that I’ve modeled in my brainstorming sessions in the Worship Design Studio or in my workbook, The Worship Workbook: Creative Ways to Design Worship Together.

“Metaphoraging” – Ask everyone to go find any object and bring the object to a table. Then, we create a metaphor for the season or series theme using the objects on the table. For example, if we stick with our “journey” theme, someone might see the flashlight on the table and talk about how sometimes we feel like we’re walking in the dark on a journey, and we need something to light our way. Someone may connect the cell phone on the table and speak of needing a GPS, a guide, to give us direction on the journey. This all becomes fodder for the spiritual aspects of a “journey.”

“Human Thesaurus” – For this brainstorming exercise, everyone sits or stands in a circle (higher energy when standing), and someone starts with the main metaphor for the season (our example, “journey”). The next person then says a word that the theme word reminds them of (“suitcase”) and the next person says a word that “suitcase” reminds them of (“packing”) and so on… (“laundry,” “piles,” “smelly,” “detergent,” etc). While these seem like non-sensical words at first glance, when everyone has contributed around the circle, it is fun to see what the words brought up for the group around the spiritual aspects of “journey.” For instance: Along the journey, things pile up if we don’t tend to them; they start to stink, and we need God’s help to clear up and clean up what has become a burden (perhaps a focus on confession). A stinky pile of laundry probably won’t make its way into the actual service (or it might), but the idea that things “pile up” if we don’t tend to them could.

“I See…” – This is a visual imagination exercise. The group is asked to close their eyes if that is comfortable for them and see in their minds eye a “scene” that you set up. In our “journey” example, perhaps the instruction is to see a scene of a group of people on a journey. You want to keep it general enough that everyone can have their own interpretation of that. Encourage them to describe the colors, light, relationship of the people, etc. Each persons shares what they saw (“I saw people walking on a path together toward a rising sun on the horizon”). The group can then interpret the spiritual lessons that came to them through seeing and listening to the descriptions of each person’s visual imagination. For example, a bend in the road might bring to mind that even though we might not know what is around the bend, we travel into the unknown together with faith.

“Telling Stories” – One of the best ways to bring out spiritual aspects of a theme is to get people to tell stories from their own experience. As you brainstorm about Advent, you might get stories about “waiting” or Epiphany brainstorming might incorporate times when they experienced an “epiphany” or “enlightening” moment. In our example of “journey,” you might get some really great stories of extraordinary or frustrating moments of trips, vacations, etc. When we begin with our stories, we begin with seeing ourselves in the faith stories as well.

“Graffiti” – If you already have the overarching theme, titles, and scriptures for each service in your upcoming series, the “graffiti” form is a great strategy. I like using big pads of stickie newsprint and putting the title and scripture for each service on each piece (“Pilgrimage,” “Ready or Not, Here We Go,” “Honing Vision, Paying Attention,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Letting Go of Baggage,” “Destinations”). Then, I make sure there are lots of washable, many-colored markers to use. If there are enough wall surfaces, I stick the paper there; if not, table surfaces work (or floor, if you have agile team members!). Divide the team up into small groups or pairings so that there is someone at every piece of paper. Invite people to write descriptive words and/or phrases on the paper for about 1 or 2 minutes, and then rotate the whole group to the next paper. Playing music keeps the energy up, fun, and flowing. Complete the whole rotation twice because other words and ideas will spring from what others have written. Afterwards, the whole group talks about each page to take ideas deeper.

The Essence of the Message

These are only a few of the techniques I’ve used over the years. The point of a brainstorming session is not to come up with first drafts of worship experiences, but rather to get to the “essence” of the message and the possibilities for directions. And it is to incorporate the energy of the people–their experience, their stories, their thoughts–as the Core Team begin their work of planning a worshipful “journey” for the season. Next time, we’ll look at “Cleaning Up after the Storm”–what to do with the ideas you’ve gathered.