Ritual Artists 1/3: Planning Together and Planning Ahead

“You are a Ritual Artist”

I am what I call a ritual artist…and so are you. Facilitating the worship of the people of God is an art””an art of telling the faith story in ways that transform lives. This art lives in a particular context that is different than any other medium. Rather than the lecture or concert hall, theater or gallery, ritual artists create for sacred spaces where people come yearning for an encounter with the holy. Ritual art holds together the patterning of a rich history, the demands of a relevant present, and the hope for a liberating future.

I grew up in the First United Methodist Church on Main Street, Adrian, Missouri. This little rural church encouraged me as a young artist to sing, play the organ and piano, dance, and do pantomime in the context of the church’s worship from a very young age. I know the roots of my ministry began there. I later had the privilege of having a first career in professional theater and dance that took me all over the world. I had both a strong church and arts grounding as a young person. Being a ritual artist is like breathing to me. But some of us come to worship planning and leadership from one side or the other””art or ministry.

Some of us came from arts backgrounds and found ourselves in the world of theology as we began to answer a call to involvement in the church’s worship. Some of us answered a call to ministry and found out that worship required us to be artists. No matter which end of the spectrum we hail from, we come to the same place: We are ritual artists whose palette of words, music, visuals, and action moves people to discipleship in Jesus Christ.

Over the course of the next three articles, we are going to explore how to design intentional seasonal worship as ritual artists–as preachers, writers, musicians, visual artists, and dramatists. By offering ourselves permission to be ritual artists, we give ourselves time to be inspired and energized by the work rather than burned out and stressed out by it. In this first article, we will discuss the many different roles of ritual artists in worship planning.

The Community of Ritual Artists: Planning Together

Our greatest asset and most precious resource in this artistic enterprise is what I call “the community of imaginations”””the people themselves. No one tells the same story in exactly the same way, right? As you listen to someone else describe an experience at which you were also present, you probably notice that although you shared the same space and time, your experiences differed based on your perspective. So it is with our own experiences of the gospel story. Liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” The more we engage the community of imaginations as we plan to tell the story, the more faithful we are to that definition, and the more expansive we become in the possibilities for communication of this life-giving narrative.

In order to get more of the community involved, I like to use a seasonal planning model. Planning for chunks of time instead of one Sunday at a time helps create meaningful worship in a series rather than “one-hit wonders” that exhaust teams. Another reason is the ability to rotate some folks on and off of “seasonal teams” who don’t have time to commit to a year-long worship team. New perspectives, ideas, and energies infuse the “core team”””those whose job it is to work on worship all year long. Within the seasonal team, it’s important to have a structure of roles in place in order to create a process that is productive and helpful in order to avoid the debilitating pitfalls of planning “by committee.”

“The Visionary” (a managing-the-content role) names a direction if the herd seems to be heading in too many directions or if some have strayed off the path. Most likely, this is the pastoral staff. When working in a team, the flow of ideas can be amazingly rich. At some point, we “simplify” in order to facilitate a clear, powerful message. During brainstorming sessions, we will certainly come up with more ideas than we can utilize in one season and, if needed, the Visionary will take authority to move the process along. The Visionary is also a spiritual leader who helps to set the spiritual tone for the team’s collaborative work and encourages and leads the team to pray together.

“The Seasonal Team Leader” (an organizational role) helps to organize the meetings and details for a season. This person may change from season to season or may be one or two persons consistently through the year. Their strengths lie in scheduling, deadlines, detail organizing, and communication between team members.

“The Scribe” (a nitty-gritty get-it-done role) takes the team’s work and drafts, edits, and finalizes the script. Basically, this is a “get on the computer and get it all down so we can see it” role. This may be the same person as the Visionary or the Seasonal Team Leader or someone who is good at synthesizing and terrific on a keyboard (and I don’t necessarily mean the piano kind!).

“The Interest Groups” (resource roles) are made up of all the members of the team, including those listed above, who work on creating and implementing various artful aspects of worship. As you invite persons to join a Seasonal Team, keep these categories in mind:

Words - These persons love verbal expression and work to find and/or create readings, litanies, prayers, etc. that expound on the scripture and theme for the season. This interest group includes the preacher(s).

Music - These persons focus their efforts on combing through music resources for congregational, choral, ensemble, band, and solo material that brings home the message and offers a combination of new and familiar experiences. This interest group must include the music staff.

Visuals - These persons are focused on everything visual””from objects and symbols to colors, fabrics, environments, lights, and media images.

Dramatization - These persons are involved in facilitating “ritual action,” like communion or baptisms and baptismal remembrance, as well as any readings and/or music that might be dramatized, danced, or signed by an interpreter. These persons must work closely with the Words, Music, and Visuals groups.

Action Response - Call it evangelism or call it publicity: “How will the word get out about the season and theme coming up?” This team communicates with the wider church and considers how the worship theme can be woven into the whole life of the church, asking question like: What particular mission project would be appropriate with this theme? How can Christian education or the youth group or a particular small group ministry get involved in a way that supports the theme?

Depending on the size of your church and seasonal team, your group will be configured in different ways. If you have 8-10 people working on a team, you could have a couple of people in each of these interest group categories. If you have 4-6 people on a team, you can configure roles differently. For example, you could combine Words and Action Response, and combine Visuals and Dramatization. Or combine Words and Dramatization, and Visuals and Action Response. If you are a really small team, you may spend time moving from one category to another together or simply organically pay attention to them all throughout the process. Regardless of your team makeup, I encourage all members to initially brainstorm ideas for any or all of the categories. Great ideas can come from anywhere!