Ritual Artists 2/3: Four Principles of Ritual Artistry

In this second article in a three-part series about ritual artistry, we are exploring what it means to say, “I am a ritual artist!” Worship art forms like dance, music, liturgy, and media arts do not exist in isolation from each other, and you don’t have to have a big church or a big budget to experience sensory-rich artistry in worship. I now want to share with you the basic principles that I believe are the “nitty gritty” of our ritual artistry. You’ll notice as you read that what I believe are basics have nothing to do with needing a big budget, but have everything to do with how to approach worship as an artist.

Intentional Design

My friend Tex Sample tells me that he often understands his desk””his work space as a writer, teacher and speaker””as an altar. This is how I see my design space as well. The idea is that owning our ritual artistry means making intentional space in our lives for this vocation. Carving out place and time for this work is often what we see as the most “costly” part of this endeavor as we juggle busy lives and other aspects of our work and ministry, yet the most faithful thing we can do is to consider what this work means for the spiritual journey of our communities. Practicing “intentional design” is also practicing intentionality in our faith commitment and giving our artist-selves creative space and time.

To move from “plug-n-play” worship to seasonal/thematic “intentional design,” create for yourselves a worship design studio””a sacred place of creativity and inspiration for this important work. It may be a corner of a room in the church (choir room, office, Christian education room) designated for work tables, wallboards for photos, fabric swatches, quotes, printouts of liturgies, lists of music, drawings, etc. Or it may be a plastic bin containing these things that you can get out for team meetings if there isn’t space for a permanent design studio. Have team members bring things for a creative workspace that remind them of the season you are about to work on. For instance, in the Advent/Christmas cycle: blues, purples, greenery, candles, photos of pregnant women, drawings of roads that evoke a journey, etc. Let the fun of putting this together ignite the excitement for your creative process of the design of the season itself.

Attention to the Journey of Worship

Another “nitty-gritty” bottom-line basic for me is the understanding that worship is an action and movement by the people toward the holy. It’s a journey, not a check-list. It’s a progression, not a program; an experience of God, not just a learning session about God. This is a mind-set as we design the experience of worship, but it also has practical implications. Paying attention to the movement of worship means giving attention to transitions between the parts of worship. Spend time discerning whether a transitional moment needs a sound score, silence, or verbal narration. Watch videos of your worship to evaluate better ways to facilitate flow.

Seeing worship as a journey means being aware of the ebbs and flows of the energy and dynamics of a worship experience­””letting various sequences mirror the ways the Spirit moves in fiery or contemplative modes. Map the energy dynamics of worship in the design process, rehearsing worship to make sure that we are tuned into the spirit of the moment. Train leaders, speakers, musicians, and tech personnel to notice how their tones of voice, actions, placement, rhythms, and timing must ride the wave of the spirit of the community, not to merely follow “the plan” no matter what.

Seeing the journey of worship over time means paying attention to the differing energies of various times of the liturgical year so that one season doesn’t feel like every other season. Ritual artists recognize that faith development must have alternating times of steeping in questions, celebrating abundance, lamenting with a hurting world, and decrying injustice, among other things. Identify the “palette” for the season and strive to learn more about the depth of theology and imagery for the time of year. As you begin to plan for a season or series, discuss together about the “feel” for the season, what particular place in the discipleship journey this season represents, and how to evoke these things in the journey of our worship. For example, if the feel of the season is “anticipation,” perhaps starting the service with a meditative chant from the Taizé repertoire such as “Wait for the Lord” (URW 396) would evoke this sense of watching, waiting, anticipating and yearning for the presence of God.

Making Ritual “Rich-ual”

This play on words describes the shift from using the word “ritual” to connote dry, lifeless, “going-through-the-motions worship” to using the word “ritual” to point towards life-giving, binding-together, spiritually-deepening rites that create deep soul connections to God, to the practices of Jesus, and to each other. We often think about making our worship rich for “special” times, such as Christmas Eve or Easter morning or for those intense moments of people’s lives, like weddings and funerals. In the field of ritual studies, we call these intense times “liminal” moments in our lives””times when we are not the same as we were, but we are not yet what we are becoming. They are the “in-between” times. During such moments, we experience rituals with heightened alertness.

However, there are lots of liminal transitional times in our lives that feel intense. Waiting for a diagnosis. Wondering if we can cover the bills next month. Getting too feeble to drive. Deciding whether to start a family. Wondering if the fight we’ve had with a significant other will lead to more conflict or make us stronger. I want you to consider this: On any given Sunday, in any worship service at any time, there is someone in attendance who is struggling with transition of some kind. I would venture to say that life is more about transition than it is about being in what feels like a “stable” place of knowing exactly who we are and what we are doing. Making ritual rich by facilitating soul-connecting and deeply meaningful worship is the ritual artists task every time.

When I see my dear friend, Nina Reeves, she says, “Let us speak about the deepest things we know right away.” This is our task in worship. As you prepare for a season or series, ask yourselves the deep questions, “What is yearning and aching to be born within us at this time?” Then ask how the sounds, poetry, actions, images and leadership of worship can facilitate a safe place to bring “the deepest things we know” into encounter with the ever-present Holy One.

Authentic Spiritual Leadership

I’ve learned over almost twenty years of teaching and consulting about worship that you can have all the creative, sensory-rich, amazing ideas in the world, yet worship can still fall flat without a commitment to honing leadership skills. When I say “skills,” I don’t just mean the practical things like vocal clarity, body posture, musical technique, or perfectly-timed media presentation skills. These are the “doing” skills of leadership. I’m also concerned with the “being” skills of leadership.

But who we are as leaders””our being””is vitally important. The word “authentic” is one of those words that has gotten really over-used in post-modern conversations about worship. I went to the etymology dictionary to recover its meaning. What I found there was autos, meaning “self,” and hentes, meaning “doer, being.” To practice authentic spiritual leadership is to be in touch with a deep sense of self that includes and integrates who we are called to be and what we do because of that call.

As a worship leader, I feel called to the spiritual journey as part of the Body of Christ. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard leaders say in my workshops or retreats, “I rarely get to worship because I’m busy with leadership duties.” I cringe when I hear this. Leaders who rarely get the opportunity to worship eventually experience burnout.

My own sense of call in worship leadership is that of “spiritual director,” meaning that I offer sign-posts along the way, invite people to heightened attention to the work of the Spirit among us, and tease out the important questions and wisdom residing in our midst. In my retreats called “Elevation” each year at Lake Tahoe, I lead participants through a process of discerning a concrete image of who they are called to be as worship leaders. We also spend time honing the “doing” skills, because when the “doing” becomes second-nature, we can move from presiding to residing in the moment of worship and being fully-attentive to what the moment requires.

I want to invite you on a similar journey. Find an image that works for you. Your images of leadership will change over time, but just asking the question will focus your understanding of what you do and who you are in the midst of the worshiping body in ways that will deepen your own experience and remind you that it is vitally important to you and to the community that your spirit is renewed, refreshed, and challenged by worshiping fully.