Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Art of Curating Worship

2010 has been a Sparkhouse year. Sparkhouse is an imprint of Augsburg Fortress, and this past year they have published some stellar resources, including my personal favorite, re:form, a confirmation curriculum (they also published a great VBS we used this summer, re:new, and a book on Church in the Inventive Age by Doug Pagitt). I actually think the re:form confirmation curriculum is the best confirmation curriculum I've seen, ever!

When I learned they were also working on a new resource for worship planning (Clayfire), I was thrilled, and immediately ordered the book that I think is launching the series, Mark Pierson's The Art of Curating Worship.

All of this is by way of saying that I was predisposed to be sympathetic to the book, and open to the ideas in it. I'm  honestly a fan of resources published by Augsburg Fortress, and a supporter of the innovative directions Sparkhouse is taking as a publishing arm of our church.

So then I actually started reading the book. Here's where I started hitting some major speed-bumps. I am still excited about Pierson's re-thinking worship leadership as worship curation, because it bring greater focus to the environment and space in which worship takes place than other traditional titles such as cantor, preacher, presider, or worship leader. Cantors focus more on the music, preachers on the word, presiders on space but focused on the meal, and worship leaders also typically focus on the content of prayers and music.

The term curator is preferable for a variety of reasons, itemized well in Pierson's book, but I especially like the term because it draws attention to the overall environment, and also has analogies with how curation is done in museums, etc, where the goal is to bring to life that which has gone before.

All of this being said, I realized that as soon as I read two things in the book that really caused me to struggle, I wouldn't be able to read the book with an open heart and mind. Pierson shares in the second chapter of his book that one worship event he curated included communion, but he chose to use water instead of wine for the communion. Is it too finicky of me, or too legalistic, to argue that you simply don't do this, period, anywhere. Communion is bread and wine. To depart from bread and wine is simply not acceptable.

This pointed me back to something he had said earlier that I initially thought was a bit of hyperbole, but now I think it wasn't. Page 25, he says, "Anything goes." Of course, he precedes this by arguing that once we get our definition of church and worship clear, then how we actually design worship, embedded in those answers, can be "anything goes," but it is simply not clear to me how that works.

Here's my concern. T'his book is the first book on worship from a new publishing arm of the Lutheran church, and one of the first if only comments in the book on the sacraments suggests that wine may be replaced with water in the meal.

Now I know that Pierson is a Baptist from New Zealand. We probably have very different approaches to the meal. I also see from what he is up to that he is very creative and experimental in his worship leadership. He creates events, art installations, etc. They seem amazing, and I'd like to see such a worship event in action.

That being said, I just don't see how the book will ultimately be helpful for our worship leaders. This is more than simply thinking outside the box. It's like having left the room and apartment building altogether.

I'm going to continue reading the book, and will post a second reflection upon finishing it, but it does occur to me that we need someone to write a book on worship curation who also reads and adheres to the Lutheran confessions and the Use of the Means of Grace document, among other guiding texts of our tradition.

Realizing at the end of this blog that this is my second post of the week that might be construed as grumpy. I don't intend it as such. They say all press is good press, so I hope you'll go out and buy the book and read it. Even if I strongly disagree with parts of it, and disagree even more strongly with the decision that Sparkhouse should be the one to publish it, I do intend to always be in dialogue perhaps especially with those with whom I disagree. The true way to stay immature is to live in an echo-chamber of your own creation.


  1. I think I would have the same problems with this book that you have. Baptists and Lutherans have such very different views of eucharist--real presence versus symbol. Hmmm. It's interesting that it would be put out under the aegis of Augsburg Fortress.

  2. Clint:

    Thanks for your wonderfully affirming words about Augsburg Fortress and many of our recent resources. Thanks, too, for being among the first people to purchase "The Art of Curating Worship." But, knowing what I know about you and knowing what I know about the author, Mark Pierson, I’m not surprised that you found things that were a bit provocative. But, knowing you, I’ll bet that as you continue to read, you’ll also be able to look past some of the differences and learn from some of his very creative ideas for making worship engaging.

    One thing that I would like to address is that you state, “This book is the first book on worship from a new publishing arm of the Lutheran church…”

    While sparkhouse www.wearesparkhouse.org is a new division of Augsburg Fortress, a ministry unit of the ELCA, we launched it very intentionally as an ecumenical publishing division. It is not intended to be Lutheran, per se. Of course, we are thrilled that many Lutheran churches are using sparkhouse resources, such as re:form confirmation, with success! But, we are also thrilled that many United Methodist, PCUSA, RCA, UCC, Episcopalian, American Baptist, etc. churches are using sparkhouse resources with success!

    Churches from a variety of denominational traditions are finding exciting new ways to engage in ministry together without as much attention to their roots. sparkhouse is here to help! As it says on our sparkhouse website, sparkhouse is “a newly created, independent group affiliated with Augsburg Fortress Publishers, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.”

    I’m delighted that you are continuing to read and encourage others to read "The Art of Curating Worship." I hope it continues to be a bit of sand in your oyster, encouraging you to make pearls….in your case Lutheran pearls!

    Beth Lewis, President & CEO
    Augsburg Fortress

  3. Beth, thank you for your thoughtful response. I had a feeling you might notice my mini-review, and wondered how you might respond. I understand that Sparkhouse resources are ecumenical. That doesn't bother me, and wouldn't count as the bit of sand in my oyster. And under another imprint I would be much more comfortable with a book like Mark's. However, the fact is that Sparkhouse material are being used by all of the denominations you mention, and as far as I know none of them really accept the idea that water can be used in place of wine for communion.

    I've read a bit further in the book as you had hoped, and I've learned that this is not just a small aside of Mark's. He makes an argument for water repeatedly throughout the book. I do appreciate his descriptions of stations as the new altar call, and the idea of guerrilla worship, all of which will be the sand, but I have trouble getting past how mis-leading the argument concerning the sacraments will be if it is formative in the Clayfire resources that are forthcoming.

    I'm also concerned about his disinterest in corporate singing as an aspect of corporate worship, his distrust of the sermon as a form for worship, and his over-reliance on stations as significant worship events. I certainly think these are important events, with religious significance and artistic integrity--I just doubt whether they're really "worship." I'll keep puzzling over that, but also hope my comments will help push and direct where things go for the Clayfire resource.

    Thank you again Beth for the dialogue. Advent Blessings.


  4. Clint -

    Very interesting comments, but i must say:

    1) You are missing the whole point of Communion by focusing too much on the specifics & tools/elements for Communion. Don't get caught on religious rules made by man of what it "should" look like. I firmly believe that it is a sacred symbol for what Christ did for us, and that there is something very special about it. It helps us to tell the story and to remember... which is the bottomline of Christ's commandment to us. It's not a sin to use water, or grape juice, or any liquid.
    and after all, Jesus did turn water into wine. ;)
    just sayin.

    2) Even if you can't get past the whole Communion thing, you are missing the point of Mark's book by focusing too much on his examples. He says himself that "what" and "how" he does things shouldn't look exactly like what/how you do them... but to look for the "why" in every situation and take that away... contextualize it and reframe it for your own community. And if you and your congregation are too stuck on using wine for communion, then by all means use wine.

    3) If all else fails...disagree with Mark. He invites you to! He doesn't say that the music part of worship (congregational singing) isn't significant... he authentically and honestly admits his struggle with engaging in worship in that one single way. He's not saying to get rid of it, he's just saying that there's more than one way to worship as a community other than JUST singing.

    There's a wide wide wonderful world of worship that is completely biblical and beautiful. It should never be defined for everyone by one single denomination or by any man.

    "whether you eat, sleep, or whatever you do, do it to the glory of God" - Colossians 3 ... there's a lot of freedom to worship God in pretty much any way possible. Freedom!

    Beth - thank you so much for getting behind Mark and publishing this book. I know many on the Sparkhouse team and was a part of the initial Clayfire brainstorm meetings. CreativeWorshipTour.com has been an amazing tool as well!
    Linda, Jodi-Renee, Eric and Mark are amazing people. It's exciting to see Lutherans stay true to their beliefs yet reaching out in love and unity and fellowshipping with those of us outside the denomination.
    So thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  5. Hi Stephen. I think we'll have to disagree on whether I'm missing the whole point of communion by focusing on the elements themselves. I'm only missing the point if you start from the assumption that the bread and wine are simply tools that represent a deeper symbolism, and that the elements can be replaced with different elements from context to context while maintaining the same meaning in each new context. That's a big assumption, and one I don't share with you. I happen to think that is a potentially heretical assumption, and if it isn't heretical, it is at least different enough to Lutheran, Orthodox and Catholic definitions of the sacrament as to be incommensurable with our faith and practice.

    What Lutherans tend to say on this topic, I think, is that if Jesus had wanted to say, "The wine and bread will help you tell the story and remember me, but go ahead and use whatever you want for the meal," he could have said that. And if he wanted to say, "This bread symbolizes my body, etc." he had words like "symbol" at his disposal that he could have employed.

    What he said was, "This IS my body." Jesus' promise is attached to the specific meal he shared with the disciples, and we are to continue that meal as a community, as he instituted it.

    We can certainly share all kinds of meals together that are also communion/communal in the looser sense of that term. As I mentioned, Jesus practiced open table commensality with many people and was in relationship with them. We are called to do the same, radically and inclusively, meals is prison, potlucks, meals with the poor, meals with the rich, meals with strangers and foreigners, etc.

    But specifically when we share the Eucharist in worship, we don't have the biblical or liturgical license to simply wily-nily replace wine and bread with whatever is at hand.

    In this sense, I don't think our denomination is stuck on wine and bread, or that it is a religious practice created by man. It is a meal instituted by Christ that he commanded us to share in remembrance of him. That's how I understand it, and why I struggle so much with Pierson's specific example. If he is free to play fast and loose with such a central sacrament of the church, what does that say about his other liturgical wisdom?

    Stephen, I think you have helped me put a point precisely on why I struggle with Mark's book. You write,

    "You are missing the point of Mark's book by focusing too much on his examples."

    Exactly. But I don't think I'm missing the point, I think I'm disagreeing with his point, and not just kind of disagreeing with the point, but finding deep disagreement with it. Principles of worship simply can't be abstracted from the specific examples. The medium IS the message. I get this point from scripture and the doctrine of the incarnation, among other things. So I thank you for helping me clarify why exactly I struggle so much with his book.

    Thank you for the conversation, Stephen. I appreciate you reading and posting and entering into dialogue, even if we come to this conversation with very different theological presuppositions.

    In Christ,