Tag Archives: experiential worship

Improv in Action: Guest Post from Marthame Sanders

1-faith-450x300I met Marthame Sanders a couple of years ago at an event at Columbia Seminary. Since then we’ve followed one another on Facebook and shared a mutual interest in improv and the spiritual life. Marthame was lucky enough to receive a sabbatical grant last summer which allowed him to study improv at Second City. Right now I’m working on a grant application for a similar purpose myself, but in the meantime, it’s great fun to see what Marthame and others are doing to encourage an improvisational “posture” in worship and think about how to expand those skills into the larger church. (Church of the Pilgrims in DC is also doing great work in this–see Ashley Goff’s blog for more.)

Marthame wrote recently on his blog about an anthem the congregation composed in the middle of worship. So rad. I especially love the acknowledgement that while there are many more polished, technically “perfect” pieces of worship music out there, there’s something powerful about creating something right in the moment. And it sounds like he provided just enough structure for this creative work to happen.

Thanks for sharing this inspiration, Marthame!!

~

An Improvised Anthem–guest blog by Marthame Sanders

Pulling the weekly bulletin together is always an act of improvisation.

It rarely looks like it; after all, it is the planned order of worship that the congregation receives a few days later. And yet, there is always something that we hadn’t anticipated: a hymn we chose that’s unfamiliar; a special litany that needs to be included; a Scripture that doesn’t speak to the moment…There are always last minute adjustments. This past Sunday, however, stood apart.

Tim, our Music Director, was returning from a month-long sojourn in Europe. Our worship planning had gotten us through his absence, but we had not planned for his return. Tim and I agreed that the two of us would “do something”, and that was as concrete as it got.

Then it hit me: why not improvise? After all, I have been spending the better part of a year learning about the habits of improvisation; why not put some of that into practice? Using my own children as my willing improv guinea pigs in the days before (with different results each time), I hatched a process.*

Last Sunday, our Scripture was Psalm 146 from the Narrative Lectionary. During our time with children, I told them how the psalms were meant to be sung, and that Tim and I had nothing planned. And so we needed their help figuring out what it was we were going to sing.

I read the Psalm, asking them to say something like “I like that” when I read something that grabbed their attention. Then I told them we needed to figure out our key: I needed a letter between A and G and two numbers between 2 and 6. After one child asked if it needed to be a whole number, we got our suggestions: A, 3, and 5. That became the chord progression.

Tim and I began playing our three chords on piano and guitar; eventually, a melody emerged, which became a simple chorus:

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God;

I will sing my praise to God all my life.

The congregation soon joined in; I used the “liked” phrases to build verses. It took a while. The melody wandered on- and off-key, but we always returned to the chorus with full energy.

I have heard prettier and more interesting melodies. I have encountered more poetic lyrics. This was no Coltrane or Davis. And yet, there was something about this particular piece of music that “worked”. Along with everything else, the whole process invested the congregation in the anthem in a unique way. It wasn’t just Tim’s music or the choir’s music or my music; it was our music, our praise. Our shared creation had them “rooting” for the music in a new way.

We will definitely do this again.

One final note: our worship recording failed Sunday; so here’s my rough re-creation with guitar and voice:

~

Marthame Sanders is pastor of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. His 2014 Sabbatical in Chicago focused on the intersection of Spirit, creativity, and improvisation, including classes at the Second City Training Center. Since returning to Atlanta, he has continued with classes at Dad’s Garage and has incorporated improv exercises into congregational leadership training. His website is www.marthame.com.

First Sunday after Christmas: A Sharing of Gifts

What's inside? The collective wisdom and inspiration of the people of Tiny Church.

What’s inside? The collective wisdom and inspiration of the people of Tiny Church.

Pastors well remember that Christmas fell on a Sunday two years ago. In some traditions, a Christmas morning service is par for the course, but it’s not the norm for Presbyterians. What to do?

At Tiny Church we had a “come as you are” service in which people could wear PJs or other casual wear. We did not have a printed bulletin, which gave our administrative assistant a break from the copy machine during a busy time of year. Instead, I announced each element of the service. We read the psalm for the day from the pew Bibles as the call to worship. And the hymns that morning were the organist’s choice.

For the sermon/proclamation time, I had prepared a series of questions, each of which was printed on a slip of paper. These I placed in a Christmas-themed gift bag which people passed around. They were invited to pull out a slip of paper and answer the question, or choose a new one, or they could pass.

It was such a fun, low-key mode of worship that we did it again last year, and we’ll do something similar this weekend. (This time around we have the new “Glory to God” hymnal that has ready-made liturgies in the front!)

The gift-bag “proclamation” will be an experiment—Sunday is December 29, and it could be a good-sized crowd, much larger than Christmas Day two years ago—and people may come expecting an actual sermon. I may preface the sharing time with a short story or poem. But one of the great things about Tiny Church is how willing they are to do different things in worship.

Below are some of the questions I’ve used in the past. Have you done something similar? What questions would you add?

This Sunday’s gospel text is about Joseph, Mary and Jesus’ flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous paranoia. We’ll be hitting that story harder on January 5, but if I use this text on Sunday, I’ll need to supplement these questions with some tougher ones that tease out the incredible sense of danger and drama in the story.

Tell about a favorite gift you’ve received—tangible or not.

Tell about a favorite gift you’ve given—tangible or not.

What is your most beloved Christmas carol and why?

“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without ____________________.”

Which character from the Christmas story do you most admire and why?

Tell us about someone you think of especially this time of year.

Tell about a great surprise you have received. (not necessarily at Christmas)

Tell about an important Christmas tradition, now or in the past.

“For me, the Christmas season tastes like _______________________”

“For me, Christmas season smells like _______________________”

Jesus is the “prince of peace.” What’s one situation (personal, or global, or in between) in which you’re longing for peace?

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? Why or why not? If so, will you make them this year?

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

“Mommy, I really like it when we do something in worship, not just sit and listen.”

That was my darling daughter several weeks ago, reminding me that it’d been a while since I’d planned an interactive component in worship, aside from the standard singing/praying/speaking stuff we do every week. Sure, those things are experiential too, but she was talking about something tactile. Children in particular appreciate this, and folks of other ages do too. (And at Tiny, the people who don’t need or appreciate it are still game to go along.)

Here is what we’ve been up to. We’ve kept it pretty simple this month—and as you will see, I’m borrowing liberally from other sources. The good thing about these activities is that they create an artifact that can be displayed in the sanctuary or fellowship hall.

Week 1: HOPE: We didn’t do anything this year on the first Sunday of Advent because it was communion Sunday, and that’s plenty experiential! (It was also Thanksgiving weekend so I kept things low-key re: worship planning.) But last year we had people write things they were hoping for on colored paper, and we collaged them onto a large poster with the word HOPE printed on it. The letters of HOPE were in outline, and the hopes filled in the letters, if that makes sense.

Week 2: PEACE: I used strips of paper from an old falling-apart hymnal and had people write prayers for peace on them and put them in the offering plate. These were made into a paper chain that decorated a small tree that’s on our communion table:

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

Week 3: JOY: Again, I had people write on strips of paper—this time it was an occasion of joy they have experienced recently, and instead of hymnal strips we used different colors of construction  paper. These will be assembled on a piece large butcher paper to form a tree like so:

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

Week 4: LOVE: In lieu of a sermon we will do something interactive as the message. In the past we’ve done an impromptu Christmas pageant, or a processional of different Christmas symbols (nativity scene, poinsettia plant, bells) and explained the meaning behind each symbol. This year we will adapt the ABC’s of Christmas which I saw on Fidelia’s Sisters a couple years back. I think we’ll have the various lines printed on individual pieces of paper for people to pick up when they come in. Then when the ABCs come they will “popcorn” up from within the congregation.

Epiphany: The children in the Upper Room are putting together a torn-paper collage like so:

An Interactive Advent at Tiny Church

I hope it will be finished by Epiphany. We intended to have everyone work on it at our Christmas potluck last weekend but time got away from us!