Tag Archives: 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.

The Upper Room Gets Splashed with Color

I’ve written several posts about the Upper Room, the kid-friendly space in our sanctuary balcony where school-age children go during the worship service. There they take part in quiet crafts, books, and other activities, all the while listening and participating in the worship service in their own way. It’s always gratifying to hear about a child asking her parent about something she heard while puttering around the Upper Room. Children listen. 

You can read about some of our new challenges and growing pains here. It’s all good and natural stuff as we seek to be hospitable to our young friends upstairs in the balcony and our young-at-heart friends downstairs in the pews.

But I wanted to share a BIG cause of joy—the Upper Room is getting a mural! One of our folks has contacted an artist, Kate Cosgrove, who generously and graciously allowed us to use her work to adorn our walls. Nancy, the mother of two of your little ones, did the outlining based on Kate’s work, and the kids are filling in the color.

The idea is that the children would work at various times before and after worship, but last Sunday there was so much joy and momentum that, well, they kept going during church itself. Yes, things got a bit boisterous. But the photos of this masterpiece-in-progress speak for themselves:

Upper Room 5 Upper Room 4 Upper Room Upper Room 2 Upper Room


“More, More, More”: A Sabbathy Call to Worship

More More More...

My time at Myrtle Beach with First Presbyterian Church, Sumter SC, closed with a wonderful worship service, planned and led by the pastoral and music staff. I preached, but as is sometimes the case with these things, we did not coordinate a huge amount. Still the Holy Spirit wove everything together.

I was particularly taken by the call to worship, which pastor Ray Fancher says he adapted from another source.

Sabbath confronts the culture of relentless production and our fears of scarcity… and this responsive call to worship captures it perfectly:

Temptation surrounds us:
do more, take more, have more.
More food, more money, more power, more life!
‘What could it hurt?’ we hear—from friends, the media, our own souls:
More hunger, more suffering, more need, more fear, more anger.
So we gather in God’s abundance and remember: God rested. We were slaves.
God gave us Sabbath for renewal. In Christ we have everything!
Let us drink deeply from God’s spirit. God gives us all we need to
Live fully, love deeply, and serve faithfully. Thanks be to God!


My blog practice during Lent is to Rest in the Words of Others. Interested in original content? I will be writing short reflections each week on my email list through Easter. 

photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

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?

This Week’s Running Playlist: Worshipful Edition


Shelli Latham (whose blog is quickly becoming a must-read for me) put together a great mix of tunes to help her “worship in her running shoes.” I tried it out this morning (had to download a couple of the songs) and can testify that it’s great for running, and for running as a spiritual practice.

Someone commented on her blog how fun it would be to have with a whole series of playlists that follow this pattern, starting with gathering/call to worship, proceeding through the liturgy of the Lord’s Day, and closing with a blessing/sending.

I decided to come up with my own mix. I used Shelli’s criteria:

(1) You have to be able to run to it.

(2) It has to have the capacity to point you to God, even if you have to be a little creative.

(3) No references to pimpin’, guns, or anything that may sound like making out with Jesus… This is not the place to come for your Jesus is my Boyfriend fix.

Regarding (1), I’m a pokey, look-at-the-trees-while-gasping-for-breath runner, so my challenge was to pump up the energy with this mix, rather than fall back on the sad-sack aging girls with guitars stuff I usually listen to. Regarding (2 and 3), some of these actually do mention God, but Jesus is nobody’s boyfriend in these.

I also changed a couple of the categories and added baptism and communion. What do you think?

Prelude: Great Day, Eddie from Ohio

Call to Worship: Get Up Offa That Thing, James Brown

Prayer of Confession: Been Caught Stealing, Jane’s Addiction
I liked Lori McKenna’s Mars here, but it’s not fast enough for running. See sad-sack thing above.

Assurance of Forgiveness: Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours, Stevie Wonder

Prayer for Illumination: Ray of Light, Madonna

The Word: I’d suggest putting several things in this slot and/or mixing and matching depending on what inspiration I need that day. Options off the top of my head: 
World Leader Pretend,
Dare You To Move
, Switchfoot
All Star, Smash Mouth
Yahweh, U2
Where You Been, Carrie Newcomer, which is actually about Jesus, but he visits the gay pride parade in a borrowed El Camino… so a bit of a midrash, no?
Anything by the Psalters. Gypsy gospel punk makes ME wanna run, how about you?

Affirmation of Faith: Let It Ring, Amy Ray

Baptism: Glass of Water, Coldplay
That seems too on-the-nose, but it works.

Communion: Cheeseburger in Paradise, Jimmy Buffett
It’s sad the extent to which I’m chuckling at this one.

Prayers of the People: Higher Ground, Red Hot Chili Peppers version
See how skillfully I avoided doubling up on the Steve Wonder? But the RHCP version really is better for running.

Offering: Hammer and a Nail, Indigo Girls

Benediction, aka Cooldown: Joy to You Baby, Josh Ritter

Can’t wait to try it out. Marathon training starts next week and I’ll need all the help I can get. Suggest your favorite running/workout/feelgood song in the comments.

photo credit: eschipul via photopin cc