Alternative worship: some notes on getting started

Steve Collins


'Alternative worship' is about bringing your real self and your real world into church - not just exercising your 'religious' side, and not using church as an escape from the outside world. People usually get involved in 'alternative worship' when they find that their normal form of worship, of whatever denomination, is preventing them from bringing their real needs and concerns honestly and openly before God. This can be as true of modern forms of worship which deny people's real situations as it is true of old forms of worship whose relevance has been exhausted. Acting a part in church is profoundly damaging to your relationship with God and with your fellow Christians! Conversely it can be profoundly healing to come before God and your fellow worshippers in honesty and find acceptance. Church after all is meant to be a place where we face reality in the presence of God and find healing and strength to live as God's people.

For most of us, this process involves making church out of the elements of our everyday lives - the issues, the culture, the language, the media, the music. Church becomes more like home - a place where we belong and which belongs to us. And this can help us to see that home, and the rest of our world, can be church - life lived in the presence of God.

This certainly doesn't rule out the use of historical elements and traditions; they have shaped our spiritual lives, it would be dishonest to deny them. However, the historical elements you use should be those that are meaningful to you, not just hangovers from the past that nobody has really thought about.

It is best to establish a separate service to experiment in rather than trying to do it in the 'normal' services at your church. This minimises the risk of offence or disruption to people's cherished worship habits - if they don't like what you're doing, they don't have to come! This also frees you from any need to conform to pre-existing worship patterns - you have a clean slate. Successful innovations can be introduced into other services later if wanted.

The team:

Reimagining worship involves time and thought, so you need a small group who will meet regularly to plan services a week or two in advance. Get as wide a variety of people and skills as you can on the team. Involve as many as possible in the actual presenting of the services. Try to achieve a balance of male and female voices and perspectives. Some people will have very obvious skills to contribute, but don't let them get stuck in the rut of only doing those things. They may have other talents too, and others may be able to do what they can do. At Grace everybody contributes ideas to the planning of a service, but then the various pieces of it are handed out to whoever is available/willing. So people end up doing things they had never envisaged doing, and sometimes unsuspected talents are revealed. Remember that stumbling but genuine contributions are worth far more in worship than empty fluency. Everybody is creative, being made in the image of God; part of the purpose of alternative worship is to help people rediscover this truth for thmselves. As well as healing people's self-worth, creative expression opens new channels of communication to God and to others.


Try to avoid putting the team up on a stage and reducing the congregation to an audience. Leadership is about helping other people to have their own encounter with God.

Congregational involvement:

Provide activities and discussions that the congregation can do without intervention from the team, and can maybe give feedback on. Much of the worship can be done by providing 'stations' containing things that people can use or not use, in their own ways and time. Not everyone needs to do the same thing at the same time.

In fact, in many ways alternative worship is about providing a set of tools for the congregation to construct their own worship with.

Modernity [post if you like]:

Don't be modern for its own sake.

Don't keep old stuff if it means nothing; rewrite/reinvent or junk it.


Don't get carried away with multimedia that looks impressive but means nothing. Beware of unintended meanings; be aware of the underlying 'feel' of what you're doing. Beware of images/effects which are so startling that they are all that anyone will remember of the service [unless they make an intended point, of course].


This is an experiment, so things will sometimes not work out, or the equipment will go wrong, or someone will make a hash of something. Relax - you're only human [church is a good place to acknowledge this]. God doesn't mind, and the congregation don't know what was supposed to happen anyway. If you must do something that requires tight integration of several things at once, rehearse - but if the whole service requires rehearsal and not just a run-through you're trying too hard to impress people. This isn't a worship show.


Dare to take risks, with your creativity, with your congregation, with God [who likes it]. Seek honesty not respectability, seek truth not safety. Obviously, gauge your audience, but one of the sins of the Church is that it wimps out, tries to be 'nice'. The real world isn't 'nice', childbirth isn't 'nice', crucifixion isn't 'nice', and worship that touches reality is healing. But don't cause needless offence or hurt if you can help it, and never be shocking just for show.

Of course some people will be shocked or offended by the mere fact of you doing something different in church. Ignore them as nicely as you can. They don't have to come if they don't like it. Tell them you have a right to go to hell in your own way, and so do they.


Numbers in alternative worship services don't have to be large - in fact it is possible to have too many, if people will need to move around the worship space to do things. Too many people and half of them end up as an audience, who watch rather than participate. Intimacy is well worth aiming for, it walks hand in hand with community and communion.


Written stuff, eg stories, meditations, readings, poems, liturgies:

Remember this is about finding your own voice in worship, so write your own stuff as much as you can. People who think they can't write may turn out to be very good - the secret is to have something to say that you care about. Grace use Mike Riddell, CS Lewis, Douglas Coupland, Thomas Merton, Celtic liturgy and poetry, traditional Anglican liturgies and writings, Ignatian meditation, whatever means something real to us.

Images eg video, slides:

See the 'Using Images in Worship' notes also on this website for a full treatment of this aspect. I just make a couple of comments here.

Images of ordinary things, of your everyday surroundings, can have enormous meaning used in church, perhaps with a meditation or prayer. They can be a way of bringing your normal environment before God, and of seeing it in new ways, perhaps through God's eyes.

Remember slides and video images are background. Don't change them too often or use distracting video, or people will watch them like TV in case they miss something. It's better to have three well-chosen images that people will find meaning in and will remember [this is different from using specific images or film clips to make a point].


Use music as background/to create atmosphere. Think in terms of a continuous film soundtrack, rather than individual songs. These can be dropped into the general musical flow. The background music provides emotional colour, fills gaps, papers over the buzz of conversation in group discussions etc. We do our readings/spoken stuff over quiet background music as well.

Be true to yourselves - you probably already know what music you would like to use in worship, but haven't dared or had the chance. So do it. You know what music means most to you, speaks to you of God, or of life, so use your own musical culture in church. Use the soundtrack of your own heart. If it's Christian music, fine, but if it isn't, that's good too. Don't categorise into sacred and secular - there's no obvious divide. We use secular stuff, and people think it's Christian because the church context changes the perceived meaning. This can be revelatory, and in turn can stunningly transform the way that the same music is heard in its usual secular context. Obviously some things aren't helpful or can't be used, use judgement as to whether something will cause needless offence or get misinterpreted; but the general intention is to bring your real self and your real world before God, rather than being 'churchy' or 'holy' [and then going home and listening to something different. God is listening there, too!]. Keep an ear out for where God is in the secular world, where real spiritual issues are being dealt with. There are some surprises to be had.

Remember worship isn't just about happy songs - there's sorrow, anger, bitterness etc to bring before God too [take a look at the psalms]. People who come to church carrying negative emotions or problems can feel alienated or excluded by upbeat joyful worship music, they need music and words that enable them to articulate their pain to God. That pain can't be healed until it has been given room for expression.

Grace music:

The next few paragraphs are about the kind of music we use in Grace services, as an example of an approach to music in worship.

We use the ambient/chilled/meditative end of contemporary dance music as general background in services. We buy this music anyway so we just keep an ear open for anything that might be of use; sometimes we find instrumental tracks that can be used as alternative backing tracks for our own worship songs. It's all secular stuff available from normal record stores. In larger record stores ambient/chill out appears as a separate category, there is a lot of this post-club background music available [for the long motorway drive home at 4am!]. Don't let the dance music categorisation put you off - it's just by an interesting quirk of social/musical development that this stuff has ended up there in the racks. 'Easy listening' might have been a better term for much of it, had it not already come to mean old swing records and schmaltzy crooners. By avoiding obvious dance beats or electronic noise it is possible to put together a worship soundtrack quite acceptable to all ages and types.

I can think of 4 categories that Grace music falls into [all fluid]:

  1. Sometimes it's just that the music is good background;
  2. Sometimes a track has lyrics that suggest a church use;
  3. Sometimes a record has major significance for society/says something important about our world.
  4. Our own and other people's worship songs.

Examples [not exhaustive]:

  1. Cafe del Mar vols 1-6; the Orb; Orbital; Super Discount; Northern Exposure Expeditions; Sabres of Paradise; Two Lone Swordsmen; Air; Fila Brazilia [despite their name they're from Hull]; Real Ibiza vol. 2; anything by A Man Called Adam; Groove Armada.

  2. 'Easter Song' on Cafe del Mar vol. 2; 'Resurrection Song' Cafe del Mar vol. 3; 'God is a DJ' & 'The Long Road Home' by Faithless, 'Sunday 8pm' album; 'Firestarter [Empyrion mix]' the Prodigy; 'Praise You' Fatboy Slim; 'We have all the time in the world' off 'Shaken and Stirred: the David Arnold James Bond Project'; 'Starlovers' Gusgus...etc. Whatever strikes our attention.

  3. 'Inner City Life' by Goldie; 'Bittersweet Symphony' and 'The Drugs Don't Work' by the Verve; we're waiting for the next great anthem...we hoped Blur would oblige, but they haven't.

  4. 'Grace' album, 'Eucharist' album; but music in this category is usually sung live over a backing track, which might be a secular instrumental track we've found that happens to fit. We often augment the backing track with [one or two] live instruments too. We don't have a worship band as such.

Playing something like 'Praise You' in church while it's at no. 1 carries a tremendous punch. It recontextualises both record and act of worship. Suddenly what we are doing in church becomes part of the real world.

[NB I guess we've all heard chart records used in church settings tokenistically as a sop to the 'young people'; it just reinforces how alien church is...But if the whole context of the service is such that use of these records becomes natural, it changes perceptions of where holy ground is in our culture...I wonder how many times Moses had passed the burning bush on his travels before he heard God speaking to him from it?]

We don't usually use hard dance stuff unless we want to hype up the atmosphere a bit or make people dance. If you wind people up in a service you then usually have to calm them down again to move on, and anyway we're a bit wary of generating hysteria in church. It can be good to make an upbeat ending, a bit of a party vibe to send people home on.

We seldom use rock as such because it doesn't fit the general musical flow of our services [does 'background/ambient rock' exist?], But some tracks are too significant to be ignored, eg 'Bittersweet Symphony' by the Verve - we built an entire ritual around it, but used a slightly funkier remix by James Lavelle that's a B-side on 'The Drugs Don't Work' single.

Basic hardware:

Music:two CD players or twin turntables that you can cross-fade between for musical continuity; we have recently bought a Minidisc player, which allows us to pre-record a lot of stuff but unlike a tape allows instant access in any order, and displays the actual track title so you don't cue the wrong one!

Video: a domestic video player, but buy a splitter so you can send the picture to several TV sets.

Several TVs [remember, for most purposes, to turn the sound off].

Several slide projectors, projecting onto muslin sheets hung [in our case] on washing lines strung up wherever in church. Fireproof the sheets first [you can buy a spray]. Hang the sheets so as to create more intimate spaces within the cavern of the church interior. Muslin is also great for covering nasty furniture and draping around things for effect.

PA system and good speakers

Live instruments if available or to suit tastes.

Lots of candles - all shapes and sizes. They create a fantastic atmosphere, rich and intense. Use plenty of small cheap nightlights, eg to form a pathway down the church for people to enter along; put them around the TVs, and around any stations or things that you have set up. Generally, the more candles the better it looks, unless you have a reason for restricting them for the theme of a particular service. Use them symbolically, eg light a triple candle while saying a trinitarian prayer.

Lighting generally should be low and intimate, so as not to drown out the slides and candles. The slides and TVs will contribute quite a bit of light themselves. Spotlight the microphones and the music desk so that people can read things. Low lighting levels also mean that people don't notice the clothes pegs holding up the drapes, or the dirty marks thereon, or the grubby old TVs. These things fade into the background, and the images and candles and things you have specifically lit dominate. The transformation from grot to grotto when the main lights are turned off can be breathtaking.

Important: this doesnąt have to cost much. Borrow as much as you can, or buy second-hand. People may have slide projectors or slide collections at home; maybe they can borrow from work or school. Use old TVs and video recorders - when someone you know gets a new TV or video recorder, ask if you can have their old one. It doesnąt matter what the equipment looks like, in the service people will only notice the picture on the screen. But invest money in achieving good sound quality, both spoken and musical - the ear forgives muffled or tinny sound less easily than the eye forgives faint or strangely coloured visuals!