The faint smell of incense can be detected in the air. As the curtain slowly parts, the lighting in the auditorium begins to rise, revealing a young man seated before an easel on stage left. Dressed in trendy clothing belying his status as an artist, paintbrush in hand, he bows his head silently in prayer.
When the band begins to play softly, he suddenly sits up straight, inspired by the music, and begins to paint with clear, bold strokes. The camera zooms in on the canvas, projecting the image on large screens high above the crowd. The congregation lifts their voices in worship.
Welcome to a worship service in the new millennium.
As the emerging trends of 21st-century worship become increasingly clear, they evoke heated debate among church leaders. The conflict centers on the definition of true worship.
To some, worship is fulfilled through the practice of traditional liturgy, cautiously handed down after being carefully guarded by previous generations. To others, worship is any act that engages the presence of God, in what I have come to call "spiritcourse": the Almighty interacting with man, on His terms.
What, then, is true worship? How is it being done in the new millennium? And perhaps more important, is this evolution healthy?
The modern English word "worship" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon weorthscipe, which was used to signify the act of attributing worth or value to an individual or a thing. Though later modified to worth-ship and finally to "worship," the original meaning remains intact.
Therefore, worship is the act of exalting, magnifying or ascribing worship to the Lord. In Scripture, the word "worship" denotes an overall way of life, the act of sacrificing and a specific activity of devotion.
When Abraham said, " 'the lad [Isaac] and I will go yonder and worship'"(Gen. 22:5, NKJV), he was speaking of the act of sacrifice. In Exodus 34:14, the definition of worship is expanded to include the way in which we live: "For thou shalt worship no other god" (KJV). Finally, Psalm 29:2 instructs us to "ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name" (NIV).
These three dimensions of worship are encompassed in 1 Chronicles 16:29, where we are instructed to: (1) give to the Lord the glory due His name; (2) bring an offering and come before Him; and (3) worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
Worship was never designed to be practiced in a sterile laboratory with detached reserve by those who have mastered the science. Worship, in fact, is more an evolutionary process than a professional practice to be mastered. Whether engaging God through intentional living, personal sacrifice or a specific act of devotion, worship has always had a multisensory dynamic associated with it.
True worship properly engages the total man--spirit, soul and body--in ultimate devotion to the infinite Creator of all things.
WORSHIP IN HISTORY
Lest you think that multisensory worship is a cheap substitute for those who lack a strong enough "anointing" to hold the attention of the crowd or the "compromise" of a new generation straying too far from the foundations of the traditional church, let me quickly remind you that multisensory worship began in eternity past.
Creation. The first chapter of Genesis reveals the creative handiwork of God as He carefully crafted a world awash in color, texture, fragrance and song. As we continue through the Scriptures, we discover that music, art, paintings, architecture, crafts, poetry, psalms and drama all reflect the creative handiwork of God.
The tabernacle. The tabernacle of Moses in the wilderness of Sinai was the place where heaven and earth met together for ancient Israel. In the construction of this divine dwelling, no decision was left to mortal architects or interior decorators. God gave the blueprint for this hallowed meeting place, which safeguarded His presence.
God gave specific instructions concerning the materials to be used and the form to be built. Why? Because the very material out of which the tabernacle was constructed was to communicate a specific image held in the mind of God. The shapes, colors, textures and smells brought the participant into an awareness of the creative capacity of almighty God.
The tabernacle of David. David's tent of worship was another multisensory environment. Replete with musicians, dancers, singers and Scripture readers, this "working man's tabernacle" was open to all of Israel 24 hours a day, for 40 years! The sweet smell of incense served to cover the pungent odor of the burnt sacrifice and to awaken the senses of the worshiper to the mystery of the Divine.
The temple. While far more elegant in its appearance, the temple of Solomon did not leave the congregation of Israel as mere spectators in the worship experience. Upon completion of this $87 billion facility, the entire nation was assembled for a worship service that was unmatched in history. For several days they worshiped with wild abandon as a countless number of sheep and oxen were sacrificed to the Lord.
The ark. Finally, the ark of the covenant was transplanted from the tabernacle of David into this magnificent setting. As the worship reached a crescendo, the glory of God descended as a cloud, covering the golden seraphim and the prostrate worshipers. This multisensory experience was initiated from heaven and gratefully received on earth.
The prophetic writings of Ezekiel and Isaiah give us glimpses into an environment of celebration and participation as well. The apostle John's vision of the apocalypse is filled with the vivid images of a world still unexplored by mortal man. A quick glance through the book of Revelation will leave the reader reeling with the vivid pictures of thunder and lightning, beasts and angels, harlots and saints, cities and nations, faithfulness and betrayal.
All of these images are driven by a sense of mystery, which provokes a desire within us to explore them. Heaven is built upon types, shadows and prophetic images, and is filled with glorious sights, smells, colors and textures. Heaven was designed for audience participation.
Progression of multisensory worship. Throughout the history of the church, we are given glimpses of the majesty of God through the visual arts. After its inception as a state religion under Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity assumed responsibility for the expression of the fine arts.
Pope Gregory made an announcement at the beginning of the seventh century that the arts were the primary means to disciple the uneducated "pagans" throughout the nations. He described the arts as "the Bible for the illiterate."
The cultural Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries was fueled by the arts. The masterpieces of Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael and others were a part of the fabric of the church. The worship experience engaged the whole of man through the beauty of the arts.
However, in the last 500 years, much of Christianity has lost its multisensory heritage. Church became something one experienced through one's ears--a choir singing, a talking head lecturing from behind a pulpit. Meanwhile, popular culture began the journey toward becoming a visually oriented society.
Postmodern progress. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he triggered evolutionary change. Prior to this discovery, education was primarily image-based. Using parables, pictures and physical illustrations, people were instructed in the information that was fundamental to their respective vocations.
With the advent of the printed page, people were suddenly forced to read in order to participate in the learning process. Society became progressively divided into two classes--readers and nonreaders--with the latter being placed at a decided disadvantage. This was the beginning of educational evolution and the end of participatory learning. The pre-scientific world had become one of rational, deductive reasoning and linear instruction. Modernism was born, and logic reigned supreme.
When we weren't looking, the world changed once again. Long before fiber optic lines and the Internet linked the global community together, enabling us to exchange our cultural values with people unlike us, Samuel F.B. Morse connected people through his greatest invention, the telegraph. Following his discovery, another invention became pivotal in turning our attention from words back to images: the camera.
In creating the first photograph, Joseph Niepce did for images what Morse accomplished for words. He enabled thoughts to be removed from culture and context and dropped into unrelated settings. The stage was set for postmodern progress. We were coming full circle.
Both these remarkable inventions opened the floodgates for further evolutionary change. But the technological explosion of the new millennium is more than evolutionary change--it is a total revolution of the way people communicate and learn.
The traditional methods of didactic teaching are quickly being replaced by an interactive style of learning in which the primary focus is placed on audience participation. This dramatic transition forced us away from a scientific approach to learning through linear processes to a participatory experience of interconnectivity and interactivity. The modern world was word-based. The postmodern world is image-driven.
When the computer in my car began to talk and the local cable company expanded our service to 83 channels, I knew there was no turning back. By far the most dominating aspect of the 1990s was the speed of communication and the accessibility of information.
In less than half a century, we progressed from a nation enamored with the development of a little black box that received the transmission of sight and sound to a global community connected through satellite technology and the Internet. Some might challenge whether this was a positive step in the right direction. However, the rapid pace of technological advancement is here to stay.
According to noted researcher George Barna, in 1990 we were aware of just 3 percent of the information that will be available by the year 2010.
In a nation where more people have televisions than indoor plumbing, an increasing number have become a part of the online revolution.
Without us even recognizing it, the technology revolution has reshaped the ways in which most of us relate, communicate, work, play and learn.
THE CHANGING CHURCH
In order to be effective in communicating truth, we must recognize that there is a whole new communication style that does not rely on information as an outside source to be analyzed, processed, contemplated and evaluated before being acted upon. This new way of communicating treats information as a multisensory environment with and in which people interact. In the modern world, we learned through words on chalkboards and in textbooks. In the postmodern world, we learn through images, fragrances and personal experiences.
This is good news and bad news.
The good news: Most charismatic churches have become accustomed to an interactive style of worship with hand-clapping, spontaneous singing and uplifted hands. Some of the more progressive forms of worship include shouting, dancing and even congregational participation in prophecy and exhortation. Many of our songs are based on powerful images that often create intense feelings. Some of us were leading the way in multisensory worship long before we knew what to call it.
The bad news: Our interactivity has been confined to the worship portion of the service. After allowing the congregation to briefly experience the presence of God, we expect them to "settle down" into the pew and listen intently to an hourlong monologue based upon deductive reasoning. The powerful images that generate the emotional response in our worship are replaced by verbal propositions. After "tasting and seeing" the goodness of the Lord, we then retreat to the "talking-head" style of instruction.
This has been the traditional state of preaching in the West. Just as most other preachers in our nation, I was taught to preach based upon a courtroom style of communication. In this style you build a case, defend the truth, prosecute the enemies of the cross and close with a demand for a verdict from the jury. The only difference is that we call the juries our congregations. Our style of communication has been largely based on the pattern established by some of America's most influential preachers, who also happened to be lawyers.
Before you perceive me as an adversary of this style of communication, let me quickly inform you that I enjoy this linear approach to communication. As a "left-brained leader" I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I am far more comfortable with the systematic teaching of the apostle Paul than I am with the parabolic teaching of Jesus. And with the weight of five generations of preachers in my family, change doesn't always come easy. I find myself being stretched in unimaginable ways in my commitment to effectively communicate the gospel in a way this generation can comprehend.
The gospel is transcendent--fully capable of speaking the language of every culture in every age. Sadly, the church has not been. We have limited our methods and restricted our harvest field. By reclaiming the arts and exploring multimedia, we automatically expand our audiences to include those who may be suffering from spiritual ADD (attention deficit disorder).
Some churches have made the transition. In a growing movement led by progressive evangelicals, many charismatic leaders are now beginning the journey toward new millennium ministry. At the risk of being considered "compromisers" by the traditional crowd, they weighed the odds, counted the cost and decided to take the necessary risk required to reach a new generation. Risking religious criticism, they have responded to St. Augustine, who challenged: "Under all circumstances, to all people, under all conditions, preach the gospel, and if necessary use words."
If people of the new millennium are learning from image-driven instruction and we are still communicating word-based dogma, then we must either change our methods or risk extinction. After all, this is no less than what God encountered when He sent His Son. John 1:14 declares that "the Word became flesh [image] and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory" (NKJV). It wasn't enough to hear another verbal proposition regarding the goodness of God; we needed to see His Son in order to believe the message.
Where to begin. Are you using every way possible to communicate the message you've been commissioned to preach? In a world in which most church members have become accustomed to more than 100 channels of television and unlimited Internet access, why should you communicate in a style more suited to yesterday than tomorrow?
Multisensory worship is the process of awakening all of our senses to the reality of God, thereby increasing our opportunity to grow spiritually. Through carefully crafted stimuli, the principles contained within the Word of God are brought to life in a postmodern setting. It is not--and should not be taken as--a substitute for the active work of the Holy Spirit in service preparation or presentation.
There is an old anecdote that goes something like this: One preacher says to another, "I've got a great joke; now I just need a message to go with it!" When multisensory worship is "tacked on" simply to reach youth or satisfy those with spiritual ADD, it is trivialized and, therefore, ineffective.
Following are some ways you can awaken the senses of those in your congregation to the presence of God. You don't have to be a creative genius, but you do have to study the culture and be willing to take risks.
Illustrated sermons. Though certainly not cutting edge by most standards, illustrated messages help to bring the Scriptures to life and increase learning retention. This medium can be taken to the next level by incorporating video into the presentation and spontaneously involving members of the audience. Don't be afraid to take the illustration out into the pew rather than keeping it on the stage.
Drama. Dramatic vignettes differ from illustrated sermons because they rely on metaphor more than overt illustration. Dramatic vignettes can create meaningful moments of reflection as we see the nature of God, and man, in the lives of others.
Multimedia. As the medium of choice by most postmodern communicators, multimedia offers the greatest opportunity for spiritual and emotional impact. Media ministry is not as difficult to utilize as it may seem, given the wide availability of user-friendly computer programs such as PowerPoint and Song Show Plus. The Wired Church by Len Wilson is a must-read for anyone wanting to increase their effectiveness in using multimedia.
Interviews. Whether live or on video, this medium helps to incorporate other viewpoints into the preaching experience.
Incense. The most important key to awakening the olfactory sense of the worshiper is to use it sparingly! Try lighting a fragrance that coincides with your worship theme an hour before the service and burn it briefly before extinguishing it, leaving a faint scent in the air.
Art. By displaying banners, flags and fine art, you can create interest in the theme of the service before the teaching begins.
Interactivity. Although you run the risk of making some people uncomfortable, try closing a service by encouraging the congregation to form groups of three to five and briefly discuss what they experienced in the worship or teaching.
The opportunities for multisensory worship are endless. One pastor recently told me that as he taught on "Tasting the Goodness of the Lord," he handed out Hershey's chocolate kisses and encouraged the congregation to eat them on the spot! Not only did he leave them with a simple reminder, but he also was immensely popular with the teen-agers that Sunday!
RESOURCES FOR WORSHIP
The following Web sites offer resources, discussions, chat rooms and materials for worship. Each URL listed below is followed by the mission or purpose statement given by that site.
www.marshillforum.org. "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--His eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20, NIV).
In the dim light of postmodernism, MARS HILL exists to reveal Christ in culture. They were launched into existence by the power of a single inquiry: "Who or what mediates the presence of God in your life?"
They believe that the use of the secular for the sake of the sacred requires careful thought and a deeper openness to understanding how the Bible uses secular culture to make known eternal truth. As an example, MARS HILL sees the arts, including music, film and literature, not as merely propaganda of the flesh, but rather a genuine expression of the human heart, which both hungers for God and also seeks to banish Him from life.
Their mission is to train people to be competent in the study of the Scriptures, the culture and the human soul, who are also deepening their commitment to relationships and addressing the needs of a rapidly changing culture. They wish to participate in the building of a lifelong community of people who have a common passion for biblical relationships, who are becoming skilled in the art of reading life and the biblical text, and who love Christ's church and understand its realities.
www.seekersolutions.com. Seeker Solutions Inc. was founded in January 1997. Its mission is to provide user-friendly resources for innovative churches utilizing the creative arts and technology.
Creative Assistant 3.0 is software utilizing a user-friendly search engine to locate resources by topic for use in service planning/programming. They now produce Interactive CD-ROM tours and Cable TV commercials for churches or organizations.
The group also provides "Randy's Research": a concise look at new written material from a myriad of sources that address topics such as creativity, new technology, thinking outside the box, philosophy of ministry, etc. This page will constantly be changing.
"Must Reads" is a growing list of books read and recommended by Seeker Solutions Inc. that they believe users would find helpful and informative for their ministries.
www.highway.org. Based in Palo Alto, California, this Christian community produces videos for the emerging church. In an age when truth is relative, story and dialogue are the vehicle for change. When mankind is able to produce and digest tremendous amounts of information everyday, that task gets tougher and tougher.
The church has scrambled to meet the demands of reaching the postmodern mind-set with the message of hope through Jesus Christ. Whether a teaching pastor, worship pastor or lay minister, Highway has the video tools to help individuals better execute telling the story of Christ's love in an effective and penetrating way.
The Christian market is flooded with a bunch of great ideas that often can't be used in the real world. Don't discount audiences by using something cheesy. The key to communicating to an audience is not only being keen to what is being said, but also how it is being said. Every message has a destination; Highway hopes to be the vehicle to get it there.
Highway products are infused by the frenetic current of modern visual media, not antiquated church culture. Talk to Highway when you need to communicate absolute truth to a relative culture. Jesus reached the world through storytelling; the tradition continues at Highway Video.
www.ginghamsburg.org. This United Methodist Church in Tipp City, Ohio, offers dynamic resources for creative, sensory worship. They describe themselves, among other things, as Christ-centered and contemporary, yet biblical. Worship services at Ginghamsburg are designed for those who are searching out the claims of Jesus and those following Christ. They seek to communicate biblical truths and principles with a fresh, nontraditional approach by using contemporary music, drama and practical messages.
Terry Crist is pastor of CitiChurch International in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he lives with his wife, Judith, and three sons. He has traveled to more than 50 nations and is the author of The Image Maker (Charisma House).