Arizona church melds arts, technology
Written by Cliff Aerie
During a recent worship service, Scottsdale Congregational UCC artist-in-residence, Tito Sebastiani (above), constructs an image of Christ composed of single, meaningful words written by members of the congregation. Jazz musicians (right) and a video presentation accompany that day's liturgy. Mark Udry photos.
Walking into the sanctuary of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Congregational UCC one immediately knows that this not your typical service. A jazz quartet plays a swinging prelude and accompanies the hymns. Two large video screens integrate multi-media presentations into the liturgy. During one service I attended, an abstract artist painted on canvas accompanied by the quartet's improvisation and followed by liturgical dancers offering an invitation to communion. At another service, a multi-media presentation depicting cosmic creation was juxtaposed with a video clip of a physician's own CT scan, prompting a dialogue between preacher and doctor about the infinite and intimate nature of God.
Along with visionary lay persons of this congregation, the pastor, the Rev. Eric Elnes, has initiated a new focus in ministry emphasizing media and the arts. At the center of the church's mission is an innovative liturgical setting named The Studio. This 21st century approach to worship weaves modern technology, the arts and spirituality into an exciting worship experience. Last month I asked Elnes about The Studio and the church's commitment to contemporary mission. Q: What makes worshiping at The Studio such a unique experience?
Instead of emphasizing message, The Studio focuses on creating an experiential worship environment. For example, if the worship theme is "God as Creator," for our "traditional" service I ask, "How can I teach my congregation how God acts as Creator and how it might impact our lives?" For The Studio, I and the Worship Team ask, "How can we open people to experience God as Creator, or at least model what such an experience might be like?" Having asked the question in this way, we freely draw upon the visual arts, music, multimedia, drama, dance, and ritual to answer it. The Studio is truly a multi-sensory experience.
Q: Where did the idea for the Studio start?
The earliest roots can be traced back to congregational "visioning" retreats held several years ago in which "aggressive outreach to heal the hurts in our community" emerged overwhelmingly as the strongest sense of mission to which God was calling us. But what really moved us forward was our congregation's commitment three years ago to develop a monthly worship service for teens called "Alt.Faith." Alt.Faith allowed us to push the envelope, take risks and experiment with new worship forms. We had many successes and failures and in each we learned something valuable about worship. Thus, the youth became our unexpected prophets, helping us discover what worship could look like for all ages.
Q: Why are the arts such an integral part of this concept?
I once heard the arts described as getting us connected with "the nuclear reactor of the soul." The arts lead us to a place of great heat— and great danger. I think we church people have been too fixated on the "danger" part of the equation, and thus shied away from drawing upon the arts in worship. The Studio moves us several steps closer to the heat— the fire of the Spirit. It's a wonderful—and dangerous place—to be.
Q: Why was jazz chosen as the primary foundation for music?
Actually, we originally conceived of The Studio as a rock-based service, owing to our positive experience with Alt.Faith (where 90 percent of the music was rock). But while we were still discerning the direction for The Studio, we held a series of Lenten "Jazz Vespers" services for the community. Frankly, we were blown away by how perfectly suited certain types of jazz can be in the worship environment. So perfect, in fact, that those on our worship team who, before "Jazz Vespers," had said they did not like jazz, were the very ones to suggest we chose jazz over rock! One of the insights that persuaded everyone involved was that, if you want to produce intensity with rock, you either have to increase the volume or the beat. But with jazz, you can have all the intensity you want, even by lowering the volume or slowing down. Thus, jazz allows us to be "upbeat" when the occasion calls for it, but also allows us the flexibility to be contemplative, even dark, and allows us the freedom to integrate other forms of music— including rock, which we regularly bring in through multimedia reflections on popular songs.
Q: How would you categorize The Studio?
Even though our new service is geared toward a 21st century context, we chose to call it "The Studio" rather than our "Contemporary Worship" because it is so different from most "contemporary" worship services. We consider the service to be radically contemporary, yet we make regular use of elements that are quite ancient, like weekly Communion and contemplative prayer— and art. One of the most frequent remarks from visitors who have had some seminary background is that the worship experience clearly holds hands with the broad stream of Christian tradition even as it brings that tradition into the present and future. We like to hear that! We never intended to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Q: Has The Studio been effective in "healing the hurts in the community?"
Although many might not see a direct connection between healing hurts and creating a dynamic worship experience, all you have to do is spend a little time with one of the many new people worshiping with us who had given up on church years ago to discover that real hurts are being healed. And we have found that this form of worship and ministry energizes and propels people into direct mission in our community. We are doing a lot more classical mission work now than we ever were.
Q: How does The Studio fit into your church's overall mission emphasis?
The Studio is just one piece of a six-fold program, called the "Oh, My God" Program designed to renew Mainline Protestant worship and ministry. ("Oh, My God" were the first words out of someone's mouth when she heard we had received a sizeable donation to get the program started). Our priorities includes an emphasis on small groups, integrating the arts and technology throughout the congregational culture (including adding a computer lab and working art studio to our facilities), building a web ministry, resourcing other churches through producing and distributing quality multimedia and other resources for worship and ministry and sharing what we've learned in workshops for churches around the country. Finally, it involves beginning an Institute here. Through the Institute, we plan to invite church leaders and academics to spend time with us, forming a conversation around contemporary electronic culture and its implications for worship, education, music, spirituality, and mission. We hope to then send these people out with a host of quality resources to paint the vision back home and begin using what they've learned right away. We also hope to make grants directly to churches who participate, helping them to get started by making initial investments in technology (on a matching funds basis). Presently we are seeking funding sources to make this Institute a reality. Its time has definitely come.
Q: How would you describe the theological foundation and framework of your mission?
Our Vision Statement underlying the "Oh, My God" program is "To engage the full resources of the Christian tradition with the emerging capabilities made available by the spirit of the age, connecting people with their spiritual selves and the Spirit working within the age." Essentially, we believe the Christian faith, and specifically our UCC identity within the Christian faith, is distinctive more through what it embraces than what it excludes. Our denomination has forged an identity as one that embraces people of different races and cultures, gender and sexual orientation. We have taken this concept into the heart of worship, applying it not only to people, but to aspects of our everyday lives that have rarely been invited into worship or affirmed there.
Q: What has been the response of your congregation to this new direction?
Change does not always come easily. The hardest change by far was going from one worship service to two—a change that necessitated moving our "traditional" worship from 10 a.m. to 9 a.m. (The Studio is at 11 a.m.). On one hand, it was much easier to simply add a worship service than it ever would have been to take one away or modify it significantly. None of us wanted to do that, as we all continue to love and value our "traditional" service. What was hard was moving the time. Many of our older members—most of whom felt they would worship regularly at the "traditional" service—preferred that service to meet at 11 a.m.. And many of our younger members—most of whom felt they would worship regularly at The Studio—preferred the 9 a.m. slot. But our research suggested that the best time for reaching the unchurched in our community is 10:30 or 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning. And since The Studio was viewed as our best opportunity for reaching this population, both old and young alike voted against their self-interest in the name of reaching out to those who were not presently a part of us. Tears were shed, but those tears watered productive soil. Now, we find many of the older members are attending The Studio regularly, and we have younger members attending the "traditional." And many move freely from one service to the other, depending on their schedule for the day.
Q: And how has the community responded?
Enthusiastically. Combined worship attendance from the point we started the two-service format has averaged 170, with about 100 or so worshiping at The Studio. By contrast, for the same period a year ago we were averaging 120. Thus, attendance has risen by 50 people, or more than 40 percent. Of those who are new to us, approximately 80 percent are classically "unchurched." Most have had church in their background somewhere, but dropped out long ago. One such person told me recently, "I came originally just for the music—but I stayed for the commercial." It is gratifying to know we are not simply changing people's church addresses.
Q: Have you been able to develop congregational leadership in this model?
Personally, this has been one of the most gratifying aspects of our whole project. One person absolutely cannot create The Studio each week. You must have a worship team and a congregation willing to take risks. We have six people ranging in age from mid-30s to mid-70s, who meet for a couple hours each week. At first, I wasn't sure how working on a team would be. Now, I don't want to ever go back. It is the most gratifying small group experience I have ever had. The lay people are wonderful. I prepare background sheets and a "Version 1.0" worship outline each week, then we discuss, shred, rearrange, and add. Inevitably, whatever I had originally brought to the table in my preliminary outline is much improved—simply from each person adding their small piece of insight, or background, or hunch. Now we even have church members outside the worship team producing multi-media presentations.
Q: What's been most meaningful to you in all this?
Bottom line, I can hardly wait to go to church each Sunday. As a worship leader, one of the things that increases my energy exponentially in preparing worship is that, with The Studio, there isn't a single song, film, piece of poetry, painting, photo ? or even what I had for dinner last Thursday—that can't be drawn upon and offered in worship in some meaningful way. In other words, now virtually everything I and my congregation experience in everyday life can be offered to God and community in worship. All of life has become worship, and worship has become Life.
Q: If churches want to be in contact with you to learn more, how can they reach you?
The best way is to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We welcome pastors and lay leaders to visit, and are also happy to conduct workshops for larger gatherings.
The Rev. Cliff Aerie, an accomplished jazz saxophonist, is special events producer for the Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry in the UCC's national setting.
To discuss this topic with the Rev. Eric Elnes, click here. To contact Elnes, e-mail him at email@example.com or write to 4425 No. Granite Reef Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251. The church welcomes visits from pastors and lay leaders. Elnes also conducts workshops for larger gatherings.