Special -- The Many and the One: Em-Bodied in Christ

The 2007 General Synod in Hartford drew more than one thousand youth and young adults to participate in the national life of the United Church of Christ. The Synod provided time for "New Wine Worship". A handful of worship planners, nearly all youth and young adults, began work to create a worship experience suggesting innovation, renewal and focus on youth. What ultimately resulted was a Spirit-filled worship experience that flowed between common experiences and several interactive stations to embody the diversity as well as the unity in the body of Christ.

Planning process: Flexible and brave!

Worship planners worked initially at a distance from each other, depending on conference calls and e-mail. From the beginning, we had a sense that this service would require abundant amounts of flexibility and even bravery, if we were to take seriously the context and the experience of the young people who would attend it.

We expected a wide variety of moods among worshipers—from end-of-Synod exhaustion to excitement about the experience of the national church.

Youth and young adults would have been primarily observers for much of Synod, so we wanted this to be an occasion for energy, interaction and innovation.

We were unsure of the numbers; we planned for 300 (400 came!).

The service was scheduled for "after-hours" (about 9:30 p.m.) in a huge, unstructured and unseen-in-advance space.

A Form Emerges: "St Thomas Mass"

Initially we thought in terms of inviting a very dynamic speaker to give a sermon or meditation. Early on in our conversations, however, we decided that this honored tradition would not provide the degree of involvement and interactivity we were hoping for. We sought for a form less centralized, which could offer more time for youth to explore the various meanings of the Word in their own circumstances. We began to focus our conversations around the idea of various "stations" through which people could worship and reflect on the Word in the manner of their own choosing. This idea of a "station-oriented" experience has developed from the emergent, post-modern worship style of St. Thomas Mass, which began in Europe in 1988. In the midst of St. Thomas Mass, different kinds of prayer opportunities abound at stations around the sanctuary.

These prayer stations would be as intentionally diverse as possible to engage a person's thoughts, emotions, senses and experiences. Individuals would be free to travel from station to station at the prompting of the Spirit or to spend the entire reflection time in one place. This would also allow space for those who wanted to worship in lively crowds as well as for those who wanted to worship in contemplative settings. Worshipping in stations seemed to permit the greatest amount of diversity and involvement, as well as allowing flexibility for the range and number of people who might be in attendance.

A Text emerges: 1 Corinthians 12:12-26

The classic Pauline metaphor regarding the parts of the body unified in community spoke to our hope that through the diversity of youth participating in worship, a sense of community would form. Unity and diversity in the body of Christ seemed a natural theme for a station oriented service gathering youth and young adults throughout the entire denomination, and it also seemed to fit well with the already embodied actions that the worship stations would create. Thus, we settled on a theme: "The Many and the One: Em-Bodied in Christ." We planned the worship service to highlight bodily gifts of senses and talents in the stations and then move to celebrate the Eucharist as one body, emphasizing our connection and unity. We hoped the service would build community and leave worshippers with a vision of the diverse, yet unified body of Christ.

Practical challenges:

Our gifts of flexibility and bravery were greatly challenged in the process leading up to the service! Worshipping in stations multiplied the tasks far beyond the preparation of a centralized service, and organizing the event with no one on site in advance taxed all of our faith, hope and humor:

How many stations would we need to accommodate perhaps 300 young people? We came up with a "guestimate" between 20-30 stations, ideally.

Identifying station themes: What would be of interest to the youth and young adults? Spaces for personal prayer and conversation; artistic expression; movement; music; dance; journaling; social justice prayer and advocacy. Closely related: what kind of resources in terms of art supplies, space, music would be needed by the stations?

Finding leaders: We wanted them to be led primarily by youth and young adults in order to and reflect the various talents of the body. We advertised for "station leaders" on the Facebook UCC Group and sent an email request to the 2030 Clergy Network. We also actively recruited leaders at the Synod, and as the word about the service spread, talented individuals sought out the planners and began to volunteer to create stations for us. We invited them to make a sign and stake out a station.

Finding musicians: Since we were working at a distance from the site, we looked to local UCC Churches for recommendations, and were put in touch with a local Christian rock band called Red Letter Day, who had worked in a UCC context in the past and were willing to volunteer their service.

The majority of details would need to be worked out when we arrived at Synod. A day before the worship itself, once members of the core planning team were finally all together, we had several face-to-face gatherings to finalize details and divide tasks. We had no time for rehearsal; so we depended on imagination, talent and good will of the leaders in the moment to "make it work!"

The evening of the service we had only about two hours to create the space before the service started. Our worship room permitted plenty of free space for stations to be set up around a central arrangement of chairs in front of the stage. Tables for art work, circles of chairs, quiet spaces for individual conversations, butcher paper for a grafittied "prayer wall" all somehow were put into place. This worship model easily allowed last-minute flexibility with changing and adding stations.

The Stations: A "Worship Festival"

Energy was incredible as individuals entered the room to the music of Red Letter Day, and spontaneous dancing began. We gathered everyone in to begin with a fairly traditional format, with words of welcome from one of the planners and an interactive call to worship led by youth and young adults. The scripture passage was read by youth and young adults. Then, one of the planning team explained the concept of the service by reiterating that all are parts of the body of Christ, and all have various gifts. He invited everyone, instead of listening to one individual give one interpretation of the Bible passage, to visit the stations to discover their own meanings and give them expression.

From the word "Go," worshippers engaged the process enthusiastically. Leaders directed folks to stations and encouraged the shy to get involved. In a matter of one or two minutes, the room began to feel like a worship festival. In one corner, people were writing their prayers on a prayer wall. Next to them, others were reading and writing body-positive poetry. On the screens in front of the room, close-up pictures taken throughout Synod of the youths' own hands, feet, arms, ears invited youth to silently reflect in contemplation. Two tables in the back of the room were crowded with teens making use of the art supplies to illustrate and sculpt their creativity. Individual intercessory and anointing prayer stations connected those in need of counseling or blessing with pastoral volunteers. The worship band played songs for a small audience, and one young man shared his guitar with other enthusiasts. Adult leaders led conversations about the text and a variety of callings to ministry, For nearly twenty minutes, participants traveled around to different stations, interpreting the Word about diverse gifts in a worshipful and energetic atmosphere.

The body movement/dance station became an occasion for unexpected leadership to emerge. We had planned for local dancers to be involved in the worship service and teach moves, but they backed out at the last minute. So, when a large crowd of youth gathered in the dancing area, there was nobody to teach or lead them. After milling about for a short time, some simply began to dance! A group started to line dance, and another group demonstrated their break dancing moves. With no dance music and no formal leadership, these youth demonstrated ingenuity by finding a way to worship together in a safe and permissive environment. The creativity of the Spirit manifested in their play and throughout the entire room.

Together at the Table

The band played a gathering song to bring people back together and center their focus. An offering of financial gifts for the UCC -supported organization Water for all followed the outpouring of creative gifts. Then together the whole body participated in Holy Communion. Young adult pastors led the prayer and invited the body to come forward to receive chunks of delicious bread and plump grapes as symbols of the feast of Christ. All were included at the unifying table of Christ.

A final unifying ritual–the benediction–concluded the service. One of the worship planners prompted folks to reach out and share signs of greeting and thanksgiving with one another. Appropriate hugs, handshakes, dances or high-fives were all encouraged. In this spirit, the words of Teresa of Avila were read, "Christ has no body now on earth but yours …" We closed in this way, hoping that the peace and unity found at the table of Christ would strengthen among the youth and become an opportunity for ongoing sharing after the service. Judging from the feeling in the room, we were grateful that the worship helped youth celebrate their gifts, leaving them energized and more greatly connected to one another.

Looking back, we believe the worship succeeded in its major goals Youth and young adults were included in all parts of the service, from the planning process to the leadership of the stations. One worry we had in the planning process was whether the experience of various stations would leave the worship feeling disjointed. We discovered that worship participants needed the freedom to move around and experience different things according to their needs, but it didn't become entirely chaotic. Emphasis on community and communion in the latter half of the service kept the focus on the unified body of Christ, creating a natural progression following the time in stations. With no printed program, we had freedom in the number and arrangement of stations until the start of the service. Some of the stations—the arts/creation table, prayer wall, and image reflection space—needed no leadership present and were easy to arrange beforehand. We trusted youth to be self-guided, though it might have helped to have leaders at some stations to guide reflection as the youth engaged creatively.

Adaptations for Use in Other Settings

Nearly every part of this service can be creatively adapted to fit a wide variety of settings. One interesting possibility for a smaller crowd would be to have a time for debriefing and feedback after the station time, asking the question, "What did you do/what were you reflecting on?" Additionally, creations from the various artistic stations might have been brought forward and gathered in the altar space to lift up created works as part of the offering. The communion table could also be set with these created symbols of embodiment. If there was a wish for folks to experience all the stations, musical interludes or dancers could indicate changes of station. The nature and number of stations is also highly variable depending on the purpose and size of the worship. We highly encourage seeking out lay and youth volunteers for the stations, as it offers a chance for previously unrecognized talents to emerge. Whatever the context, station-style worship should include clear directions at the outset and bring participants together afterward to experience unity with communion or some other ritual practice.

Station-style worship can be adapted for any theme or purpose in the worship context. Stations might be utilized in services centered around healing and renewal (hand-washing, anointing, shoulder or stone massage, yoga, prayer) or social justice (intercessory prayer, letter writing, protest sign creation, non-violent practices). Additionally, this type of worship format can be beneficial for youth in helping to engage more interactively during seasons of the church year. A Lenten service could include stations themed around different types of prayer practices (Taizé, prayer beads, lectio divina, praying with icons) or actions/discussions/movements based on the last words of Christ. Similar stations could be creatively constructed during Advent. The possibilities are limitless; however, what is important to keep in mind is that these stations must give space for all who desire to worship, keeping in mind the needs of those in your particular worshipping community.

A final caution: working with such a flexible format and shared leadership will lead to loss of control! Those of us who worked in planning the service struggled with how much went unstructured until the last minute and the unpredictability of the whole service. We are coming to understand that this changeability is part of the life of the church. The service helped us see that in the freedom of adaptability and change, the Holy Spirit gives wondrous surprises. We learned to trust youth and young adults with their own worship experience. They stepped in and claimed the service, and the Holy Spirit moved over the people to create a lively festival of energy and faith. This "New Wine Worship" revealed visionary possibilities for youth worship while also celebrating continuity with traditions throughout the body of Christ.

The planning team for Em-bodied in Christ: Youth and Young Adult Worship at General Synod 26 were Obadiah Ballinger, Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, LiErin Probasco, Kendra Purscell, and Rachelle Wasserman. They worked in consultation with Rev. Susan Blain and Rev. DaVita McCallister of LCM.

Writers of this article were Obadiah Ballinger and Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi.

For information on St Thomas Mass, see Wesley, John P. "St. Thomas Mass: Ancient, Post-modern Worship," www.emergingworship.org/st-thomas-mass.htm.

For full text of Teresa of Avila's prayer, see Teresa of Avila, "Christ Has No Body," http://www.poetseers.org/spiritual_and_devotional_poets/christian/teresa_of_avila/prayers_and_works/christ_has_no_body.

Copyright 2009 Local Church Ministries, Worship and Education Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100. Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education. All publishing rights reserved.


Rev. Susan A. Blain
Minister for Worship, Liturgy and Spiritual Formation
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115