Several years ago, I was serving a small church outside of Orlando, Florida, as an associate pastor and was given primary worship leadership and preaching responsibilities over the church’s evening worship service. The service had fallen on hard times. It was sparsely attended and needed to be completely transformed.
My leadership over this worship service coincided with the arrival of several young volunteer leaders, some of whom the church eventually was able to bring on staff. We decided that whatever was happening in that evening worship wasn’t working for us (or anyone else, for that matter). I had always dreamed of a hands-on, experiential, creative, completely nontraditional worship experience – and we were able to make that dream a reality.
One of the more memorable worship experiences we planned was a service centered on God’s radical grace for broken people. The sermon illustration I chose was from a short story by James Baldwin titled, “Sonny’s Blues.” To help illustrate things even more dramatically, we decided to turn the worship space into a jazz and blues club for the evening.
As participants arrived, they were met by a velvet rope and a “bouncer” who fixed a custom bracelet on every one who entered. We covered the floor and pews with sheet music from classic jazz compositions and hung large posters of famous jazz and blues artists around the room. Jazz played over the sound system as everyone entered.
There were prayer and meditation stations set around the space, including a spot to journal and a table to work with pastels to create spontaneous, unplanned works of art inspired by the service. Our worship band played blues-influenced worship music, inviting the crowd to get up and mingle while they played and to find a spot to journal, draw, pray or simply rest.
When I preached that night, I retold the story of “Sonny’s Blues,” connecting Baldwin’s tale of grace and redemption with the story of the prodigal son from Luke’s Gospel — a story that ended in a party. I challenged the congregation that night to join in the party, saying, “Maybe you identify with the prodigal son. Maybe you identify with the older son. It doesn’t matter — it’s your choice whether you want to join God’s great big redemption party or stay outside.” Then we turned up the music and we danced.
I have led hundreds of worship services over my 18-year ministry career, but that “Sonny’s Blues” worship service will always have a special place in my heart. It had an impact on so many who were there to experience it.
To this day, I still have a drawing that was done by an 11-year-old boy who was there that night. He drew a picture of Sonny and his brother, and solemnly handed it to me after the service. I treasure that drawing. It reminds me of what is possible when we allow our holy imaginations to run wild when planning worship.
Leon Bloder is a preacher, a poet, a would-be writer, a husband, a father, a son, a dreamer, a sinner, a pastor, a fellow-traveler and a failed artist. He is talentless, but well-connected. He stumbles after Jesus, but hopes beyond hope that he is stumbling in the right direction. Leon has been married to Merideth for 22 years, is the father of three awesome boys, and serves in ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis in Eustis, Florida. Visit his website.