People come to worship longing to be touched by God. But what touches one person is not necessarily what touches another.
Marcia McFee, professor, worship designer, author, preacher and ritual artist wants to help pastors and congregations learn how to create sensory-rich worship that is respectful of the differences people bring with them, and intentional about inviting people to connect with the divine through more than just the written or spoken word. McFee, who developed Worship Design Studio, combines her first career of musical theatre and professional dance with a Ph.D. in liturgical studies and ethics, and she sees worship as an opportunity to create portals through which communities in all their varieties can journey with the Spirit.
“I am not here to tell you that you should do something vastly different from what you are doing,” said McFee in a workshop for pastors and other church leaders in Southern California, “but sometimes just doing things a bit differently can invite us into a bit of a wake-up call.”
Sometimes, McFee admits, pastors and congregations can be hesitant about trying new things in worship out of fear of how that difference might be received — well aware that with change, sometimes people will push back. But the script of “we’ve always done it that way” often gets in the way of creating worship experiences that deeply connect with worshippers who long for something more.
Her encouragement to churches: Make worship what she calls “M M Good” — intentionally meaningful and memorable.
“Worship is never M M Good just because we are doing things the way we’ve always done them,” McFee said. Instead, in worship we seek to create an experience that will linger afterward, living inside of those who experience it, a moment or snapshot they will not easily forget.
One example that McFee shared was from a worship service focused on Jesus inviting us to cross over boundaries. During the service, the worship leader placed yellow police caution tape on the floor. When worshippers came forward to the communion table, they had to physically step over that caution tape to receive communion.
“For those of us present, it was visual, it was kinesthetic, and it was an unbelievably moving moment that has stuck with me,” McFee said.
Being intentional about building into each worship service elements that involve images, music, drama and movement can create experiences that resonate … — Marcia McFee
“When we talk about meaning and memory, we need to pay attention to science and why some things touch one person and not another,” said McFee.
Calling on the multiple intelligence theory of learning from developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, McFee notes that for some who are more verbally and linguistically oriented, the sermon will be the key point within a worship service.
“But not everybody comes to the worship service for the sermon,” she said. “Some people will more likely get the message from the music.”
Others who are more logical and mathematical in mindset will notice the connections between the various parts of the liturgy. Those who are more visual and spatially oriented tend to love the Christmas and Easter seasons because those are the times when – finally – something different happens in the sanctuary.
“None of this is about the style of worship,” McFee says, or about whether the service is traditional, contemporary, or something else. “I have seen boring in every style of worship.” She insists that sensory-rich worship is not about “groovy bells and whistles” but rather about bringing the story alive in a way that all those who gather might connect more deeply with it. It’s being intentional about building into each worship service elements that involve images, music, drama and movement.
“The words, the environment, the actions, the sequence, the timing, the color: we need to ask ourselves how might they all work together to tell the story, to bring it alive?” McFee said.
But she cautions that sensory-rich worship does not just mean doing more. It means being intentional about the narrative that we choose to tell and how we tell it. It can be easy for our worship to become overly busy as we rush from one point to the next, instead of perhaps pausing to just be, to really believe that God is present in and among us, holding us close.
It can be easy for our worship to become overly busy as we rush from one point to the next, instead of perhaps pausing to just be, to really believe that God is present in and among us, holding us close.
In the end, worship is an invitation to rest in the arms of the divine, to feel the connection, to feel the belonging, to feel that we have a place — all of us, no matter how we learn or find meaning, McFee said. “It is simply about inviting people to be truly in the story.”