Crowdsourced worship: Perks and perils

February 3rd, 2016

Agree or disagree: People have to be told how to connect to God or what to say to God, God speaks only to the few and the well-placed.

If you disagreed with the above, then you are ready to experiment with crowdsourced worship.

I discovered crowdsourced worship the hard way. In my typical fire-ready-aim fashion, I had forgotten to plan details of a closing worship service. Here it was, the last day of our three-day retreat. Everything else had gone really well; the group had bonded, transformations had taken place; the Spirit had moved. Would it fall flat on its face because I had forgotten this all-important detail?

I knew we would have Holy Communion, and that’s about it. As the group of eight church leaders sat in the loose circle that would be our closing worship, a moment of clarity came. Liturgy means work of the people. If the worship service were highly scripted, it wouldn’t be the work of this people. A pre-printed liturgy would be an oxymoron.

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I prompted them through the Order of Worship in the United Methodist Hymnal, asking at each point who had something to contribute. From Call to Worship through Benediction, the Spirit moved. I provided a brief reflection and led Holy Communion. Others bookended this with a favorite Scripture reading, creative words of reconciliation, simple songs, touching prayers, and even a joke that fit perfectly. I never could have planned something so good. The worship service unfolded through us. It was surprisingly satisfying.

I have since used this format purposefully. The more I trust the process, and even prepare people ahead of time, the better it gets. Each worship reflects the group that is present, and the experiences we have shared.

It occurs to me that while pre-scripted worship has a long and solid history in both synagogue and church, it seems to presume several things that are just plain wrong:

  • People have to be told how to connect to God.
  • One person, or a group of others, knows best how a whole group ought to connect with the Holy.
  • Scripted worship is the work of the people. 

Bill Wilson, 20th-century practical theologian and co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous wrote, “Deep down in the heart of every man, woman and child is the idea of God.” Since we are each made in the image and likeness of God, I’d take that one step further: “Deep down in the heart of every man woman and child is God.” That makes talking to God, celebrating God, and worshipping God the most natural thing any person can do. It positions crowdsourced worship as a viable way to conduct corporate worship. Moreover, it allows the church to stop over-functioning and to put liturgy back in the hands of the people.

Personally, I find corporate worship much more satisfying when there’s space for me to contribute. Even if it’s simply space to speak to God in my own words during silent prayer. But most silent prayer isn’t silent. And it lasts about 10 seconds. Not long enough to connect.

If you’re ready to experiment with crowdsourced worship, keep in mind these perks and perils.

Perk #1: Because of the nature of crowdsourced worship, worshippers feel empowered to truly respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Worship feels less rote and more like a dance.

Once, at Communion, I turned in the circle to serve James, the first person to my right. Then James turned to his right to serve Cassie. Then the two of them together — who didn’t know each other before the retreat — turned to serve Kenzie. James held the bread, Cassie the cup. From then on, two turned to serve the next one. The ritual evolved without a word of instruction; it just naturally morphed.

Perk #2: It’s high-expectation worship. It raises the bar of what is possible and do-able in the church as people gain confidence in their ability to connect with God. At one crowdsourced worship experience, the energy in the room was palpable. We had just pulled off something that others had not thought possible. One pastor said on her way out to me: “I didn’t think that would be possible. But God really did speak through all of us today. I want to try this with my home congregation.” I imagine that she went home and is now empowering her congregation to discover their own personal connections with God.

Perk #3: You can start small. In fact, you have already started. If you ask for prayer concerns, offer times for testimonials, or ask people to call out their favorite hymn you are doing crowdsourced worship. If you ask people to respond to the sermon or talk to their neighbor, you are dabbling in crowdsourced worship. One gifted pastor I coach helps people easily greet each other by printing a different question in the weekly bulletin that people may ask each other: “How many people in your family?” Or “What are you grateful for today?” The pastor of a new church plant, ICON, invites people to respond to the Scripture and the sermon using an artistic medium — clay, paint, etc.

Just as there are perks, there are perils that must be guarded against.

Peril #1: Dominance. The same people speak up over and over. In this case, the work of the people becomes the soapbox of one or two persons. Some pastors I know have discontinued spontaneous “Joys and Concerns” because they devolved into weekly updates of one or two persons' failing health.

Peril #2: Uncertainty. You may open up to rants and raves that would be inappropriate or hurtful. I once unwittingly gave an opening to the wife of an unhappy Chair of Trustees. She let loose on the whole congregation for their perceived faults and failings. I was stunned, unsure of what to say. In retrospect, I see that she was naming a situation I could have headed off at the pass had I been more savvy. It gave me important information, but not delivered in the way I would have preferred.

Peril #3: Lack of participation. There is the chance that no one will say anything. Unless you’re used to Quaker meetings where that may be the case, or your people are quite comfortable with extended periods of silence, this can be quite unnerving. Given a bit of advance notice, guidance and patience though, this can be avoided as people grow in their confidence to contribute. You can also set ground rules that make clear: no dominating, no rants or raves and everyone has something to contribute.

Crowdsourced worship breathes new life into old worship forms. It trusts that God is at work. It allows the movement of the Spirit to be recognized and expressed through us and among us. It refreshes and empowers. And it puts liturgy back in the hands of the people.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at She is the author of The Jew Named Jesus and Green Church.

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