On a cold November night in East Gwillimbury, armed with a live band, two projectors and about 100 glowsticks, 40 people gathered at Sharon Hope United Church to sing, dance and pray along with songs by Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip. Our theme was Courage, and the many forms it takes in our daily lives. Each song was paired with a reading from scripture or by contemporary writers. During the liturgy, we examined the lyrics of “Grace, Too” through the lens of Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. “Nautical Disaster” was paired with multimedia highlighting the refugee crisis in the Middle East. We sat with the horror and grief of the Residential School system with a reading of “When We Were Alone” by David Robertson and singing “The Stranger” from Secret Path.
Courage: A Tragically Hip Liturgy was the second in new series of Rock Liturgies hosted by Living Presence Ministry. Our third,The Frost is All Over, explored the Advent and Christmas story through the work of Canadian folk singer/songwriters. With these services, we are working though how to treat popular music as hymnody during worship. What else do these songs have to offer us when intentionally placed within a worship context? We heard from many of those present that simply having the lyrics projected helped the words they’ve been listening to for years sink in deeper.
Living Presence Ministry is a new and emergent ministry created by Living Waters Presbytery in York Region. East Gwillimbury is currently going through an unprecedented population surge. What was once a quiet, rural farming community is soon becoming a suburban centre and far more multicultural/multifaith than the area has ever seen before. A home was purchased in one of these brand new housing developments on behalf of presbytery, and this is where I live with my family, being a part of the community from its inception, getting to know the residents as their neighbour first. And in the same way that Jesus was in and with and among his people, I am embedded within the community, striving to be in and with and among the new residents of East Gwillimbury. I often tell people to think of me as a Community Chaplain – I’m here to make sure everybody is okay. I offer one-on-one pastoral support and referrals to Social Service agencies. I work with the local congregations as their “ear to the ground” on what’s going on with their new neighbours. We host Community Potluck Dinners and a Harry Potter group for 10-14 year olds, using the book series as a common text for kids from varying (or no) faith backgrounds to explore issues related to justice, compassion and right living.
For those looking for a traditional church congregation, I am able to orient them to one of our five partner churches. But there is still a large segment of the new population who would consider themselves SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious). This group, mostly made up of Millennials and Gen Xers, still have the same yearning for a space to explore the “deep questions” – Why am I here? What is my purpose? What am I called to do? Traditional hymns do not speak to these people in a post-biblical age. So, how do we offer a worship experience that meets people in their present contexts?
Of course, using popular music to reach those outside our traditional congregations isn’t new. The U2charist movement (using U2 music during worship services while raising awareness and funds related to social justice initiatives) has been around since 2003. Beatles liturgies have existed for ages (did you know that “Let it Be” was inspired by the Magnifcat?). But it was novel within this particular community to use music from the popular consciousness for the purposes of worship and contemplation. Any push back we received was easily alleviated by pointing out that Jesus himself used and built upon popularly understood stories of his time to make his words and message more palatable to his audience.
Our next large Rock Liturgy will be on the evening of Palm Sunday (March 25), where we will explore the Passion through a 1990s music canon. Think Joan Osborne, Nirvana, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, R.E.M. and 4 Non Blondes. Our liturgies are also available on our website (www.livingpresenceministry.org) for congregations to use and adapt as they wish.
Rock on, people of the Spirit!
Bri-anne Swan is the Community Minister with the Living Presence Ministry in East Gwillimbury, Ontario and a CCS student in her first year of studies.