Earlier this year I served as a guest musician at Broadway Presbyterian Church, where their pastor, Rev. Chris Shelton, presented a summer sermon series exploring the context and themes of the New Testament. To begin, we invited the congregation to imagine a time before worship bulletins, before hymnals, even before the letters of Paul and the Gospels were written. We created a worship service that was paperless, participatory and poetic. And we used story telling, communal song and images as primary vehicles for the expression and transmission of faith, like the earliest followers of Jesus.
I've done a lot of work with paperless music over the past years, facilitating workshops and worship services where bulletins or hymnals are not used or used sparingly. I'm especially grateful for the invaluable formation that Music That Makes Community has provided in this leadership practice. Hymnals and prayer books play a unifying and formative role in many liturgical traditions; they are valuable resources and expressions of identity.
Going paperless doesn't minimize their importance; it doesn't devalue the hymnal, choir or accompanying instruments; it isn't intended to confuse or fluster. It simply provides a different space for worshipers to be present to God and each other. Because paperless experiences are mediated predominantly through the ear, the eye and intuition become more attuned to words, to non-verbal cues, body language, as well as others in the room. I have found that teaching and learning by ear brings energy and connectedness to our praise and prayer. It places us on more equal musical footing and models gracious hospitality as we learn and sing together.
Though an entire paperless Sunday service might seem a stretch, our experience was positive. Through clear modeling, call and response patterns, and repetition, we wove together a liturgy that incorporated classic hymnody, worship songs, music from the World Church and the African-American tradition.
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Did the congregation miss paper? Perhaps. Was it challenging and tedious at times? Perhaps. But what I noticed as I looked around the room were the eyes and faces of congregants. I saw feet tapping and hands clapping. I heard voices raised in praise. We were present to each other in a way that heightened our sense of community, that helped us focus on what was sung and spoken, that engaged our bodies and hearts as well as our minds.
How much paper does a congregation need? It turns out it may not need very much. As worship planners and leaders, I invite you to notice the moments where you can invite the congregation to put their bulletin down, to listen to and look at each other. Are there shorter pieces that don't require printed words or music? Are there liturgical actions that would be served by a paperless tune instead of a strophic hymn? Where might echo, call and response and repetition patterns help lift prayers and responses off of the page so they can find a place in the memories and hearts of your congregation?
How much paper does a congregation need? I don't have the answer. But I do think that we'll be surprised and delighted by what we gain musically and spiritually when we are less bound to the page and more engaged in listening and responding to faith as it is shared through story and song.