By Eddie Pipkin

Since I’m always keenly attuned, whenever I attend any public event, to the dynamics of venues, programming, and hospitality, the past 10 days has been a gift that kept giving.  I was blessed to attend three distinctly different experiences, and each reinforced the other with lessons in how we can offer what we have to share with excellence, enthusiasm, and creativity.  I saw an outstanding live production of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, attended the touring Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, and dropped in on a college basketball game.  At some point in each of those very different ‘performances,’ I thought, “Why can’t churches learn to do things more like this?”

In the case of the classic Dickens Christmas tale, the local theater troupe did a wonderful job of bringing the familiar story to life in new and thoughtful ways.  They kept the essential elements of the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s redemption, delivering all the quotable lines (from “Bah, humbug!” to “God bless us every one!”) with flair.  But they also used creative staging to evoke Dickensian London in dramatic shorthand.  They used special effects to create compelling ghosts.  They even used an eerie larger-than-life puppet to represent the Ghost of Christmas Future.  They unexpectedly worked in classic carols, sung by the cast at points in the story that made sense, and supplemented by a well-placed small musical ensemble.  They even worked in comic relief where they could do so without forcing the comedy – it felt natural and organic to the narrative.

In short, they lovingly selected the best parts of the story and crafted an interpretation that made them seem simultaneously familiar and fresh, and in so doing, they gave the audience new insights and a renewed appreciation of a story they thought they knew by heart before they ever walked in the door.

What can’t churches do more of that kind of thing?

Why can’t we celebrate the ancient words of scripture in ways that help us see them with new eyes?  Why can’t we interpret the familiar stories of God’s grace in creative ways that make them relevant to the hear and now?  We tend to read the scripture stories as reverential holy relics.  We fall into patterns of sharing scripture (and prayer and liturgy and even music) that take the same, unvarying form week after week.  What if we encouraged the creative types in our midst, from all disciplines from dance to visual artists to puppeteers to lighting designers, to help us reimagine the way we present our gospel truths.  (And I’m not saying we have to do something crazy and cutting edge every single week – just when it seems organically appropriate, when it form-fits a theme or idea.)

As for the Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit, I’m not sure if you have attended or read about this phenomenon sweeping the nation, but it involves dark rooms with giant wrap-around digital projections of interpretations of some of the famous paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, like The Starry Night, The Yellow House, and The Potato Eaters.  [And a side note here, the Van Gogh experience has been highly popular everywhere it has toured, selling out at all its stops, but it has its detractors, including those who think it’s too expensive and those who think it’s insufficient as an authentic art exhibit.]  What it definitely is, is different from your normal art museum experience.  It is immersive in the sense that screens that encompass the giant room where you and a few hundred other friends experience the production are humongous, and the super-detailed, crisp digital projections wrap fully, completely, and seamlessly around you.  They reflect off the polished floor, too.  The perspective zooms slowly in and out of the select paintings, going into granular detail so fine that you can see the famous Van Gogh brush strokes.  Specific details of each painting are highlighted and some animated in ways that bring them compellingly to life.  All of this is accompanied by a sweeping, custom-composed soundtrack that weaves together recognizable works (like Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”).  And the whole presentation of about 40 minutes is on a continuous loop, so that you can enter and leave at any point.

What can’t churches do more things that are immersive like that?

I don’t mean, of course, a giant wrap-around digitally animated presentation of the Gospels – although, frankly, if you can pull that off, you will have people lined up down the block, me among them.  But there are ways that we could make our worship and discipleship experiences more immersive, and it would be a wonderful way to spend an afternoon with your creative teams or leadership teams, just throwing that question out there: what would a more fully immersive discipleship or worship experience look like?

  • Continuous flow. One of the things the Van Gogh Immersive Experience did well was connected the different “scenes” together in a continuous, seamless flow.  The only hard breaks or blackouts on the screens occurred on a couple of occasions when they were implemented for dramatic effect.  In contrast, many of our worship experiences have clunky full-stop transitions between the different elements of the service.  Especially if people need to move to, for instance, a microphone to do a reading, the pause can be interminable.  When done well, we move from element to element in the worship service in seamless fashion.  Likewise, these different elements in the worship service are not just steps of working through the program in a start-stop-repeat stutter, but flow organically and logically from one to the next.
  • Fully investing in a theme. One of the best ways to make the worship experience immersive is to have every aspect of the worship service supporting a central theme – this is the infamous “big idea” approach.  Readings, liturgy, message, music, graphics, and stage setting all reinforce this central theme.  Each element explores an aspect of that theme and takes those in attendance into a deep and varied exploration of that theme.
  • Depth in layers of participation options. This can be provided in as a preview and follow-up to the worship theme.  It is clearly a key to meaningful discipleship.  Whenever there is a class, whenever there is a sermon, whatever the event, there are options for previewing that material beforehand (so that we can gain more from the event as we experience it), and there are options for digging deeper into that topic afterwards.  These options can include follow-up question-and-answer sessions, lists of linkable resources, books on that topic for purchase, online discussion forums, a next layer of sessions that explore the given topic more fully, or a playlist of music or podcasts that delve into the topic in interesting ways.  [The Van Gogh Immersive Experience had some introductory displays to explore before entering the main room.  They shared biographical and artistic information about Van Gogh.  And, of course, you exited through a high-end gift shop.  As we have written in this space before, some great swag items are a popular way for folks to engage with your theme and share it with others.]

As for the basketball game, I had a great time stopping off in my hometown, Macon, Georgia, to see the Mercer Bears women’s basketball team take on my alma mater, the UCF Knights women’s basketball team.  Mercer is not a large school, but they have a wonderful 3,200 person arena, shiny, full of Bear spirit, and blessed with a great sound system and some well-placed and well-utilized digital screens and lighting effects (not to be sacrilegious, but like a well-designed worship space, right?).  It’s a great place to watch a sporting contest, and I’ve personally attended some exciting games there over the years, but what I really appreciated last weekend was the feel of excitement, enthusiasm, and relevance they brought to what, let’s be honest, was a sparsely attended game.  Although there were only a couple of hundred people in attendance in a space that held 15 times that many, the energy level was fantastic.  The pep band was rockin’, the cheerleaders were all-in, the mascot was roaming the stands and interacting with fans, and the in-arena DJ was pumping the tunes.  It really felt like the crowd was much larger, and, correspondingly, the energy level was fun and supportive.

Why can’t we do things more like that?

I think of how we often we let the sparseness of attendance at a given event dictate the energy level, instead of us as leaders communicating the energy level with our own enthusiasm.  Event leaders too often bemoan crowd size, when the best outcomes happen when we bring the same energy and excellence to a room filled with 10 people as a room filled with 100 people or 1,000 people.  I know we all love that natural energy that emanates from crowd size.  It can be inspirational.  But when we are the authors of a level of energy and excellence to even an intimate crowd, people feel special and inspired.  Let’s not sabotage an expected small crowd with attitudes like, “Aw, there will only be a few people there, so we don’t have to give it our A game.”  I have, as you have, even heard churches with a less-attended early service followed by a well-attended later service refer to the earlier service as the “practice session.”  Ouch.  Our job is to bring the energy.

And I don’t mean by “bring the energy” that we’re only talking about being bigger, louder, and more frantic.  Those interactions I had with the Mercer Bear mascot were fun and one-to-one.  I would never have had them in a full capacity venue.  Intimate interactions are energy-generating, too.

All of these insights are useful for the next couple of weeks as we conclude the Christmas season.  They are useful for anytime during the year, but they are perhaps most valuable when we are thinking about those seasons where visitors and casual attenders are seeking us out, soul-hungry to see what we have to offer and perhaps curious to see if it’s changed any since the last time they came months or years ago.

What are the moments in your own ministry that you celebrated as you read through the ideas for creativity, immersion, and promoting enthusiasm?  What are the things that popped into your head that would lend themselves to tweaking based on applying some of these ideas?  How do you give the old, familiar ideas new life?  How do you immerse people fully in the worship or discipleship experience?  How do you encourage energy and enthusiasm even in small crowds?  Share your ideas below in the comments section!