In what ways can Alternative Worship communities engage with the spiritual needs of both church leavers and non-churched seekers?

Bio: Hannah Deaves.
I am 34 years old, married to Robert and we have a baby daughter. We live in Ipswich where I am a Primary School teacher and a Reader in the Church of England. I am about to start training for Ordained Pioneer Ministry. Seven years ago a group of us who were struggling with church formed a community which came to be called Morph. It is a small community committed to finding ways of expressing the Christian faith and worship in contemporary culture. It has a heart for social action which is expressed in the many organisations its members are individually involved in. Morph’s main mission is in reaching those who have left the church, although it is constantly looking for opportunities to reach those with little or no church background. The community worships together on a Wednesday evening. It has strong links with an Anglican church which provides oversight for the community. This is reflected in a regular commitment to lead the evening service at this church bimonthly.


Interview with’s resident researcher – Ian Mobsby

What interested you in the subject area?
I chose to research this question because of my involvement in a small ‘Alternative Worship’ community called ‘Morph’ who were beginning to grapple with this question themselves. The community had been formed by a group of church leavers (or those just about hanging on in the church), but more recently some people with little or no church background had joined the community. We recognised that although those leaving the established church and those with no church background in some areas were looking for the same things in other areas they have very different needs. We also recognise that we still find it easier to make contact with church leavers than with those who have no church background and we wondered if there were things we could do to engage more effectively with those outside of the church.

What do you think you have learnt of interest of those in alt worship and emerging church circles?
Alternative worship communities with their emphasis on cultural relevance, holistic worship which encourages creativity and participation, a concern for social action and the environment, and building community, have all the right elements to be more accessible and attractive to the non-churched, and yet they mostly connected with church leavers. Many communities are looking at new ways to connect with those outside of the church, but most are finding this a struggle. However, this concern should not detract from the importance of mission to church leavers who are a group which need to be affirmed and can feel excluded.

How has it impacted on your role in your connection to the emerging church?
It has encouraged me to look at how the alternative worship community I am a part of can explore together ways of affirming church leavers and looking for opportunities to connect with those outside of the church. It has encouraged me to develop links with other alternative worship communities and to share our stories and learn from each other. It also led me on a personal journey, as well as the whole community, which has looked at our connection with the wider church and community and I am now about to start training for Ordained Pioneer Ministry through which I hope to explore some of these things further.

You mention that you believe Alt worship is an important media for enabling non-churched seekers through participation, creativity, holism and a concern for environmentalism – is this because the non-churched in your context have values in this area akin to a form of postmodern mysticism? What is going on in your context and what age are these people?
This was as a result of the reading I did and conversations with other Alt worship communities as well as from my own experience. We have had very few non-churched people but those we have made contact with have these values. Many of those who have left mainstream churches have done so because the values they hold are not reflected and given expression in the churches they attended. These people are in their 20s and 30s and participation, creativity, holism and a concern for environmentalism are key features of our worship as they bring these aspects of their lives into worship.

You also imply there is a clash missionally between the needs of unchurched and dechurched people – what has been your experience? Is it hard to do both?
Sometimes it has been hard to do both but at other times it has not. In many of the examples of worship given above both groups have engaged with the worship and it has met their needs. When people join who have left the church they often have a good knowledge of the Bible, Christian tradition and language and whereas they use this to express their beliefs they also want to distance themselves from it and often are expressing pain and doubt. The unchurched can find it difficult to engage with this as the language and concepts are unfamiliar and they have an interest in engaging with some of these things and exploring belief.

Have you done anything differently since completing the research? How has Morph responded to spiritual seekers in practice?
Not as much as I would have liked it to, partly because of having a baby! It has focused us as a community to think about the assumptions we make and the language we use in our discussions which can exclude those with no church background. We have spent some evenings looking at an overview of the Bible and aspects of church history and Christian spirituality. We have only made contact with a handful of non-churched spiritual seekers but for both them and the de-churched participation in worship has enabled each person in the community to bring their values, beliefs and spirituality to our worship. This leads to a great diversity in our worship from going outside and touching leaves and looking at the stars, to using Celtic liturgy, to the use of multimedia images and music, to listening to real stories of the homeless in our town to many other forms.

What is your general context for doing this form of mission through alt worship?
Through emphasis on building community and a non-judgemental attitude which accepts everyone and then encouraging everyone to participate and bring themselves to the worship. This leads to a great variety of worship and the types of evenings we have.

Alt worship has a reputation for over-relying on worship-as-mission with a neglect of community and mission as the other functions of church – do you believe this to be true?
Yes, to a certain extent. The experience of Morph in the beginning was a strong emphasis on building community first and the worship developed out of this. Now building community within Morph and worship are both high priorities but mission and the wider community can be neglected. As individuals members of Morph are engaged in different aspects of mission whether this is in the local community or more concerned with national and global issues. These are then brought to the group as the focus for an evening or for worship. However, how Morph engages in mission as a whole community is an area we are still grappling with.

It sounds like Morph is an alt worship congregation of a more traditional form of inherited church – is that right? If it is – has your vision and practice been welcomed or somewhat clashed with the inherited church vision and practice?
I don’t think it is… When Morph leads the evening service at St. Matthew’s it is seeking to meet the people there where they are at the same time as challenging them to consider something new. These services are therefore closer to a more traditional form of inherited church. We might use a reasonably recognisable service format but have interactive prayers and some contemporary music, or we may change the format completely and use the labyrinth, for example. These services have mostly been welcomed. In doing this we are trying to offer something back to the church and do things which could be taken and used in some of their other services. The connection with this church also helps us to ‘watch the back door’ and be known among Christians in the town. However this is very different to our worship together as a community and not everyone in Morph would be involved in the worship at St. Matthew’s, as for some they do not feel able to be part of worship in that context. Some in the church are very supportive of Morph and see it as fulfilling an important aspect of church and mission, others see us as a group of rebels who have ‘gone off the rails’ and should repent and submit ourselves to the authority of the leaders of the church. I think some feel that our very existence is a criticism of the way they are church and can be quite defensive of their position.

What other questions has your research raised?
I think the research raised more questions than found answers! It seemed to be a common experience that many Alternative Worship communities attract mainly church leavers and struggle to attract many non-churched people. The reason for this would be an interesting question to explore further and I believe other groups are doing this. Noting that there are cultural similarities between Alternative Worship communities and the ‘New Age’ movement and the contemporary search for spiritual meaning it would be interesting to discover whether the non-churched are finding spiritual fulfilment through the New Age or other contemporary spiritualities. If it is found that they are then a good question to explore would be; ‘in what ways are these forms of spirituality connecting with people?’ If it is found that people who try different forms of spirituality outside of the church are still searching and have an unanswered spiritual longing, then perhaps the question to explore is; ‘how can the church reach into the unfulfilment of their spiritual longing in an enlightening way?’

Following your research – where would you and Morph like to go next?
This is the big question I am looking at and I’m not sure I know yet. In the short term I would like Morph to continue to build community and explore worship and spirituality. I would also like the community to consider our mission and possible changes we might need to make. It might be that on some evenings we need to do things in different groups to meet both the needs of the non-churched and the dechurched. I would like us to develop our website as a forum for the community to use and to communicate and make contact with others. There are big changes in our town with a new university and waterfront development and I believe that Morph needs to look at opportunities for mission in these areas.

How can people get hold of the research?
It available to download from this site:
Alt worship, leavers and seekers – Hannah Deaves [PDF 136k]