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Leaders enliven creative, hands-on worship with Marcia McFee

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As part of a Lenten observance, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling brought worship expert Marcia McFee to the Baltimore-Washington Conference. The sanctuary at Mt. Zion UMC in Highland was full on February 8 as McFee shared wisdom and advice and experiences of God.

Here We Are to Worship

Marcia McFee is known as the United Methodist expert in creating soul-stirring worship. In her webinar, “Reboot Your Worship,” she outlines five basics for moving congregations to deeper engagement and creating meaningful and memorable experiences of God.

  1. Create intentional spiritual journeys — does the worship series hold together in a cohesive way that deepens engagement with the overarching message over time? Have we connected the series theme to other aspects of our life together such as mission and education?
  2. Engage the congregation —have we provided significant opportunities for the people to participate as fully as they are able, and are those opportunities adaptable and inclusive for all ages and abilities? Are there many opportunities for leadership by a variety of people? Have the people been engaged in a visceral way, embodying the message in their responsive actions?
  3. Be sensory-rich in communicating the message — are we honoring the diversity of ways that people take in information and express themselves by offering the message through all the senses? Are all the ritual artists working collaboratively so that each art form is often layered with other art forms? Are symbols powerfully communicated through sight and sound and action?
  4. Offer deeply spiritual leadership — have we “set the stage” for the message through threshold moments that provide a framework for our experience? Are verbal transitions more than simply perfunctory instructions about “what’s next,” or are they helping to guide and engage the congregation in their work of worship?
  5. Let it flow — have we done the work of attending to the flow of worship, to transitions and energy dynamics? Does the worship feel like a journey from beginning to end rather than pieces cobbled together? Are we attentive and open to what the Spirit’s movement in the congregation might reveal in the moment of worship that could change “the plan” in small or significant ways?

– Excerpted from “Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages.”

Go Deep or Go Home

There once was a youth director in Louisiana, Miss Nina Reeves, who left an indelible impression on Marcia McFee. Reeves took her to lunch and right after sitting down, looked into her eyes and said, “Let us speak of the deepest things we know right away.”

If the church is to begin the task of revitalizing worship, it must learn from Miss Nina Reeves. There is no room for the trivial, or irrelevant. “Go deep, or go home,” McFee said.

The first task, McFee asserts, is to re-articulate the mission of worship. Worship, she said, exists to “build up the body of Christ for its work in the world through encounter with the holy, living God.

This means worship cannot be about pleasing those in the congregation who want what they have always known. Rather, it is about realizing the enormous diversity of the body of Christ.

“Unforgettable messages,” McFee said, “are the result of taking our God-given diversity seriously, especially as it pertains to the myriad of ways we experience the world, process information and assimilate those messages into the fabric of our lives and behavior.”

Pastors and worship leaders are called to move from being “bureaucrats of the program” to becoming “enliveners of the people’s spiritual experience,” she said.  “Worship cannot just be a bunch of people in the same room. It has to be a body. It’s how you animate that body.”

Create a Threshold Moment

Leaders of worship must create a compelling invitation to wake people up and invite them into the presence of God. This compelling “threshold moment” is an essential part of inviting people to lean into and become a part of the story. Without it, worshipers stay observers, a step removed and ready to be critical.

Filmmakers know this, said McFee, whose recent book looks at how movie-making can inform worship.

Filmmakers spend more time on the first two minutes of the film than they do on the entire rest of the movie because when an audience leans into it, they become story-dwellers, she said.

For this reason, McFee implores churches to do away with the traditional Call to Worship, which uses far too many words, with people speaking in cadence, stripping the language of inflection and drama.

Creating threshold moments invites people on a journey. “It’s about setting the context, setting the story and setting us in the midst of it,” she said.

The threshold moments must also reflect the unique character of the church year and the seasons of the congregation’s life together.

A reporter once asked McFee, “what’s the biggest problem with worship in our day?” She replied, “We have flat-lined the story.” We’ve made it monotonous, robbing it of intentionality, diversity and nuance, she added.

“Lent feels like Easter, which feels like Advent,” she said. “The story has lost its power because we have forgotten to express the depth and heights and particularity of an amazing narrative of life and faith. It takes real power to take our faith narrative and make it boring — but we can do it! Have you read the stories of our sacred texts lately? It’s far from boring.”

“Not an ‘-ology,’ an ‘-urgy”’

Worship is an experience of God, not just talking about it. “It’s not an ‘ology,’ it’s an ‘urgy,’” McFee said. “Liturgy.”

Once you invite someone into the story, you better keep that story going. People notice when the transition between elements of worship change awkwardly and don’t flow seamlessly.

In a film, two hours can fly by, while an hour of worship, divided into five to seven small distinct and seemingly unrelated segments, can seem to last forever.

The answer, McFee has found, is to create sequences, made up of several layers. Music, poetry, movement, the telling of Scripture stories, multi-media images, and a myriad of other elements can be woven and integrated into seamless sequences that engage people in creative and significant ways.

McFee calls it flow, and she’s the Flow Queen, never allowing transitions to jar people out of God’s story as it unfolds in worship.

“As soon as you become aware of the mechanics, you’re taken out of the picture,” she said.

Part of the flow involves good stage management and making sure speakers and singers are at the ready; part of it also involves creating musical moments and other ways of making transitions feel like a part of the worship experience.

Some pastors feel hesitant at the suggestion of using multiple creative expressions in one sequence of worship, even when they’re done with excellence (and they should always be done with excellence), fearing it will take away from their sermons. To that concern, McFee has one answer for those pastors: “Up your game.”

Make the Spiritual Tangible

Worship should be observed as a spiritual practice:  preach, sing, pray, repeat, said McFee. “But worship is not about concepts. Concepts will not change your life; a holy experience of the living God will change your life. It will be unforgettable.”

To create unforgettable worship, pastors and other worship leaders need to operate like art directors, creating the world in which the sacred story happens.

An invaluable tool for doing this is symbol and metaphor.

“When we walk into the sanctuary, we want to feel the ethos of the story. We have a deep and innate need for symbol,” McFee said.

Mary Collins, a ritual theorist, said “symbols are like electrical transformers. They allow us to grasp ineffable realities through concrete means.”

To illustrate messages and meaning, metaphors can be used. These metaphors can be anything, said McFee, who calls the act of searching for them to illustrate and illuminate worship – “metaforaging.”

“Ordinary things – water, bread, light, all the ordinary stuff becomes extraordinary when we bring into contact with the faith narrative.

Once she finds a good metaphor, McFee makes it her “anchor image” for the worship services and series she designs.

Digging into her bag, she pulls out a tube of sinus spray. Even this can be used as a sign of hope for the church — whatever clogs us up will be opened up so that spirit might flow freely among us,” she jokes.  “We will never run out of ways to talk about how God works in the world.”

Using anchor images, good worship leaders create meaningful ritual. McFee elaborates: “Christian ritual happens when engaged persons express and enact their deepest longings through repeated, as well as innovative, sensory-rich language in such a way that the Spirit of the living God is experienced and imprinted upon them so that they are convicted and sent into the world to go and do likewise as disciples of Jesus Christ.”

One anchor image she found particularly striking was from a sermon in which the pastor spoke about Jesus’ habit of having meals with what seemed like the “wrong people.” Before Communion was over, she rolled out a piece of bright yellow caution tape and strung it up in front of the altar, asking themselves what boundaries they needed to cross in their own lives.

“That caution tape was an ordinary object that became a powerful symbol that keeps reminding me again and again of that message every time I see it out in the world,” McFee said. An “anchor image for a series will be a symbol that can speak powerfully of the underlying message and help it stick with us in indelible ways.”

A Word about Silence

The average moment of silence in United Methodist worship is nine seconds long, McFee has discovered. When planning for silence, recognize people’s discomfort, she said.

Getting into silence will be a big deal. You can’t hop into long moment of silence. Move your way up.

Getting Complaints?

Trying new ways of worship can take courage. Often leaders worry about complaints from the congregation.

Complaining about the new, McFee has found, is “really often an unarticulated fear about losing God.” Recognizing this can change the dynamics of change.

When addressing change, make sure the new is excellent and invite the people along on the journey of new ways of encountering God.

This is your Brain on Worship

A good worship leader understands that a few decades ago, people learned in a critical distance model. Like listening to a radio, they absorbed information and inspiration in worship from someone speaking to them.

In today’s post-modern era, people receive information through critical immersion as they are invited into and immersed in a narrative of sight, sound and experience. When one considers the way we now realize brains work, sensory-rich offerings in worship become essential.

Effective worship leaders also understand Howard Gardner’s theology of multiple intelligence.

“People are intelligent in different ways,” McFee explained. There’s:

Verbal linguistic – these learners appreciate sermons;

Musical rhythmic – they respond to song;

Logistical mathematical – these learners see the connections between things;

Visual special –  they notice the many visual details of  the sanctuary;

Bodily kinesthetic – they express themselves by doing.

There are also inter-personal and intra-personal styles of being and interacting. Those with an interpersonal style love interaction and when elements of relationship and community are missing, they see worship as cold and sterile. Those with an intra-personal style want to go inward and appreciate silence and depth. A boisterous passing of the peace will leave them feeling ill at ease and perhaps even like worship is not “reverent” enough.

McFee finds it useful when planning to consider: the verbal, visual and visceral.  Studies have found that in the fifth grade, out of every 10 students, two are auditory learners, four are visual and four are kinesthetic.

“All of our brains do all of these thing, some more than others,” she said. Good worship doesn’t compartmentalize; it takes all these styles into account and encourages them to “play together,” McFee said.

One way to do this is to focus on layering, bringing words, actions, symbols, sequence, lighting, color, timing and music together in one experience. “Layering is how we experience everyday life,” she said. “We combine sensory experiences to create meaning.

Sometimes, words aren’t even the primary means of expression. “Music sets mood, tone, and context. Visuals, including color palettes, lighting contrast, panoramic, or close-up views, create deeply symbolic contributions to the sequence of events. Action, or ‘blocking,’ becomes carefully thought out because of its immense impact. And dialogue is compact and rich. These are the elements of deeply meaningful and memorable worship as well,” McFee said. “We take some pretty incredible stories and transformational messages, and we try again and again to bring them to life in deeply meaningful ways that speak in different ways to all people.”

Create Worship Series

McFee is a staunch advocate of worship series — not “one-hit wonders.”

Preaching series are not antithetical to lectionary preaching, she stressed. To those who ask “Why can’t I just preach what’s on my heart?” she replies, you can. “But also consider this: if you do that, you hold your entire congregation captive to your spiritual journey.”

One of the greatest strengths of using worship series, McFee said, is that they give you a “container for the familiar and the new – the ‘a-ha’ and the ‘oh, yeah.’”


Create communal spiritual journeys;

Give you a lens to look at hymns, prayers and other aspects of worship;

Christian education, mission evangelism and other ministries can focus on the same themes;

They reinforce a message over time;

They create the possibility for sensory-rich worship on a consistent basis;

They help the worship team not get burned out;

They can be an on-ramp for visitors.

“Why create in a series?” McFee concluded. “Because the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.”

Planning is a Creative Endeavor

Among United Methodists, more than 50 percent of the people in the pews only connect with their church on Sunday morning, said McFee.

“The time you spend planning and preparing for worship will reach more people than anything else you do in ministry. Thinking of the spiritual journey you’re going to take people on is one of the most important thing a pastor can do.”

To facilitate that planning, McFee strongly recommends that worship leaders go on two retreats a year: one in August or September to plan Advent through Pentecost; and one in January or February to plan Ordinary Time.

The themes, anchor images and other materials created during the retreat should be immediately shared with members of the worship team.

She also recommends creating detailed scripts – not just worship bulletins – of an entire worship series all at the same time, rather than doing them Sunday by Sunday.

The creative process for a series should begin two months in advance; the to-do list of tasks and specifics should be completed a month in advance. She also recommends “putting your body in the space” and attending to as many details as possible before Sunday morning, perhaps in a walkthrough of the service with others on Wednesday evening or before choir practice, to allow yourself to be fully present.

For those uncertain where to begin, McFee wrote, “Think Like a Filmmaker.”

“Screenwriter and teacher Allen Palmer says that the story is the most important place to start because it is the vehicle through which we deal with one core universal human truth: life is hard.

“Inspired by the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell, Palmer says we look for these three things when we go to the movies (or worship): 1) to expand our emotional bandwidth – to feel sensations that we rarely experience in our normal lives; 2) to reconnect with our higher selves – to be reminded of what humans are capable of, in terms of both good and evil, and to alter course if we’re steering more towards the latter than the former; 3) to be reminded we’re not alone.”

Marcia McFee offers a variety of training and resources through her Included in a subscription to the studio is access to articles, webinars, training videos and the resources for more than 60 worship series. McFee also recently published a new book, “Think Like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages.”


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