The Language of Participatory Church: Curation

December 29, 2011

by — Posted in Blog, emerging church, Ideas, New Media, Spiritual Practices, Stories, Technology

It’s been said that the first responsibility of a leader is to describe reality. In order to describe, you must use language, and particular language creates a particular culture. In other words: Words make worlds.

In this discussion of participatory church, I find it really fascinating that there are really two conversations about radical shifts in culture going on right now that share some of the same language but apply them in different ways. One is the Internet/tech culture and the other is religious culture, specifically Christian culture (as I see it from my perspective).

I’d like to begin exploring some of these terms and ideas and how they apply to both Web and Church cultures — starting with …

'Red carpet? Velvet Rope? Keeps the chairs away...' photo (c) 2008, Kristian Bjornard - license:

One of the endearing mantras of the Internet is this: “Content is king.” This means that design and functionality are both really important, but the most important element is content — usually defined as the words, the message, the information being communicated. (It’s important to note that design and functionality can also be considered content, but for the sake of this short definition I’m focusing on the words.)

In a flat world where everyone can be a content producer and indeed millions of pieces of content are created every day, there is an increasingly important role now for content curators: people who will sift through the mountains of information and filter out the best stuff for the rest of us. (I do a little bit of this in the “Bonus Points” section of my email newsletter.)

In a sense, this was my role with Emergent Village when I was updating that site on a regular basis — sifting through all of the online conversation about Emergent and emerging missional church and presenting some of the best of it for readers to consider. We also produced some of that content, as well, of course. Curation inevitably involves creation at some point.

Worship Curation
In the context of the shifts occurring within Christianity, the emerging missional church movement arguably started with alternative worship being experimented with in the UK and Australia/New Zealand. Practitioners such as Steve Collins and Jonny Baker were reimagining worship and liturgy, which led to the term worship curation.

worship curationJonny Baker wrote the first book on curating worship, in which he interviewed 12 practitioners including Lilly Lewin and Peter Rollins.

I’ve always associated Kester Brewin with the UK alt.worship scene, as well. An interesting thing happened this past summer at the inaugural Wild Goose Festival: Kester Brewin came across the pond to be a featured speaker, touting his latest book Other, and Sparkhouse was a festival sponsor, promoting its latest product Clayfire, “a worship design system,” and its companion blog the Clayfire Curator.

I was hanging out one night on the Patheos RV, drinking the (im)famous Patheos Punch, talking to one of the representatives from Clayfire about what their product did — an online worship planning software, basically — when Kester Brewin stepped into the cabin. I introduced Kester to the Clayfire rep, and asked him, “Kester, didn’t you help coin the term ‘worship curation’ in the UK?” Kester demurred, of course, and pointed to Mark Pierson and Jonny Baker, but the Clayfire rep seemed surprised, as if he’d never heard of Kester before.

It’s such a small (and debatably insignificant) universe, but I was immediately struck by the fact that the term “worship curation” had seemingly gone from creation to popularization to commercialization in such a short span of time — without much sense of history or connecting the dots.

Beyond Worship Curation
For whatever reason, Sparkhouse has already decided to shutter Clayfire. I would argue the online worship planning market was already pretty saturated, and the Clayfire team weren’t able to quickly distinguish their product from the others already available. (Troy Bronsink has other thoughts that are worth considering.)

Ironically, the word liturgy itself is often translated “the work of the people,” and it’s this idea that is beginning to be recaptured in the wider circle of participation in worship curating. But “worship curator” still implies an individual task, and it can too easily just become a hipper, cooler title than “Worship Pastor” or “Choir Director.” And, as Maggi Dawn points out, it would be better translated “a work for the people” or, in other words, “work that is dedicated to God, initiated for the people, and serves to transform the community.”

Yesterday, Scot McKnight re-posted my original blog on participatory church, and the discussion in the comments over on his site is very interesting (as always). Predictably, the people who come from more liturgical church traditions (Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) have weighed in heavily, arguing their tradition is already “participatory.” Some of these comments (especially #24) were pretty compelling, but ultimately I had to agree with anonymous commenter “T” who wrote (in #19), “If one can read the initial post and think that Weiner and those like him are yearning for exactly those liturgical traditions (or any typically protestant or even low-church traditions) and have only somehow failed to encounter them, I think this would be a misreading what’s being said.”

Ultimately, I think that’s absolutely right. Our ancient liturgical church traditions and the more recent innovation of ancient-future worship curation has brought us only so far. We need to go beyond worship curation to missional community formation: creating spaces where spiritual life can be experienced, theology can be wrestled with (without shame or fear, if that’s ever possible), and action can be taken to enact God’s shalom.

“Language creates culture, Yes,” Len Hjalmarson reminds us, “but practices maintain it.” So let us not stop gathering together and experimenting and conspiring and collaborating and co-creating and practicing and participating …


More terms and ideas to come. Until then, what are your thoughts on curation and church? Should pastors be more like content curators, sifting through theological ideas and presenting what is “the best”?

6 thoughts on “The Language of Participatory Church: Curation

  1. Connective technology = ecclesial participation at scales never dreamed possible. I think it’s also changing dramatically our core notions of tribal membership and the criteria by which we consider ourselves “connected.” I’m inspired by Luis Ahn’s TED Talk on the massive participatory experience (see my post today). Such participation is in its infancy, but we can see where it’s going, and it will change everything.

  2. I think you’re on to something here in that the role of pastor, which traditionally was seen as an “expert-in-chief,” no longer functions in the same way culturally. In fact, it would seem that our role is now as both conversation convener & content curator. We must sift through the cultural cacophony, plucking out the gems, and use them as catalysts for transformational conversation in our faith communities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *