If I were to offer criteria to a church group to assess experimentation in their worship, I would begin with what I consider to be the essentials of worship. Often when we experiment in worship, we can cross the boundaries of what should remain fundamental to worship. We run the risk of becoming another 'show', an alternative entertainment, rather than providing an opportunity for corporate, intimate communion with God and one another.
We need to be careful that in our experimentation we do not strip away those communicative symbols that are part of the structure Christian identity. We run the risk for example of desacralising the area in which we worship, removing all sacred signs and symbols. This can make it more difficult for people to focus on God. I have been into a church for example where there was not a cross in sight. The cross is at the very centre of the Christian Faith, and when that is removed, our focus can too easily slip away from that central event. We need to beware that we do not turn the 'sanctuary' into something that resembles a stage. Lest we imply that the people have come to watch rather than to participate. Those who lead worship are to facilitate those who have come to worship in moving, "from the Outer Court to the Inner Court and finally into the Holy of Holies" (Foster, 1989: 207). We need to allow them to experience God, not just passively as they watch, but actively as they interact with Him. Even those church groups that meet outdoors have some symbol that points and focuses them on God.
We need to ensure in our experimentation that we do not move away from Scripture. The reading of and expounding on Scripture (teaching) should still remain central, even if we do this creatively. God has revealed Himself in Scripture, and He continues to reveal Himself through Scripture. We must continue to focus on what God has done in history, because what He has done, directly impacts our lives today, particularly what He has done in Christ. We also need to ensure that we stay within the 'boundaries' set by Scripture.
Our experimentation should also remain firmly Theocentric (this means that we need to focus on the complete Trinity of God; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit). If we lose our focus on this in our experimentation, we lose our unique Christian identity and purpose. We need to remain in line not only with Scripture, but also with that which we believe as Christians. We can not allow our experimentation to conflict with our creed.
We should ensure that our experimentation bears positive fruit. If it does not lead to changed lives, in Christ, we must re-evaluate our experimentation. Truly meeting with God will lead to changed lives. This also includes an outward focus. If our experimentation in worship leads to individualism, or inward focus, we are not fulfilling our Christian obligation to be the salt and light to the world.
Our experimentation should not be so 'worldly' that there is no 'other-ness' in our worship. At the same time we should not be so other that we do not impact the world. We need to be challenging and changing the world, and we can not do that by becoming exactly like the world, but we can also not do it by separating ourselves totally from all that is 'worldly'.
Hoyt Hickman offers seven Possibilities and risks of creative and innovative worship (1973: 556-570), some of which overlap slightly with that which I have already mentioned, which are useful when assessing experimentation in worship. He says that variety can be a help in alleviating boredom, and that expanding our horizons is necessary, but he warns too that novelty should not become an end in itself. This could lead to spectator 'worship'. We need to find a balance between novelty and repetition. Under the heading Familiarity, he speaks of the balance between the 'secular' and the church that I have already mentioned. People need the familiarity of their everyday lives around them, we need to bring our lives into worship, and worship into our lives, but we run the risk of desacralising worship, and God. The transcendence of God becomes totally absorbed by His immanence rather than maintaining a healthy balance between the two. The third 'risky possibility' Hickman mentions is Democracy. Here he stresses the possibility of involving the congregation in the creative process, but warns that there may be a lack of the theological understanding, the balance and roundedness of handed down worship resources. They could also create a pattern that is more limited than before, and more stifling. He then goes on to discuss the use of technology in worship. This could aid participation, but it could also inhibit participation as 'experts' are needed to use the technology, and it is taken out of the hands of the 'average' person. We also run the risk of using the technology as a crutch. Another risk is that we seek to offer particular worship styles to particular groups within our church. We recognise that different people have different needs, the danger is that we fragment the congregation rather than uniting it. We need to discover way of giving expression to our individuality without loosing our unity. The next is linked to this one, in that we need to find a way in which our local innovations can be a part of a larger sharing process in which each worshipping community learns from others how its own distinctive worship can increasingly express the fullness and unity of Christ's Church, without being reduced to 'lowest common denominator worship'. Lastly, he mentions that we need to seek theological integrity. I touched on this when I discussed the Theocentric importance of worship, the importance of Scripture, and of the creeds. He poses the question, "Can we express honestly what we really believe here and now, while at the same time being good stewards of mysteries we cannot fully grasp?" (Ibid., 569).
These are some of the criteria necessary to assess experimentation in worship. We need to ensure that we remain true to our unique Christian identity and purpose, while remaining relevant to a changing world.