A couple months before Christmas 2015, our Outward Church staff started kicking around an idea: what if we moved our stage into the middle of the room?
The more we talked about it, the more we really wanted to see whether we could pull it off. We wanted to experience what worshiping “in the round” could be like. Ultimately as we discussed it, we identified three main reasons for wanting to make the change:
- We had been talking for some time about ideas that could possibly encourage higher levels of participation in worship. There’s something about a stage that just creates a “performer/observer” mentality. Moving the stage and the band to the middle of the room, we thought, might help diminish some of this mentality and create a more immersive environment where people would – hopefully more naturally – feel like a participant.
- One of our distinctives as a church is that we desire to be “disruptive.” This has several facets to it, but part of this means we want to constantly be challenging people away from complacency toward real dependance upon God. This means we aren’t afraid to challenge expectations and embrace change. Changing the layout of our worship space – in a big way like this – would certainly be disruptive.
- It would place a greater emphasis on the community aspect of worship. Rather than everyone looking at the back of the person’s head sitting in front of them as they worshiped, they would be able to see faces of other worshipers all around the room.
All these things added up to make it seem like a worthy idea. And with Christmas services fast approaching, the time seemed right to pull the trigger.
(It should be noted that our church rents an old hardware showroom that is in varying stages of reconstruction. Because we don’t have what you’d call a traditional church building, we have a fair amount of flexibility with our setup. The ability to even talk about an idea like this was largely due to the flexibility of our space. I realize many churches would love to try something like this but simply cannot due to being locked into things being constructed a certain way.)
In mid-December we put out a call for volunteers, and began making the change.
To be clear, it was a LOT of work. Reconfiguring the stage itself was probably the simplest part of the whole process – pews had to be moved, speakers had to be re-flown, cables had to be run, lights had to be moved, and projection had to be figured out. In the midst of all that work we had some “industry” folks tell us that churches who have done this sort of thing most often end up returning to their original set up within a few months.
Did I mention we were running practices for our Christmas service during the whole process?
Well, thanks to the countless hours of many volunteers, lots of trial and error, and an abundance of God’s grace, we made the change, and our Christmas services were a success. And now, three months in, I’m happy to report that we love our new setup. I realize this type of configuration might not work or be best for everyone, but for our church, where God has us right now, I don’t foresee us going back anytime soon. Here are a few reasons why:
- Consistently, the comment we get from people over and over again is that worship feels more like an experience they are a part of, rather than something they are watching.
- The worship leaders onstage are still in a very real sense leading what happens on Sundays, but we’ve noticed something pretty cool: the congregation itself, as an active, engaged participant, actually helps lead the worship now as well. Because of the increased visibility among worshipers, people’s ability to better see their brothers and sisters singing and worshiping Jesus together has seemed to have had an exponential impact on levels of engagement.
- Because of how our musicians are configured onstage now, I can see the entire band as I lead. This may seem like a minor thing, but always having the band within my sights enables me to make eye contact with the drummer, keyboardist, etc for giving cues without having to turn around.
Sure, there are still some audio and visual hurdles that we’re working out as we go. And I’m still getting used to 1/3 of the congregation facing my back as I lead (although they are usually still being led by other vocalists on stage). Yet…the moment I knew I was sold on the new setup was when, a couple weeks in, I strummed a chord on my guitar, sang “What can wash away my sin” and was immediately surrounded by a chorus of voices responding “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” At that point, there wasn’t much left for me to do other than back off the mic and let the church take it from there.
For a worship leader, it doesn’t get much better than that.