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From Hospice Chaplains to Obstetricians: Michael Piazza Points the Way

by Mary Domb Mikkelson from United Church of Christ La Mesa

     “If we wake up tomorrow and it is 1950 again,” Rev. Michael Piazza proclaimed, “our church is ready.”


      One picture, it is said, is worth a thousand words.  Piazza’s broad stroke “painting,” evoked laughter and gasps (I thought of Ella Fitzgerald singing, “So she set you back on your heels…”), providing, dare we pun it, a provocative bit of pizzazz to an in-depth discussion of one of the major challenges confronting our church today – “doing church” not for those in the pews but for those not there.

     In-depth, thoughtful and innovative.

     “2011 Church Vitality Event #1 – One Size Fits Some” opened with worship that segued smoothly into Session 1, “What’s Wrong with Traditional Worship?” 

     Quoting the late critic, Irving Howe – “Enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect,” Piazza spoke of “transformational worship,” a concept one Illinois church’s website* describes succinctly with “Today’s songs and media are all part of the worship experience designed to draw you closer to God and to others.”

     Traditional worship, he explained, is often meaningless to “those not in the pews,” people who have little or no experience of, connection to or, for that matter, interest in church (“The Lord’s Prayer – what’s that?”  “Organ music?  Boring!”  And, perhaps most damning, “Christianity?   No way!  Bunch of hypocrites.”).   Getting people of our post-Christian culture into the pews, then, Piazza emphasized, means re-thinking worship.

     “If someone walks into your church,” he asked, “would he or she experience the presence of God?  Touch the face of God?  Fall in love with God?  Connect with God in such a way that the experience could best be measured by breaths missed rather than by those taken?”

     There are, he continued, people out there hungry for such an experience, hungry to have their lives transformed by God; people transformational worship could “save from the hell of loneliness,” making it “important that the church offer 52 transformational experiences a year” -rather a daunting challenge where worship is crafted for those already there, when more time is spent on announcements than prayer and the “that’s the way it’s done (has always been done)” format seems archaic to those accustomed to apps and the always-evolving pace of modern technology.

     What, then, might viable, vibrant, transformational 21st Century worship look like? 

     Piazza’s portrayal of possibilities brought to mind the “intro” to an interview Charlie Rose conducted with him, describing how Dallas’ Cathedral of Hope, under his leadership, was “…making religious history by reclaiming Christianity as a faith of extravagant grace, radical inclusion and relentless compassion.”

     The raison d’êrte for being creative in worship?  It enhances the message, helps people retain the message, helps make worship more experiential, helps people relate to an ancient message in a modern way and, as a result, helps attract younger/new people to church. 

     Encouraging  those already in the pews to “take off their bibs and put on aprons, to be welcoming hosts rather than comfortable guests,” he filled in the “painting” with finer strokes, portraying sensual worship in which all the senses are engaged – worship in which music (Mary Mary’s Shackles was one example), “visuals” (on screen, dancing across the walls, the corpus of Christ suddenly appearing on the cross), aromas (a breadmaker releasing the fragrance of freshly baked bread throughout the sanctuary) and other special effects (flames shooting from the altar flowers was one of the more dramatic) work together to create an emotional whole.  Commenting about that breadmaker, Piazza reminded the audience that Jesus spoke of bread to people who never had enough and that the church is in the business of offering the bread of worship to the hungry of soul.

     Timing, pacing, attention to detail and the determination to always give our best, he emphasized, are critical to success, to “doing worship” in which participants find themselves “lost in wonder, love and glee,”  to touching both  head and heart.  “ Living,” not just hearing, is especially important, as Piazza demonstrated with a clip of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve been to the mountain.”  How much greater “in person” than simply read from the pulpit by another.

     Asked to share “sensual” aspects from their churches’ worship, the audience responded with everything from prayer stones – representing whatever the holder needed to release – to an entire congregation in hats to share the sartorial style and celebrate the return of a parishioner newly bald from chemotherapy – to the mournful singing of “I was there when they crucified my Lord” in the darkness of Maundy Thursday – to foot washing, a “hands on” connection taught by Christ.  In all the emphasis was on enabling people to feel God’s love.

     Break time – for lunch and small group discussion so spirited that less than subtle reminders were needed to chase folks back to the sanctuary for Session 2 – “Worship in a Box,” a detailed technical look at some of the technological “tools of the trade” and, later, visually stunning examples of constructing a worship experience using images and music available on the internet.  A roundtable conversation with SCNC churches currently planning or offering multiple worship services (only 10% currently have more than one) followed, which left listeners pondering the possibility that perhaps what their churches needed was not one additional service but several, experiments in reaching out and drawing in, experiments that just might allow them to resign from serving as hospice chaplains to the church that’s going and taking new jobs as obstetricians to the one that’s coming.

     May the line of applicants be long!

*Heartland Community of Rockford

 Rev. Michael Piazza currently serves as Executive Director of Church Multiplication for the Center for Progressive Renewal.

 Upcoming Vitality Events include:

March 5 – “I Volunteered to Help Lead My Church, What Now?” – Rev. Félix Villanueva and Conference and National Staff

   May 7 – “Who’s Mission? (MissionInsite)” – Gary Roberts & Peter Wernett

  June 2 –  “Annual Gathering Pre-Event:  “The World as Our Altar:  Engaging Life Through Worship” – several churches that are examples of the Annual Gathering Theme

 July 30 –  “A Day with John Bell”     

Fall –  “Multicultural Communities, Multicultural Churches, Multicultural Lives” – Kaleidoscope Group and Others

Nov. 10-12-Church Leadership Institute – Center for Progressive Renewal 


 Feb.10 – March 17Dynamic Leadership in a small-membership church – Rev. Elizabeth Dilley

March 7 – CPR Online Course: Church Planting 101 – Rev. Cameron Trimble

March 9 –  Church in the Inventive Age – Doug Pagitt

March 15Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them – Rev. Ken Howard

March 29 – God, GRANT me the Serenity! – Rev Cameron Trimble

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