Safiyah Fosua, Greater New Jersey Annual Conference
When I convened a group of twenty church leaders in 2004 to explore a different approach to writing liturgy, I had no idea that this gathering would become the seedbed of a new series of liturgical resources. We gathered—with poet, professor, and writing consultant Valerie Bridgeman Davis—in the GBOD Learning Center in late October, thinking that we would first discuss whether or not the black community needed more contextual liturgy for weekly worship and, perhaps later, tinker around with a few calls to worship and prayers. Instead, we left there with a plan for the first year of what became the Africana Worship Book series (The Africana Worship Book for Revised Common Lectionary, Years A, B, C, and The Companion to the Africana Worship Book). That night, in Nashville, Tennessee, God began to do a new thing.
Over the course of three years, thirty-two writers joined the diverse Africana liturgy group. Some of our writers are under thirty-five; some serve in urban communities and work with the poor and disenfranchised. Several of our writers are international, reared in Trinidad, Liberia, or South Africa. Most of our writers were published for the first time in the volumes of the Africana Worship Series, with a few already published when they came to our group. More than 50 percent are female, and the covers of two of the four volumes were designed by one of our writers, clergywoman Darlene Moore of the Louisiana Annual Conference.
Initially, weekly worship resources from our group were posted in the worship area of the GBOD-UMC Web site. We expected a quiet reception from a few worship planners in black churches. Instead, I received dozens of letters from worship planners in a variety of contexts, affirming that our work was helpful for the entire church—not just the black church. When our Web staff tracked the tens of thousands of yearly downloads for these resources, we were surprised to find that 75 percent of our downloads came from the United States, and 25 percent from countries like Israel, Japan, Ireland, Canada, Italy, South Africa, and points between! By the end of the first year, new resources were added to those that had been posted on the Web and published in print form. Thousands of copies of books in the Africana Worship series have been sold to date!
God Is Still Doing New Things!
In the midst of this surprising new energy over liturgy, the worship resources director of GBOD-UMC, Taylor Burton-Edwards, launched an initiative. The goal of the Open Source Liturgy Project is for newly identified writers to write sacramental liturgies (baptism, communion, marriage, and celebration of life) from the diverse contexts of congregations within the UMC. Together, Taylor and I resource nearly a dozen unique writing groups that are reframing ancient Christian rituals through the eyes of unique faith communities. Our writing groups come from Appalachian, Caribbean, Portuguese-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and Native American congregations. This new liturgical movement may be found on college campuses and prisons and has reached beyond Methodism to the ecumenical community. What is it about these new resources that resonates with a number of worshippers in the Church?
An Unintentional Revolution
Without realizing what it had done, the group that met in 2004 engaged in a minor act of subversion. The newer resources work hard to be both theologically sound and contextually relevant. Their popularity suggests that the Church may finally be ready to accept that the language of many cultures—not just one—is appropriate for good worship. Second, these new liturgical resources inadvertently hitched a ride on the winds of change now blowing through much of Western culture. They are written more in the language of oral culture than the language of the academy. Sociologists and those who are currently studying the resurgence of orality in Western culture suggest that younger adults, though highly educated as a group, tend to prefer oral communication styles. They prefer to hear a book (witness the rise of audiobooks), see the news (think video on handhelds or computers), and discuss ideas or formulate new ideas than to read about them. The immense popularity of social-networking sites also signals that our culture is exploring different ways of defining community. The newer resources, particularly from the Africana collection, have managed to place orality in print without “freezing” it, and they tend to express and encourage communal faith more than individualized faith.
God is truly doing a new thing, and I consider it a great privilege to be somewhere in the waters of this new wave as it comes to shore.