Curating Worship

From Mark Pierson’s The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of the Worship Leader 

The Curator

“The term curator comes from the Latin curare meaning ‘to care for.’ A British website advertising the job of curator says, ‘A museum or gallery curator acquires, cares for, develops, displays and interprets a collection of artifacts or works of art in order to inform, educate and entertain the public.’ Interestingly it is also a legal term for ‘the guardian of a minor, lunatic, or other incompetent.’ Perhaps both have some implications for worship curators!

“The rise of the curator in an art gallery and museum context is — while not new — newly developed, and definitions abound. Until the early twentieth century, artists showed their work either privately or in collective exhibitions that they organized themselves. The increasing professionalization and specialization of this role gave rise to the curator. Traditionally, the curator was seen as a rather academic presence in a museum, researching, archiving, cataloging, collecting, and restoring artifacts of historical and aesthetic value. Today a curator may do everything from dealing with staff, to running the publicity for an exhibition, to writing explanatory notes for gallery installations. It is somewhere in the midst of that spectrum that I situate the role of a worship curator.

“The curator of an art installation is responsible for the selection and design of that installation. Imagine a large room in a gallery. In the center of the room stands a collection of packing crates and boxes. Each has within it a piece of art chosen by the curator or delivered to her as part of a specific exhibition. She will be unpacking the artifacts and placing them around the space. She will be taking into consideration — and maybe even altering them to better suit her purposes — the color of the walls, the size and shape of the space, the height of the ceiling, the lighting levels, the temperature, where people enter and exit, and so on. All these factors will affect where and how the artifacts are placed. Will they go against the walls or out from them? Will people be able to walk around an object or just view it from the front or sides? How high will an object be placed? How close to other objects? What will be included and what omitted? In what order will they be presented and with how much or how little explanation? These and dozens of other factors — many of them intuitive and learned from experience, training, and the expressed desires of the artist — will determine the final look and feel of the exhibition.

The Worship Curator

“In a similar way, the worship curator is responsible not just for the singing part of a church service (as the misnamed worship leader usually is), but for the whole event — from the moment people enter the door until they leave and everything in between. A good worship curator unpacks the elements of the service in a particular space she has thought about and deliberately arranged. She is aware of lighting levels, temperature, seating, projections, sound, and every element that contributes to the worship experience. She decides what should be printed on handouts, a data projector, or an overhead projector. She determines how much or how little explanation is needed for people to be able to participate fully in the worship. She guides people through worship and connects the various elements of the service together into a flow, including selecting songs or readings as needed. She understands why the church exists and what worship is about. She knows the church calendar and is engaged with the world outside the church. She is theologically trained, pastorally attuned, and draws on her intuition and experience to facilitate the best possible worship experience for the community that is gathered.

“Of course this is the ideal — the big-picture view. The role of the worship curator in any actual worship event varies considerably and depends on the context in which worship is being curated. The role will be different in a liturgical 11 a.m. church setting than it would be in an outdoor sacred-space event. I should also add that while the curator is in overall care of the whole worship event, she is not doing everything. She is coordinating the participation of others.

“It is also possible to be curator of a single element of the event — say, the prayers of confession. This limits the scope of the curator but is no less valid as a function. The curator might be the pastor but is just as likely to be a layperson. At the church where I initially developed this concept, we eventually had a group of four curators who rotated through each month. These four people were led by a paid staff person, but they had a great deal of autonomy; whoever was assigned a particular week was responsible for coordinating and holding together the various elements of that worship event.

“Curating worship, as opposed to leading worship, allows me to shape a worship event with both internal and external integrity while still being open ended in the ways I think worship should be. This perspective on the art of worship is not about a certain style or format. It’s about how the curator works in a particular medium — worship. The principles are transferable across all styles of worship and all cultures.”

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