Use What Yo Daddy Gave You: On Poetry in Church {Awaken Series}

Use What Yo Daddy Gave You: On Poetry in Church {Awaken Series}

{one of Antler’s goals is to foster discussion about poetry in religious life–offering content for faith communities to discuss, share, and contemplate. in that vein, we also give careful consideration to ministers who are thinking about using poetry and creative writing as a tool for spiritual formation. to that end, we’re going to be hearing from ministers and members of congregations as part of our “Awaken Series.” in this post, vixen of verse Sarah Wells ruminates on using artistic gifts–especially poetry–in church. this piece is pragmatic, encouraging, and an exciting start for all folks interested in mixing it up with faith and art! feel free to share!}

If you are anything like me, you are proud and excited about what the Holy Spirit has revealed to you through poetry.  You’ve set out with an idea, had that idea turned on its head, revised it and worked on it some more until it’s finally done, and now… you send it to literary journals and wait for the rejection letters.

But you don’t have to just sit on that poem.  Don’t put it under a bowl.  Don’t bury it in the yard.  There are a lot of poets talking to the poets of the world, so why not be a poet talking to the non-poets of the world?  Bring your poetry into the church.  Bring your poetry into the corporate worship experience.

Here are a few tips for bringing your gift to Sunday morning:

1. Don’t be afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed by your poem. This is important. Self-doubt and negativity can weigh in on you and convince you that what you have to offer either isn’t good enough or no one else will understand/appreciate what you have to offer because you are too different/unusual/strange.  Every good gift is from above, after all, and what better way to use what yo daddy gave you than in worship? “Be bold and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be terrified. The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Even in front of the congregation.

2. The creation of poetry is an intimate act of worship.  It is an opportunity to meet the Holy Spirit one-on-one over a sheet of paper.  Sharing this gift with your congregation will not only make your worship experience more meaningful and alive, your praise and worship will help others to worship, too.

3. Be other-focused. Your poetry is an act of worship, yes, but don’t forget that the congregation is trying to engage in worship, too, and through your writing, you are leading worship, too.  So that poem with all of the literary and biblical allusions and cross-references and utter brilliance that leaps from one image to the next and requires several in-depth reads in order to fully understand… that one you might want to leave in the notebook.

4. Talk to your tech-y people, your musicians, your video people, your dancers, your public speakers, and your photographers. Collaborate with other members of the congregation and see if you can’t approach a topic from several different angles– some people engage with sound.  Some people with movement.  Some people are visual.  Some people are tactile.  

Think about ways you can make your poem more accessible to your congregation—maybe a PowerPoint presentation with photographs to accompany the reading of your poem, maybe a dancer in your congregation can choreograph a poem, maybe a pianist can accompany the reading of your poem.

 Diversify your worship pallet to engage all of the senses, and not only will you help more of the congregation to connect, you’ll build up each other as each of you continues to become the fullest version of yourselves in Christ.

5. Approach the throne of grace with humility, awe, prayer, shouts of thanksgiving, reflection, mourning, rage, distress, fear, and mystery.  Praise and worship is acknowledging God in every season, and it is good to lay before him the full range of our feelings and emotions.  It seems appropriate to reflect this same element of worship in the corporate worship setting.  Sometimes we need to mourn and wail together.  Sometimes we need to move from wailing to dancing.  Sometimes we need to stand in awe.  Sometimes we need to be silent.

6. Listen to the prayer team, pastor, and elders of your church and pray over your worship planning.  The Holy Spirit knows better than us all what needs to happen in our hearts and minds, so make time to listen before you leap into all of your plans, which are good and exciting.

7. Read slowly, articulate your words, use a microphone, practice ahead of time. As cheesy as this is, prepare as if Jesus is sitting in the audience.  Remember, too, that your congregation may not know the name of a single living poet.  They might have read Shakespeare once.  Plan to introduce that you are reading a poem and give a little preface about what the audience can expect to hear, read the poem, explain the poem, and then read it again one last time.  If this whole public speaking thing terrifies you, find someone who loves public speaking (they really exist!) and ask if they’d read your poem for you.

8. Don’t be afraid to fail.  Allow the congregation and worship team to flex its muscles, strain and push.  Some weeks, what you thought would be awesome might fall flat on its face.  Other weeks, what you thought might seem hastily planned could be the most authentic worship experience your church has had in months.

9. It’s not your job to carry the congregation.  It is the Holy Spirit’s responsibility to move in the members of your church, during worship and beyond.  You might be a catalyst for that experience, but surely the Holy Spirit will be speaking into the hearts and lives of those he knows are ready to hear and be so moved.  

Worry less about how the congregation is going to respond to what you’ve prepared and concern yourself more with approaching God humbly, executing your part of the plan to the best of your ability, with grace and attention, as part of your act of worship.

10.  If you are wanting to get involved, don’t wait for an invitation.  Your desire to contribute is an invitation from God to get involved, so go with it.  However, if you are a worship leader or pastor at a congregation and you know you have a poet or a writer in your church, extend an invitation or several invitations to them to contribute.  Sometimes us creative people are timid and afraid, but with a little urging we’ll come out of our shells.

11.  Encourage one another regularly.  Just because Joe has been a regular contributor to the worship service for months doesn’t mean he believes he’s got this thing nailed.  Sometimes all we need is one or two attaboys to keep the energy up.

Above all else, come with love and grace.  We’re all working toward completion and wholeness, and we’re all going to screw up some time or another.  The beauty of the body of Christ is that we can hold each other up, forgive, heal, and be restored.

So bring your gifts to the altar and let them shine!  The whole church will grow in faith and praise alongside you.


Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes (Wipf and Stock, 2012) and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award from Finishing Line Press (2009). Poems by Wells have appeared or are forthcoming in Alimentum, Ascent, Christianity & Literature, JAMA, Literary Mama, Measure, New Ohio Review, Nimrod, Poetry East, Puerto del Sol, Rock & Sling, and elsewhere. Her essays have been published by Ascent and River Teeth.

Sarah’s poetry has been honored with two Pushcart Prize nominations. Her essay, “Those Summers, These Days” was named a notable essay in the Best American Essays 2012. She has received scholarships to attend the Key West Literary Seminar and West Chester Poetry Conferences.

Sarah serves as the Administrative Director for the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University and Managing Editor for the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. Wells’ work is influenced primarily by faith, family, and nature. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband, Brandon, and their three young children, Lydia, Elvis, and Henry.

5 Responses to “Use What Yo Daddy Gave You: On Poetry in Church {Awaken Series}”

  1. Deanna Boulard says:

    Really enjoyed this! I especially like the parts about listening to the Spirit and to others; it’s so important and so hard to do sometimes.

    • dave says:

      for sure! deanna, have you ever had an experience of using poetry in worship at church? if so, how did it go? if not, why do you think that is?

  2. Deanna Boulard says:

    I have seen a Psalm read, kind of the way Sarah’s suggesting. The pastor asked us to close our eyes and listen as he read a short Psalm three times, with a short pause for reflection between each reading. I found that each time I heard it repeated, I was able to concentrate more fully, and felt in turn more penitent and more at peace in God’s bigness. I think other people liked it too. But I haven’t read a poem of my own in a service. Don’t think I’d have anything appropriate, yet.

    • David Baker says:

      This is known as lectio divina, or ‘divine reading’, a practice long-used in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, but only lately coming to its own among Protestants. Being among the latter myself, I find myself wanting to control the text rather than having it control me, which is what can happen if one reads it S-L-O-W-L-Y and repeatedly.

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