Freedom to improvise

NextWhen most of us hear the term “improv,” we think of a comedy routine performed on stage. But Ashley Goff is encouraging the use of improv as part of liturgy.

During the NEXT Church national gathering at First Presbyterian Church of Charlotte March 5, Goff discussed the use of improvisation in worship services, calling it “the practice of freedom.”

Goff, ordained in the United Church of Christ, is the minister for Spiritual Formation at Church of the Pilgrims (PCUSA) in Washington, D.C., an urban, More Light denomination of some 80-90 people.

While noting that people usually associate improv with comedy, Goff said it is not a means of developing a comedy troupe, but rather a method of creating unscripted moments in worship, allowing spontaneity to take over.

“We need to unearth a newness and creativity,” she said. “We need to say ‘yes’ to unexpectedness.”

Using audience members, Goff demonstrated an exchange of energy and motion throughout the expansive sanctuary at FPC-Charlotte, engaging them in sounds and motions that were mimicked in a loud and boisterous way.

“ZIP, ZAP, ZOP,” were just a few of the sounds voiced by audience members as they tried their hand at Goff’s improvisational style of worship for a few moments.

Goff noted the framework that tends to be present in worship settings but pointed to improv as a means of pushing the borders while staying with tradition.

She said that improv in the worship setting is spontaneous creation, balancing structure, discipline and freedom. It’s a matter of trust and real-life situations that emerge through being attentive, awake and living on the edge of your seat. She added that improv is collaborative and involves interdependence, taking risks and saying “yes” to what is happening.

“There is no ‘no’ in improv,” she declared. “It is all considered risk, and there are no mistakes.”

Goff theorized that liturgy practices freedom, noting that it takes place in homes and churches.

“We share a meal, we share drink, we share the Eucharist and stories of Jesus,” she said. “It does not all have to be scripted on a piece of paper or in a bulletin. It’s liturgy that practices freedom. It was freedom Jesus called for so that when His followers went out into the world they would know how to demand freedom.”

Goff declared that improvisation and stressing creativity in worship without following a script has been vital to the health of Pilgrims since she arrived there in 1999.

“It has been a building block, a master key to unlocking creativity and getting us where we are today,” she said, again referring to improv as a non-traditional approach to worship that still adheres to traditional tenets.

Goff pointed out what can be created by using improv as a prescribed method of liturgy.

She said it would develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit while joining the congregation as the Body of Christ. It interrupts the familiar and leads to new patterns of worship while allowing the Christian life to be lived out in a moment of uncertainty.

“It’s a transformative experience that gets us on the gospel script and paying attention to the voices of the Holy Spirit,” Goff proclaimed. “It creates worship without domination, which is participation in the divine nature. I think what improv does is allow you to experience your faith in moments of uncertainty.”