Incorporating Spoken Word Poetry In Worship

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A year or so ago, I attended an event called the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD).  This event, held during May 2016, spent three days celebrating diverse authors and poets and took place in one of Canada’s most diverse cities – my hometown of Brampton, Ontario.

There were workshops for aspiring writers on how to create powerful protagonists, there was a breakfast with the creator of the “Little Mosque on the Prairie” television series, there were book readings and interviews with Canadian novelists such as Lawrence Hill, and there was an unexpected highlight for me – spoken word poetry.

It isn’t that I had never heard of beatnik poetry readings of the 1960’s or poetry slams of the 1980’s, I just had never really experienced it for myself. That changed on a Friday morning in May, in a Brampton room filled mostly with high school students and their English teachers, when a group, known as “The Unchartered”, took the stage and delivered a powerful presentation about their experience of race in Canada. 

Their performance was engaging and emotional, and drew everyone into the power of their words. In fact, I think every hand in the room was snapping its fingers during the presentation – since finger snapping, not clapping, is the way to show appreciation for the message during a spoken word piece. It was a performance that spoke to the young people in the room and has also stuck with me.

In August 2017, I was exposed to spoken word poetry again, this time in a worship setting. Inspire 2017 was a new kind of Christian Reformed Church event that was held from August 3-5 in Detroit as a way to pull people from our more than 1,000 congregations together for a time of worship, fellowship, rejuvenation, and inspiration for ministry.

The event included four main stage gathering sessions where more than 800 people assembled for worship together. At two of these main stage sessions, the worship leaders incorporated spoken word poetry. This was a highlight of the whole conference for me.

Despite experiencing spoken word poetry at FOLD the year before, I had never really considered it as something that could also be incorporated as part of worship. Yet, as Kizzy Thomas took the stage and shared her art with us all, I was left wondering why we don’t use it more often.

Our worship services often revolve around two key elements:  the words and message of the sermon, and the praise and emotion of the songs we sing. Spoken word poetry provides a beautiful bridge between these two elements. It incorporates the rhythm, rhyme and poetry of music with the hard-hitting truths of a sermon. In a life where worship can sometimes feel routine, it also provides a refreshing sense of something new that can make us all stand up and take notice.

Half of the power of spoken word poetry comes from the performance  – the rhythm, the pauses, and the emphasis on certain words. The other half comes from the words themselves – a message that is carefully crafted to remind listeners about truths of the gospel and compel them to action.

I wish that I had recorded Kizzy Thomas’ performance at Inspire so that I could share it with you. I do have a copy of one of the poems that she shared at Inspire 2017.  Even in its written form on the page, I find it inspiring.

Do you incorporate spoken word poetry in worship at your church?  What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about how to do this well? If your church hasn’t used spoken word poetry yet, is there someone in your church who is blessed with these gifts that you might be able to tap into for a future service?

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