Worship at First Presbyterian Church in Shawano, Wis., always includes scripture, prayer and sacred music.

In can also feature dance, video, silent meditation, drama or other less than familiar elements. And usually it will invite participation in community, consideration of holy possibilities and a challenge to deeper faith.

That’s just the way it is at First Church, a congregation of about 200 members in a community of slightly more than 9,000 in the east central part of the state.

As one member of the congregation told the Rev. Susan Phillips, “I have to come to worship every week just to see what’s going to be different.”

Phillips, the congregation’s pastor ― whose reputation as an instructor, liturgist and worship leader continues to grow throughout the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond the denomination ― said the “different” in worship is a “result of whatever gifts the community has to offer.”

She said, “Worship becomes what people bring to it … where worship means something.” The big step toward creative worship is recognizing that everyone has gifts and then “creating space where people can share them.”

Then, too, creative worship isn’t restricted to certain congregations. “Every one of us has a different constellation of gifts, therefore every community has a particular combination of gifts,” Phillips said.

It’s up to a congregation to be “open, accepting, appreciative and affirming” of the gifts that exist within the community.

Phillips is taking innovation beyond the walls of her congregation. Through her Web site,, she is offering her worship and liturgical gifts to the wider church while continuing to serve locally.

Started with a dance

When she was about 15, Phillips recalled, she had one of her “earliest experiences thinking about worship happening differently.” It happened during worship at a church camp in John Calvin Presbytery.

“One of the counselors was a kindergarten teacher who was a former nun and in worship one night she danced the Lord’s Prayer,” she said.

“I had never seen that before, but I went, ‘I want to do that. How do you do that? Show me how to do that. I want to do that,’” Phillips said, running through her thoughts that night. “Something really connected for me about praying with all of who I was, not just praying from the chin up.”

She began to learn liturgical dance. She danced and choreographed music in her home church, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Mo., and she taught other youth. Another church invited her to lead a workshop on liturgical dance.

“The more I did it ― the more I taught it ― the more I realized that other people needed to get out of their heads too,” she said.

Phillips explained: “When you ask a group of people to slow down, to think about what the words [to the Lord’s Prayer] mean, to feel what the words mean, what the words look like, how do you communicate them in non-verbal ways, we start attending to the prayer in different ways and then we start praying it a different way. And then it starts meaning something to us that it hasn’t meant for maybe a long, long time ― maybe ever.”

Including dance in worship wasn’t done to make it hip, she said, because dance is biblical.

“Dance, like everything else in worship, is supposed to point us toward the holy. Everything we do in worship should point us toward God,” she said.

The origins of dance, she pointed out, are ancient: Miriam danced on the far side of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). “Dance is a part of our tradition. … If you didn’t pray with your whole body, you weren’t praying as completely as you could,” she added.

Taking innovation beyond Shawano

When she was only 14 someone told Phillips that she should be a minister. She had just been a part of a youth service, one of a few selected to speak for about five minutes. But her short homily caused someone to encourage her in ministry.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Grinnell (Iowa) College, Phillips became a mission volunteer. At Stony Point (N.Y.) Center she worked in global education programming.

Susan Phillips

The Rev. Susan Phillips, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Shawano, Wis., and an increasingly popular creative worship leader. —Christine Yeh

She went on to receive her theological education at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, and she served as associate pastor in Iowa before being called to Shawano. She has served there 14 years.

The creative liturgy and energized worship that Phillips shares across the United States at such places as the Festival of Homiletics, the Wild Goose Festival and the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School all have grown out of the Shawano congregation.

“I just model for other people what we do in Shawano,” she said. It may sound simple, but it’s more than that.

A few years ago, Phillips struggled between a call to share her gifts with the wider church and her call to remain in Shawano. At a 2008 Board of Pensions CREDO conference for mid-career ministers, a conference that offered a spiritual and vocational assessment, Phillips found out that she could do both.

“I had gifts to offer, but I didn’t feel called away,” she said. “I wrestled with what that meant.” She added, “The things that I learn in Shawano are gifts themselves to the larger church.”

A tree comes to church

Worship planning in Shawano could involve the worship planning committee, or there could be certain musical gifts offered or someone could create an artistic “installation” in the sanctuary, or it could happen some other way, Phillips said.

A couple years ago, after Epiphany and before Lent ― “Ordinary Time” on the liturgical calendar ― a fallen birch tree showed up in the sanctuary. Someone had spotted the tree and thought it should be in church.

“In the midst of the dead of winter, when everything around us in Wisconsin is black and white and shades of gray, snow and shadow, a season of meditation and quiet, we have this birch tree, this quiet lovely birch tree,” Phillips said.

And, of course, the birch tree became more than just a birch tree.

Without leaves, the tree reminded the congregation of being “stripped bare” in preparation for Lent, and the branches, trunk and roots worked well to support multi-generational messages.

Then one Sunday a nest and a bird appeared in the tree, and the tree inspired new messages. The tree became a palm tree on Palm Sunday.

One Sunday the tree held a red kite within its branches and bright crimson light shone through the kite.

Then, in spring, someone dressed the tree with buds and greenery and the congregation wondered if it was alive and growing, Phillips said.

“It became this source of wonder and we didn’t orchestrate the change,” she said. “Our people owned it and it belonged to them and it was evolving and changing. … It had become something more than we had ever imagined and people were connecting with it in a way hat we hadn’t anticipated.”

Sharing the gifts

The Festival of Homiletics is, according to its Web site, a weeklong conference that brings together a wide variety of outstanding preachers and professors of homiletics to inspire a discourse about preaching, worship and culture. The festival annually draws more than 1,000 ministers.

Phillips planned and led a worship service at the 2009 festival in Atlanta and then again in 2010 when the festival took place in Nashville, Tenn. She has also led workshops at the festival.

She designed worship services for this year’s Wisconsin Council of Churches Forum and she served as the “sacred space coordinator” at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina ― a four-day event at the “intersection of justice, spirituality, music and art” ― in 2011 and 2012.

Phillips has led Synod School worship services that have included music by adults, kids, bands, chimes and choirs, and belly dancers, drama, kites, and visual and installation art. Even when she has led worship at Synod School, she’s taught classes there in liturgical dance and often finds a way for her classes to participate in worship.

This fall Phillips will lead workshops at the Wisconsin Christian Educators Conference and in the spring, at the invitation of the bishop of the New England Conference of the United Methodist Church, she will lead a retreat to help pastors prepare for Lent.

Worship in Shawano is Presbyterian

Phillips quickly discouraged the thought that worship within the congregation in Shawano is something other than Presbyterian. “The order of service is very Presbyterian,” she said. “But because we have a whole variety of gifts, we have different things that happen.”

And, because the traditional Presbyterian worship elements ― such as confession, assurance of pardon, scripture, proclamation and other elements, such as the sacraments – are a part of the service, Presbyterians easily feel at home.

“Sometimes there’s more in a worship service away from Shawano than in a 60-minute service at home,” she said.

But often there is at least a part of worship that is new. It might be liturgical dance. It might be a tree in the sanctuary. At some point this fall there will be an Elvis Gospel Sunday, she said.

It’s just a matter of the gifts.

Duane Sweep is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.