Labyrinths and Navigable Worship

Tim Challies has a old post called Experience The Labyrinth: (Insert New Age Music Here) which is getting some new life in the comments section – some think its a Satanic tool, and others who think its a great way of praying with focus – its an interesting discussion.

Labyrinth-Tm-1Many ministries and websites that are anti-emergent have a problem with Labyrinths –Lighthouse Trails, EmegentNo, Steven Muse. But others are using them in an old school way or reinterpreted as a multi-media journey of of worship. ( This is a BIG point of contention and I don’t think we will get any resolution here.

Challies asked for some biblical foundation for the idea (not easy for ANY current worship practise) so I left a comment way down the bottom at 74, part of which says this. . .

A labyrinth is simply a “line in the ground” (Mark Pierson’s definition). It is a way of creating a journey of motion with points to stop and pray, read, think or act in worship. I have visited Chartes and am not really impressed with the middle age style labyrinth. But a journey of prayer and worship that engages the mind and body – thats different . . that sounds like my own devotional times when i go for a walk and pray over what I see – or when I am involved in a prayer walk around a city.

I find many examples of this kind of worship (some of us call it “navigable”) used in the Old Testament. The Feast of Tabernacles had many journeys of motion that the worshippers used to participate in – from one gate to another gate, holding citrons and sticks . . The Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) were used in (well – there is some disagreement here . .. but either they were read out as worshippers ascended the steps of the Temple, or along the journey/pilgrimage to Jerusalem . . . or maybe both)

Jesus also participated in the yearly pilgrimages to the Festivals, and during his long walks with his disciples, he would often stop in his journey to interact with a fig tree or look at something.

Adding motion to worship is unusual for Protestants who normally see worship as something static that you watch on a stage, rather than having to leave your seat and interact with. But the next generation are far more participatory – and their worship often looks more Old Testament than 20th Century.

I think the emerging church needs to be clear how labyrinth based worship or “navigable worship” is NOT new age, or mindless meditation. And if the word “labyrinth” or “multi media labyrinth” brings up so many misconceptions, then the emerging church needs to ask itself if it is worth fighting for the term, or if it should be abandoned

[My comment finishes but I want to say more here]

I created my first ‘labyrinth’ in 1992 in Australia – but we didn’t call it that – there was no name for it. I took my youth group through Kings Park praying at all the points of interest, each prayer connected with the context. It was great and many of the kids went back on occasion to pray through it again.

At a Baptist camp in California, where I was speaking a few years ago, the young people created an incredible sequence of worship experiences that stretched across the campus, each station demanding interaction and response with Scripture and props. One bad smelling station was designed to make you think about sin and the smell was so bad that one kid threw up. The “labyrinth” finished up in the chapel, where i was waiting for them to finish off the experience with worship and prayer. If the worship had been design by “older people” then the young people would have probably been sitting on a seat the whole time, looking toward a stage. But when you give them freedom to express their worship their way, motion and interaction are normally integrated.

 Tallskinnykiwi Images Bible-Shower

This image is one room of many that made up a labyrinthian journey (we called it a “learning trail”) on the internet one night last year. | could mention other navigable journeys of worship that young people have designed, including my own kids.

Anyway, nuff said for one post. Navigability is here to stay, one room to another, one space to another, one station to another. If you find other parallels in the Scriptures, let me know. But I bring up this challenge again:

I think the emerging church needs to be clear how labyrinth based worship or “navigable worship” is NOT new age, or mindless meditation.

Any ideas how to communicate this better? Should Emerging Church lose the name or is that cutting out a part of church history that should stay with us?


Andrew Jones launched his first internet space in 1997 and has been teaching on related issues for the past 20 years. He travels all the time but lives between Wellington, San Francisco and a hobbit home in Prague.


  • Mark Berry says:

    I walked the Chartres Labyrinth at Greenbelt last year, almost out of a sense of duty but found it an incredible experience – the simplicity was wonderful and the people who I walked alongside at different stages really felt like friends even though we never spoke, I almost felt bereft when our paths meant we went in different directions! I also had not choice but to wait on God and listen to the still small voice, there was nothing to read, watch or distract! I experienced a real sense of Gods presence.
    I agree that worship can benefit from a sense of pilgrimage and on a pilgrimage the journey is as significant as(if not more than) the destination.

  • fernando says:

    i was introduced to the idea of perambulatory prayer in the 80s by a friend who to this day is one of the most non-emerging, non-post modern people born in the late sixities. there was a strong degree of praying for people’s souls/salvation involved, but also a good amount of contemplation and inspiration from nature.
    in the 90s i was involved in a number of creative services that tried ‘getting out your seat” ideas (often inspired by john drane) in very mainstream baptist churches. to my knowledge these sorts of ideas and others (like tapping into stations, trying labyrinths) are still being tried in churches that are not in the emerging fold.
    i guess my point is to say that this stuff is not emerging-only, it is much bigger than that. the best way to get the message across might be to start with there.

  • andrew says:

    in 1986, when i was a missionary with Operation Mobilization, we were leading city-wide prayer walks – something that is very similar to what is happening today
    location is important.
    also, the same insistence on interaction is happening in other areas. when i went to a museum as a kid, you looked into a glass screen at something that was very still and had bene there a long time. you were not allowed to touch it.
    today – kids almost expect to touch and interact with what they are examining. and i dont see a trend away from that.

  • Marc says:

    Fair question, Andrew, one which I also threw up a year ago, after experiencing the labyrinth at Greenbelt. Here is my take on the topic:
    I don’t think the issue is interactivity or the aspect of journey. For me the question is to what extent pagan symbols can be redeemed, and whether we should want that.

  • Marc says:

    The link doesn’t work, so let me copy in the full report (August 2004):
    Because I heard a lot of talk about the Labyrinth, an interactive installation for spritual journeys, I also tried that one. There were two parts: a chill-out circle and the labyrinth itself, a copy of the original at Chartres cathedral. The basic idea is that you ’empty yourself’ while walking from the outside in, then ‘receive from God’ when you’re in the centre, and ‘meditate on what you received and will do with it’ when you walk out again.
    Now here’s my honest report. I really liked the chill-out area, which had the feel of a 24-7prayer room without graffiti. A good place to reflect and rest in God. But I disliked the labyrinth. First of all with 25-30 people walking the thing one-way you quickly end up in a traffic jam. Maybe they adapted it to the British queing culture, who knows. Secondly I experienced it as boxing-in rather than freeing-up. I’m not really claustrophobic, but I simply don’t like to be forced in one specific direction. So after walking the prescribed route for 10 meters or so, I broke the rules of the labyrinth and walked straight out. Thirdly I’m not so sure how far you can go with redeeming pagan symbols. The Chartres labyrinth may have had a Christian meaning, but most if not all labyrinths originate from Crete and ancient Egypt, where they were part of the not-so-Christian death cult. And I prefer life over death for sure.

  • andrew says:

    your link is fine. here it is here
    i had a similar experience in san francisco at grace cathedral and i also did not finish the exercise
    i read somewhere that to walk that style of labyrinth was a substitute for walking a pilgrimage.
    maybe it would be helpful to the wider emerging church to have a distinction between
    labyrinth (the Chartes-inspired path) and
    labyrinth as any kind of navigable worship or prayer experience that involves motion, stations, props, and a sense of journey through that trail.

  • Kent Runge says:

    “Stations of the Cross” comes to mind.
    Life is a journey with twists, turns, contemplation and reversal. What better metaphor than a labrynth?
    We are a fearful people.

  • I think it’s mostly down to explaining terminology. I wouldn’t abandon the use of the term “labyrinth” partly because it sets a historical context, but we probably need to be clear about what we mean by the term today when we use it within EC.
    I’ve never actually done a labyrinth but I can see clear benefits for it, and I have something brewing now in the back of my mind for creating one.
    I think the term may conjure up a picture of a monk wandering around a hedgerow, or some medieval stone structure with monsters in it and a dungeon in the centre.
    Labyrinths have been used for walks of pilgrimage or penitance, but I think we’re talking about using them for contemplation and worship; stations along the way help with focus and direction.
    I don’t really buy the whole argument that it’s bad because pagans do it… by that argument we’d also have to censure candles, incense, and Christmas trees. Other religions pray too. Bottom line, the church has used labyrinths for centuries, whatever else others may have done with them.
    The next question is whether they’re effective — I’d like to hear more about people’s experience in walking a labyrinth, but also particularly anyone’s experience with building and running one, any observations, tips, etc. I can see the potential for traffic jams if the stations are all ordered… have some tried leaving intervals between worshippers as they’re allowed to enter, or any other means? Stations that accommodate more than one person? You hate to hurry along someone’s contemplation or worship, but a traffic jam hinders others as well.
    One other observation — whereas historically labyrinths in the church have been permenant fixtures withouth stations, sometimes using low stone walls and other times just patterns on the floor, in EC circles, a labyrinth can be something laid out temporarily in a building or outdoors, or almost anywhere. The next time you set it out, it may be a different experience… and that dynamic really appeals to me.

  • andrew jones says:

    yes – when i was at Chartes in France, i noticed the cathedral had a second labyrinth outside, marked on the grass.

  • amber says:

    I am a little bit surprised (maybe I’m naive) to read your (Andrew’s) emphasis that prayer labyrinths are not mindless meditation. I would echo that emphasis, of course it’s not mindless. In fact, the prayer labyrinths I have gone through have be designed and implemented in such a way to facilitate focused, deliberate, purposeful prayer and meditation that is trinitarian-focused. I find it very puzzling that a so-called “opponent” of a prayer labyrinth would find it mindless, of all things. Now “new age” is a separate matter, with a definition so wide and vast, could the church really come to an agreement on the definition? 🙂 Everyone seems to have their own idea of what “new age” is. (I’m afraid I have nothing productive to offer on this matter right now.)
    Someone asked about experience with labyrinths. Here’s a bit of mine, for what it’s worth. For the past 2 years during Holy Week, our conservative Baptist church has cleared out all the chairs in the sanctuary and created a labyrinth with masking tape and stations set up along the way. The music has been customized for our fellowship. (Each individual gets a portable CD player with headphones.) A couple weeks before Holy Week, a schedule of timeslots from early morning to late evening is made available to the congregation at the information counter. The queue is moderated by a pastor who gives instructions as well. This helps the labyrinth from clogging up. People are also given freedom to take as long as they want at all stations or move past others who are proceeding at a slower pace. Having a customized (for our locality) CD, schedule of timeslots, and a person availble to give instructions has been very effective in helping things move smoothly (read: mitigating distraction). It has been a stretching and enjoyable experience for people of all ages in our local fellowship.

  • steve collins says:

    just a few comments from the guy who helped design the one in the picture:
    we read the big fat definitive book on labyrinths throughout the ages when designing this one. it had only just been translated from german into english. labyrinths have been used in a great many ways in their 3000 year history – some dubious, some trivial, some christian. the author of the book [can’t remember the name!] believed the origin of the labyrinth to be most likely the path of a line of dancers, in ancient crete as like as not.
    to worry about the word ‘labyrinth’ seems crazy to me. that’s what it’s called, however it’s used. the connotations of paganism are, so to speak, in your head. to me, in a secular context, the word had no prior connotations other than a myth and a maze. the new age uses seem as novel as the christian. since i’m not a new ager i don’t believe the labyrinth has any inherent powers – so for me, as for mark pierson, it’s a path on the ground. and remember, i designed that angular version from scratch to fit the floor tiles of the cathedral. so forget all notions of mystery!
    that version in originated as part of a service – as an artistic tool to christian meditation, pinched from lauren artress who had a more new age perspective. entry was controlled to avoid crowding – this should always be done. the stations started as small bits of content to shape the journey – impure really. they got a lot bigger on the pictured version because we had to reinvent it in a number of ways to do it in a cathedral. the stations have maybe taken over too much, and the idea of the meditative walk has suffered, unless you know how to pace yourself.
    but honestly, we never thought it would last beyond that one week!
    whether you find walking a labyrinth helpful is like saying, do you find an hour of silent prayer helpful. some do, some don’t. it’s no spiritual fault either way.

  • steve collins says:

    sorry for double posting, but a historical note:
    if i remember rightly, the chartres pattern derives from decorations in monastic manuscripts beginning in about the 8th century. they seem to have developed the pattern from the labyrinth floor mosaics frequently used in roman houses. in late roman times the conventional pattern – black and white paths with a minotaur picture in the middle – sometimes had christian connotations, of the descent of christ into hell to redeem us. there’s an example of this in a villa in britain i think. roman christians were busy redeeming the pagan symbols around them!

  • CJ says:

    I am just curious as to where your blog title came from. TallSkinnyKiwi?

  • Ron Stohler says:

    I wouldn’t worry to much about the method/practice so long as you are contemplating on the Trinity. You are using this experience to help people meditate on God, like a prayer garden or even a worship service for that matter. People are longing for an experience to encounter God, so keep experimenting.

  • Jason_73 says:

    This is such a great discussion because it hits home.. For the past two years I have set up interactive prayer journeys on good Friday at my church. I pretty much copied the prayer room from the San Diego Emergent conference of 2004 the first year, but last year I created my own stuff. I was set to include a labrynth that I borrowed from my friends at Friends:langley Vineyard and then announced it to our congregation. Anyway, some folks in our church who I have a lot of respect for didn’t like the idea. I was defensive at first, but when I checked into it I noticed that there were a whole heck of a lot more refrences to labrynths in pagan and new age culture than christian history. A premature estimate was 5:1 in favor of pagan labrynths. I decided not to do it which was hard because I really wanted to. But I do appreciate you Andrew and your explanation. What I would really dig though, is an article about what Steve said above me, about redeeming pagan and non-christian practices like buddist, native american worship for Christian worship. Does anyone know of anything? I’m sincerly open minded about it.

  • Jim Roberts says:

    As many note concept of a labrynth is not new. I suggest that the adversion that some, probably many, have to the concept is that they have no reference point to understand them. How many in the US have walked the chambers and chapels of south american or European cathedrals. Addititionally the US evangelical movement successfully purged our church culture of most of the historic symbols and artwork.

  • andrew jones says:

    CJ asked:
    “I am just curious as to where your blog title came from. TallSkinnyKiwi?”
    Good question, CJ – as i was wandering mindlessly through a labyrinth, the voice of Shirley MacLaine said “you are a tall skinny kiwi . .
    no, actually, i used to be “CyberRev” from 1995 – 2000 and then i decided to call myself after the physical side of me –
    tall (6.6)
    skinny – underweight
    and kiwi – born in New Zealand
    thanks everyone for great comments and good tone. excellent thoughts and resources.
    i am travelling for the next 3 days and will not be here to answer or defend myself.

  • jason_73 says:

    The Lord shall defend you.

  • Scott says:

    Many ministries and websites that are anti-emergent have a problem with Labyrinths… [such as] EmergentNo…
    The EmergentNo post you linked to doesn’t seem to be an example of how EmergentNo has a problem with labyrinths. The text of the post is just copied from the caption of the photo in the article they link to, which doesn’t seem to be opposed to labyrinths either. Can you cite another example of their opposition to labyrinths?

  • ScottB says:

    I think the labyrinth discussion is only scratching the surface – the real issue is the regulatory principle (the theological approach that believes that any worship not commanded by God is prohibited). Most folks in the emerging church seem to be more along the lines of whatever is not prohibited is permitted – which is where you run into the issues with something like the labyrinth. Challies, et al, is saying that it’s not ever commanded, therefore it’s prohibited. Others are saying it’s not ever prohibited, therefore it’s permitted. But the disagreement I think is more foundational than this one issue – the comments on the thread you linked never seemed to get to that underlying interpretive issue, and thus both sides are talking past each other. (For the record, I think there’s irony in constructing a regulatory principle that is never itself explicitly commanded in scripture – but I digress.)
    That being said, I think you have a fine, fine scriptural approach to journey-based worship (if I can coin a term). There’s something of the theology of pilgrimage that we just have no framework for in most Protestant thinking.

  • “…any worship not commanded by God is prohibited”
    Wow, that’s loaded. Excellent comment, ScottB… I concur on this connection between labyrinth, journey-based worship, and pilgrimage.
    wrt the disconnect, I would also take issue this whole supposition that if somebody new age or pagan or [whatever] is doing it, then we should abandon it, even if it is a historical practise of the church. Probably another root cause of objections to Labyrinths… but what happened to redeeming practises from other religions and cultures? Missiologists get that, but the Western church does not.

  • steve collins says:

    re jason above:
    certainly there are more references to labyrinths in new age and pagan cultures. that’s because usage didn’t die out, or was revived earlier. but if the chartres pattern was in christian use [of whatever kind] from say the 8th century to the reformation [in some places later] that’s 800 years. if you start at the late-roman [4th century] labyrinth mosaics that’s maybe 1200 years. so i don’t see why we shouldn’t reuse it.
    it occurs to me that the most ancient pattern [the topmost illustration on this page ] has generally been used in pagan/folk-religious contexts, whereas the chartres form is generally christian until the recent new-age uses [give it back!].
    re redemption of pagan stuff – i’m no expert but a lot of northern european christianity incorporates pagan things – it happened in the 4th to 7th centuries so we’ve all got used to it. christmas and easter are redeemed pagan festivals whose symbolism was cunningly redirected by the missionaries [easter’s still the old pagan name!]. all saints day on november 1st redirects the pagan samhain [halloween]. many churches were founded on pagan worship sites. the motives were often similar to contemporary missiology – discern where god is active or reached out to in a culture, and like paul in athens make new sense of it, make known the ‘unknown god’.
    i agree with brother maynard. just because pagans do it doesn’t mean we can’t. the earth is the lords, and everything in it. who’s boss here? pagans drive around in cars, that doesn’t mean christians have to walk.

  • steve collins says:

    in fact [double posting again] i don’t think there are any christian or pagan things, only christian and pagan uses for things.

  • ScottB says:

    Brother Maynard said, “Probably another root cause of objections to Labyrinths… but what happened to redeeming practises from other religions and cultures? Missiologists get that, but the Western church does not.”
    Except when it practices Easter or Christmas… but we won’t go there. 😉

  • andrew says:

    back from my trip
    i kind of expected there to be some negative comments here but none at all – which is a relief, but it means i can say something without it being considered a reaction . .
    if steve is correct, and it is the USAGE of the thing rather than the THING ITSELF (and i like that way of thinking) then the Labyrinth itself could be used – to the pure, all things are pure, even Christmas trees and easter eggs.
    (In my mind, I am picturing George Verwer of Operation Mobilization praying for each continent as he moves through the stations and praying for the world in the middle
    . . but there is also the flip side of the coin – if people are coming from a background of new age, shamanism or weird spiritual experiences inside labyrinths, then for them . . the labyrinth may be a stumbling block.
    (We had the same problem with drum circles – most people can join in and worship but those who have a history in shamanic experiences at drum circles can easily drift back – i saw it at a worship experience in my house when we did a drum circle in san francisco – this one girl started drifting heavenward and we had to . . well . . i wont go there
    Anyway, there may be times when a labyrinth is not appropriate and therefore LighthouseTrails and other sites that reject the use of labyrinths for christian worship should not be ridiculed or dismissed, and any research they can do to show the dangers of abuse might be helpful.
    Hey – thanks everyone for great comments and good conversation – i would like to know more history – origins of labyrinth, etc, if anyone knows – please comment here.

  • amber says:

    finally found the piece of paper I was looking for with labyrinth web sites (passed out at our holy week labyrinth last spring)
    Online Labyrinth
    Daily Meditation and Prayer
    For those of you in the U.S. in the Pacific Northwest (haven’t visited this yet personally):
    Local Labyrinth Walks
    Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
    147 NW 19th Ave.
    Portland, OR 97209

  • Labyrinths: devlish or divine?

    Im not sure which direction to go when it comes to labyrinths, although faithful aficionados would

  • Labyrinths: devlish or divine?

    Im not sure which direction to go when it comes to labyrinths, although faithful aficionados would

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