Over on the ministers' chat, my colleague the Rev. Tom Schade at First Unitarian Church, Worcester MA, has remarked that he feels that we UUs neglect the worship experience in our congregations in favor of enhancing community building. This was in response to some queries about what it means when handfuls of of folks don't come to worship but sit together outside the sanctuary doing other things and chatting.
Some ministers felt that this was a power play, an insult to the preacher and the congregation; others felt that this was an opportunity for the preacher to connect with a group that might feel disengaged from the community. The conversation meandered from solution to suggestion to questions about the meaning of worship and how we ministers can encourage full participation in worship.
Tom had written some pretty thoughtful stuff about this topic and I asked him to tell us what it was like at his church. How do he and his worship team create worship that offers an experience that goes home with people, that invites them into the kind of worship experience we all hope for?
He has given me permission to quote his post here, because I have found that many of my readers are layleaders in their own congregations and struggle with some of these same concerns. I hope he will speak more about this topic over at his blog The Lively Tradition.
I am not sure that we have a much better formula for worship at Worcester
than anywhere else. We are, gratefully, worshipping in accordance with a
tradition that is over 200 years old, and which, the church has never
consciously junked. Of course, it has changed, but it has never been
overthrown as the "awful old." We do try the following:
1. we aim for excellence -- high quality music and capable speakers.
2. we stick to the order of service week after week. People know what to
3. The message and take-away of most services is personal -- the message
needs to have personal significance to the persons in the pew. It's about
you and your life: giving up your war with reality, recognizing and
responding to love etc.
4. We do not promote Unitarian Universalism per se. Our message to persons
is that they should take time to worship and pray, and should live
ethically, and serve etc. We are not asking them to BE Unitarian
Universalists. We want them to follow their passions, find their ministry
and live out of their spirits. Institutionally, our loyalty is the First
Unitarian Church of Worcester, to liberal religion and then, the
5. Our goal is that if a person comes once to the church, they will have a
meaningful worship experience that might help them, whether or not they ever
come again. Visiting is not a prelude to joining -- is not church shopping
-- it is worshipping with us.
6. We pray -- a common prayer, a minute plus of silent prayer for people who
need our help, and the Lord's Prayer. We explicitly say that one of our
purposes is to help people develop the ability to pray.
7. There are always big laughs somewhere in the service.
Just to be clear, First Unitarian Church is not a Christian church, in that
we do not preach or promote the doctrine that there is any special spiritual
significance to how one regards Jesus. Liturgically, we are a broadly
theistic church, in that our liturgy has the purpose of "worshipping God."
Theologically, we are broadly diverse, with many atheists, Buddhist
practicioners, liberal Christians, and lots of free-lance seekers of the
I cannot stress enough that I think that we, as worship leaders, have to
place the highest priority on how each person is touched by the worship
service and the message of the day. Building the community, building the
sense of community, these are secondary -- important yes, but secondary.
My sense is that we have placed our focus on the community building purpose
of worship as primary, and down graded the personal to the secondary
priority. And the result is that the communities we build, and the worship
services that celebrate them, become arenas for people to play out their
needs regarding themselves in community: their need for power, their sense
of exclusion, their desire for self-expression etc. The result is an
inwardly focused community about being a community.
First U, Worcester
My thanks to Tom for his wisdom.