Monday, January 28, 2008

The meaning of worship

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.

Tom writes:

Dear Kit,
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.

Big questions.

Tom Schade
First U, Worcester

My thanks to Tom for his wisdom.


Jeff said...

This sounds like the excellent recipe employed by the UU church I grew up in, from the music to the Lord's Prayer. I have never had a UU worship experience that exceeded it, and in fact that is the reason why my wife an I are quite infrequent church attendees, despite having tried many different UU churches on both sides of the continent, north and south, and even in Canada. We find UU worship to often range from sterile to bumbling to apologetic; worst of all are the churches that are inconsistent in terms of format and key worship elements from week to week to week, such that no one ever knows whatever hymn has been chosen and there is no sense of connection with the material. It took about ten years for us reach this point but now we've very nearly dropped church altogether; this does not indicate in any way a lack of commitment to UU values or UUism in general, however. And we do know that there are fabulous churches out there--every time I go back home I'm once again impressed with that church--but somehow we never seem to live near any of them. Best runner up we've encountered: Community Church of New York, which was a bit less churchy than we prefer but had excellent ministers and interns during our tenure there and a smart congregation that more than made up for the occasional rough edges.

Anyway, this wasn't intended as a gratuitous rant on your blog (it just turned out that way!). What I really wanted to say was that Tom's list is very good, in my experience, and would be excellent advice for any UU church. Glad y'all are having this kind of conversation on our behalf.

Lizard Eater said...

Very good points. I will be quoting #3 at the start of our Worship committee meeting this week.

The last paragraph, I need to really think about. At first read, I loved it, and planned on sharing it. And by how *I* interpret it, I agree with it.

But I know of someone else who would interpret it a different way -- as condoning the type of service I have a problem with: the "omphaloskepsis" service.

Hmm ... I'm going to have to muse on this. I'm not forming my thoughts well.

ms. kitty said...

I'm not sure which "last paragraph" you're referring to, LE. Can you point it out specifically? His note has stops and starts toward the end that have me guessing.

Jeff, thanks for your remarks. I think they are useful feedback for most of us who design worship.

Jeff said...

I'm a professor of religious studies, and even I had to look up "omphaloskepsis." For readers of the comments who are less erudite than Lizard Eater, it means "contemplation of one's navel as a form of meditation."

ms. kitty said...

I had to look it up too, Jeff, and I forgot to mention it. LE, you've educated two of us at least today!

Masasa said...

This is important stuff, and I too am grateful for Tom's wisdom (and hoping he'll post more on his blog).

The one point, however, that is not sitting quite right with me yet is this:

"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 Association."

I'm of course not claiming that Tom is wrong. Just playing around with another perspective in my head because something just feels a bit off to me. First Unitarian of Worcester was indeed slow to join the association, so he's got the loyalties pegged I think. But in fact loyalty to First Unitarian is to some extent a loyalty to our faith tradition by virtue of the fact that it is a Unitarian Church.

Bear with me for a minute here...

Having just moved, I am experiencing lots of those "blind date" type get togethers with strangers while I try to find my "home" here. That is, I am getting together with folks, trying to meet friends and become a part of this community. (These days, a lot of folks meet online in various venues first, then get together, but other timeless ways of meeting people apply here too.)

There's always that awkward moment toward the end of a little get together, when folks start saying something like, "This was fun. We should get together sometime." It is amazing to me the subtext in such a statement.

It can be more like a "this was not my cup of tea, but I am being polite" type statement, or a "you're not my type but I don't want to be mean" about it type of statement.

It can be more of a "I really don't have time to get together, to bother with more people in my life right now, so yeah, let's get together if we ever happen to bump into each other again."

It can be a "I really liked this, but I am not sure what you thought so I'm just gonna leave it up to you to make the next move" kind of thing.

It can also be a, "This was awesome! I can't wait to get together again."

And it always seems there are subtle cues to which is applicable to the particular scenario. Because it is entirely possible for one party to dig it while the other doesn't. So you have to pay attention to the tone of their speech, slight differences in wording ("this was nice" vs. "this was fun" vs. "this was great" etc.), their body language, how much they talk after that statement, how quickly they head out the door, etc.

But the biggest tip offs:
Do they make sure you know who they are and how to reach them? As in, have they given you their full name and will they share their contact info? And if they invite you to something specific, that's even better.

We're inviting folks to come back and worship with us next too. *And* we are a Unitarian Universalist worshipping community. Not a Protestant, not a Jewish, not an evangelical, but a Unitarian Universalist house of worship.

And actually, come to think of it (and please no one be too harsh with me because this is totally a thought off the top of my head), perhaps we could help folks worship together better if we didn't borrow terms to define ourselves. "Christian Unitarian Universalist," "Jewish Unitarian Universalist," etc. Would terms like panentheist, pantheist, theist, athiest, etc. be more descriptive and less divisive? I don't know. It is super late here and I have a bazillion thoughts running through my head, so this may make no sense at all.

Finally, I think worship indeed should be the focus. We are, afterall, a worshipping community. That's what we do. I say that a lot. But is this truly mutually exclusive of a "corporate identity" (a *faith identity*)? I'm not yet convinced.

Hmmm...just turning things around in my head here (Oh Tom, please won't you blog some for wider conversation?).

uuMomma said...

As a lay leader and worship committee co-chair, here's the part that of this that spoke to me:

"Visiting is not a prelude to joining -- is not church shopping
-- it is worshipping with us."

How simple is that. How confused it can be.

Thanks, Rev. Kit, for sharing this with the wider world. Thanks to Rev. Tom, too.

Oh, and LE: thanks for the vocabulary expander.

Cilla said...

Omphaloskepsis-- great word. I predict it will sweep through UU circles.

I, too, really appreciated Tom's list, but like Masasa I tripped over the part about identifying with the church and not the movement. I know how very true that is for most (nearly all?) of our congregations, but think that's something we **really** need to work on if we want to have a stronger movement. In fact, I think that underdeveloped sense of identity with our association of congregations is the primary factor holding us back.

The larger movement is so ubiquitous that many of our congregation members don't even recognize it all around them. The chalice symbol, the hymns, the curricula, the ministers (unless those Search Committees recruited them off of Craig's List), Bill Sinkford in the New York Times, the work of our UU Service Committee around the world, all this and so much more is because we are in association with one another.

I've always been taught that we are a covenantal faith and that the covenant is between our congregations, and understanding that predates the AUA/UUA. Can the historians comment on how this sense of identity has trended over time?

Jeff said...

Cilla, I think Tom's church is in many ways holding to the more historic attitude. Unitarians have often taken a rather jaundiced view of organization, especially at the national level. It took fifty years from the first Unitarian church in America to the first national body (the American Unitarian Association). The AUA wasn't even an association of churches but of individuals, intended as a publishing company and support apparatus for Unitarian missionaries, with zero invested authority. It was yet two more generations before a loose national association of Unitarian churches evolved, whose appearance was treated with alarm by many Unitarians. Significant members quit Unitarianism over what they perceived as growing centralized control and a future of "popery." Unitarians were almost always most loyal to their local church and perhaps then to their local region, such as the Western Unitarian Conference. The idea of covenants of Unitarian churches with a larger association is a very late idea in the evolution of Unitarianism.

Cilla said...

I agree with what Jeff is saying. In my original post, I was thinking more about the covenant as expressed in the Cambridge Platform.