Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Livelier and More Exciting Worship Service

Doug Mudar, in his comment on the previous post, says "Actually, I wouldn't mind having a "livelier and more exciting" adult worship service."

A sentiment shared by almost everyone I know, including most ministers. I would even argue that our liturgical history in Unitarian Universalism for the last few decades has been shaped by this underlying dynamic: how to make worship more exciting and livelier? I think that there are two two circumstances that shaped this dynamic:

1. The authority of the minister over worship, a situation which places the minister in the position of having to balance and resolve all of the contradictory and competing worship desires of the congregation. It causes all of the liturgical conflicts within the church appear to conflicts with the minister. Almost everyone who is not a minister thinks that the First Parish Church of East Overshoe would have a much more exciting and livelier worship service were it not for old Rev. Fuddy Duddy. Rev. Fuddy Duddy is being pulled and pushed in many different directions about worship. And Rev. Fuddy Duddy is also accountable to the longer tradition of the church, often humanly represented by people who no longer attend worship every week, but who do not want to be embarrassed by the church in which they plan their funeral.

2. No one is able to make a theologically based argument for the kind of worship that they would like to bring to First Parish, because we don't make those kind of theological arguments with each other. Connected to that, our lack of theological understanding for evangelism flattens those arguments for change. So, the various movements for a more exciting worship style flies under a variety of flags. To be clear, and even though there are good arguments for all of these proposals, I think that the calls "to make worship more intergenerational", "to involve more styles of learning", "to be more culturally diverse in our music", "to have more prophetic preaching", and "to be more grounded in the scripture","more ritualistic" all share a common purpose. Those that advocate them believe that our worship will be livelier, more dramatic, more compelling, more exciting if their proposals are adopted.

I think that worship style will change more quickly in those situations where the lay leadership and the minister get on the same page. Which means that the lay leaders need to understand the worship tradition of the congregation as a valuable asset in defining the specific theological identity and character of the church. The work we are trying to do is to strenghten and renovate this most basic asset. It means coming down off the position that the worship tradition is the barrier to change. Overthrowing the worship tradition of the church results in a church which is not able to present itself with any clarity in the community. If First Parish was all bible readings and Episcopal prayers last year, and this year is all Joys and Concerns and Let it Be A Dance, then why should anyone commit to it, for next year who knows what it will be? It might be naked dancing in the moonlight, or it might be speaking in tongues and handling snakes. If it is just what the people who come to it right now want it to be, then we better guard the doors very carefully.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ministry to Children in a Worship Centered Church

Thanks to everyone who has contributed in some way to this discussion about worship in liberal religion.

If we think of our common religious lives as being grounded, first and foremost, in the experience of worshipping together, how does that change how we think about ministry to children and youth? You can tell that I have a definite opinion by the fact that I even pose the question as "ministry to children and youth" and not as "religious education."

I don't like imaging the process of religious growth as "education". I don't like it as a way to think about it for children, and expanding it to Lifespan Religious Education only makes me more uncomfortable, and not less. O God, a school from which I can never, ever, graduate !

While I think that passing along some information is a necessary part of working with children and youth, it is hardly the most important part.

We need to give our children opportunities to worship.

I don't mean making them stay longer in the adult worship service of the church -- or only having intergenerational worship.

What would a great worship service for children look like, sound like, feel like? What would a service be like if its goals were to provide a moment of reflection for kids, an experience of beauty, an inspiring message about real issues in their lives, a chance to experience the feeling of community solidarity, a challenge to make a decision to be a better person in the week to come?

In other words, what if we had the same goals for children that we have for adults, but made a real commitment to work at their developmental level?

In short, I think that the educational model: classes, teachers, curriculums, lesson plans is way overdone in our ministry to children. In fact, I am not sure that most UU kids need more information, at all.

I see in the church I serve that at a certain size the problems of classroom control and keeping order eat up a sizable portion of the volunteer energy that goes into the RE program.

Because the classroom experience is so small, and the adult volunteers are spread so thin across the group, kids are exposed to talking, thinking, reading, and crafts activities. Music and dance and dramatics are much more rare experiences.

Childrens worship is often a simplified version of the adult worship, as opposed to livelier and more exciting experience of worship.

Children's social needs don't seem to be met well. Among the most commonly cited reason for why kids don't want to participate in our Sunday School is that they have not made friends. (Just like the adults.)

There is not enough choice. Adults in the church get to choose what activity they will participate in: sing in the choir, work on a committee, do a project, teach Sunday School, or just sit in worship. If you are in fifth grade, you know what you will be doing at church, and who you will be doing it with. Or you go to the adult service. Or you stay home.

What I would like to see: that kids have an opportunity to experience a well-done, professionally led, carefully considered worship service, crafted specifically for them, at least once a month. Exciting music, a chance to sing loudly and move their bodies to a song that makes sense to them. A well-chosen story told well, and an straight forward message that explores the meaning of the story and helps them apply it to their lives. Separate from the regular service and in their own worship space.

I would like to see a church that uses the small group ministry models with children to build their social connections and networks and helps them have friends at church, that takes their social needs seriously.

I would like to see a church that offers lots of religious education curricula to people of all ages who want to do it, for six weeks, or 9 weeks or a for a whole year. Wouldn't you love to see a group of UU adults and kids talking about Jesus together in a serious way?

What do you think is most important for our ministry children and youth?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mission and Worship

We have been discussing the relationship between worship and mission, especially in UU churches.

My cynical perception for years has been that the default theory of UUism is that what matters most is social justice mission work of the church. (Deeds not creeds). The UU congregation is a community defined by an unexamined "like-minded-ness." The community tries to recruit more people to join it, and the worship service is a show that the community puts on to attract new people. Unfortunately, most people don't particularly like the show. And those that do, a bunch like the show so much that they don't want to do anything but be consumers of it. Some people become invested in the community that they really take on the tasks of institutional maintenance. And finally, there is a small group, the cream of the crop, that tries to be disciples of the underlying values and do the mission work out in the community. These are the blessed ones and they are truly wonderful when they are not consumed with resentment at all the slackers, consumers and spiritual dilettantes who make up the rest of the congregation.

I suppose that I started my ministry with this point of view. But after a few years of actual parish ministry, I observed that this understanding didn't really match the work of the church. It places the community activist at the top of the pyramid, but community activism is often particular to specific lifestages: young adults, people without children, the healthy and active seniors who have that as an experience, the mid-lifers whose jobs allow it. Families with younger children, the overworked middlers in the private sector, people with health issues, the elders who are slowing down in activity levels, as well as the shy, the dreamy, the reclusive and the anxious are just never going to be the kinds of community activists that we imply are the peak of the process of spiritual evolution.

A few years back, I adopted for myself, and advocated in my way, for a worship-centered theory of church/congregational life. Congregational worship is our spiritual practice. Worship creates the community as opposed to the idea that the community puts on worship as its project. The most important service to the larger community is that we give it an opportunity to worship, and in a rapidly de-churching, yet spiritually hungering, culture offering a worship opportunity with a low threshold seems worthwhile. I think that a church can also offer a lot of opportunities for people to carry their ultimate values into their lives: people want to be better parents, better members of their families, better witnesses for their values in the community, better practitioners of the various spiritual disciplines, better citizens. Any given church is going to do some of these better than others given its gifts and resources and experience. Better that a church do one or two very well than all of them poorly.

I think, of course, that I am terribly daring in a conservative kind of way to make a pitch for a worship centered view of the church amongst all the UU's who seemed to think that social justice is the true purpose of the church. (Everybody who knows me has figured out that I would rather be famously wrong than conventional in obscurity.)

But now, the zeitgeist is shifting, as evidenced by Bill Sinkford talking about the centrality of worship in congregational life in the pages of the UU World (which now being online and updatable 24/7 could change its name to the UU Daily World, were it not for some uncomfortable historical associations that might be drawn.) But the underlying theory seems to be that worship is a refuge from the cold cruel world, a place where we lick our wounds and prepare again for battle during the week.

What I think is needed is to clarify what goes on in worship relative to the rest of the week, and to resist the temptation to reduce it to comfort and refuge. The Methodists with whom I went to seminary used to talk about "preaching for a decision" -- preaching to encourage the conversion process, the commitment to Christ. All this talk whistled through my Teflon coated ears at that point, but the phrase still sticks in my mind. Instead of using the language of refuge and comfort, we might want to use the language of decision and commitment. Every week, we are preaching toward a decision, that individuals will commit themselves, maybe for the first time, and maybe for the 100th time, to live out their sense of the most ultimate next week. JLA talks about worship as being where "the intimate and the ultimate meet." It takes a decision for that to happen. It's much broader than deciding to be a community activist and to go to another set of meetings over the week, or to quit complaining and start screaming this week; it might mean just sending a note to your estranged relatives.

Now, I admit that I am talking here as a preacher in an established church, and not as a church planter. It may be the a new plant might not be worship centered, but pulling people together about some other activity. I don't presume to judge that.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Why What Happens In Worship Matters

In the previous post, I noted that thinking about the worship experience as preparing us "to go out in the world and face another week" suggests that worship is a refuge from the world where we rest and recharge, but where nothing actually happens.

The division between the world out there where things really happen and the world of worship where we think about, reflect on, pray about, preach about the real world is so built into liberal religion as to be a part of the air we breathe.

Our colleague, the Rev. M. Jean Heriot has a wonderful book, "Blessed Assurance" which is her study of an evangelical Southern Baptist community in the South, with whom she spent many months.

She argues that for those folks, what happened in church was not a world apart from the real world, but, in some ways, perhaps the realest and most important part of life. After all, the individual soul was brought into a contemplation of ultimate reality and asked to make a decision about the direction of his or her life. What could be more important than that?

What if liberal religion took more seriously the power of the worship experience to pose real questions about life to the worshippers and to ask them to make decisions and commitments about how they were going to live?

What if we rephrased Bill Sinkford's summation of worship. Instead of saying that worship is "calling us to be our best selves as we go back into the world to face another week", we say that "worship is where we face the choices and make the decisions about how we are going to live in the week to come." ?

Yes, there is a nurturance and comfort and consolation in worship. But there is also confronting, choosing, deciding and committing.

I am afraid that we are so trapped in our desire to not guilt-trip people about coming to church on Sunday, and so averse to any sacramental sense of worship, that we act like it nothing happens on Sunday morning at church anyway.

A growing liturgical tradition

UUA President William Sinkford addresses the question of worship here in a recent entry to the UU world online. He points out several elements of the worship that seem to becoming more common in UU worship. He probably knows because I doubt that there is anyone who attends more UU worship services in different settings every year than him. Wouldn't it be great to get his absolutely candid evaluation of every UU service he attends all year long, with pictures, quotes and audio recordings? I mean with all the loving and generous brutality of Peacebang discussing inappropriate footware. I earnestly suggest that President Sinkford blog his worship experiences of his final year in office; it would be as great a gift as any inspirational words he might compose for those occasions. But I digress.....

Rev. Sinkford sees as our hopeful signs: more singing, more chalice lightings, and
Sermons about real-life issues are becoming more common, appealing not just to our minds but also calling us to be our best selves as we go back out into the world and face another week. People are coming to church to be part of a community that affirms their humanity and value, to get their spirits nurtured;

I have to admit that not so long ago, I would have greeted these words with some cynicism. After all, the First Church I Serve (Second Parish) offers up a chunkier liturgical broth every week: candlelightings, covenants, doxologies, three prayers, readings both scriptural and contemporary etc. etc. (Did you hear about the church, let's call it the Church of What's Happening Now that is so current that they replaced their old double-barreled reading (the Ancient Reading and the Modern Reading) with a Trifecta: The Pre-Modern, The Modern and the Post-Modern Readings) But I digress.....

Be that as it may, I have come to accept the fact that we are where we are. Churches and congregations are building and developing their worship traditions as they go along. Ministers are responding to the expressed needs of their congregants in languages and ritual forms that meet them where they are.

What are the needs being expressed in the worship developments that Rev. Sinkford sees:

I think that the flaming chalice is mostly about identification. Yes, the chalice lighting does serve as a moment of group concentration that focuses the attention of the group. (We get the same effect from a candle lighting, which is actually harder to do in our circumstances, so everyone holds their breath through the little ritual/ordeal.) But the Chalice is really about us being "US".

More singing is more singing -- more sense of community, more active participation.

I am struck by the "called to be our best selves as we go out into the world and face another week." There is a whole world view expressed in that phrase and a whole lot of questions hiding in it: why are we not our best selves?, is the world harder to face for us than for others?, why do we accept the notion that the world is "out there" and what we are doing in worship is a refuge from it? Is that an implicit admission that nothing really happens in worship?

When I say that we are a Lively Tradition, I mean that there is something alive going on, and we should pay attention.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Not Just Money

My back of the envelope name for the Foundation that Clyde at A People So Bold calls the "Foundation for Unitarian Universalist Growth" is the "Institute for Progressive Enterpreneurial Ministry." Obviously a better name is needed. Perhaps we could call it "You Know, Like Robert Duvall in the Apostle."

There are things that could be done right now: Making an inventory of progressive church planters and plants active now, surveying the literature of recent experience, researching, enabling training, identifying planters, building networks of planters into learning communities, developing and clarifying a visionary core group.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Foundation

Clyde, over at A People So Bold calls for the formation of a foundation dedicated to Unitarian Universalist Growth, as a way to support UU evangelism.

He says:

Personally, I think that what we need is a foundation dedicated to Unitarian Universalist growth. This foundation would have a Board of Trustees devoted to the mission of stimulating church planting specialists, and local efforts to create new congregations, and community ministries that involve outreach (mission) informed by Unitarian Universalist values. The Board would not be elected by Districts or the General Assembly and the Executive Director would not be involved with a risk adverse association of congregations led by ministers competing for scare resources.

What would it take for such a foundation to be successful? Aside from money. How would it avoid optimistically funding disfunction? How would it be clearly accountable to Unitarian Universalism broadly, without being sectarian and narrow?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Pet Peeve of today

I live in what is called 'an urban village', meaning that the population is pretty dense, there are lots of little stores, and pedestrians, bike-riders and motorists have to keep an eye for each other.
I walk a lot.
This is what irks me.
I am walking along and need to cross the street. I stand on the curb (kerb?) and wait for the traffic to break, so I can walk across the street. Note that I am standing ON the curb, not in the street, not in the crosswalk, not in any danger whatsoever. Standing ON the curb waiting for my turn to cross the street.
Invariably, somebody, usually a middle-aged woman in a Volvo or a Subaru and looking in need of one of Peacebang's makeovers, screeches to a stop and fixes me with the self-satisfied grin of Bono handing out granola bars in Somalia. And she waits for me to cross the street in front of her.
Of course, traffic is piling up behind her, because to all other motorists, she has just stopped for no reason whatsoever. After all, I am standing ON the curb, not in the street, not in the crosswalk.
This irritates me, no end.
I appreciate that she is trying to do the right thing.
But, I experience the whole event as treating me as though I did not have the competence to cross the street on my own. After all, I am not a child chasing a ball into the street. Nor am I a resident of a nursing home who has wandered off in his bathrobe to look for his little dog lost during the Eisenhower Administration. I am a competent adult whose mother taught him long ago to look both ways and not cross the street until there were no cars coming in either direction.
Well, I used to just wave the person on, but that didn't work. They would wave me on in return. Finally I would cross the street just to satisfy them and relieve the honking mass of cars that were piled up behind her. But today, I just flipped out -- shouting at the lady, "I'm ON the CURB, I'm ON the CURB, GO, GO, GO."

Somewhere in my little urban village, this little outpost of liberalism, a couple is sitting down to dinner. She says, "the strangest thing happened today. I stopped for this man, who seemed normal, to cross the street and he got mad at me and refused to go across the street at all, just because I stopped." And her partner will reply, "It's a shame that they just let the mentally ill wander around like that. It's those damn Republicans who cut the funding for community mental health. I just hope that someone makes sure that he takes his meds before he gets hit by a car somewhere."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Growth Strategies

From everything I was able to glean at GA, one can safely say that the UUA does not have a growth strategy. When asked that question directly, President Sinkford said that we are in "an experimental period." We should have lots of experiments. We do, of course, since many of our congregations are trying to grow. We don't have the management processes in place to learn from those experiments very well, but they are out there.

There is a large-scale church start being planned in Philadelphia.

Peter Morales talks about growth through better growth and member retention in the already existing congregations.

And then there is small-scale church-planting, which I would define as minister-initiated, congregational formation. Some would call it "entepreneurial ministry", or even "apostolic ministry." This is largely unexplored territory for the Unitarian Universalist Association which tends to work with the idea that church planting starts with a congregation that someday calls a minister, and not with a minister who someday gathers a congregation. In fact, there is a tendency to view that minister who is out trying to start a new congregation from scratch with some suspicion, a somewhat shady character engaged in self-promotion and opportunism.

Small-scale church planting is how most new churches get formed, and Unitarian Universalists don't know how to do it. I don't know how to do it either, and in some ways, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum, serving a well-established and handsomely endowed church.

But I think that all of us ought to do what we can to make the Unitarian Universalist Association a more nurturing environment for potential church-planters, whether they be either ordained or lay.

1. We should identify "church-planting" as a specialized type of ministry -- not community ministry, not parish ministry but something else. Let seminarians and ministers identify themselves by that aspiration, if they are called to it. Right now, it is "the love that dare not speak its name."

2. shake up the MFC so that the time spent in unpaid, or very poorly paid, church-planting ministry counts toward final fellowship.

3. Let's start talking about "UU Outreach Activists", or "UU Embeds", or "UU Missionaries." These would be lay people who are willing to devote some serious time and energy into grass roots congregational formation. Giving this a name might help some people realize that this what they are called to do. Whether and How this becomes a path into seminary and the ordained ministry are questions for later.

4. Let's be patient with what is being formed -- a minister starts to cohere a small network and community (a micro-congregation) around him or her -- it could be a UU congregation, it might be a generic Spirituality group, it might be a "religious left activist political group." It might be connected with a UU church or not.

5. Finally, we need to develop an institutional structure for this, which distributes denominational resources for church-planting, without succumbing to denominational control and sectarianism. Some portion of the money that is being raised and spent on growth needs to be gotten into the hands of church-planters, while maintaining enough accountability and covenantal relationships to keep the money coming.
So, a physician says to her patient, "I want you to cut out coffee and caffeine."
The patient replies, "I don't know, I drink about two pots of coffee everyday."
The doc: "Doesn't that keep you awake?"
"Well, it helps -- a little."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

"It's Not What You Make, but What You Leave"

"It's not what you make, but what you leave" is a saying among pool players. Where do you leave the table when you finally miss? What have you left the other player to work with? Hopefully, you've left a a table that doesn't allow much of a run.

We who do parish work might want to think about what we are going to be leave behind and compare it to what we were given when we were first installed. I am talking about the worship tradition of the congregation.
Are you going to leave it in better shape than when you first showed up?

Some signs of the kind of worship tradition that you would want to leave behind, some of the ways that it had improved under your guidance:
1. worship is more predictable in all the good ways, but still people get up and come to church on Sunday just to see what's going to happen.
2. the congregation has a common language to talk about life, words, phrases and concepts that are the common currency of the worship service. People refer to ideas and concepts by referring to sermons that they have heard.
3. more of the depth and breadth of life is addressed in worship -- the previously unmentionable subjects -- drug addiction, sexual problems, prejudice, shameful thoughts, weakness and dependency, power and powerlessness -- are brought to worship.
4. Everybody has copies of treasured readings, prayers, quotations from the worship service pinned in their cubicle at work, on the refrigerator, and folded up in their wallets.
5. when texts and ideas from other cultural contexts are presented in worship, the congregation can appreciate both the points of convergence and divergence with and from the congregations shared understandings, and their own individual.
6. the congregation has a better sense of self-differentiation about its worship -- a sense of "what we do here" -- which fosters a sense of self-differentiation among the individuals.

Every congregation has its own worship tradition. They range from "the rudimentary and chaotic" on through the "well-developed and healthy" on over to the "sclerotic and rigid." Of course, the age of the congregation has a huge influence on the worship tradition of the church, a long with length of pastorates, social and demographic changes, etc. But all of our more recently established churches must have particularly difficult times getting their tradition started, especially given the low value placed on theological definition and liturgical tradition in present day UUism. But the work of building and developing that tradition is incremental work, done week by week. So, take the long view, and consider what you will leave behind.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Doesn't it seem important that we should look very carefully at what is going on in Mexico right now? Doesn't it seem likely that someday, we here in the United States might want to go about the process of contesting an election that seems to have been conducted unfairly and perhaps stolen? Don't you wish that we had been a bit more educated about how people around the world had challanged a flawed election back in November 2000?

Texts, Ministers and Authority

A colleague wonders about how preachers choose readings for worship. By what authority? And how does a preacher choose a text for a reading that is "inserted into the liturgy as a replacement for scripture." Who can decide what other text has the authority of scripture?

Liberal religion has a different conception of the authority than his question seems to assume. Traditionally, the purpose of worship was to present the scripture which was the source of authority. The synagogue cycle of readings, and then the lectionary of the Christian churches were all designed to teach the scripture to the people over the long course of multiple years. The preaching was to help people learn the scripture by applying it to contemporary situations and explaining its application and relevance. Scripture was the source of the authority.

Our religious tradition places the individual as the highest authority, but in the context of the covenanted community and in relationship to the minister called by that congregation for the purposes of spiritual leadership. The purpose of worship is the voluntary worship by the free soul , not the enlistment of people in the recognition of the authority of the Scripture. And so, the text/sermon has a different purpose in the liberal congregation.

The liturgy of the liberal congregation arises out of the long dialogue between congregation and its minister. In some cases, the liturgy of the church, the range of texts considered appropriate and essential to worship, the content of preaching, and the methods and purposes of prayers, have combined into a stable and enduring worship tradition which is the living theology and theological identity for that congregation.

In such a situation, the preacher proposes texts as having spiritual truth and authority each week in the liturgy. Of course, not every proposed text is a serious proposal. Some texts are chosen because they provide some factual content, or are funny, or set up the sermon well. Aside from those cases, the preaching says with each reading: "this text represents a truth we share, or one we have forgotten that we share, or a truth that I propose flows directly from other truths we share, even though we wish to avoid it." The authority to propose that text comes from the congregation.

If well chosen, that text becomes part of the common life of the congregation. It may bring a new note into worship; it may make room for a different kind of longing to be expressed.

We build and maintain buildings. We form and sustain communities. We are also enriching, developing and deepening the worship tradition of the congregations we serve. It is the most important way that we do serve the people in those congregations: we help them find a way authentic to them, and inclusive of their whole lives, in which they are able to worship.

Readings for Church

A colleague asks how much ministers should edit readings for us in church. To which I reply: I edit extensively -- cleaning up language for gender, clutter, obtuseness, archaic-ness. I take out lines of a poem, combining poems by the same author etc. We are making liturgy, not literature. The purpose of the reading is to pierce the hearts of the listeners in the moment; the arrow we shoot must be sleek and smooth.

Even the most plodding, sing-song, overwritten 19th century poem, bearing its heavy burden of classical allusions contains some thrilling lines that would make a great reading if they were set free. I admit to making a pretty good one page modern poem from Emerson's Threnody, the l-o-n-g poem he wrote on the death of his son. Of course, I edit and revise the Word of God as represented by Moses, David, Jesus and Paul. Everybody does that. But Emerson? That takes nerve, I admit, but not as much as editing Mary Oliver, and I have done that as well.

We do not quote people in readings because we seek their authority to prove our sermonic points. The authority of what we say rests on our personal authority and on the authority of the free pulpit (our listeners know that we gain no reward, nor suffer any penalty, for speaking the truth as we see it.)

Readings are a part of the worship service, a ritual in which the worshippers enter into an altered state of consciousness: softened by beauty and silence, turned back into themselves by their passive role, freed from the responsibilities of performance, finally unguarded enough to be receptive to invitation to respond to their own lives in a different, more trusting way.

The Lively Tradition

OK, enough already.
People have been after me to resume blogging for months now, ever since I let Prophet Motive die from neglect. I have opinions about anything that anyone asks me about, but I don't get up in the morning filled with subjects that I am burning to talk about. Choosing sermon topics is not my idea of fun.
I chose the name the Lively Tradition obviously from name of the hymnal: Singing the Living Traditon. I would like to go from merely "living" to "lively". I also think tradition matters, but not as much as we think.