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.


  1. Points well made and well taken, Tom. It is a contextual thing and what I think you are leading your church toward is a transformational understanding of where they are meeting God's presence, and what that might mean in their lives. Interestingly, you might want to check out my post today on worship evangelism and the emergent church (www.progressivechurchplanting.com) because I see where Sally Morganthaler is closing down the great worship site at www.sacramentis.com and will be restarting, with a more emergent focus, at www.trueconversations.com. She has some interesting things to say in a brief general way about her shifting focus, and it will be important I think to track what this worship-centered writer/lecturer has to say in her new incarnation.

  2. One of these days I will get my own blog url right.
    www.progressivechurchplanting.blogspot.com .

  3. hey LT, thanks for reading my missive in response to your post. i like your blog, thanks to Philocrites for pointing me to it. i also hear you about the other issues within unitarian universalist ministry. i'm going to the philippines soon where i'll be doing some church building in manila. wow. peace

  4. I enjoyed reading this. As I read this in light of my comment on another post here, it is the worship centeredness I believe that allows or fosters for the connection to the greater. The idea of "preaching towards a decision" is a poignant point. There is a reason why we come together. Is it for entertainment on an otherwise boring day off or is it to receive nurturance and assurance that our lives do make a difference and I can decide to make a difference in the coming week. That difference might simply be to show up or it might be something very profound. Some days I think showing up is the most profound decision I can make. If that decision is sparked because I connected to the holy on Sunday then I'm on my way. Blessings abound


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