Three generations, at least

Over at A People So Bold, Clyde asks the question: is the form of worship that we continue in most Unitarian Universalist congregations a product of a different time and a different social set up?

You bet.

And probably always so.

I am aware that the worship of the church I serve is speaking, with great difficulty, to at least three generations of worshippers.

There are the seniors, the boomers and the youngers. To the seniors, the form and tone of the service is crucial: they want a dignity, a stateliness, an unhurried formality; they want excellence. They want the worship service to have a smooth surface.

For the youngers, what is most important and real in the service is the spontaneous that pokes out of the smooth surface of the service -- the ad lib or extemporaneous comment, the unexpected happening. It is as though they want to see what is living beneath the surface, what is barely contained by the service.

I don't think that I could even begin to fully catalog the how the different generations bring different expectations and standards of judgement to the worship experience.

It falls to us, as worship leaders, to try to hit the style and form that speaks across such a broad age range. At least, that is our task if we intend to lead worship in a broadly intergenerational setting. It is possible to go another way and create a worship experience that is age and subculturally specific -- the boomer church, the young adult church, the classic elder church, the youth culture church. I can understand the appeal of that, and if I was trying to plant a new church, it might make more sense to go that way. But that's not what I have been called to serve.

So, I, and other ministers in traditional church settings, have to try to do a slow and stately dance of constant innovation, keeping a form of worship going that is both comfortable and familiar to the 80 year olds and yet does not seem antiquated and paralyzing to 20 year olds.

We are in the midst of some great cultural upheavals, and it seems that the young really live in a different world than the old. Technology is creating different subcultures. I have people who are not served by the CD recordings we make of our services, because they don't have CD players and don't know how one works. When the youth group talks about communicating with each other through My Space and Facebook, I feel like Senator Stevens wrestling with the clogged internet tubes.

I don't suppose that a church like the one I serve is for everyone; it asks for a willingness to accept a certain strangeness in return for an opportunity to be in a multi-generational community.

I do think that the sermon form will endure the changes that are coming. One thing that is a cultural constant, between the elders and even the newest forms of communication, is that people want to hear the undiluted, unfiltered, direct and authentic communication of someone who is unbought and unbossed. That has been the appeal of all new media forms since the advent of talk radio in the 80's. It is the common appeal of everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Bill O'Reilly, to Jon Stewart, to Andrew Sullivan, to Kos and Atrios.


  1. One way, and I never thought I would say this 10 to 20 years ago and since, is to bring back some kind of post-traditional service discussion, ala "After Oprah." One minister can't be in all the conversation circles for those that might want to take advantage of this as a way of extending the sermon, but it would be cool to have a team of faciliators who could do so. Or there could be a regular function of one of the popular Question Box Forums, after each service those who want to stay and converse, or convene elsewhere and converse, could write out questions and comments on cards and hand them in to the minister for dialogical response, or the minister to write out questions based on the sermon, conversation extenders, and have people draw these out and respond to them. I see it going in a different way than the old adversarial approach of sermon talkback, which was a generational thing too and I believe is changing in tone and tenor anyway for those who take part in it. Minister relaxing in chair, with maybe another person or two, up in the chancel or on stage in fellowship hall, would be a familiar experience inviting to younger generations after the traditional worship service.
    The next two Sundays in my small church worship we will be doing our annual Question Box Forums, part 1 (where they write the questions for me to respond to) and part 2 (where I write the questions for them) and in both cases it turns into something of a conversation but believe me it will actually be two "sermons" or a bunch of "mini-sermons' from me so you still have that free church sacramental preacher aspect you have alluded to. The key is to teach people that this is still "worship" just as After Oprah is still Oprah.


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