Re-Imagining Unitarian Universalism, Part 7: Worship

I know that I have been in the weeds for the last four posts -- trying to explain the big ideas of sacred secularism, the Holy Spirit Defender and Kenosis.

Those ideas are not the core of a re-imagined Unitarian Universalism.  They are part of my journey, but not our journey.  Those ideas helped me get out of the box that UU Christianity had taken me.  UU Christianity had defined itself over and against mainstream UUism for so long that it was no longer really in the internal conversation about UUism.  As a UU Christian, I needed to come to a new understanding of Unitarian Universalism, one that was not based in mimetic rivalry.  Girard and Cupitt helped me re-imagine UUism for me as an authentic and creative response to the main trends in Christianity in the 19th and 20th century.  And because it was a creative and authentic response to the religious trends of the past, it has the potential to continue to be an authentic and creative expression of religion in the 21st century.

But as I said before, all the time that I was thinking about these things, I was leading worship at a cathedral of Unitarianism, a successful church with a theistic liturgy and the expectation of good preaching and good worship.  I did not have the problem of many of my colleagues who reported that they would get pushback from the congregation if they talked of God, sin, or prayer.

But just because I could talk in those terms (to a congregation that is as theological diverse as any) didn't mean I knew what I should be saying, or the purpose of worship.

Worship is a problem for the liberal church.  We had gone so far away from claiming any sacramental quality for worship that is no longer clear why we gathered in worship.  After all, our unofficial position was that a person was just as likely to encounter the holy walking in the woods on Sunday morning as in church.  We said that weren't really doing anything on Sunday except giving "shape to things of worth", that artful etymological dodge used to placate the humanists who thought worship was groveling at the feet of God.

UU Worship now serves our highest purpose; it has become a celebration of the religious community that sponsors it.  It exists to please that community, be a pleasurable and meaningful experience for it.  For all the changes in our worship, there is a continuity between the old "concert and a book report" to the new "happy, clappy sing-along with a personal message from the minister's heart".  Worship is designed to please the present congregation, and show it off in a favorable light.  The danger is that worship is becoming a show put on by the congregation to attract new people to join the church, so as to balance the budget.  And so, the minister is up there tap-dancing and doing card tricks to keep folks entertained.

I'd like to see us shift from celebrating the religious community present to inspiring the larger community.

We should offer inspiration to all.  We should name and invoke a spirit that has the power to move people into new understandings of themselves, and toward renewed commitments.  Worship is not to inform people, nor entertain people, or even enchant, people.  It should be to inspire people.

And worship is a service the congregation provides for the community at large.  It is not about the congregation itself.  It is about the people in the larger community and what they need to hear and experience in order to be inspired to grow in the virtues of liberality.  (Do I need to repeat my list of the virtues of liberality: reverence, self-possession, openness, solidarity, honesty, humility, generosity and gratitude.)  Worship is the collective work of the church (congregation and minister) for the benefit of the community.  It is a worship service.

To even think in those terms requires tremendous self-confidence, which we now lack.

Why we lack the confidence to imagine ourselves as consciously offering inspiration to the general public is something to look into...


  1. Thanks for this encouragement. I spoke at a UU church this morning and used your ideas to re-inspire my message!

  2. Hi Tom - love your challenging and thoughtful posts and reflections on our UU faith. Don't always agree but mostly I do! I've done some pondering on this too and a while. Back I gave a sermon called "Worship? To Whom? For What? Wondering what you'd think of it?

  3. Hello Kent !

    Thank you for the great sermon. I love the extraordinary level of detail you use. I have a response but will post some excerpts of your sermon and my reactions in a separate post.

    Hope to see you in Louisville.


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