Thinking about Worship

I have been rolling with the UU's for the last 24 years (my life has been 20 years in as a child and youth, 20 years out as a young adult and 24 years back in as a adult).  I have seen the way we think about worship go through several stages.

When I came back in 1989, it seemed that the battle over gender-specific language was coming to an end.  You could still smell the smoke; but very few shots were being fired.

The next area of concern was "Quality of Worship."  Poorly conceived, poorly executed and very secular lay-led services were not serving the faith well.  Endless, TMI-stuffed Joys and Concerns were off-putting to visitors and outsiders.  The ministers worked for more leadership over the worship service, including the services that they were not leading, with the aim of a high quality worship service every week the doors were open. J's and C's were limited to smaller churches, or converted to candle rituals.

When the anti-racism multiculturalism movement arose within UUism, it changed the thinking on worship.  Were our worship services too Protestant, too New England, too white?  In fact, was our concern for a narrow definition of "quality" actually making us more culturally isolated.  The solution was to expand our sources of readings, our kinds of stories, our music: to try to be more multi-cultural in the conduct of worship.

Multiculturalism led to a new stage of conversation about worship.  We entered in a discussion that was our own version of the traditional vs. contemporary worship polarity that had engulfed almost all of Protestantism.  We moved to a looser structure, fewer elements in the order of service, more singable music, non-classical musical sources, less traditional elements like "doxologies" and "introits".   Some called the music "happy-clappy" or "campsongs".  A younger generation of parents wanted their children to stay in worship with them, and so worship became more lively and participatory and multi-generational.

We have definitely moved toward a more contemporary style of liberal worship as time has gone by.  But, there are always new concerns.

Now, the polarity between "missional" and "attractional" understandings of worship are beginning to shape our worship thinking.  It questions the whole premise of our worship thinking for this entire period: worship services have as their purpose attracting people to join the church community.  Stated crudely, Sunday morning is a show that we put on to entice people to join the church, help us balance our budget and volunteer to be on a committee.

Really, from the concern over quality to the present moment, we have been assuming we can judge the worth of our worship by counting butts in seats.

Suppose that is not the best measure?  Have we been unthinkingly copying our rivals and models: the evangelical mega-churches who seem to be able to build whole auditoriums and fill the seats every Sunday?  We sure don't want to be like them, except that we do, but we don't, but maybe we do, loop forever.

Is there some other purpose for worship?  Some other relationship between the worshipping community, the church and the larger community?  How does worship serve a mission, especially if that mission is motivating the church as a people to leave the building and enter into more service in the community?  And for UUism, which has so many resources dedicated to Sunday morning worship, how do we leverage those resources for still developing mission?

You can see that this is going to be a rich period of conversation, study and innovation.

How do we work this one out?


  1. I'm very interested in this conversation. Another element I've observed: UU churches used to be an information source, especially about current events. When my parents were at their Unitarian church in the 50's and 60's, that was where they learned about the latest civil rights events, scientific breakthroughs, and other things.

    Because of the interwebs, people aren't getting their "news" from the pulpit. They have Twitter and Facebook for that.

    My hope is that worship can be a time for strengthening folks, "feeding" them so that they can go back into their own spheres of influence and live out our values. Hmm. Could it be I'm hearkening to a philosophy of (gulp) weekly communion?

    "We think it possible to have a Church, and even a denomination, organized, not on a creed, but on a purpose of working together. Suppose that the condition of membership was the desire and intention of getting good and doing good. The members of a church are not those who unite in order to partake the Lord’s Supper, but to do the Lord’s work. The Lord’s Supper is their refreshment after working. They come together sometimes to remember his love, and to get strength from him. Let them sit together, express their desires, confess their faults, say what they have been trying to do, where they have failed, where succeeded, and so encourage each other to run with diligence the race set before them." -- James Freeman Clarke

  2. Julio2:27 AM

    Thanks for addressing this issue. I am the Worship Committee Chair at my congregation and I've only been a UU for four years. I hear from many members that they want services to "be more spiritual", but then again if we have too much "spirit", our atheist members are displeased. I see a need to emphasize that we are a faith, not a mere social club.


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