Imagining a Unitarian Universalist Worship Service

The modern Unitarian Universalist worship service is a form, which has evolved slowly and only moderately from the protestant services conducted in New England circa 1750. The present form may not be fulfilling the potential for either impact or meaning. This essay questions the goals we are attempting to achieve in a worship service and the way we go about it. It is important to remember that natural selection does not necessarily produce the best form, only a form that has, thenceforth, survived. Given that Unitarian Universalist membership is not keeping pace with population our survival, at least as an influential movement may, in fact, be at stake. In preparation for the exercise of examining the worship service form with a Beginner’s Mind I invite the reader to let go of the reality of our customary practices around worship. As a kind of thought experiment, forget what we do on Sunday morning. Picture emptiness in your congregation’s calendar on Sunday. Let us pretend that no activities are generally scheduled for that day. Imagine you are approached by some leaders who suggest that it would good for congregational life, if some kind of plenary gathering were scheduled for each Sunday morning. Having done the difficult policy part of this, the leaders leave the implementation up to you. You have been asked to imagine the best possible form for this weekly gathering. What do you design? An initial question in the design phase of a Sunday morning congregational meeting might be, “For what purpose would we gather?” Let me provide some available responses to that question. Seven Possible Purposes Intellectual Stimulation Spiritual Grounding A Sense of Community Ritual Devotion Leadership in Justice Making Entertainment I am mindful of claims that “worship” invites us into “worth-ship” and that a worship service is properly a celebration of our highest aspirations and meanings. Worship, it is said, is the opportunity to name the worthiest aspects in our lives. But, this claim fails to shed much light on the appropriate object of worship and fails to answer the question of “how” we worship. Of course I do acknowledge that there is a fuzzy relationship between the “What” and “How” of worship. For instance, if ritual is the reason for worship, then the form of worship will naturally be ritualistic. 1

During a recent assessment in my congregation, members were asked to name their motivation for attending. The two primary answers that emerged were: (1) Intellectual / Spiritual Stimulation, and (2) a sense of Community. I suspect that the answers coming out of other congregations are similar. The first three of my Seven Possible Purposes come out of this assessment. Returning to the hypothetical task of imagining the Sunday morning experience, I would suggest that for each of my possible purposes we look at models and effective strategies. In the following chart, I try to list some of the effective ways the particular purpose has been achieved. I do not hold that my Seven Possible Purposes constitute an exclusive list of reasons to gather and this same analysis may be used with other possible purposes.

Seven Possible Purposes Intellectual Stimulation

Models College Courses / Seminars Journalism Briefing or Reports Documentaries Debates Spiritual Stimulation or Meditation Retreat Grounding Spiritual Direction Sun Ceremony A Sense of Community Barn Raising Weddings Ritual Catholic Mass Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Chalice lighting Funeral Devotion Pilgrimage Cloistered Life Leadership in Justice Habitat for Humanity (work parties) Making Political Rally Sit-Ins and Teach-Ins Entertainment Theater Dance Song Starting with this, albeit arbitrary, list of purposes it is reasonable to strategize the most effective way to achieve the purpose. The following chart lists some of the methods that have been used to achieve the stated purposes. Some, but not all of the methods are suggested by traditional models above. 2

Seven Possible Purposes Intellectual Stimulation

Spiritual Stimulation or Grounding

A Sense of Community

Ritual

Devotion

Leadership in Justice Making Entertainment

Strategies Reading lists Power Point Presentations Handouts Discussion Groups Meditation Spiritual Lessons Journaling Yoga Sharing Joys and Sorrows Communal Meals Small Group Encounters Celebration of Transitions Acknowledging Seasonal or Cyclical Events Chalice Lighting Prayer Chant Silence Justice Networking Testimonies from the Disenfranchised Political Announcements Pulpit Plays Interpretive Readings Music Movement

There are barriers or obstacles that commonly prevent the development of the strategies designed to accomplish the stated purposes. Looking at these obstacles helps to define the perceived limits of effectiveness. Seven Possible Purposes Intellectual Stimulation Obstacles Information is endless. The focus may be wide or narrow. It is one thing to listen to an overview or short perspective on a subject; but it is more demanding to work in a scholarly way, drilling down into a subject with the purpose of thoroughly understanding a given process. Intellectual progress is limited by the willingness and perhaps the ability of the parishioners to participate in the struggle for 3

Spiritual Stimulation or Grounding

A Sense of Community

Ritual

Devotion

Leadership in Justice Making

Entertainment

understanding. Many, perhaps most, Unitarian Universalists have an authentic spiritual practice, but our practices are diverse. Unless a specific spiritual practice develops out of a particular ministry, it is difficult to explore a practice to a depth that is fulfilling. A spiritual practice is also limited by the willingness and perhaps the ability of the parishioners to participate in the rigor of an authentic practice. A sense of community is secular in nature and creating a great community does not necessarily create a religious community. A religious organization should avoid organizing around a primarily secular objective. Rituals develop, but are difficult to invent. We light the chalice and conduct a flower communion, but do we have a ritual which would justify a weekly plenary gathering? The problem of diversity is apparent when it comes to devotion. To who’s God should we devote our attention? Using generic language, which allows the parishioner to translate into his or her own theology, tends to weaken the message. Some people are willing to contribute their efforts and some are willing to contribute their wealth towards social justice efforts. A hearty few contribute both effort and wealth. It is, however, risky to prioritize a theme which presupposes congregational resources. Entertainment, like a sense of community is secular in nature. Turning a worship service into “entertainment” sounds like a cheapening of the program. We are creating something important!

The obstacles mentioned above are often obstacles to our imagination rather than our programming, although, in either case, they are worth treating seriously, if only so that we may not prematurely turn away from success. I am advocating that our goal should be to create the most memorable and meaningful experience ever created in the 4

history of humankind. This has never been easier, as we have never had more needed resources and information at our fingertips. Membership in the Unitarian Universalist denomination has been steadily shrinking in relation to population. As many of us drive or bicycle to a worship service on Sunday morning we pass huge independent evangelical congregations drawing attendees by the thousands each week. We become incredulous when pressed to explain the comparative popularity of the experience in more mainstream churches. Membership levels are not exclusively dependent upon the Sunday morning experience; however it is an important time for visitors and members alike. And, if it is a time to celebrate our highest aspirations, then it deserves our utmost thoughtfulness. If we truly believe that the message delivered on Sunday morning is the most important message a person might hear, then we would likewise expect parishioners to be taking notes, there should be handouts and outlines further explaining the subject, reading lists supplied for follow-up and study groups formed to process the material. Like many others I try to visit UU congregations when I am travelling. While I have met some who are comforted by the uniformity in worship services among congregations, who feel “at home” when they encounter a service so similar to their home congregation when on the road, it seems to me that uniformity may not be our friend. I would rather walk into a distant congregation and find a new and magical expression of our faith, an utterly unpredictable unfolding of our liberal religious perspective. I am not rebuking ministers for want of quality in their sermons. I am suggesting that the traditional worship service format is limited: three hymns, two readings and one sermon. The sermons, a personal essay of about 2400 words templated around three points, two stories and one joke, are the right size and shape for some purposes, but not for others. A twenty-minute sermon is an effective vehicle for presenting an overview or introduction to some topic. This approach is consistent with our identification as a pluralistic community where privileging a particular belief system or spiritual practice would be viewed as exclusionary. The overview or theological sampler approach is also consistent with our identification as “seekers” or persons on a “spiritual journey”. Identification as a “seeker” is problematic in that the identity is lost once some anchoring truth is found. Aphorisms such as, “It’s not the destination, but the journey,” act as a normative injunction against the commitment to deep insight. Unfortunately, the traditional worship service is well suited to perpetuate the debilitating myth that we lack the capacity to recognize truth or that it would be presumptuous of us to answer the most important questions we face. One of the attractions of evangelical mega-churches is the unabashed claim that they have found something important and are willing to share it. Despite our selfidentification as “seekers”, we are in fact “finders” as well, and one of the points I wish to 5

make is that our Sunday morning experience should be designed around being finders, rather than seekers of significant truths of the human experience. I do not wish to dismiss J. L. Adams’ notion of a “Free Faith”, but the wisdom of an underlying tentativity of beliefs need not prohibit the commitment and public proclamation of what, here and now, calls to us as true. The second point I wish to make is that we should be willing to include “entertainment” as a purpose in the Sunday morning experience. Entertainment is not a religious function. Then again, while community building is a secular function, it is vitally important for a religious community. I believe that Entertainment should be seen as important for religious as well as secular presentations. The term “entertainment” is often viewed as cheap or superficial. These are the adjectives that apply when the term generates images of sit-coms, variety shows or runof-the-mill prime time television programming. However, if asked to name your favorite film or play, the answer, I suspect, will include a work of artistic merit, which produced insights into the human condition in a way, which was engaging, dramatic and memorable. “Entertainment” is not an antonym for “Authentic.” In addition to the claim that they have found an important truth, evangelical mega-churches are serious about entertainment. I hesitate to point this out, because I am certainly not suggesting that entertainment in a UU congregation look like the entertainment that happens in an evangelical mega-church. Nevertheless, I am claiming that the presentation of the Sunday morning experience in UU congregations should be entertaining. Entertainment can be serious or lighthearted, tragic or comic, emotional or conceptual. Entertainment is a way of planning a presentation by focusing on the quality of recipient’s experience. Entertainment may not make a message more important, but it can make the recipient more engaged and the message more memorable. An entertaining message can inspire people to commit their time and energy into social justice, allow people to understand the inner reality of someone very different or lead a person into a moment of ecstatic presence. Words I would like to hear in the preparation of a Sunday service include: script, choreography, lighting, improve, variety, multi-media, directed, cue, soundtrack, costume, prop, character, entrance and perhaps on occasion, even “fireworks” or “fog.” I anticipate and empathize with the ministerial response, “My time commitments and congregational duties allow for the preparation of some thirty-four sermons per year, but will not accommodate the resources required to produce such a spectacle each week.” A sermon, by its nature, is a personal essay. The kind service I am envisioning is universal, rather than individualized. Most congregations would not be able to create a “theatrical production” each week. However, the Unitarian Universalist Association might be able to arrange for the creation and dissemination of service programs. There is an economy of scale available to the UUA, if it were to undertake 6

the role of preparing scripts or writing programs for the Sunday morning experience. Certainly, UUA productions could utilize audio and video files to be incorporated as modular pieces in a service production, although this would require most congregations to update their communication technology. Furthermore, from a production standpoint, there is an economic and practical advantage for adjoining congregations to host a combined weekly event. Similarly, skeptics may suggest that even if there are scripts or other program materials available for local congregations, those congregations will not have the kind of talent demanded by my proposal. I will admit to a limited interaction with congregations other than my own, but I have yet to meet a congregation without a wealth of talent. Furthermore, whether there is any movement along the lines I have proposed, given the lay participation in the Sunday morning experience, the UUA and District services should now include training for all lay participants in public speaking, projection, timing, blocking, the use of microphones and oral interpretation of written material. If there is a weak link in my vision, it is not congregational talent but filling the role of “director.” Ultimately, I believe that the directorial function will be filled by people who grow into the role. The sermon format is more serviceable for Christian ministers whose ministry is more tightly tied to the Bible. The sermon in a literalist congregation is an annotation to an acknowledged authoritative writing. Such a sermon need not establish a context, common language or even a justification. The Unitarian Universalist sermon must take on all of these burdens before the first point is made. Our plurality requires an anchoring of every sermon to a perspective(s) and that process will take up most of the time allotted for the presentation. In the literalist church, the congregation is already grounded in a perspective and the first half of the sermon can be used to establish the problem to be solved by the concluding half. The kind of “entertainment” I am advocating is ideally suited to the presentation of the perspectival grounding, which acts as a platform for religious problem solving. Of my proposed purposes for gathering, Intellectual Stimulation, Spiritual Inspiration, Community Building and Justice Making may all be approached in a two-step analysis: “What does my (or our collective) experience mean?” and “How should I (or we) respond to the experience?” And, it just so happens that despite the drivel, superficiality and hyperbole in much of their product, the Entertainment Industry has an expertise in portraying the human experience. The people already in the pews or chairs of Unitarian Universalist congregations and the people we hope to attract have several media devices in their home each with hundreds of channels of programming and more on demand. A little navigation with a remote control or computer mouse and they are able, at any time, to watch a documentary, sit through an opera, listen to a symphony, view a film, or attend a lecture on YouTube or TED. Many can do all this on their mobile phone. We are asking these 7

people, who live in the middle of an entertainment laced information stream, to give up two to three hours of their Sunday morning for a more important experience at their local UU congregation. To our advantage, the Sunday morning experience has the added value of human contact with other members of the beloved community, but there are many other opportunities available for human interaction, so it is important to remember that a UU congregation is always competing with the other pressing priorities in the life of each congregant for her attention. I believe there is a sentiment that religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular should rise above the profane of entertainment and that a UU minister who stands and delivers a sermon, plainly and unplugged, is a living testament to honesty, genuineness and authenticity. I believe this sentiment springs from a naïve mythology and conveniently excuses the hard work of reimagining the Sunday morning experience. A plain and simple expression can evoke a sense of authenticity, but this technique is best used in contrast to more fully produced elements of the event. When a plain spoken personal essay is presented every week, there is no contrast and the evocation of authenticity is weakened. The Unitarian Universalist faith has a culture-changing message. The influence of Unitarian Universalist message depends on the efficacy of the delivery. While our message does not depend entirely on the Sunday morning experience, that time is traditionally important as an entry point for visitors and a gathering event for members. As the current stewards of our faith, we have an obligation to present our wisdom and insights in a manner most likely to engage, inspire and transform those we encounter. Increasing the entertainment value of the experience can assist in the achievement of this goal. Mike Mallory © 2010

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