I had just finished leading a worship service as a guest preacher. This congregation had been experiencing a gentle decline in membership over the past decade. Several congregants came up to me afterward and exclaimed, “It was wonderful how the music, the readings and the children’s story all connected to the sermon. Did you plan for that to happen?” Actually, I made sure to work with the music director, the religious educator and the worship associate to help that to happen. I casted my vision of the theme and made some suggestions, and they made other suggestions, and together we created a holistic service.
Worship is a peculiar art form, especially in Unitarian Universalist congregations. The meaning of the word is derived from the Old English weorthscipe: ‘worthiness, acknowledgment of worth.’ In our traditional style of worship, we have a sermon, which is a kind of teaching, and the liturgy, which is the form of the rest of the service. The meaning of the word liturgy is derived from the Greek lēitos ‘public’ + -ergos ‘working.’
In too many of our congregations’ worship services, there is a disconnect between the elements of the liturgy because the individuals contributing to it do not have a shared vision of the theme, or are not in alignment with the theme.
Similar to when an artist selects a palette of colors for a painting, the worship team should ensure that the elements of the liturgy blend together to achieve the desired overall effect. Having several diverse people contributing and riffing off of one another helps to create a rich experience. However, there should always be a designated leader of the team who can make the final decision when there is disagreement or lack of direction. Usually, that leader is the minister — a trained professional in Worship Arts and entrusted with “freedom of the pulpit” by the congregation.
When there is not a leader trusted with being the actual leader of worship for the congregation, or worse yet, there are factions that “control” the different elements of the Sunday service, the quality of worship suffers, and those who come for religious and/or spiritual sustenance leave unfed.
This year, the various worship services at our annual General Assembly had a much more holistic quality than they had in previous years. The reason? There was clear leadership by a worship professional who was entrusted with the authority to oversee the worship services and to ensure cohesiveness and connection to the overall theme of “Love Reaches Out.”
To me, the worship also seemed to have a deeper quality, because of the common theme and the variations on that theme that each worship service provided. (There is a movement among vibrant congregations to use monthly themes for worship, faith development classes and small group ministry for this very reason!) Reconnecting to our depth is what will help our faith bend the arc of the universe toward love and justice.
In the closing worship service, Nora Collins shared a reading from “Reimagining the American Dream”, an essay by Marilyn Sewell that captures the need for depth:
I [am] intrigued by…words often attributed to Rudolf Behro, an East German dissident: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.” I…[think] about us as Unitarian Universalists. This is who we are—we are not afraid to be insecure. We are not afraid to search, to go deeper, to find the truth, even when the truth is unpalatable. We are seekers who want to live out of that truth….
Unitarian Universalists, though few in number, can be the yeast in the loaf. However, let us be wary of the usual distractions and follies of our movement. It’s grown-up time now. We [can] no longer prioritize petty quarrels about how “religious” our language should be, conflicts between the humanists and the more spiritually inclined, or squabbles about who is in charge. The mission of the church is not to meet our needs; the mission of the church is to heal our world. It is to give ourselves to something larger than ourselves. Ironically, when we give of ourselves in this way, we find that our deepest needs are met.
Resources for Worship:
- Worship That Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists by Wayne Arnason and Kathleen Rolenz
- Come Into the Circle: Worshiping with Children by Michelle Richards
- The Shared Pulpit: A Sermon Seminar for Lay People by Erika Hewitt
- Soul Matters (monthly theme subscription)
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Leadership Development Consultant, CERG (The Central East Regional Group)