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The Purpose and Function of Worship

What is Worthy of Worship?

To ascribe worth, to shape things of worth—How do we know what ideals, persons, values, and concepts are indeed worthy of worship? What keeps us from falling victim to the idolatries of our day? A full discussion of these questions is beyond the scope of this essay, but it can be said that what individuals find to be worthwhile in their own experience must be tested in the context of other persons, society, and history, as well as in the innermost regions of the self. The critical tradition of Unitarian Universalism make us wary of all beliefs and forms which claim to be final or absolute. The shaping process which is worship, therefore, even though it focuses on the individual, must have a social and historical dimension if it is to be complete.

Sacramental or Dramatic Worship

Much traditional worship is viewed as a drama depicting the divine-human encounter. It is directed upward to God, inward to the individual, and outward into the worshipping community and the world at large. The Roman Catholic Mass, for example, represents in ritual form the coming of God into the human sphere. The worshiper is called to be part of the sacred event and to be transformed by it. This view of worship is sacramental. Words and actions are believed to participate in the divine reality.

Educational or Interpretive Worship

The tradition in which American Unitarianism and Universalism have their roots is Calvinism, which had an essentially educational view of worship. Its main purpose was to proclaim and interpret "the Word" to the congregation. Central were Scripture reading and the sermon, the latter being an extended interpretation of a Biblical text. The appeal was to the intellect and the will rather than the senses.

Most Unitarian Universalist worship today is educational and verbal. The "word" is no longer restricted to the Old and New Testaments, but words are still central—the word of the expert: the latest authority in psychology, sociology, or political theory—the word of the service leader who is to be agreed with, argued with, or ignored. The educational model, which is shared with most of Protestantism, is dominant even when the sermon is not central to a particular service. Most Unitarian Universalist worship is thematic, expressing a particular idea or message. Its goal is to move people, and through them, society—to help create community, justice, equality, and to widen personal horizons.

Celebratory Worship

Worship as celebration emphasizes the artistic. It attempts to reflect all of life, taking note of the realities already present in the worshipping community. Its purpose, however, is not to create community, inspire social responsibility, or teach a lesson, but is simply to reflect, to celebrate. Some would say that worship is play, with no purpose beyond itself except perhaps to offer a new aesthetic perspective on life.

Of course, worship need not be exclusively any one of these, and rarely is. There are times when we want worship to be educational. There are times when we want it to be playful or artistic. And there are times when we want it to be truly transforming, even sacramental. Common worship can meet any or all of these needs.

Next: Thematic and Liturgical Worship

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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