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Nothing New Under the Sun: Worship That Works

It was a sunny Sunday morning, the first we would experience on our sabbatical journey. We had just emerged from the subway on New York City’s Upper West Side, and we were searching for one of the cathedrals of American Protestantism, The Riverside Church. Down a side street, we spotted the spire of a massive Gothic structure that stood out against the glass and chrome of nearby buildings. We entered the narthex and found our way to the sanctuary just in time for the grand processional to begin.

The Riverside Church is one of the most renowned pulpits in America. The church was built between 1926 and 1930 during the ministry of Harry Emerson Fosdick. More recently, William Sloane Coffin and James Forbes served the church. The service offered us some of the best quality Protestant worship we’d ever experienced. It was not particularly innovative: no big screens, no PowerPoint presentations, no pop-rock songs. The color and pageantry in the service was provided by the banners in the processional representing the church’s ministries, the choir’s beautiful robes and voices, the magnificent organ, and the vivid illustrations within the sermon. In its embrace of the great traditions of Protestant liturgy, done with excellence and grandeur, the service at Riverside was unsurpassable. We came away knowing we had been to church.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” laments the poet in Ecclesiastes. When it comes to worship, there are many who would say, “That’s fine with me!” Indeed, there may be no field of study where this lament seems more appropriate. Rooted in profound human experiences of awe, wonder, fear, and family, the impulse to worship is an original response to finding ourselves alive. Worship as devotion, as storytelling, as metaphorical ritual, and as a response to the mystery of life has played its role in human communities through rites, liturgical forms, and traditions. Almost by definition, the first thing most participants in worship come searching for is the ancient, the familiar, the experience outside of time.

We also come in search of transformation: from daily experience to transcendent experience; from our ordinary seeing to extraordinary vision; from our routine life to unpredictable meanings.

The tensions between the desires for the familiar and the transformative require that our worship be open to change. It can be argued that in North American Catholic and Protestant worship there has been more widespread and accelerated innovation during the last half of the twentieth century than in any century since the Protestant Reformation. Two of the most obvious worship innovations include the Vatican II (1962 – 1965) decision to offer Catholic Mass in the vernacular and the widespread adoption of technologically sophisticated seeker services during the 1980s and 1990s by evangelical congregations. Now the emergent church movement is offering fresh creativity, transforming evangelical worship. Christian worship, which had seen very little new under the sun for generations, is suddenly open to many new possibilities.

These possibilities, however, have had little impact in the free congregations that inherited the Radical Reformation traditions of worship. Among the liberal religions, Unitarian Universalism has come away curiously untouched by this revolution, despite the absence of a central authority.

There is certainly a story to be told of twentieth-century creativity in worship within Unitarian Universalism. The time period began with older Protestant Christian worship forms dominant in our congregations. The decision to be radically noncreedal opened up possibilities for worship life that our ancestors could not have imagined: scripture texts from non-Christian religions; a communion ritual based on flowers or water; hymnody rooted in a humanist theology; earth-centered rituals inserted into a Protestant order of service. Although these innovations became an accepted part of Unitarian Universalist tradition, the overall form of worship in most of our congregations did not change much. The seventeenth-century Puritan Protestant order of worship still dominates our congregations, even those that have stripped away the Christian and theistic sources behind these forms.

Is that a problem? This style of worship is rooted in our culture. At its best, it has all the elements of timeless familiarity that most people want, with enough room for innovative forms that speak to changing values and keep the possibility of transformative power fresh. At its worst, this style of worship is highly intellectual, disembodied, and elitist, locked within a seventeenth-century European cultural ghetto.

Because this has also been true of many mainline Protestant traditions, and because Unitarian Universalism has seen modest benefits in membership from the mainline decline and the ongoing Catholic defections, we have been complacent and sometimes even militant about avoiding recent innovations in worship.

Our members and ministers often decry the hi-tech approach of the evangelicals, viewing it as one more sign of the fundamentalist climate in which we live. We flip past channels that broadcast megachurch arena preachers, and we rarely experience them firsthand. Few of us keep up with the literature of worship or with current developments in worship life in mainline Protestant or evangelical congregations that are kin to us. For clergy especially, the weekly challenge of engaging with the culture and traditions of worship in our congregations, as well as the creative process of sermon and service preparation, makes us the worship experts in our congregations. Our expertise, however, is too often the expertise of a thousand details. It is difficult to engage our congregations in owning a broad vision of why we worship.

In the 2005 report of the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association, entitled “Engaging Our Theological Diversity,” the commissioners commented: “Few laypersons and equally few ministers are adequately prepared to plan worship that is inviting and acceptable to UUs of all theological stripes without reducing worship to the least common denominator in a way that leaves everyone in attendance unoffended but also unfulfilled.”

When worship life becomes a focus for conflict in a congregation, it is usually about the details. What kinds of music are acceptable? Do lay-led services have to have the same form as minister-led services? Do we have responsive readings, a talk-back, or Joys and Concerns? Should we have two services, and if so, should they be the same or different? When we experience such conflicts, we are often surprised to find out how much our members really do care. We become aware that the conversation needs to shift from whether our worship should ever change to how we can best use our resources to ensure healthy change

Next: The Primacy of Worship

For more information contact worshipweb @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 9, 2012.

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