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The Role of Culture and Tradition: Worship That Works

Early in our travels, we stopped for a couple of days to visit with colleagues in Maryland. Sitting in a coffee shop outside of Adelphia, they asked whether we planned to primarily visit Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches. We explained that we would be visiting some UU churches, but we were also looking for services that were more cutting edge.

Our colleagues looked at us with wry amusement. “Good luck,” said one of them, as he picked up his guitar, heading off to church to practice music for Sunday with other church members, “but I think you’ll be surprised to discover that we UUs are actually one of the more liturgically innovative denominations out there.”

His comment stayed with us, and every time we attended church in a UU congregation new to us, we realized that we needed to ask ourselves (with as little prejudgment as possible): Where did this church’s worship life come from? How had it transformed its participants’ lives for the better? What would a cutting-edge innovation for this church look like and would it make the experience better?

We had assumed, and quickly confirmed, that compared to evangelical churches, most of our congregations do not offer as many dimensions in the range of worship opportunities. Often we provide a one-dimensional experience: a single service that has to fit all ages, sizes, and cultural preferences. Most of our worship elements engage one locus of religious understanding—the mind—and only minimally touch the body, the heart, and the spirit. One kind of music has, until recently, been predominant: classical, rather than jazz, folk, pop, or rock. Our worship relies on one sensory mode—sound—rather than sight, smell, or touch. This is not to say that one-dimensional worship is inevitably bad, or that we didn’t find other traditions with a one-dimensional approach; we did, although they may operate from a different baseline of religious understanding, music, and sensory stimuli than we do. However, whatever the baseline of its elements might be, one-dimensional worship is worship that fails to live up to its full potential.

There are important reasons why our UU worship life remains one-dimensional. Nearly half of our congregations have under one hundred attending worship and almost a third are lay led. More than half the congregations that have ministers are “pastoral-sized” churches (between 50 and 150 members), led by an older, humanist-oriented membership with inherent conservative tendencies when it comes to moving beyond sermon-centered worship with a classical music baseline. Sermon-centered worship is in our DNA as a religious movement with its roots in the Puritan congregational tradition.

These observations about our church suggest that the dimensions of worship—the ability of the service to engage mind, heart, body, and spirit, to touch all the senses, to appeal to diverse generations and cultures—arise from something beyond the will and creativity of the worship leader. We believe that there are four dynamic forces that influence how a congregation worships, and these forces are often beyond the control of the worship leaders to directly influence in a short period of time. They include the founding culture of the congregation, the worship traditions the church embraces or respects, the musical baseline that the church accepts as normative for worship, and the size of the space available for worship.

Of these four, the founding culture is the most difficult to describe because it can be a unique and subtle aspect to identify and track over time. It’s a big component of a congregation’s DNA. (See “Qualities of Transformative Worship.”) Before we visited Saddleback Community Church, we read The Purpose-Driven Church, the best-selling book written by their founding pastor Rick Warren. We recognized that this congregation was a brand-new entrepreneurial start with its founding pastor and culture still intact and extremely visible. This visibility has made a tremendous difference in its ability to create an innovative worship model that has transformed its members’ lives and the shape of American worship.

Even though Pastor Warren defined and controlled the founding culture of Saddleback, he is also a product of a Southern Baptist tradition that believes that the preached word of God as expressed in the Bible is the heart of the worship experience. This is a particular tradition of worship, which (despite its innovations) the Saddleback service respected and embodied. Within the diversity of worship experiences they offered each weekend, all participants heard the same sermon video-feed to their worship venue.

One of Saddleback’s primary insights was that people might be attracted to come to church in greater numbers if they heard the kind of music they enjoy listening to on their drive to work. Warren redefined the baseline for church music, realizing that the musical style of a worship service has a crucial influence on its feel.

Finally, as Saddleback grew in size, the congregation was able to adapt technology to accommodate the largest worship service they wanted, and at the same time re-create smaller venues to accommodate the various cultural niches in their larger congregation.

The four forces that influence worship are important in understanding not only the largest, most innovative evangelical congregations, but also the smallest and most traditional congregations. In Jacksonville, Florida, Kathleen visited a Haitian Baptist church that was founded about the same time as Saddleback, but was quite different. This church respected some of the same Baptist worship traditions that influenced Saddleback’s services. The center of their worship was the preached word of God revealed in the Bible; they also shared similar understandings of the meaning of the Christian message. However, the founding culture of this congregation, rooted in the experience of Haitian immigrants to Florida, was quite different from the culture of the Southern California suburban founders of Saddleback. The music they brought with them and the ways they played and sang created a different baseline. The economic resources available to this congregation to build a church that could house their worship could not match the resources of the Saddleback members. As a result, these two Christian services felt very different.

We see these same kinds of differences in the worship styles of Unitarian Universalist congregations, even those that share the same geographic region. These differences have to do with the ways the four forces interact. During our visit to Dallas, we learned about two neighboring UU congregations with different worship styles: Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church, now in Carrolton, and Pathways Church, now in Southlake, Texas. These congregations shared certain traditions of UU congregational worship, and they both shared some of the same founding culture associated with First Unitarian Church in Dallas and the northern suburbs of the Dallas area. They both had a single lead minister who influenced the founding culture of the congregation. Their worship experiences were different, however, because of some key distinctions. Horizon began as a lay-led congregation and had its first year of services without a settled minister. Pathways opened as a minister-led congregation. The congregations had different musical baselines. Horizon was influenced by the interests and skills of its first settled minister, Rev. Dennis Hamilton, to offer music that went beyond traditional UU hymnody to include bluegrass, folk, and gospel. Pathways’ first minister, Rev. Anthony David, wanted from the beginning to try electric music as the congregation’s baseline, with original UU praise songs and inclusive praise music from other sources. Horizon began slowly, adapting its worship style to the shopping mall space it rented for seven years before its members were able to build their own worship space. Pathways had a vision of growing quickly and wanted to try the style of worship that works for larger congregations. However, the rented space they acquired was not well suited to that model of service. The forces came together differently in these two neighboring congregations to create some of the conditions of worship culture that a minister or worship leader must work with.

Neither Horizon nor Pathways had any desire to re-create the worship service style at their founding congregation, First Unitarian Church of Dallas. They each offered a recognizable UU service that was nonetheless unique. If these two suburban congregations were to experience a growth curve that led them towards the size of First Unitarian Church of Dallas (over one thousand members) their founding cultures, the traditions they had developed, their musical baselines, and the changes of population in the suburbs they served would all influence how their worship evolved to fill larger worship spaces.

Despite their differences, an element these two neighboring congregations shared was the belief that worship is primary to the purpose of congregational life, and that worship is the central spiritual practice that Unitarian Universalist congregations offer their members. These were both critical components of their philosophy and strategy for growth. They are what our most vibrant and successful congregations have in common with the megachurches and the new emergent churches that are evolving in counterpoint to these large evangelical congregations.

Next: The Emergent Church

For more information contact worshipweb @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, August 9, 2012.

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