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Top Ten Things You Can Do to Improve Worship in Your Congregation
It is clear that the single event in the life of most congregations that brings the community together like no other is the weekly worship service. For some people it is their only contact with the congregations; for most others it is the touchstone. What, then, can we do to deepen the experience of worship?
What follows is a list of ten things you can do right away which will improve the worship life of your congregation. The first five are suggestions for the worship leaders—encouragements to attend to your own needs for spiritual nurture so that you can more effectively nurture those needs within the worshiping community. The last five tips are more specific things to keep in mind while planning and facilitating worship. (Note: none of these require rearranging your seating our buying new equipment!)
- Nurture A Collaborative Relationship Between Worship Leader and Music Professional. Music is such an essential element of a fully engaging worship service yet it is often less than fully integrated, relegated to the sidelines. Strive to have close and collaborative communication between the clergy person or lay leader and the music professional during the development of a service so that both can bring their expertise to the table. (And for goodness’ sake encourage and support your congregation’s Music Professional to be a member in the Unitarian Universalist Musician’s Network—a really wonderful resource and professional organization.)
- Tend Your Own Spiritual Garden. There is an old Zen saying that if you study the sutras in great detail you will have fodder for many sermons, but if you don’t meditate the light of your lamp will inevitably go out. Whatever it is that creates a taproot for you into the depths and heights of life, practice it regularly. Make this a priority.
- Play. Perhaps this is a reiteration of the previous tip, but if what we do is, as it has been called, “the celebration of life,” then those who facilitate our worship should be well acquainted first-hand with the art and practice of celebration. Do things that you really enjoy. Find or create opportunities to revel. Laugh often.
- Read Poetry and Novels. If you are privileged to create and facilitate worship in your congregation it is important to be soaked in language. (Ours is indeed a literary tradition!) Even if—and, perhaps, especially if—you aren’t looking for source materials you should engage with a wide variety of poets and novelists. Drink in the way writers use words to paint pictures and evoke feelings and then try to do more of it yourself.
- Expand Your Relationship with the Arts. Expose yourself to music with which you’re unfamiliar. Go to art galleries and museums and don’t always go straight to your favorites. Watch “art” films. Even though our primary media are words and music, each of the arts has its own ways of teaching us how to pass “life through the fire of thought” (as St. Ralph described the goal of a sermon.)
- Let the Children Come. Look for ways that the children of your congregation can be truly present in the sanctuary—even if it’s only for part of the time—appreciating the unique gifts they bring as children. (Don’t try to make them little adults!) This will, of course, require the same kind of collaborative partnership with the DRE as has been built between the Worship Leader and Music Professional.
- Offer Variety in Music and Word. Remember that people come through our doors each week with enormous joys and sorrows; no two people are in the same place. Remember this spectrum and strive to feed them—ask yourself, “if a person with a new cancer diagnosis comes and sits in the back row next to someone beaming from the birth of their first grandchild, will our worship speak to both of them somewhere during the hour?”
- Make Sure There’s Something to Learn By Heart. Repeating something until it is learned by rote is no longer held up as sound pedagogy, yet learning something by heart can be profoundly powerful. A unison affirmation, a phrase at the chalice lighting, a song sung week after week, a communal benediction can stay with people and carry over into the week.
- Watch Your Language. Do you use code words? Do you have worship traditions that would leave a newcomer baffled? Are you striving to bring people in, or speaking to those already there?
- Strive for Excellence. Remember that people got out of bed for this and had lots of other choices; don't settle for less than the best. (This doesn’t mean, of course, to get caught up in perfectionism. It does mean that you should strive to be intentional, deliberate, and exacting with each element of the service.)
An eleventh suggestion (doesn’t every top ten list need one?) is to get in the habit of sharing—what’s working, what’s not, your dreams, your discoveries—with you colleagues and companions on this journey. If you have anything to share with me, I’m always eager to hear...
Erik Walker Wikstrom,
Worship and Music Resources Director
Note: many thanks to the Rev. Gary Smith (Senior Minister at the First Parish in Concord, MA) for his input on this article.