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How To Write Your Own Worship Elements (Complete)


Opening Words

Often called a “call to worship” these words bring the congregation from their separate lives and to this common place and time of the worship hour. They are, then, both a summons and an invitation. Think of the bell of a New England meeting house—when your opening words are as clear, concise, and commanding as that, you will have succeeded. (In Unitarian Universalist worship if there are Opening Words there is generally not an Invocation, and vice versa.)


To “invoke” is to “call forth” and is traditionally associated with calling upon God. You can also think of it as invoking the spirit of your community—its vision of justice, its playful energy, or its familial feeling. Invocations can also serve to introduce the theme that you’ll be exploring in the service. (In Unitarian Universalist worship if there is an Invocation there are generally not Opening Words, and vice versa.)

Chalice Lightings

Some congregations use the chalice lighting as a time for testimonials about the meaning of the congregation in the lives of its members. Others reflect on the image of the chalice and the flame—the beacon of hope, the light of truth, the warmth of love, the container of community, and more. Why are you lighting your chalice?

Meditations and Prayers


There are, essentially, three ways to offer meditations in a worship setting. The first is to say something while people listen quietly and reflect. It should be filled with sensual images, concrete things people can experience with their senses—sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings. The purpose is to invite people to have an experience; to stop thinking and spend some time “out” of their heads.

The second type of meditation in a worship setting is a guided meditation. This involves leading the congregation on a “journey” in their imaginations by narrating where they go and what they do. You invite them to imagine themselves on a beach, for instance, and give them time to experience the sights and sounds of it. Then from the beach they go into the water, and then under the water, at each step pausing to allow people time to experience this new phase of the journey. This kind of meditation has a lot more silence in it, which can be daunting for some people, yet still has direction.

The third kind of meditation is a silent meditation. To do this you offer a few words of invitation and then ask people to sit in silence for a set period of time. You might initiate the silence by ringing a bell or chime. Most people in our culture are not used to silence, so beginning with a minute or two will be hard for some. Despite the difficulty of such silence, we also deeply crave it. Some congregations have found that silent meditations have become beloved moments in their regular services.


Few words in the liturgical lexicon are more problematic for Unitarian Universalists (UUs) than “prayer.” Some suffer near spiritual anaphylactic shock at its mere mention; others find it the right and perfect word to describe their practice. When creating prayers, it’s important to remember that UUs have no doctrinally imposed prayer forms. How, or if, they address anyone or anything, the tone, and how they end all come from the understanding of the person leading the prayer. In a communal setting, such as a worship service, it is assumed that sensitivity to the range of understandings and the traditions and practices of the community will be observed.


There are not many occassions in a typical Unitarian Universalist worship that calls for a blessing, and that is perhaps too bad. The simplest definition of a “blessing” is that it is a religious sign of approval. We could do with more of that in this world—both recognizing more things as being blessed, and recognizing ourselves as capable of blessing. A blessing, then, lifts up, honors, someone or something and calls it “good.”


Affirmations / Covenants / Doxologies

These are typically statements of belief that can be affirmed, or principles areound which the community is entering (or has already entered) into a covenenant, so care should be taken with these terms. They have meaning that should be respected. Is the affirmation that you’re writing one that the people in your congregation really can affirm? What about those who can’t (or won’t)? Sometimes a phrase like, “Will those who wish to join me in saying...” can provide space for those who disagree. The same is true if asking the congregation to join together in covenant around some issue. Take these things seriously, and always seek the counsel of others when considering these approaches.

Responsive Readings

This is a reading in which lines are alternately spoken by the reader and the congregation. The alternation can occur after sentences, phrases, or thoughts, depending on what seems appropriate. The alternation can also be between men and women, or the right side and left side of the congregation. [Generally the words of Responsive Readings are printed in the Order of Service, or bulletin, and the two parts are differentiated typographically—one part is in regular type and the other is in italics, for instance.]


This is a particular kind of liturgical responsive reading, in which the congregation’s response is the same in each instance, even though the lines spoken by the reader change. It is usually tied together thematically, that is the response sets the theme/tone of the litany and each of the changing lines links back to it. (It goes without saying, perhaps, that the litany can reflect the theme of the service as a whole.)


Many congregations say the same words each time the offering is taken, yet there is an opportunity here to reflect on just what it means to be a self-sustaining community. What is the meaning of giving? Of generosity? Of your congregation and its place in your wider community or in the lives of its members? Where does the money go? What does money mean? All of these—and more—are subjects that could be reflected on in the offering.


There is too much to say about writing sermons than could be put in a simple introduction such as this series.

A marvelous introductory text, written by the Unitarian Universalist ministers Jane Rzepka and Ken Sawyer, is Thematic Preaching (Chalice Press). Rzepka and Sawyer are lifelong Unitarian Universalists who co-taught a preaching course at Harvard Divinity School for many years. Rzepka recently retired after serving as senior minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship in Boston, and Sawyer is senior minister of the First Parish in Wayland, MA.


Closing Words

If the “opening words” called people to worship and opened the time and space for this purpose, the closing words bring the service to an end and prepare people to return home. If the service has been thematically tied together, the words can be a summation, a parting thought, a final nugget for people to reflect on throughout the week.


This comes from the Latin, to speak well or the good words, and are a final blessing on the community. Benedictions are often not thematically tied to the service but are, instead, words of comfort, strength, and encouragement for the week to come.

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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