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Worship Elements Explained

What's the Purpose in Worship?

Worship doesn't serve a single, static purpose (nor does the wise worship leader aim for just one.) Whether it's on Sunday morning in a sanctuary or in a small group in someone's home, our people arrive for worship for many reasons: they long to be inspired, comforted, changed, opened, challenged, loved, forgiven, lifted up, seen, connected, or filled with wonder (among other needs).

By weaving together different components, a worship service serves the whole—the common good—and offers a shared emotional experience. Each worship component has its own relational purpose: a particular reason for connecting us to one another and That Which Is Larger Than Us.

Many Unitarian Universalist worship services, each in its own way, follow this general outline:

  • Arriving or Gathering
  • Connecting to One Another, Our Community, Our Tradition
  • Receiving "The Word" (what Von Ogden Vogt called "Declaring the Possibilities")
  • Responding to Life's Gifts or Returning to the Service of Life

Worship has a shape and a flow; its pieces are connected, and the transitions are as important as each component. As worship leader, you get to decide how and when energy will shift from big and bold to powerfully quiet (although the wise worship leader also responds and follows if those in worship—or Spirit—has other plans).

Consider how you might choose and connect from the following worship components:

Opening Words

Often called a “call to worship,” these words are both a summons and an invitation. They bring the congregation from their separate lives and to this common place and time of the worship hour.


To “invoke” is to “call forth” and is traditionally associated with calling upon the Holy. 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

In some congregations, everyone gathered reads chalice lighting words in unison; in others, a single voice speaks the chalice into light, or even offers a testimonial about their faith or our Unitarian Universalist tradition. 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?


Affirmations / Covenants / Doxologies

Many of our Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations have unique covenants or affirmations that, when read aloud, serve to remind the community of their shared values and/or aspirations. Sometimes a phrase like, “Will those who wish to join me in saying...” can provide space for those who are new or otherwise learning what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Responsive Readings

In addition to lines being alternately spoken by the reader and the congregation, responsive readings can be shared "antiphonally," alternating between 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.


When inviting the generous sharing of resources, there's an opportunity to reflect on 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.

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.


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.”


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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