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Worship is a Human Activity

Though it is often defined as reverence given to a divine being or power, worship need not have supernatural implications. The origin of the word "worship" is in the Old English weorthscippen, meaning to ascribe worth to something, to shape things of worth. We worship, then, whenever we ascribe worth to some value, idea, object, person, experience, attitude, or activity—or whenever we give form or shape to that which we have already found to be of worth.

A Worship Experience Can Occur at any Time

While one is alone or part of a group. Whenever something beautiful is perceived; whenever there is a deep sense of connectedness with other persons, with the natural world, or with the transcendent (however defined); whenever one gains insight or a new sense of wholeness; whenever one perceives an ethical challenge; whenever life is deliberately focused or ordered—in all these situations one is worshipping.

Common Worship

Most studies of religious experience have focused on the individual. The work of Abraham Maslow on "peak experiences" has attracted the attention of many Unitarian Universalists. Maslow however, did not deal with the collective dimension of these experiences of meaning. In fact, he questioned whether peak experiences could be created or cultivated. To him they seem spontaneous, totally unplanned.

Creating Worship

When we gather together for worship, however, we are making the assumption that we can create some kind of common experience. Common worship is a deliberate shaping, ordering, or recalling of the things of worth which we experience individually at various moments in our lives. This shaping is done in the context of a community of persons who share common values, ideas, and attitudes.

Narrowness and Breadth

No matter how many values and ideas we share, however, few of us are at the same place in life either cognitively or emotionally. Each of us is in process. It would be easy to shape a worship service that lacked the breadth, imagination, and evocative power that a varied and intergenerational community needs. That liturgy would no doubt satisfy a few of us who happened to be at the same place in life, sharing the same age, sentiment, economic class, social status, or theological viewpoint. We could put together a liturgy that in its clear-cut rationality excludes everything beyond our present range of appreciation and understanding. We could exclude humanists or theists, traditionalists or modernists, Socialists or Republicans, and end up with a righteous remnant of two or three.

Institutions for Intergenerational Encounter

But of course we are committed to a structure of experience on Sunday morning that goes beyond our differences in age, sex, politics, attitudes and lifestyle, that embraces the greatest compatible contrasts that we can manage. Our commitment is based on our belief that our religious societies are unique institutions for intergenerational encounter and upon our belief that all of us need to be reminded constantly of worlds of vision beyond our present ones.

The Size of Worship

A worship service serious about moving beyond narrowness and narcissism must have what Bernard Loomer calls "size." A worship service must be large enough to take in and integrate the diversity of our small perspectives and reorder them in light of a larger community and wholeness. A worship service that appeals only to the young, or to the old, or to the successful, or to iconoclasts, or to traditionalists, or to any other particular segment, is a service without SIZE—without that larger integrity that stretches and restores and renews our own. If you find parts of the service not speaking to your needs, say Alleluia. It may mean that your neighbor is being spoken to in the depths, and it may mean that there is more in store for you as your needs change in the unfolding years.

Only a very large liturgy can speak to us for a lifetime.

Next: The Purpose and Function of Worship

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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