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Visions and Challenges: Worship That Works

On the last day of our sabbatical, we watched a beautiful winter sunset from the balcony surrounding the education building at Saddleback Community Church in Southern California. We were at the church that probably best represented the gap between our Unitarian Universalist (UU) worship practices and those of the liberal and evangelical Protestant congregations now attracting new members of diverse generations and cultures at a much faster pace than our congregations. Saddleback has as many as fifteen different worship experiences to choose from over the course of every three-day weekend of services. We had just attended their anchor service in the sanctuary, a worship experience using the order of service that has redefined evangelical worship: power-pop praise songs, a simple liturgy focusing on prayer, and a long sermon with memorable hooks and visual aids. Despite the high energy and strong congregational response, we found it boring.

We wondered whether that was the source of the gap we had been noticing between UU and contemporary Protestant worship. Perhaps people attracted to Unitarian Universalism are a different breed from those who attend these huge evangelical churches. Perhaps we are so smart, sophisticated, and self-assured that we don’t fall for the worship style these churches seem to use so successfully.

We decided that before we left the Saddleback campus we would check out one of the other services being offered that evening, the Ohana service, which featured hula. It grabbed our attention when we first read the signboard listing the worship choices. A little cynical and somewhat jaded, we headed over to the tent that would soon host the service; maybe there would be someone setting up who could tell us what hula worship was all about.

We found a lovely Hawaiian woman who was more than happy to tell us why Saddleback had the Ohana service. There were Hawaiian members of Saddleback Church who felt that their lives had been transformed by their encounter with the congregation and its message. A significant population of Hawaiians in the region might be attracted to a service that reflects the sacred musical and dance traditions of their culture. The Hawaiian members did not want to miss the message that was heard in the main sanctuary, but they wanted the intimacy of a worshiping community that reflected their heritage. So they offer a videocast of the same sermon heard in the main worship hall that day, framed by the music and cultural traditions of Hawaii.

A driving force behind the growth explosion in conservative churches over the past thirty years has been the small-group ministry movement, through which large churches re-create the intimate atmosphere of small congregations. Most successful large and growing congregations in North America have followed the same formula with their worship offerings, and the Ohana service was one example. Members of Saddleback, with a congregation of more than fifteen thousand, could choose from the same-sized weekly worship services, classes, and small-group experiences available to a congregation of three hundred people, all of whom come from the same cultural niche.

Saddleback had separate services for those who liked their worship loud, for those who liked more singing than sermon, for singles, for younger adults, for people who wanted passionate praise in a service, for Spanish speakers, for Hawaiian Islanders, and yes, for those who preferred traditional worship and hymns. What these congregants all had in common is that they had found the worship life and message of the church transformational in their lives.

We thought about what our congregation would look like if our model for worship incorporated some of the best designs we had encountered in our travels. Our newsletter might say:

  • This Sunday at West Shore Church the worship team led by Revs. Kathleen Rolenz and Wayne Arnason will lead three services, at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 11:11 a.m. The 9 a.m. service in Baker Hall is intergenerational and features the Free Spirit Band, worship stations, and an interactive sermon on this month’s theme. It will be followed by church school for all ages, and our morning forum and breakfast during the ten o’clock hour.
  • The eleven o’clock traditional service is in the sanctuary and features our organist, classical musicians, and choir, with longer periods of silent meditation and prayer and a sermon on this month’s theme informed by the modern and ancient scriptures of humanity. The 11:11 service features the Free Spirit Band, leading our Creation Spirituality service in the round in Baker Hall. Our second session of church school is available during the eleven o’clock hour.
  • Worship opportunities during the week include our weekly Wednesday evening Vespers featuring Taize chant, our monthly first Thursday UU Christian Fellowship service with communion, our second Saturday night Earth Spirit service, and our weekly Buddhist sitting group on Tuesdays, with a preceding full Soto chant service on the last Tuesday of each month.

This is an achievable vision for us, based in the cultural communities and worship preferences already present in our particular congregation, but as of 2007, we are not there yet. It’s a vision that a few Unitarian Universalist congregations are on their way to realizing, in their own distinct way. If we could develop a worship life this rich and diverse, it would simply mean that we were catching up with the twenty-first-century style and variety of worship offerings already available in hundreds of vital mainline Protestant and evangelical congregations of diverse sizes

Next: Nothing New Under the Sun

For more information contact worshipweb @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 9, 2012.

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