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The Primacy of Worship

Just before we began our travels, we were standing on a street corner in downtown Cleveland waiting for a light to change when an elderly woman joined us and struck up a conversation. “Lovely afternoon, isn’t it?” she said, flashing a large smile. We exchanged pleasantries, and then we realized that her presence was not merely happenstance. She had zeroed in on us to talk about her church.

“I just wanted to tell you about my church. It’s the Four Square Gospel Church of East Cleveland, and I just love it and wanted to share it with you.” Her presence was so non-threatening and so positive that we took a moment to talk with her, thinking what a good sermon illustration this might make some day. “It’s the worship,” the woman whispered confidentially. “You go to worship at my church and you come out feeling like a changed person.”

We accepted one of her brochures, thanked the woman, and parted company. What was it, we wondered later, that would inspire an elderly woman to wander the streets of downtown Cleveland to pass out brochures for her church? The woman herself had answered the question: It was the experience of worship that made a difference in her life. We asked ourselves: Could the same ever be true for members of our own church?

Von Ogden Vogt, one of the greatest twentieth-century Unitarian liturgists, titled one of his books The Primacy of Worship. We too believe that worship is primary; all other activities and purposes of congregational life emerge from its worship life. We believe this is true not only regarding the institutional realities of church life, but also regarding how a congregation interprets its identity and articulates its mission. This is because the worship experience is the most important way that a church tells the story of lives transformed by participation in the free church community, and sends its members forth to tell the world that story.

Institutionally, worship is primary because without some form of regular worship service, there is no church community. You can have focus groups that talk about how to be a church. You can have lectures that offer new knowledge or prophetic engagement with the issues of the day. You can have religious education classes to teach the doctrines and values of your tradition. You can have social events and fund-raisers and parties that build community. You can have service projects and social justice demonstrations that engage people in living out their liberal religious beliefs. However, until you open the doors for public worship, no one in the world, inside our tradition or outside it, is going to identify you as a church.

During one stop on our sabbatical, we experienced worship planning that told the story of how the church community is changing lives. We visited and interviewed Rev. Ken Beldon, founding pastor of a new UU church in the Philadelphia suburbs. At this point, the church had just three things: a name (Wellsprings), an office, and a minister. As Ken described the care they were taking in creating the founding culture of the congregation, we immediately realized that he was familiar with the metaphor of congregational DNA. Church growth consultants have used the metaphor of DNA (the genetic code embodied in all our human cells) to convey the idea that a new congregation’s mission, values, and culture must be intentionally established before it begins public worship. (See “Qualities of Transformative Worship.”) Through small focus groups, the Wellsprings organizers were naming and holding up the life-transforming experiences of Unitarian Universalist community and practice that the experienced members had already undergone. They were also identifying the hungers and needs for transformation expressed by people newly attracted to these focus groups by the liberal religious message.

The plan for birthing the Wellsprings congregation involved a two-year startup process, with public worship not scheduled to open until the last half of their second year. The founding leadership of the congregation realized that holding public worship services crossed a threshold of recognition by the surrounding community as a functioning church. They did not want to cross that threshold until they were well along in creating a culture of religious community that was already making a difference in people’s lives. Wellsprings began their public worship services using a contemporary format on schedule early in 2007.

The bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association recognize the primacy of worship, listing “holding regular religious services” as the first of only three sine qua non requirements a group must satisfy to demonstrate that they are indeed a congregation. (The other two are holding an annual business meeting and keeping records of membership.) Being recognized by the Association as a church was not something that Wellsprings was anxious to schedule, however. They felt that the decision to apply for Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) membership would emerge as the right decision at the right time, a time when public worship was successfully proclaiming a life-changing message that was attracting people to join the congregation’s founders.

As far as the UUA bylaws are concerned, it doesn’t matter where you worship or whether others might recognize the space you use as sacred. It doesn’t matter what day or time you gather or whether the order of your worship has any elements rooted in Unitarian Universalist practices. Bylaws, however, are limited in what they can invoke regarding a congregation’s or a denomination’s identity.

We all know that it does matter where you worship. The key issue is not the type of building; during our travels, we attended worship services in converted Safeway stores, church basements, and elementary schools. The key issue is how the space is transformed into sacred space when it is used for worship. That change is emblematic of the transformative potential of the service that is about to happen and the tradition that it represents.

It also matters whether the worship happens at times when people can make space in their lives for it and that the culture of the local community supports as appropriate. Finally, the content matters. It matters that the worship contains elements recognizable as a Unitarian Universalist service. In the last half of the twentieth century, the use of a flaming chalice symbol, a common hymnal or body of hymns, and traditional words of covenant became the most common markers that told people they had entered a Unitarian Universalist worshipping community. The Commission on Appraisal believes that content matters, and has framed that concern in a very broad recommendation that the UUA develop new worship resources that are “theologically welcoming.” 

We believe that there is something further, something that matters even more than content, that is crucial to how a worshipping community understands itself. That something is the attitude a community brings to worship. What do they think they are doing when they attend worship services? Are they coming to find intellectual stimulation or to hear stories of lives that have been changed? Can you tell by the way they come into the space what entering into worship means to this congregation? Is transformative meaning conveyed by the way the worship leaders approach their roles? What does the order of service and how it is presented reveal about this congregation and its understanding of the religion?

In our interviews, we asked worship leaders with a wide range of theological orientations two initial questions: What is worship and why do people come to worship? For our Christian friends from traditions outside our own, the first answer was always some variation on “We come together to worship God.” Our colleagues in the liberal church offered a variety of different responses.

Rev. Earl Holt, senior minister of the predominantly Christian King’s Chapel in Boston, responded immediately: “We come together to worship the Lord! We come together to be saved.” His elucidation of the meanings of “worship the Lord” and “saved” reflected his liberal Christianity. Many more of our colleagues based their first responses on the definition found in the 1982 Commission on Common Worship (CCW) essay available on the UUA WorshipWeb Internet site. The CCW definition refers to the ancient English root of the word worship (woerscippen), which can be translated into “considering things of worth.” They said that the purpose of worship was to lift up the highest and holiest of human values. This approach was the basis for many psychological and anthropological definitions of worship that we heard. Rev. Ken Belden said that “worship is a public act of reaching into ourselves—it is a transformative act of deepening and it is leading people to a place where they want to go.” Rev. Laurel Hallman of First Unitarian Church in Dallas said that “worship is a communal ritual event with a covenanted community that both links to its past and allows for the elements of creative surprise.” Rev. Dennis Hamilton did not see much difference between psychology and spirituality: “The minister’s job is to help people be more engaged with life. We engage them with mysteries beyond words; mysteries that can only be engaged by music, metaphor and symbol.” Rev. Kendyl Gibbons warned us about the perils of seeking a common definition of worship. She said, “The purpose of worship is not to talk about the ineffable; the point is whether or not you can enact it. Enacting it may not require talking about it. That’s my goal: to seduce people into an experience [of worship] whether they understand what I’m doing or not.”

In these diverse responses lies both the promise of liberal religious worship, and the problem. Within our tradition, we are able to say: “Worship means praising, confessing, and discerning the word of God.” We are able to say: “Worship is a private transformation done in the context of corporate ceremony and ritual.” We are able to say: “Worship is when we hold up things of worth and value. It is our link to the past and a gateway to our future.” We are able to say: “No matter what our definition of worship might be, we have an embodied experience of being in worship together, and that is what is most important.”

All of these understandings have integrity within this tradition that honors the mystery of life and recognizes that what is invisible and essential to our lives can be made visible and manifest. All these understandings are available to the worship leader and worship team.

Is it a problem that we have no common understanding of what we are actually worshiping? If there is, in fact, no transcendent reality to whom all praises should flow, then is the worship service in our tradition like a house built on the shifting sands of individual or congregational theologies?

Next: The Presence of the Holy

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Last updated on Monday, April 11, 2011.

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