Add Innovation to Sunday Worship
Add Innovation to Sunday Worship

Is it worth the risk to try something new on Sunday morning?

Absolutely, says the Rev. Erika Hewitt. So do the Revs. Mark Belletini and Wayne Arnason. Hewitt, Belletini, and Arnason shared worship experiences at two workshops at General Assembly 2010 in June, and InterConnections

All three talked about ways to introduce change to worship to bring it more depth and meaning.

Including Rituals

For starters, it’s important to do rituals properly, says Belletini, minister of the First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Columbus, OH. Take the annual water service, which will be coming up this fall in many congregations. How do you make it meaningful when it can easily veer off into “Look where we went”?

Belletini has an approach that works well at Columbus. He invites those who want to participate in that service to send him information about the source of their water. Then he writes a prayer using that information and reads it as teenagers, representing the four directions, take turns pouring water into a bowl from pitchers. “We don’t use individual names,” says Belletini. “This makes clear that it is the community that is important, not what the individual did.”

Also at Columbus, the Christmas Eve service no longer includes hand-held candles, which have a tendency to drip onto chairs and carpet. “Now we have racks for the candles,” Belletini says. “At the end of the service we all light the candles and they are reflected in the skylight. The beauty of the glowing community is astonishing to everyone.”

Change doesn’t come easy, he says. “Reforming worship takes time and there is often some resistance to it.” Worship—and change—need to be carefully planned. Spontaneity is hazardous, he says. “Spontaneity that is not rehearsed really, really well is simply clumsiness and it makes everyone uncomfortable.”

Hewitt developed another ritual that works well at her church, Live Oak UU Congregation of Goleta, CA. The customary two-minute period of silent meditation sometimes is followed by a “moving body prayer.” Says Hewitt, “We ask people to gaze into their hands and see reflected back the gift they are to the world.” They are asked to be “fully present to the world with all its joys and sorrows and then release back into the world the love in their hands.”

She adds that the approximately two-minute ritual is “a very subtle way of shifting the energy in the sanctuary.” She credits the Revs. Tom Owen-Towle and Orlanda Brugnola for the inspiration.

When a lay leader at Live Oak wrote a moving homily about hands, it inspired a Thanksgiving service in which worship associates washed congregants’ hands. “People were weeping,” says Hewitt. “There was this very intense moment of appropriate intimacy. It was a lovely Sunday.”

Arnason and his wife, the Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, are coministers of West Shore UU Church in Rocky River, OH. In 2008, after visiting or interviewing leaders from more than 30 congregations of many faiths, they wrote a book, Worship That Works, about the best worship practices they had learned.

Says Arnason, ”It is vitally important that spiritual done intentionally, done with care to all of the dimensions of that practice that actually make it work and that there is a sense of accountability for it going well.” He recommends training worship associates to assist with services. West Shore has a two-year limit on worship associates so that more people can participate in planning worship.

West Shore’s water service is different each year, says Arnason. “One year we might have multiple microphones. This past year we had people write down the locations of where their water came from. I sat at a computer and entered locations, allowing slides to come up of those places. So we honored the places, but not verbally.”

An approach to Joys and Sorrows that many congregations use effectively invites members to write them into a book and then the worship leader forms a prayer or a reading from them, grouping them appropriately so that the child with a new pet does not follow the death of someone’s parent.

If some part of worship isn’t working, try something else, says Belletini. He notes that Columbus did away with its prelude because people were talking over it. “People come to church to see each other, to greet each other, to remember they are part of a community. So we decided we were not going to have a prelude.”

Some experiments require fine-tuning. Hewitt says she held two services to honor animals and pets, including a ritual to remember pets that had died. “Each time I didn’t leave enough time, or offer enough candles, not realizing that service would instantly trigger people’s instinct for ritual and for mourning. When you invite people into a deep place sometimes they will go there very eagerly and they want to linger there.

Involving People

Arnason encourages congregations to set up worship associate programs to train lay leaders to assist with and lead worship. Often, he notes, neighboring congregations have such programs and are willing to share information.

Every Sunday Belletini makes sure to include in his welcome a reference to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. And he acknowledges sorrows that are unspoken. “Every Sunday I know there is someone there with a broken heart and I don’t know about it. We have a time when we ask people to name in their hearts or aloud those whom they miss, those with whom they struggle, those whom they love, and those by whom they feel loved.”

It’s important, Belletini says, to have a policy about announcements, including which ones, if any, may be included on Sunday morning. “Learning to be tougher on that is something I’ve needed to do.” West Shore, Columbus and Live Oak all limit announcements to events happening that day.

Live Oak begins each service with a welcome from a board member that includes some form of “elevator speech,” says Hewitt. “I love that. Guests get a sense instantly of some facet of who we are.”

Every six to eight weeks at Live Oak there is “story-based worship.” Hewitt weaves a story throughout the service with the help of child and adult participants.

“It’s one way of making intergenerational worship more engaging and meaningful,” she notes. The story becomes part of each segment of worship, including prayer, music, and readings. There is no sermon on those Sundays.

Start by planning about eight weeks out, she says, in choosing actors for those services. Memorization is not required. “If the story is engaging enough no one cares if people are reading from papers in front of them. This is not a performance.” It does, however, require a great deal of preparation and intention, she reminds. “All of this is very carefully planned. This is not a jump up and join in kind of thing. We craft it very lovingly.” Live Oak also layers images and short video clips into some of its services.

Another important aspect of story-based worship is that rehearsals (generally there are two) create connections among the participants, Hewitt notes. “Religious community has become the only institution left where people of multiple generations interact as equals. You are building relationships.”

Not all stories are appropriate, she reminds. Some are too short, others too simple or too complicated. “It needs a theme that reflects our principles or our theology and that has a theme that children will remember at the end of the service.”


Hewitt has written a book, Story, Song and Spirit: Fun and Creative Worship Services for All Ages, about story-based worship. Nine story-based intergenerational services are part of the book.

The workshops presented by the Revs. Belletini, Arnason, and Hewitt at General Assembly, #2014: Worship for a New Age, and #2024: Story, Song and Spirit: Creative Worship for All Ages, are available on CD or may be downloaded to your computer at the Live Learning Center for $12 each.

Worship that Works, by the Revs. Kathleen Rolenz and Wayne Arnason, is available from the UUA Bookstore.

The Rev. Rick Koyle wrote a manual on creating a worship associates program (PDF, 63 pages), available for free here.

More resources on water services are available on the Water Ceremony/ Communion Services page and on WorshipWeb.

About the Author

  • Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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