Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: The New UU: A Program for Welcoming Newcomers to Unitarian Universalist Congregations

Leader Resource 2: Elements of Worship

Part of The New UU

  • If you light a chalice in worship, who lights it? How are they selected? Is the chalice extinguished as part of the service? To learn more about the chalice, refer to the Beliefs section of the UUA website.
  • If a covenant or affirmation is read or sung in unison, where did it come from? How is it meaningful to the congregation? If your affirmation comes from the hymnbook, consult Between the Lines: Sources for Singing the Living Tradition, to learn about its origins.
  • What musical elements are common to your service? What function do they have? Generally, singing together broadens participation in the service, helps the congregation feel more connected, and touches the emotions. Special music, either instrumental or choral, also invites emotional movement. It can encourage reflection, bringing the mood to stillness and centering or it can raise energy.
  • How do readings relate to the sermon and other parts of the service? In most Christian churches, readings are drawn exclusively, or largely, from Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Jewish synagogues rely on the Tanakh as a primary source of readings. In contrast, Unitarian Universalists hear a wide variety of readings, because we draw from so many different sources. If your congregation has a particular pattern of how readings are chosen (for example, an ancient and a modern reading), include this in your discussion.
  • Do you share Joys and Concerns? If so, what are the expectations for what is shared and what is not shared? How do these expectations relate to building community? How are Joys and Concerns integrated into the life of the community? For example, do ministers or lay leaders follow up about certain kinds of concerns?
  • Is meditation or prayer part of your worship? For many Unitarian Universalists, meditation is a practice of quieting the self, while prayer articulates what is closest to the heart, like gratitude, need, regret, or concern. In either case, a deity may or may not be involved. If silence is part of your regular service, invite people to share how they use that silence.
  • Are there other elements of congregational participation? Do you have lay liturgists or lay participants? How are they selected and trained?
  • How and when do children participate in worship? Many congregations include children so they can learn how to worship along with the congregation. Often, stories are told while children are there; such narratives provide grounding for both children and adults.
  • What are your practices around collection of the offering? Twentieth-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams called the offering the one sacrament of the free church. Each congregation supports itself, so the offering symbolizes the ownership of the congregation by its members. Giving allows us to support our values.
  • The sermon is central to our tradition of learned clergy. Unitarian Universalist ministers are not expected to convey a particular set of truths, but rather are free to preach the truth as they perceive it (freedom of the pulpit).However, parishioners are not expected to accept that truth per se, but to understand the minister's words as a particular lens on the truth, and to use that view to inform their own (freedom of the pew). Sermons often are part of a conversation among ministers and members that illuminate our evolving understandings of life.
  • Are there any other parts of the service that need elaboration or explanation?
  • What is different for special services? What are holiday service traditions? Multigenerational service practices? What happens differently when there is a guest speaker, either clergy or lay? Affirm the UU practice of support for lay involvement; while we demonstrate respect for clergy through rituals like ordination, we also recognize that all—ordained or lay—have gifts to share.
  • Do services vary during the summer? How?
  • What are the rites of passage observed by your congregation? Unitarian Universalist rites of passage reflect the centrality of the personal experience of the individuals involved. You may want to note:

    • Memorial services, celebrating the lives of the departed
    • Dedications, welcoming new life in our midst
    • Weddings, recognizing the commitment of individuals to one another without regard for sexual orientation
    • Coming of age (at which age?) which recognizes a youth's assumption of responsibility for their own spiritual, moral, and religious journey and growth
    • Bridging, which marks the passage from youth to adulthood.