A Recipe for Creating Village Worship
Take one theme, one flexible worship space, one or two worship leaders to be the “bread and thread,” and a few others to provide the filling. Add music and people of all ages and abilities—infants, elders, teens and toddlers, grown-ups who are parents and some who are not. Include a generous helping of meaning and more than a dash of fun. Supplies are optional.
You now have everything you need to create Village Worship, a pan-generational, experiential, “alternative” worship experience that touches spirit through movement, song, speaking (including story, poetry and personal sharing), seeing, and feeling. It is an exciting way of worshipping all together.
Village Worship began at First Parish of Sudbury about three years ago when families with young children told us that they needed something we didn’t have. Sunday morning was often their only time together as a family. They wanted to worship together, not separately in the traditional “upstairs/downstairs” model. They hesitated to bring the wee ones into the sanctuary for fear of disturbing worship. They wanted something informal, relaxed, and accessible to the whole family, oriented to heart and head and body and spirit. And they wanted it at a family-friendly time, not when someone was hungry or ready for a nap.
Village Worship evolved. Now it is offered once a month on Saturday afternoons at 4:30 pm followed by a potluck supper. It’s not just for families, either. It’s for everyone. One Saturday two elders showed up saying, “We think the Village could use some grandmothers!” It’s also become an inviting worship experience for those with challenges that make so-called “regular” services, well, a challenge—adults, teens and children with ADHD, Down’s or Tourette’s Syndrome, and the autism spectrum. In Village Worship, no one is required to sit still and be quiet! Yet, it is far from chaotic. Regulars will tell you that it’s profound and fun all at the same time. We’ve even discovered how popular it is with visitors exploring Unitarian Universalism.
Our alternative worship engages everyone. It is truly worship, not a performance or play time. It speaks its message on many different levels and in many different forms. It has a simple structure: Gathering, Welcome, Singing, Chalice Lighting, Main Message, Sharing, Closing Words, and Singing. And it’s always a collaborative effort. Begin with a theme; that’s the filling. Discern the” thread” that will tie the whole worship service together. Brainstorm how you will develop the theme through the service. Include at least three different multiple intelligences—ways of engaging the world, such as movement, music and touch.
Choose stories that are generative—wisdom stories, parables, sacred stories from world religions. Children understand them on a concrete level, while teens and adults can tease out and unravel deeper meanings. Beware of talking “down” to children or of leaving them out with language they don’t understand. “Kid-friendly” language can still cover deep concepts.
How will you make time for people to integrate the experience for themselves: a spoken or silent meditation? Maybe a movement meditation such as a labyrinth or a Sufi dance? Will people who want to have a chance to share? Will there be visual and tactile things to engage those who make meanings in these ways?
The “bread” is what opens and closes your worship; it contains the filling and completes the experience. How will the space look, feel and sound when folks arrive? Pay attention to lighting, how the room is arranged, where people will sit and how they can move. Remember, too, to keep some things at a child’s-eye level. (And, of course, make sure everything is safe!) How will it begin? How will it end—how will you bring your community together to go out into the world?
At First Parish of Sudbury we’ve learned to keep it simple. Avoid including too many disjointed elements that might give an MTV-feel. Make your pace deliberate and gentle. Choose songs that everyone can sing without sheet music. Call-and-response songs work well, as do “zipper songs,” where you change only one or two words each verse. We frequently invite members of the congregation to provide live music: a child and her violin, a teen and his cello, an adult and his guitar or her flute.
We’ve learned to get others involved in planning and leadership. After three years, volunteers now come to us suggesting ideas for Village Worship. We’ve had celebrations for Divali, Chinese New Year, and Beltane (complete with maypole dancing). And provocative topics like prison ministry and justice-related topics tied to a service project that follows the worship. We held a “Simple Gifts” Village Worship in December, followed by a gift swap that used only re-giftable items and recycled wrappings; no money changed hands. (Everyone agreed it was a lot more fun than the mall!)
This form of worship began with a different name—one that didn’t quite fit. But that changed one afternoon when a mother of a four-year-old and infant twins inspired the name “Village Worship.” There she was, at the after-worship potluck, slowly, meditatively turning in circles, arms out, softly chanting: “The village has my children. The village has my children.” Indeed, it was true. Following worship as a family, the four-year-old was playing with a friend under the watchful eye of several adults, and two other adults were gleefully holding each twin, oohing and ahhing over having babes in arms again, now that their own children were bigger. The mother’s arms were light and free to twirl. Everyone was happy. Here was a snapshot of beloved community—warm, welcoming, engaged, connected, safe, meaningful and fun. That is the essence of Village Worship.