Making Room for Spirit in Worship

By Erika Hewitt

Three photos, in a row, of a single hand with the palm visible.

Worship that’s overly predictable can also feel stale. What’s more, UU religious professionals of color, in particular, have pointed out that an unchanging, linear order of service and allegiance to time limits are both constructs of whiteness. Using the same liturgy (whose greek roots mean “the work of the people”) week after week can feel stifling and even oppressive, regardless of worship leaders’ intentions.

How might we begin to crack open our rigid worship structures, and invite a participatory spirit that leaves more space for energy and Spirit to move? One way to create room for Spirit as well as model shared ministry involves inviting voices from the congregation to read, spontaneously,* segments from a reading such as opening words.

There are at least two ways to do this: one from the pews, the other from the pulpit.

From the Pews

In your order of service (or on a video screen), print a call to worship or responsive reading in 1- to 2-sentence segments.**

You might use an introduction that sounds like this:

Our opening words this morning will be read by those who feel moved, in this moment, to share their voices. Our call to worship appears in the order of service (or on the screen) in short phrases. I will read the first section. Then we’ll wait for new voice to read the next section, and a different voice to read the next. If there’s silence or overlapping voices, that’s fine; we trust that the voices that arise are those we need to hear.

Note: because the words appear in the order of service and/or on a screen, and because several voices might chime in to read the same line, this is one of the rare circumstances in worship in which speakers don’t need a microphone.

From the Pulpit
Print your text—again, a reading broken into, say, 2-sentence sections—in a very large font (at least 20), with large margins at the bottom of the page.

Your introduction might sound like this:

Our opening words this morning—which I have printed here, large enough for most to read—will be read by several of you: anyone who feels the Spirit drawing you into speech. As we sing our opening hymn, I invite several volunteer readers to either come forward to the pulpit or, if your body won’t allow you to come to the pulpit, to raise your hand so that we can bring you a microphone. Our opening words will begin when we have four readers.

During the hymn, make sure to see whether people need a worship associate (i.e., someone other than you, who will remain on the chancel as a liturgical anchor) to bring them a microphone. Those who come forward should use the pulpit microphone.

From the Pulpit, Variation 2

If there are children of reading age in your worship services who enjoy participating in active ways—such as lighting the chalice—you can model the multigenerational nature of shared ministry by inviting several children to come forward (or to remain where they are for a microphone to be brought to them by a worship associate).

Your introduction might sound like this:

Our congregation includes people of all ages, In worship, we joyfully make room for children and youth not only to be present, but also to take part in our shared ministry. If there are any children who like to read and want to help lead our opening words, please help me. Either come forward or, if you can’t come forward, raise your hand so that [Worship Associate] can bring you the microphone to include you.

This, of course, requires that your reading be simple enough for the children reading it. You might begin the reading, and then alternate sections as each child reads (providing a friendly assist if a child struggles with a word).

The first time you try any of these, you might be met with shy silence (and no one would blame you for planting a reader ahead of time). As with anything new, these practices won’t feel natural and “normal” until you’ve done this several times—or more!

The more anxiously you can hold the space, and the more often you do this, the more the congregation will observe that the waiting-for-speakers interval—if there is one—can feel relaxed and trusting rather than something to feel anxious about.

*Spontaneous invitations to participate don't entail coercion or pressure—even mild coercion that takes the form of a worship leader’s inquisitive, sustained eye contact with an individual in the pews.

**Example: this variation of "For Five Thousand Years, Or More" by Rev. Matthew Johnson contains eight sections, and could be read by three to five people:

My predecessors, and yours, gathered together to make sense of their lives and their place in the cosmos.

Every group of people has gathered to do this. And so do we.

We gather this morning to make sense of ourselves and this universe in which we live, as best we are able.

As we gather, we invoke the power and wonder of life itself—that power, which is always with us, but which we sometimes forget about.

We forget that we are stardust. We forget that we are capable of miracles, first among them, that we can love.

We forget these things, so we invoke the power of existence to remember.

For countless generations we have done this. In many tongues, in many ways, we have done this.

We continue that tradition today. Let us worship together.

About the Author

Erika Hewitt

Rev. Erika Hewitt (she/her) serves as the Minister of Worship Arts for the Unitarian Universalist Association. She also spends time on the road as a guest preacher, worship consultant, and wedding officiant....

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