Worship That Works, General Assembly 2008

General Assembly 2008 Event 4026

Presenters: Rev. Wayne Arnason and Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, co-ministers of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, Ohio.

"Powerful worship, meaningful worship, comes out of a relationship," said Rev. Wayne Arnason, co-minister of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River, Ohio. "Without that relationship, worship is a performance."

Arnason and Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, the other co-minister of West Shore, have written a new book together titled Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists. In this presentation, they spoke about their new book and discussed ways that it can be used in congregations.

Rolenz talked about how she and Arnason, who are married, decided to write a book on worship. "We started thinking about our worship life at West Shore," she said. The worship services at West Shore consist of a typical "hymn sandwich," of the type familiar to many mainline Protestant churches. "It was as good as we could make it," she said. The two wanted to find ways to improve their worship services even more.

They decided to take a sabbatical so they could attend worship services at other churches and look for new ways of doing worship. "We were looking for what we call the 'transformational moment'," Rolenz said. "That's a moment where you're aware of being changed." They wanted to discover what conditions led to those transformational moments in worship services.

Arnason said that they were "dissatisfied with our own leadership of worship." They believed that their own dissatisfaction was part of a wider dissatisfaction among Unitarian Universalists with worship. Arnason and Rolenz believed that Unitarian Universalists have a critical need to rethink worship.

Arnason asked the audience to begin rethinking worship by considering it to be a form of spiritual practice. "When we talk about spiritual practices within Unitarian Universalism, the most common spiritual practice we have is worship," he said. "Taking that hour to worship together at least once a week... is the spiritual practice that holds us together."

Given that, Rolenz said that worship that works "has the ability to change lives."

These life-changing or transformative moments happen regularly in worship that works, Arnason added. These transformative moments can occur during any element of the worship service, from the prelude through to the benediction. Arnason said that he liked to think of worship as "holographic," where each part of a worship service holds transformative power.

"It is through participation in a worship community over time that worship transforms lives," Arnason said. Rolenz emphasized that effective worship must be part of a "covenantal relationship." They went on to provide a lengthy list of criteria for creating transformative moments in worship. They said this list is included in the second section of their book. The third section of their book includes tips and techniques for implementing effective worship.

Arnason and Rolenz then turned to a discussion of ways that their book can be used by congregations to improve worship. They suggest their book could serve as "common reading" for a worship committee. A minister could use the book "to create opportunities for adult education." Their book could also be used as a training guide for lay worship leaders or worship associates. They said that they believe their book will be useful to congregations of any size.

If a congregation decides to make changes in their worship service, Rolenz and Arnason have some advice. When they began to make changes in the worship services at their church, they told the congregation to expect a year's worth of experimentation, but during that year no changes should be considered permanent. "We also invited congregational feedback," said Rolenz, so that members of the congregation could say which changes worked for them and which did not.

When changing worship, they said it is important to be aware of congregational limitations. They said there are four forces to be aware of: the founding culture of the congregation, the size and configuration of the worship space, the worship traditions that are presently honored by the congregation, and what they call "the musical baseline."

In conclusion, Arnason reminded the audience that "worship works over time to change lives." Rolenz said, "Whatever you do [in worship], make sure you do it with excellence."

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley

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