What’s the point?

Since not everyone has been to one or is familiar with the concept of a “contemporary” worship service, I should probably define some terms and assumptions.

Contemporary worship is about lowering barriers, allowing newcomers to immediately feel integrated into the flow of worship without having to decipher the language, musical style or ritual. Contemporary worship does not require a change in theology or rejection of our heritage. It just asks us to act a bit differently – to get out of our rut and focus outwards instead of tending our comfort zones – in order that seekers feel comfortable when they first join our worship.

We have to be open to different ways of worship, in order to be open to people with different needs and expectations of worship.

Obviously, this is about growth. And, since our numbers have fallen by 50% since 1960 (as a percentage of the population), we should be concerned about growth. If we were to double the number of UUs tomorrow, we would only catch up to where we were 50 years ago. Meanwhile, there are around 150,000 UUs on the membership rolls of US churches, yet a 2001 study showed over 600,000 people self-identifying as UUs. (1) What?

In the summer 2010 issue, UU World had a special section on whether we should, could, or want to change – in the interest of growth – in response to the two major articles in the previous issue. (2, 3) In case we haven’t all read the memo yet, this is important stuff. And worship styles certainly play a major role in who feels welcomed and who feels like a skunk at a garden party.

If you walked into your UU congregation for the first time next Sunday, having never been in a UU service (or any Protestant worship) before, would you feel completely comfortable that you knew what was happening, what was expected, what you would get and give in it?

I will even go out on a limb and offer a quick test of openness to newcomers: if you feel completely comfortable with the music, atmosphere, liturgy and message for four weeks in a row, your congregation is unwittingly turning away people seeking a spiritual home. We don’t want our message to be “if you don’t get it the first time you come, you probably won’t be comfortable here”.

And that is what “contemporary” worship is all about.


1. Higgins, Richard. “Three In A Thousand”. In UU World (Summer 2008). http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/108007.shtml

2. UU World (Summer 2010). http://www.uuworld.org/issues/summer2010.shtml

3. Rason, Paul “Can Unitarianism Universalism Change?” and Rosemary Bray McNatt “Unitarianism Universalism Must Change”. UU World (Spring 2010) http://www.uuworld.org/issues/spring2010.shtml


About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
This entry was posted in contemporary worship. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What’s the point?

  1. I posted a link to this on Facebook, with the tag line “Here’s why I (we!) care about revising our worship style: the old comfortable ways have netted us a 50% decline in membership over the last 50 years.”

    My friend Kathleen responded with “What percent decline have all organized religions had in the last 50 years?”

    My reply, based on Michael Durrall’s The Almost Church Revitalized and Wikipedia:
    The “mainline protestant” denominations have actually declined in real numbers, while UUs have retained the same numbers (against a 100% population growth) during the last 50 years. So, if you want to count being less unsuccessful as a success, we win!
    Meanwhile, it’s estimated that over 20,000 “contemporary non-denominational” Christian congregations have been established in the last 25 years. So, overall Christian numbers are growing, while the “traditional” denominations (of which UUs are considered a part) are losing. Maybe we’re not winning, after all.

  2. I love to experience a variety of worship styles. If my congregation were to offer a “contemporary” worship, I would want to attend that in addition to the other one. Or maybe I would prefer it. During the Opening Celebration at GA in Minneapolis, I had a transcendent experience during Peter Mayer’s “Earth Rising” song. I was on my feet, hands in the air, full of light, oneness and pure joy. Had the same experience during the anthem “Can You Hear Me? during the Sunday morning worship service.
    I’ve very rarely been ecstatically joyful during a service at my home congregation. It is not okay to jump up, hands in the air, and sway back and forth at First Unitarian of Madison, WI. But to have that feeling of oneness & pure joy coursing throughout my entire body is only possible when standing, IMHO. Seriously, sitting constricts the lower body, so that the divine cannot travel all the way down to the feet as easily, nor circle back up so effortlessly. 🙂

  3. Location, not merely content, may contribute to lack of support in UU churches. I think more people are opting for an easy to reach option attended by people they see daily. Our churches are often separated by many miles and don’t offer a spiritual community in close proximity to one’s neighborhood community.

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