OK, maybe I should have started out with this post, but better late then never.
In case my oblique references to the underlying Big Issue haven’t been clear, I will state it outright: we (Unitarian Universalists, as well as every other “mainline” denomination) are facing extinction, and we need to figure out what to do about it. Our numbers have been holding steady for the last 50 years, while the population of the U.S. has doubled. That’s actually better than some other denominations, but it’s a recipe for slow death. (Try to imagine what the public and private sectors would be doing if the economy stayed flat for six years — utter panic! — let alone sixty.)
And why is that? It’s either because our message is meaningless for most people, or we haven’t done a good job of getting it across to them.
There are a lot of things we can do about this. I’ll leave the issue of our spiritual message to the theologians, but as a worship and music leader, one thing I can affect is how that message is conveyed.
This brings us to worship styles, the focus of this blog. Nondenominatonal Christian churches have exploded, in numbers and in size, over the last forty years or so. They probably have two things going for them: their message speaks to a lot of people, and the way it’s presented is appealing. Again, we’ll leave the theological aspect and focus on the experience.
Graham Standish wrote an interesting article for the Alban Instutite blog recently. (1) Some excerpts I think are relevant:
Many people have wanted a tangible, transforming encounter with God but have never found it in worship, because worship has been focused on everything but that transforming encounter.
The church has to adapt its worship because our culture doesn’t recognize the value of worship when done as it was in generations past. Each generation is different in what it resonates with because over time the culture changes. The result is that worship rooted in previous generations loses its power to connect with each succeeding generation and leads us to address spiritual questions that are no longer being asked.
I believe that the main reason congregations neglect the Holy is that over time congregations slowly slip from a spiritual approach to worship to a functional approach. What is the difference between the two? A functional approach to worship isn’t concerned with leading people to experience the Holy. It aims to maintain what has always been done, to make members happy by keeping worship the same, and to design worship around the desires of longtime, traditional worshipers. The focus is on maintaining membership and the status quo.
Do we want Unitarian Universalism to still have the same number of members in 2070? If not, then we need to start easing the people who are already here out of their comfort zone, musically, racially, economically, politically and spiritually.
Now, aside from the “can you hear me” aspect (we’re speaking the wrong language for today by using the liturgical traditions of the 1950s), he also points out
Ultimately, the problem isn’t that each generation keeps changing. The problem is that as time passes congregations and their leaders forget to keep the focus of worship on the encounter with the Holy.
This is another topic, as well, and one our ministers and worship leaders must wrestle with each Sunday. But the fact remains that people will not sense the holy if worship is focused on maintaining traditions rooted in their great-grandparents’ generation. Newcomers will be focusing on the weird (to them) cultural display, instead.
Martin Luther had the right idea: to bring the people a relationship with the holy, you have to speak the language of the people. Why have we forgotten this?
1. Standish, Graham. “Why Do We Worship the Way We Have Always Worshiped When People Keep Changing?” http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=9140