the Big Issue: continued existence or continued comfort?

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?”

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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4 Responses to the Big Issue: continued existence or continued comfort?

  1. Paul Oakley says:

    a tangible, transforming encounter with God

    The key word here is “transforming.” Worship can be emotionally evocative and culturally current yet still fail to result in or reflect transformed lives. We can be excited by the performance of our Sunday services and still go home to untransformed life as normal.

    I could be wrong, but it may be that it is exactly backward to think of our worship services as a primary evangelistic tool. That is, the purpose of worship is not primarily to attract newcomers to our message. Our transformed lives probably belong in that position. If our lives are not transformed, we stand little chance of growth through attracting new people via our worship. And if our lives are transformed and attract others, then we probably can have stable growth without nearly as much angst as we are putting into forms of worship.

    Maintenance of traditions is not the purpose of worship. But tradition is stabilizing, a solid place to stand while reaching into the new. There is simply no need to reinvent the wheel each decade. So… I think tradition is great and should be well oiled and cared for to keep it flexible and open to the new without giving up our heritage.

    And if we approach it from transformed lives, newcomers, attracted to those examples of transformation, may be less concerned with the details of Sunday morning forms, at the same time that members whose lives have been and are being transformed will be attuned to using cultural media that best can carry the shared expression of grace among those assembled.

    Without transformation it won’t happen. With transformation it will be organic (which does not mean it won’t require work). Continued existence? If we don’t offer a transformational gospel, there is no reason to go through the motions. Continued comfort? If we offer a transformational gospel, there will be plenty of comfort to go around.

  2. You said it! There’s no point in coming, if you leave as the same person you came.

    All worship is (supposed to be) a balance between comfort and challenge. If we’re doing our jobs right, there’s just enough comfort for those who need to be nurtured, and just enough challenge so people are encouraged to continue transforming their lives into something bigger.

  3. People say the Mainline church is “dying” but it’s a lot more complicated than that.

    There are some urban Mainline churches that are thriving and growing. DSM has belonged to two of them [4th Presb in Chicago, Immanuel Presb in Milwaukee], and I’ve visited them with her. They have strong pastoral talent and a very strong sense of mission in the community and the world (with “mission” defined as helping, not proselytizing). They are also musically very traditional, but of extraordinarily high quality (thanks, in part, to the participation of musical professionals beyond just the choral director and/or the organist). Younger people are joining, especially families.

    Now, interestingly enough, one of those churches (4th) has begun to experiment with a new Sunday afternoon service aimed at younger people in which jazz music is the primary musical idiom. Knowing 4th, I would bet it, too, is first and foremost of extraordinary quality.

    In some ways, I think the quality issue is an argument for breaking from tradition musically. I think quality of whatever a church seeks to provide should be as good as it can be — and in that respect, employing more popular musical styles may be easier to do “well”.

    Most most important, while I think exploring new musical idioms for worship is a worthy task, and I support that, the real task is to consider the whole church “package” if you will, so that we fully engage those who walk through the doors of our church. Music is part of that engagement. But so are mission, however we define it, as well message — and then doing whatever it is we do as well as we can do it.

  4. Music is part of that engagement. But so are mission, however we define it, as well message — and then doing whatever it is we do as well as we can do it.

    Well put!

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