Peter Bowden posted a link on his UU Growth Blog to a newsletter for small congregations that I found interesting and relevant to the topic of this blog. The feature article contained advice on broadening the demographics of a congregation, a topic much discussed lately, but seemingly not successfully implemented.
In the Small Talk newsletter’s lead article, “Multicultural Worship in the Small Congregation”, small congregation consultant Rev. Jane Dwinell offered suggestions for breaking out of the comfortable but narrow rut of tradition:
Experiment with different kinds of music
We have traditionally used the music of “dead, white, male Europeans” and many of us enjoy and find meaning in that musical style. But our world is full of many, many musical styles. Bring some new ones into your congregation.
Start with music from the cultures within your congregation. Many European countries have unique forms of traditional music — compare the music of the Balkans with that of Scotland, Greece, or Germany. Add one piece of music each week from countries and cultures represented in your congregation. You can use recorded music, find high school or college students to play, or enlist members of your group (of any age) to provide selections. Perhaps there are pieces of music that were important to members from childhood, family reunions, other religious communities they belonged to, or school.
Share this music with one another. Share why it is important to you. Gradually add music from more and more cultures — from all over the world — and experiment with different instruments and singing styles.
Singing together does not have to be just traditional hymns. Chants, rounds, call-and-response tunes, folk music, Broadway musical hits, and popular songs are all appropriate music for worship. Stretch your edges by trying out different songs — to sing or listen to — as part of your worship experience.
Experiment with different worship formats
If your congregation has used the same worship format for years and years, it’s time to try something new. Meet as a group — or in small groups, depending on your size — to talk about the elements of worship that are most important to people. Find out what things need to be kept and what can be experimented with. Many congregations choose to have the first part of the service remain the same … But the rest of the time — including words, music, and silence — can be done in different ways.
Worship is central to the life of the small congregation — to any congregation. Making changes can be challenging. As one of the General Assembly workshop leaders said, “Have patience, intention, and stick with it. We come together to be changed. Worship is as serious as what happens in the emergency room.”
Our job as worship planners is, as always, to balance challenge and comfort. Whether the goal is maintaining the health of our congregations or welcoming people who reflect the diversity of our communities, the underlying principle is the same: congregations grow and become more diverse when their message is life-changing and they engage with the culture around them.