Dan Harper has some insightful and provocative thoughts on what “seriously innovative” liberal worship should look like. Read his article for his thoughts on the criteria which follow, to which I have appended some thoughts based on my experiences.
Criterion 1 — Seriously innovative worship has to encompass multiple theological stances.
This has bugged me, too. On the one hand, sitting in a grid focuses everything on the altar, the podium, the front of the room where one or a handful of people are presenting something to a mostly passive “audience”. On the other hand, I can’t imagine making worship work with 50 or 75 people sitting in (concentric?) circles or 200 in a Sacred Harp square. Rearranging the seating is impossible in many sanctuaries and onerous even if it is possible. Discussion question: Is there a theology of furniture arrangement?
Criterion 2 — Seriously innovative worship must be scalable.
Certainly, the Christian Contemporary model has proven itself physically scalable. Their secret, I think, is using technology to enhance the perceived intimacy factor, even in a very large or remotely connected room. In our early experiments with satellite congregations, we found that projecting a face larger than life gave the congregants an enhanced feeling of personal connection – more so than sitting in the back of a large sanctuary. Our big “a-ha” moment was when the preacher on screen said “peace be with you” and everyone instinctively answered “and also with you”. There was a sense of personal connection there that made the technology invisible.
Criterion 3 — Seriously innovative worship cannot require additional worship planning time.
This has to do with the scalability issue. The above is not necessarily true if you are in a large congregation and have a large pool of volunteers or can pay staff to take it on. Obviously, for an average-sized UU congregation of 100 or so, this can be a serious limiting factor. So, your results may vary.
Criterion 4 — Seriously innovative worship should be radically inclusive, allowing first-time visitors [and children] to participate fully.
This is one of the foundational assumptions of contemporary worship theory: make the process of worship transparent so everyone — first-time visitors, children, elders, cradle UUs — gets the same message regardless of the familiarity of the context.
Criterion 4 — Seriously innovative worship should always have something for the person who has come that day in sadness or sorrow, or joy, looking for a place and a community to support them in sadness or joy.
I’m a little puzzled by this one. Why is this deemed innovative, rather than a regular, expected part of any worship? If we don’t support each other in community (personally and spiritually), why have we come together?
Criterion 5 — Seriously innovative worship for liberal religion cannot discard intellectual content.
This, too, should go without saying, but it seems that a lot of UUs fear that any change means that things will get dumber. Again, this shouldn’t have to be said, but it seems “new” worship styles have been tainted in some people’s minds by its association with sects whose theology some of us find beneath us unappealing. Adding modernity, celebration or new practices does not require us to change our core beliefs, or the way we reaffirm them.
Criterion 6 — Seriously innovative worship for liberal religion will remain connected with the historical roots of liberal religious worship.
Here, we come to the crux of the issue. How much of our historical practice should be retained because it is integral to who we are and what we believe? How much should be discarded because it is mere habit and does not contribute to our experience of the holy or our bonds as a religious community?
And, more important for our long-term survival, how much of what we do by rote or tradition repels visitors with its perceived strangeness and ossification? (See criterion no. 4.) We say we want to grow, to be radically inclusive, but our long-established practices have resulted in continual decline in our numbers. Yet there are some who think things are just perfect the way they are and will resist anything new. Presumably, that includes being so small that we are mostly irrelevant, and continuing to shrink.
If you want the same results, you just continue doing what you do now. If you want different results, you change things that inhibit the results you want. Some of these things may make long-time members feel comfort and belonging. How do we strike the balance between offering comfort to those who already belong, without offering discomfort to those who come to us with fresh eyes and ears?
Note that the above assumes that we have a transformative message that people want to hear. That is not proven to be the case, but we’re talking about innovative worship, not innovative UU theology.