criteria for innovative worship

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.

Feed: Yet Another Unitarian Universalist
Title: Some criteria for seriously innovative worship
Author: Dan
A friend of mine who’s headed towards liberal ministry told me that she hopes to do more innovative worship when she finally gets into a local congregation. I would tend to agree with that feeling. But over the years, I’ve seen many attempts at innovative worship either founder on the rocks of reality, or drift into blandness and puerility. Perhaps it is possible to chart out a better course. 

Here is my attempt at listing some of the criteria we might use when creating seriously innovative worship — in a liberal religious context:

Criterion 1 — Seriously innovative worship has to encompass multiple theological stances. Circle worship is too often grounded either in a limited Neopagan theological stance (e.g., in Starhawk’s Wiccanism), or in a limited liberal Christian stance (e.g., in Letty Russell’s “church in the round”). Like conventional liberal religious worship, seriously innovative worship will work well with humanism, liberation theologies, contemporary liberal Christianity, Neopaganism, feminist theology, etc.

Criterion 2 — Seriously innovative worship must be scalable. A big problem with many circle worship and alt.worship approaches is that they work best for small groups (under a hundred people). If we’re going to be seriously innovative, we’re not going to limit ourselves to a certain size of worship service.

Criterion 3 — Seriously innovative worship cannot require additional worship planning time. Both paid clergy and volunteer worship leaders tend to have inelastic schedules that cannot accommodate even another two hours of worship preparation a week. Seriously innovative worship will be practical, and fit in real world time constraints.

Criterion 4 — Seriously innovative worship should be radically inclusive, allowing first-time visitors to participate fully. Seriously innovative worship, in the best tradition of liberal religion, will invite everyone to participate: children may stay for the whole service if they choose; all elements of the service are understandable; all may participate in communion (traditional communion, flower communion) or similar rituals when offered; there are no bits that only worship leaders see and hear because everyone can see and hear everything; and so on.

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. Seriously innovative worship will support us through real human hurts and hopes.

Criterion 5 — Seriously innovative worship for liberal religion cannot discard intellectual content. A defining characteristic of religious liberals is that we are thinkers; while we probably want to encourage more feeling in worship, that doesn’t mean we have to get rid of thinking. We will come out of seriously innovative worship with something to think about for the rest of the week.

Criterion 6 — Seriously innovative worship for liberal religion will remain connected with the historical roots of liberal religious worship. All innovation requires a deep understanding of, and feel for, an existing tradition. Seriously innovative worship won’t be widely adopted unless it grows out of a common experience most religious liberals share, bringing new life and energy to our existing tradition.

The next step is to take these six criteria, and start applying them to our current attempts at innovative worship….

About liberalreligiongetsloud

Contemporary Music and Worship Director (retired), First Unitarian, Albuquerque NM
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5 Responses to criteria for innovative worship

  1. Maintenance Guy says:

    One thing that American “Megachurches” do very, very well is audience targeting. It’s not a matter of having the “right” message, it’s a matter of getting the message to a receptive audience. UU’s don’t exactly advertise. Never have, never will, and that’s the way we like it. In our way, we are as clannish and exclusive as a Midwestern country club. I would love to see youth-oriented events sponsored and/or hosted by our denomination. Logistical complications aside, what’s wrong with hosting a few concerts? Metal, Punk, Rap, Industrial, and Hip-Hop all have socially conscious elements. Mainstream denominations have learned to present themselves as “extreme”; are we so bereft of creativity as to be incapable of following suit, and even surpassing these efforts? Our worldview is tailor-made for this sort of initiative. Thinking for yourself is indeed “radical”, “extreme”, and yes, “revolutionary”. Given the amount of effort we spend on providing gas money for Kenyan orphans and cat food for indigent pet owners, I think that it a matter of courage, rather than resources, that holds us back.

  2. Paul Oakley says:

    Re a theology of seating arrangement, this post from January. Interestingly, less than a month later, a guest speaker exercised the unusual authority of rearranging all the chairs in very straight rows facing forward because he did not like the idea of preaching to the sides of people’s heads. And once front-facing rows were back in place, inertia set in again, the front row is almost never used except occasionally by one member who is hard of hearing, and there is a massing near the back. The psychology of the pew is very hard to overcome.

    Front-facing rows entail at least one of a handful of implications of theological significance:
    – The authority and control belong to the leaders.
    – The music and rituals are a kind of performance either on behalf of and for the benefit of the congregation or for their religious entertainment.
    – The important part of worship is the instruction of the sermon rather than the sharing of an experience of grace.
    – Religious meetings are modeled on business and governmental meetings where authority and control are always present rather than being modeled on images from an inclusive theology.

    Maybe you can add other ideas implicit in the forward-facing row. And not all of them apply to any particular situation. But there are always subtexts and theological modeling that are part of the worship experience. The way you worship is inextricably linked to a theology of worship. And that includes the furniture, clothing or vestments, lighting, architecture, and the whole ball of wax.

  3. Paul Oakley says:

    Not to pick at nits, but re Criterion 2, I think it is important to distinguish between things that work for individuals and congregations liturgically and emotionally, on the one hand, and things that make personal connections, on the other.

    I do not doubt the liturgical and emotional success of the scenario you recount. However, I do not see how a personal connection was made without personal contact being made. In the absence of the flesh-and-blood minister and/or the person-to-person interaction between minister and congregants, I do not believe that a personal connection has been made even if the liturgy succeeds in connecting people in a sense of mission and community. I guess the distinction that seems meaningful to me is between the personal and the communal…

    • I understand what you’re saying, but if a situation is liturgically and emotionally effective, I deem it to have made a personal connection. This may just be a difference in the way we choose to apply that term, though. Certainly, sitting in a small group looking at a projected face that’s somewhat larger than life-size is a more intimate – dare I say “personal” – experience than sitting in the back of a large sanctuary looking at a figure 30 yards away.

      I guess my main point was that the people who responded “and also with you” didn’t stop to ask themselves whether it made sense to reply to a video screen because it wasn’t “real”. They experienced it as real and responded accordingly.

  4. Paul Oakley says:

    Criterion 6 and your discussion of it are indeed where the primary disagreements and conflicts are situated.

    I gather from discussions at large that one of the models frequently looked to in trying to arrive at viable concepts for UU worship reforms supportive of growth is the Evangelical Christian megachurch. But I’m not sure that that is a model we should look to since the megachurches are frequently dependent on the personality of their founder or primary leader and since they are nearly stand-alone phenomena rather than building the health and presence of their denomination or movement at large, if denominationally affiliated or closely tied into a defined movement.

    There is another model that, though no longer the fast growth model it was not long ago, is still quite stable: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints… the Mormons. LDS grew worldwide in a wide range of cultural settings without radically changing worship to suit the styles of new converts and potential converts.

    At least in part that proved unproblematic because worship was not seen as a vehicle to converting people to the faith or recruiting them into congregational membership. While LDS chapels welcome non-Mormon visitors, teaching of potential converts by missionaries or regular members in the person’s home or other non-church location is a usual step to getting some level of serious interest before attendance at communal worship. And membership in a local ward is largely geographical, so the person who is LDS or has a level of interest in LDS usually attends according to where they live.

    Additionally, while LDS communal worship is an hour-long Sunday service, Mormons are generally at chapel for about three hours on Sunday, the other two hours used for different kinds of classes, either based on age or function. There is a formalized tradition of “home teaching,” in which members visit in the homes of other members of their ward who are assigned to them, on a monthly basis, providing religious lessons and/or providing assistance and some level of pastoral care.

    LDS has no paid ministers. They have a dual priesthood and each ward has a bishop, but none of them are paid positions. Worship is led by members. Preaching and teaching is done by members. The boys of the congregation administer the sacrament. And children are present with their parents through the worship and partake of the sacrament with their parents.

    In the LDS model, then, worship is not intended to be the vehicle to attract new members. It is led/ administered by members across the age spectrum for members across the age spectrum. There is an organized mechanism for attending to the needs of members. Members participate in ongoing teaching – being taught and teaching others, assisting and being assisted. People are plugged into a very real, responsive community. The traditional worship style is not problematic because it serves a plugged-in membership.

    And contemporary styles are engaged in other-than-worship situations, with LDS rock bands and pop musicians, LDS movies and musicals, LDS stand-up comics, and so forth, bridging the gap between the styles popular in the wider culture and the values of the LDS church.

    This model naturally does not directly translate into the UU setting, just as the Evangelical megacurch does not. But there are aspects of what makes it successful despite what may be seen as culturally challenging in the UU setting that are worth looking at more closely. Do we need to mitigate our worshipful adherence to American Individualism in order to build congregations that not only offer opportunities for action but also the opportunity and expectation of plugging into an established system of mutual “teaching” and care that sees recruitment as something that largely happens outside the worship experience?

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