About Worship

Miss Kitty has published some comments by our colleague the Rev. Tom Schade on what worship is like in his congregation and the theology and philosophy behind each element. His thinking is careful and complex and it has left me thinking as well. One of my thoughts is that it might be an important thing for more of us to describe our practices and how they have evolved. So here it goes.

Let’s start with the basic values of our services at South Valley. In case you wonder, this is a congregation of 170 members and 120 kids. (These goals and values have been formally articulated by me and by others, but probably not often enough.)

1. Worship should happen every Sunday and every Sunday we should offer our best.
No one should ever find the church closed on a Sunday morning nor should they leave not feeling they’ve been to church. This has evolved in the congregation. We inherited from the church that “planted” us a practice of taking summers off. (They currently offer interesting, but not worshipful, summer forums.) For a long time, summer services here were given completely over to a separate committee that focused on inviting organizations in our community to send speakers to explain their work.

Now the worship committee takes responsibility for the services year-round and has created a list of elements they believe every service must contain. That list includes: our opening words, silence, music, congregational participation, and an offering. The list is supposed to be the bare minimum to create a worshipful experience. On Sundays when other things are happening, (our Labor Day campout, our All-Utah Celebration Sundays, even winter storms) we find a volunteer to offer a small parallel service at the church.

2. Music is central to the mood and experience of worship.
We pay close attention to having good music in a wide variety of styles in our services. The music is always meant to serve, support and enrich the message of the service. We have a growing choir, a close harmony quartet, several harpists, concert quality pianists (and piano), a drum group, and an emerging house band. We regularly hire a klesmer band and other professional musicians to join us for Sunday mornings. We’ve had accordians and bagpipes in the service. We are trying to reorganize our bell choir. (We own a complete set of church bells.)

We sing a lot, including two “morning songs” before the service officially begins. The morning songs are meant to teach us all (and especially our children) a repertoire of singable songs that help us integrate our values into our lives. Favorites are “This Little Light of Mine,” “Enter, Rejoice, and Come In,” “I Still Have Joy,” “The Seven Principles Song,” “Peace Like a River,” and “Siph Amandla.”

3. Worship services must have room for a variety of experiences of the sacred.
A sermon is important to some, but others need silence or music, or just to hear our welcoming words or chalice lighting and (sung) response each week. We have a meditation or pastoral prayer each week to focus our attention on something larger than the self. Our order of service rarely changes, though elements within it change from week to week. Since I’ve mentioned them twice, here are the words of welcome that are spoken every week:

You are welcome here.
No matter your age, your size,
the color of your eyes, your hair, your skin,
You are welcome here.
No matter whom you love, or how you speak,
or whatever your abilities,
You are welcome here.
Whether you come with laughter in your heart or tears,
You are welcome here.
If you come here with an open mind, a loving heart, and willing hands,
You are welcome here.

We try to balance tradition and innovation. We try to acknowledge the varieties of human experience that are in the room every week: joy, sorrow, celebration, grief, worry…etc.

4. Worship services are for everyone in the community.
We are intentionally intergenerational every week. The children of the community are in the service from the beginning (morning songs) through the storytelling. We try to expose the kids to as many parts of the service as possible before they leave. Sometimes the choir sings early. Sometimes we take the offering while the kids are still present.

About every six weeks we have a completely intergenerational service. Most of these are holiday celebrations/rituals: the water communion, commissioning of teachers and bridging ceremony, thanksgiving bread communion, holiday pageant, Easter celebration, flower communion, annual youth service, and end-of year celebration of gratitude. Every first Sunday, the children have a chapel service of their own with stories, singing, an offering, and joys and concerns. (We share joys and concerns quarterly in the “regular” service.) We believe in teaching our children how to worship in song, silence, ritual, and giving.

5. We try to consciously offer many different kinds of sermons and services.
I am constantly trying to offer a variety of preaching styles: prophetic, pastoral, psychological, theological, calls to action, calls to contemplation, sermons about what it means to be a church, sermons about the history of our movement and our congregation, “cheerleader” sermons, sermons that acknowledge brokenness and limitations…

In my experience, preachers and congregations often get stuck in one kind of sermon. One colleague of mine seems to “perform” in the pulpit: three points, always a laugh or two, and always a critique of the larger culture that feels (to me) like a bit of superiority thrown in. I consciously try not to perform, but to share–my feelings, my thinking, my questions, my emerging answers, my beliefs, my doubts. Sometimes I feel confident and sure of my message, sometimes I explore in a very human and questioning way. I also am very careful not to “tie up all the loose ends” in the sermon. I think of them as “fringes” that the listener can grab hold of and find their way into the sermon for themselves. If I wrap everything up in a neat little package, there is no room for the listener.

6. We do emphasize community.
Our slogan is “an intentionally diverse religious community.” We gather in order to support and inspire one another and to fulfill our mission: “to celebrate religious freedom, encourage curiosity and learning, and work for a just, compassionate, and sustainable world.” We try to make every visitor feel welcome and to invite them to come back again, and to consider making a commitment to their own lives and to our congregation by joining. One of the messages we try to emphasize is “You don’t have to do it alone.”

We believe this counters our culture’s over-emphasis on individualism and isolation. We also believe creating healthy spiritual community is a religious act. We are currently working on articulating a covenant of right relations and we supplement the creation of community that happens on Sunday mornings with small group ministry.

Oh, and coffee hour is considered an important part of the process of creating real connection. We have an informal rule of “no church business in the first fifteen minutes of coffee hour” to help keep us focused on each other and not dealing with budgets, problems, meeting dates, etc. Once a month we have a pancake brunch after service where we feast together and newcomers are invited to sit with church leaders to learn about the congregation.

7. We urge people to get involved and to serve the greater good.
Service is a key value of the community and a call to involvement, action, and/or service is a part of worship. To contradict the ubiquitous cynicism, apathy, and despair we see in the world, we emphasize the message “You can make a difference.” We acknowledge that the effects of our actions may be smaller than we’d like, but acting anyway is important.

We try to offer lots of ways to get involved. We collect food every week for the local food bank. We’ve had “Undie Sunday” where people brought packages of new underwear for a local shelter. We make stockings for young people “aging out” of the foster care system. We host homeless families in our building at least twice a year, offering our company and feeding them dinner and breakfast. We collect money for causes and in response to crises and disasters.

Every small group makes a commitment to engage in at least one service project each church year. We integrate these opportunities into the worship service whenever we can. We build altars of donated food, give out and collect “Guest at Your Table” boxes in the service, recognize these efforts when we pray, and even treat the offering with respect, as an opportunity to give. (No offering jokes in this congregation.) We introduce the offering by saying these words in unison:

We are this church.
We are its hands, its heart, its voice.
Together we share in the wealth of this community
and sustain it with our gifts.

I think those are the key elements. If I think of more, I’ll share them. It’s a great exercise and I hope others will share their philosophies and practices of worship. What do you do? Why do you do it?


8. Worship should be part of a whole.
In our congregation, worship is not the be all and end all. It is part of what we do together to enrich our lives, sustain our relationships, and attend to what matters.  We have tried hard to integrate worship with all the other parts of church life. We do this by having a monthly focus: a word or question of the month around which all the elements of church life revolve.  This month, our question is “Who is Our Neighbor?”  In other months we’ve focused on forgiveness, joy, brokenness, “What Inspires Us?”, “incarnation,” etc.

If you were part of our community, you’d first see the next focus addressed in the newsletter. My “Minister’s Musings” would begin the conversation, and you’d see a list of related service titles.  You’d come to church on the first Sunday of the month knowing that for the next few weeks you’d be hearing different perspectives on the focus topic.  If you belonged to a small group, the discussion would also focus on the topic so that you could share your own views and questions.  If you had kids in the REGAL (Religious Education, Growth and Learning) program, you’d be able to talk to them about the workshops they’d experienced that explored a similar (not always identical) topic.

If this all works well, you’d feel like you had been part of a month-long exploration and conversation about something important to your life and to the world.  You may have been challenged to think more deeply about a topic you thought you already knew.  You would have gotten to hear from several other people (not just the minister) what their “take” on the question or topic is.

9. Worship is community-centered (not minister-centered). 
At South Valley, you will always see a number of people involved in leading the service.  There may well be a worship associate, several musicians, a reader, a song leader, and a storyteller involved in leading, as well as the minister.  Liturgy is “the work of the people” and while I, as minister, am ultimately accountable for the quality of our worship, I try very hard never to do it alone.  In fact, there is a joke in the church that has some truth to it. “Rev. Sean refuses to learn to run the sound system so that at least one person has to work with him on worship.”

I have had the chance to exchange pulpits with a colleague who does everything himself. From opening words to the extinguishing the chalice, it is ALL minister all the time.  He does not have worship associates or a worship committe and does not want them.  Worship is his baby.  Whenever I preach there, I have to admit that by the end of the second service I am completely bored with the sound of my own voice.  I’ve pledged that next time I go, I’m bringing a whole worship crew and giving that congregation the experience of worship that is collaboratively led.  I just can’t do it alone again. It’s too central to my values and theology. Worship is not my job alone. It belongs to the people.


4 thoughts on “About Worship

  1. Thanks for this thought-provoking list, Sean. I like the “fringes” as opposed to “loose ends” metaphor. And I”m wondering if you preach from a manuscript; the way you describe your preaching sounds so conversational I wonder how you pull it off (and I mean that in a good way!)

    I read #7 as “Get involved and serve great food.”

    I feel challenged to reply to your request on my own blog, but not tonight.

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