Friday, September 22, 2006

Contemporary Worship

There's a movement gaining strength in my denomination that is pushing for a radical new way of doing worship. This is arising out of our Youth groups and the participatory , circle style worship that they do. There's a call for more voices and ways to get a message across (not just a sermon, but a dialogue, a discussion, a set of readings, a skit, or a combination thereof) And because it's basically a youth movement, there's more than a small tendency to not only push for something new but to be derisive about what is old. ("Corpse Cold Unitarianism" thundered the Transcendentalists, and our youth are almost as derisive about what they term "Sermon Sandwich Worship")

It seems reasonable on the surface that this multi-tasking, multi-media generation would crave or just assume the same variety in worship that they have embraced in their lives, and I'm all for their and our experimenting with this kind of worship to see how it develops. In Albuquerque, for instance, we've adopted the occasional practice of having all who wish come up to light a candle for some aspect of the morning theme as a meditation practice, and this seems to have worked well for us.

But I also note that churches like the Evangelical, multi-site mega-church I visited last Spring featured a 47 minute sermon by one person. I don't myself remember much of it. What I do remember is the lively singing that we engaged in before and after that sermon, and how much that singing "got me out of myself" and let me relax into my own center.

My experience in ministry tells me that every UU generation from boomers on, and including much of the female side of the silent, or pre-boomer generation, has asked for two things of it's worship leaders, a solid interpretation of our lives (as in, "good sermons"), and a sense of the holy in a worship service, a way to "get out of one's self", a place of quiet, an empty center, a deep connection to others present, and a break from the multi-tasking, multi-media world in which we all live, most of us uncomfortably.

Whether that interpretation, and that sense of the presence of the holy, and that space to find it in one's self is produced by lighting candles, a pastoral prayer, a hymn or a praise song, a well chosen set of readings, a skit, or even a sermon...what will be a matter of individual taste and experience. What we UU's have difficulty with is creating that sense of the Holy, and we're most likely to produce it, as if by accident, in our close knit groups, the tender moments of sharing Joys and Concerns, or in the enforced silence and inwardness of various ceremonies.

I'm all for continuing to see how we can use those elements in worship. But I maintain that we will not thrive as a religious movement until we learn to produce a sense of the Holy in readings, skits, prayers, sermons, singing, taking the offering, and greeting each other.


Jess said...

Can't agree more on your thoughts - though would add that this so-called movement for more "contemporary" style worship is not so much on the part of Y/YA but rather on the part of people who remember being in Y/YA movements in the past and who have great intention in trying to "keep" our youth now by reviving these practices. Dan Harper had a great piece on this awhile back - this comment on his "Teaching Kids to be Religious" series.

I think it's about becoming comfortable with the fact that UU congregations ARE RELIGIOUS, and that our services should reflect the very deep religious faiths of our members, rather than skirting our differences and trying not to offend anyone. When the passion is there, and the underlying spiritual conviction, people are much more able to hear the words behind the words, and not cringe every time they hear "God" or "Jesus" or "Buddha" or whatever if that particular concept doesn't fit into their personal theology. Our internal translators work much better when the spirit is engaged along with the intellect.

Turtle Mountain said...

I believe that the reason for the constant, repetitive failures and/or frustrations - which will always continue - on the part of those who crave a "sense of the Holy" is the implicit assumption that the wondrous, remakable, miraculous universe of which we are aware harbors something they sense as dreadfully Unholy. This ugly Unholiness is necessary in order to set apart and distinguish and define the "Holy." Eastern religions to a significant degree escape this frustration because they are particularly sensitive to the trap of dualism, the temptation of seperation. For them, the frustrations are not the problem of the service but rather a problem for the individual who is frustrated to resolve, individually, within.

Steamhead said...

Right now, I'm reading New Harmonies: Choosing Comtemporary Music for Worship by Terro Bocklund McLean.

She makes some excellent points about the notion of "contemporary worship" that bear on the worship experience in general. Her main point about music, but which also applies to the whole experience, is that you are operating in the 21st century and you should communicate in a way the people living in the 21st century understand. I don't think "contemporary" worship implies anything other than bringing our worship practices into the present time.

She notes that there are two audiences for anything done in a church: the established members and the newcomers (which includes first-timers and what she calls "entry-level" worshippers). To make newcomers feel comfortable, especially if they have no church experience, they must not feel like they are outsiders in the midst of insiders, like there is a secret code they must break in order to be admitted to the inner circle. The contemporary church is focused on communicating with people - old-timers or newcomers - on a straightforward level, without having to understand five-hundred-year-old musical or language styles. There are no codes to break, just a message to hear.

This has several implications. The obvious one (which she devotes her book to) is choice of music. People hear music of a particular style almost everywhere they go. This may be primarily "country and western" in Hobbs, "norteƱo" in Questa or "acoustic pop" in Santa Fe. But if they come into the church and hear "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God", it's not going to resonate with them. It doesn't matter whether we bowdlerize the lyrics, the musical style has nothing familiar to them other than a major scale and it will not strike them as comfortable or familiar unless they are lapsed Luterans. Tune in to the Christian radio stations at the low end of the dial, however, and it will take you several minutes of listening to determine whether you're listening to religious music or not. That style is immediately accessible to anyone who walks in the front door.

Likewise, the language. For musical lyrics, she points out that quoting the King James translation makes the lyrics even more opaque than using Buxtehude for the melody. We still have a lot of overwrought language in our hymns, even if the KJT has been pretty well purged.

So, I think focusing on alternative worship styles is useful, but not central. What contemporary worship is all about, at least in the way Christians use it today, is accessibility, understandability, clarity. The message should not be obscured by age-old accretions of language or style, that ultimately serve mainly to separate the "haves" from the "have-nots". Most contemporary Christian churches seem to get by fine on "sermon sandwiches". Yes, there is a lot more music than we tend to use, but the manner in which they structure things focuses on uniting everyone, rather than excluding them from the inner circle.

I don't think we have that far to go to do this ourselves. Eliminating "Calm Source of All Things" from the hymn selections would be a good start, and there are a slew of other hymns we use that I would be happy to never sing again, for similar reasons. Mostly, our language in readings and sermons tends to be contemporary, though a few of the group affirmations we have could use modernization.

Mainly, if we went at everything we do with the attitude "any random citizen walking in today will feel like we communicated with them and made them feel a part of what we're doing" - that is all we need to do. Just remove a few barriers to entry. And it's a pretty easy change from what we do today.

Steamhead said...

P.S. Using words like "accretions" and invoking Buxtehude show how erudite I am, but they're not a good example of "contemporary" communication, are they? Great way to set up barriers! I am a living example of the problem, if that helps clarify it any.

Christine Robinson said...

Very interesting comments, Steamhead. (except, I like Calm Soul...)

One of the tensions in worship is that tension between comfort and challenge. For the brand new (especially the brand new to UU and even more especially, the brand nwe to church) you've got to have a huge dose of comfortable, since these folks are so challenged just by walking in the door.

But as they get more comfortable, they are able and willing to try new challenges, and in that start to "catch up" to the old timers.

The reality is that we're a mixed congregation of experienced and not so experienced worshippers. My philosophy is "something for everyone, and tell people what you want them to do. (You'd be surprised at how many churches don't tell people when to stand and sit. Very uncomfortable...)

The real problem with contemporary music is that it really needs a band, which is a huge change in music programs even for a fairly modern church like ours.

Turtle Mountain said...

In Unitarian Universalism, is there an assumption that there are people who must "catch up" and people who are already "there." This was not my understanding, at least not since the denomination was founded in 1962. "Universal" means "universal."

Our minister has told us that UU is very, very hard. It is not particularly concerned with "discomfort." She's right.

Steamhead said...

I like Calm Soul...

I know what you mean. I am a fan of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, myself. But I wouldn't ever play that music for a beginning musician. It's way too challenging and requires a high level of sophistication to understand (let alone like it). Some of the things we do can be like assigning a Beefheart piece to the middle school band.

Your comment about going contemporary with the music is right on target, but changing the music is neither sufficient nor necessary to "go contemporary". What's required, if I understand McLean correctly, is to purge the archaic and "insider" language, rituals and attitudes, to lower the barrier to entry so a newcomer won't even stub a toe, let alone have to crawl over a wall. Music is one stone in that barrier, but not the only one.

Turtle Mountain's comment about being there and catching up shows a difference between our ideals and the imperfect ways we work toward them. Ideally, we would all "be there" as soon as we got there. In practice, though, the familiar things that bring comfort to those already there may be foreign and offputting to those who have just arrived. Spiritually, they may well "be there", but they can't tell that if the language and rituals are too strange.

I think your comment about comfort vs. challenge hits right on the mark. The challenge should not be in walking in the door and figuring out what to do. We should be challenged by the spiritual message, not by what it took to get to it. We want the form to be an easy fit, while the content holds the challenge.

Our worship services tend pretty strongly to "high church" - the opening rituals, the robes and stoles, the Renaissance hymns played on the Steinway - from the perspective of one who was raised in fundamentalist Christianity. I imagine they could seem like something from another continent or even another planet, to someone who has no experience with going to a Christian service.

These people are the benchmark against which the contemporary church measures itself. How quickly can we make them feel comfortable and engaged with the setting, so we can challenge them with the message?