Sunday, May 11, 2008

Contemporary Worship

We have to start a third service next year. Gulp. Many UU churches have successfully made the transition to two services, but few have tried three services, so we're making this up as we go along. One option is a band-led service, and in pursuit of knowledge of this worship-beast, several of us crashed a Presbyterian Contemporary Worship service on Saturday evening. It's my third such venture, (one Reformed mega-church, one medium sized UU church, and one big mainline church.) Here's what I'm learning.

Contemporary Worship seems to be a matter of developing a higher level of energy than a traditional worship service has. Indeed, I think that the basic aim of a traditional worship service is to calm people, quiet them, help them be receptive to the message. The music is used to awe and impress...big organ, beautiful anthem...the Glory of God revealed in Music.

In Contemporary Worship, the aim is to get folks up, singing along, and clapping. There's a beat to the music, and the singing goes on for a good long (20 minutes?) time. Well done, and in a well-filled room (last night was well done but a very small crowd, perhaps 60 people in a room that must seat 4-500 people) all that energy is very, well...enlivening, and I can easily imagine that this, too, helps people to focus on the message of the day.

The did project their words, but to very high screens. I bet there's a science to screen height and I bet those were too high. It was a very good message, weaving in Pentecost, Mothers Day, and the end of a sermon series on the gifts of the Spirit. This was the first time I've seen the use of an embedded video in a sermon...this hilarious clip of all the things Mothers Day, sung to the William Tell Overture. Judging by the comments on YouTube, it was shown in a lot of churches this morning, and a lot of folks looked it up to see it again.

I have to say that it feels just impossibly intimidating to be having to find video clips as a part of sermon-writing. I'm feeling glad that our sanctuary is just too bright for projection.

Speaking of intimidating, I think that finding a music repetoire for Contemporary Worship, especially without violating copywrite law, is going to be the biggest trick of all. These Christian Churches can download their stuff off of websites and easily pay royalties. We UU's can't even easily use things from our own hymnals, not to mention finding a way to get permission to use, say, Cris Williamson's "Song of the Soul" as a worship tune.

Short takes

1. Even in informal worship, I think the preacher and band should be dressed up just a tad.
2. Looks like intergenerational bands work.
3. The band needs to have practiced enough that they can put energy into connecting with the congregation...eye contact, etc.
4. electronic drums: This was a great discovery. They can be played at a volume that would work in our sanctuary, they don't take up too much space, and they are not prohibitively expensive.


Lilylou said...

How does one minister do all this extra planning and execution, when you have three services and each one varies from the others? It makes me tired just to think of it! That's three orders of service, with different music and hymns and readings, etc., it sounds like.

Surely there is a way to do this without exhausting anyone! Is it really as tough as it sounds?

Christine Robinson said...

Actually, we already have 5 services, if you count the three video services. But the video worship leaders do all the planning. My goal for the contemporary (or meditative, our other possibility) service is that its worship leader will do all that planning. The other two services are identical. I'll still be preaching live three times. That is tiring, no doubt about it.

Lilylou said...

So somebody else will do the design and organizing of the service and you'll just preach? I guess I'm thinking of my own setting, which is too small to delegate very much in terms of worship. It's hard to stretch my brain to conceptualize how it would work with more staff and more trained worship leaders. Thanks for the explanation.

Christine Robinson said...

It's been hard for us to conceptualize, too! It's required thinking farther ahead than was comfortable for me and the third service planning will be even farther ahead. Design of the third "live" service will be collaborative, but once we start, the worship leaders and liturgists are going to have a lot more to do, so that all the main speaker has to do is the sermon. It's a sacrifice for me; I like the liturgy.

Anonymous said...

I believe you are very current with what is happening in “worship world”…and you probably already've heard of this, but just in case… I thought I’d share what I learned only a few weeks ago:
I played at a Unity church – a non-denominational, low-key-christian congregation – and in the process of talking to the music director, he mentioned “New Thought Music”, which I’d never heard of; this is apparently a nation-wide musical genre, which I think may’ve emerged out of Unity, but speaks to Unitarian-Universalist ideologies as well. I googled it (12mil. Sites came up) Here’s the main website:

The interesting thing is, that this music kind of "creates" the's all connected.

I think there is a bounty of music avail. For which royalties are not necessary – and I haven’t checked it out, but I’ll bet there is some sort of “hymnal” available, too. In terms of using existing hymnal- extension materials at 1st UU, and getting folks more familiar with contemporary music – what if the prelude was devoted exclusively to this music for several weeks, months? -- to kind of condition the congregation to this idea…and help introduce a 3rd service?

Also, there is a rotating crop of musicians in Albq. who perform this music at various churches, including leading congregations/guest hosting choir leading in such music . I’m sure they require payment, however, what about offering to pay one of them to “consult” with the worship committee about musical worship? Or, for free, I suppose you could find out when they are guests at a particular church and go see them in action! (Like having a local “Jim Scott”, perhaps?) Because I was just at Unity, I learned that Hillary Smith is guest soloist and choir director at Unity in Santa Fe in June. ( I’ve never seen or heard her myself, so I really am not sure what she does!) Here are some of their websites:

…as I sat in the Unity church that Sunday, what struck me is a sense of warmth that I don’t always feel at my own UU church. I connect so much more with UU philosophy or whatever, and UU’ism resonates with my soul; yet there is something else going on at this Unity church that I'm not sure we have – and I do think part of it is in the music…so it is a challenge to figure out how to “borrow” that thing and add it to our own worship. And this was not a “contemporary” service aimed at a younger audience; it was their main service. I’m very glad to hear you’ve crashed other contemporary services; I think that is a great way to figure out what’s happening out there, and how to incorporate it into our community.

finally...I agree with the other comments you received...this is sure a big chunk to bite off much less chew...a lot of help is needed!

Kelsey Atherton said...

It isn't quite big enough/appropriate enough yet, but it'd be a fun project for the web savvy young adult on the worship team: creative commons music.

The creative commons is an awesome thing, and while not all the work will be free and appropriate, a lot of it will be, especially given the context of exposure during a sermon.
Here's a place to start (, and off the first three we've got some instrumental Catalan guitar (, some modern lo-fi folk-rock (, and some more guitar-driven instrumental work by a Santa Fean (

The other thing to keep in mind with this would be the creative commons legal definition of "non-commercial", and make sure it applies to church use. Feel free to pass this along to the worship committee, or Vance Bass (I've a hunch he'd be interested).

Elizabeth J. Barrett said...

We have three services at my UU congregation: Saturday at 4:30 PM (September-May) is the more multi-generational service. It is less formal than the Sunday morning services, so that children (and adults) can come and go during the service without causing a disturbance.

The same minister does all three services, using the same sermon and the same readings. We have children's RE for all three services.

We're thinking about a soulful sundown type of service that would be more "contemporary" and could be held on a Sunday evening. I went to a soulful sundown service at GA led by Chris Sims, Matt Meyer, and some other folks. It was very moving -- one of the best worship services I've been to.