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….