Independent prayer groups and engaging worship

Meg, an old friend back from the days when I was under 35 and heavily involved with Unitarian Universalist young adult programs, recently sent me an article about “the independent prayer groups, or minyanim, that Jews in their 20s and 30s have organized in the last five years in at least 27 cities around the country.” You can find the blog of one such independent prayer group here.

The article, written by Neela Banerjee, was titled “Challenging Tradition, Young Jews Worship on Their Terms,” and ran in the November 28 issue of the New York Times. Bannerjee claimed that these young Jews and their independent minayim “are challenging traditional Jewish notions of prayer, community and identity.” But Bannerjee also quotes a rabbi who sees these independent minayim as being a very positive force:

“If we were to say, ‘We are sticking to one institutional form or go away,’ then we would die as a people,” said Rabbi Feinstein, who is at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., a Conservative synagogue. “Is it going to take young Jews that synagogues are counting on? Yes, unless you offer something better. Or better yet, invite the emergents in and make common cause.”

Indeed. Why not invite the emergents in and make common cause? That’s one of the reasons I fully supporty having CUUPS pagan groups affiliated with Unitarian Universalist congregations.

In any case, hearing from Meg reminded me about my days in Unitarian Universalist young adult groups. Lord knows those groups had their problems — chaos, disorganization, and conflict being chief among them — but when we managed to do worship, it was mostly very compelling. Indeed, the only time my partner Carol has regularly attended Unitarian Universalist worship was when we were going to young adult worship together.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: most Unitarian Universalist worship is pretty boring. Now that I’m middle-aged and no longer belong to young adult groups, where would I go to get a deeply spiritual experience? Personally, I would teach Sunday school rather than attend worship at almost any Unitarian Universalist church — not only do I find hanging out with Unitarian Universalist kids to be spiritually challenging and life-affirming — but most Unitarian Universalist worship doesn’t engage me, challenge me, help me to deal with my life or the wider world, feel like a celebration, or do any of the things that I want worship to do.

I can count the exceptions on my fingers: one worship service at All Souls Church in Washington, DC, where I felt truly uplifted in spite of a mediocre sermon; once at Church of the Open Door in Chicago’s South Side back when Karen Hutt and Alma Faith Crawford were ministers there; two or three worship services in the outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach, the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine, led by Paul Boothby and one or two others. And I’ll add that I attended worship services regularly at First Parish in Concord, Mass., when I was in my early twenties and Dana Greeley was preaching there — his sermons managed to be spiritually fulfilling and outwardly directed at the same time.

Not that I know how to create truly dynamite Unitarian Universalist worship services that result in redemptive, transformative experiences — I’m all too well aware that the worship services I lead often leave a lot to be desired.

So, dear reader — even though there’s no such thing as a sure-fire recipe for truly good worship, tell me your ideas. What makes for truly kick-ass worship? How do you feel about independent UU prayer groups? Where do you go to find “redemptive, transformative experiences that give rhythm to [your] days and weeks and give meaning to [your] lives”? I’d especially like to hear from people in their 20s and 30s, and from middle-aged folks like Meg and me who are kinda bored by the usual Unitarian Universalist worship.

11 thoughts on “Independent prayer groups and engaging worship

  1. Terri

    I am 31, and have only been to four UU churches. Three of those are small churches (fewer than 150 members). My experience at First Unitarian of Rochester (which has close to 1000 members) was wonderful– EXCEPT for the organ music. The younger people there have been butting heads to change this, but as the average age of the congregation is still over 60, change has been slow. Still, I’m not complaining. Three amazing preachers who also bring in storytelling, drama, and sometimes even bluegrass into their worship services?? They have also introduced unique rituals (a memory tree service and a thread ceremony, for example)….. so if I have to put up with the organ music at every service, i suppose it’s a compromise i can live with. I rarely leave service without feeling uplifted, moved, transformed…
    As for the small churches? Yep. Pretty boring. The most spiritually engaging place for me there is in front of the church. I try to bring in some of what I take from my Rochester church into the small church on the occasions that I get to lead a service. There is good congregational singing though, as long as our music leaders pick the right hymns!

  2. Herb Tyson

    Inspiring worship at UU churches might be hard to come by because inspiration is somewhat at odds with our rational approach to life and discussion. I have a feeling that we would rather discuss inspiration than be inspired.

    With few exceptions, my best expectations about UU services are that they leave me thinking about something in a way I hadn’t before… or, on rarer occasions, they challenge me to clear out the cobwebs and completely discard something I thought I knew (cognitive dissonance). I love discovering that I’m wrong… it’s almost inspiring, but not quite.

    That notwithstanding, I can’t help thinking that inspiration has a lot to do with the presentation. I’ve listened to a number of Kim K. Crawford Harvie’s (Arlington Street Church) sermons, and despite my best efforts, I can never get through an entire sermon without tearing up. My tear ducts are my inspiration barometer.

    Fortunately, I live 500 miles away in Mt. Vernon Virginia… If I attended Kim’s services on a regular basis, I don’t think my supply of handkerchiefs would be sufficient to blot up the emotion of her delivery.

    Yours is a fun blog, and it does what a good UU blog should do… it gives one something to think about. I enjoyed the Doris Lessing youtube clip, which I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Thanks for being visible.

  3. Shelby Meyerhoff

    “What makes for a truly kick-ass worship?”

    Some things that come to mind for me are…

    Music that is vibrant and accessible
    Preaching that has a clear message that is relevant to listeners’ lives
    Story-telling (but not in a way that makes adults feel like observers)
    Stimulation of all five senses where possible
    Minimum of “business” talk
    Worship leaders who are warm, friendly, joyful and expressive
    Quality – a sense that the service has been carefully thought-out and executed with a minimum of bumbling (and when a bumbling moment cannot be avoided, the worship leader precedes with humor)
    Community – effort is made during the service to help people feel welcome (this effort should start the moment worship attendees pull into the parking lot or approach the front of the church property)

  4. Dan

    Steven R — Yes, that is true. So, given the generally small congregations we Unitarian Universalists, perhaps what we need to do is be less butt-cringe-worthy.

    Terri — Is it the organ, or the music that is played on that organ? Our music director here in New Bedford plays Beatles, REM, and Scott Joplin on the organ, and avoids the usual 19th C. classical repertoire, which I think makes the organ much more interesting….

    Herb — You write: “Inspiring worship at UU churches might be hard to come by because inspiration is somewhat at odds with our rational approach to life and discussion.” Boy, I just don’t agree with this statement on two levels. First, if rational discussion is done well, I find it truly inspiring. Second, as a Transcendentalist myself, I feel there’s a huge role for intuition and trans-rational discourse in Unitarian Universalism — if Ralph Waldo Emerson were still alive and preaching in Unitarian churches, I’d go hear him! I’d say Kim Harvie is in the Transcendentalist tradition (after all, she did grow up in Concord, Mass.).

    You also write: “I love discovering that I’m wrong… it’s almost inspiring, but not quite.” Or maybe you just have really really high standards. Personally, discovering that I’m wrong is about the most inspiring thing that can happen to me.

    Shelby — I love your checklist. I’m with you all the way. Now I’m trying to figure out if you’ve left anything out….

  5. Tibra

    Dan –

    How about posting some video clips to hold up what you consider to be e engaging worship? We can blog all we want, but I think it’s better vlogged than blogged.

  6. Steven R

    ” given the generally small congregations we Unitarian Universalists, perhaps what we need to do is be less butt-cringe-worthy.”

    yeah, but my point was (maybe not that well written) that what you personaly might find awesome, I might find awful.

    For example, hearing about youth worship makes me stay home – I’ve never seen or heard youth worship that was any good. period. but of course that is me. YMMV
    I like folks songs (quick, can someone guess my age? ;-) ) but can well understand that a lot of folks wouldnt. I like peppy strong anthems to sing, that you can almost shout out, but looking at our hymnals a lot of folks don’t.
    Of course, I rather go to a church with less than 100 people than on with more – and you couldn’t get me in the door of a place with 1000, that would be my definition of what Hell is…
    (honesty note: for enough money you could get me in the door of a 1000 member church for about one hour – just no questions about the service, cause I would be zoned out- and I admit that I would go for free, if I could read a book during the service, but that would clearly define it as not inspiring for me)–

    my hat’s off for you people who enjoy the things that I can’t.

  7. Dan

    Tibra — Honestly, I don’t believe videos capture the essence of truly engaging worship as well as prose. Nonetheless, if I could get signed releases from worship leaders and worshippers, I might just post a video some day….

    Steve R — No, I got what you said, and mostly agree. I was just making a snarky comment to the effect that most UU worship is indeed butt-cringe-worthy. I’m also with you on youth worship — I’ve seen lots of youth worship, and only a few such services that truly moved me.

  8. Tibra

    Dan –

    Looking forward to it. As imperfect a medium as video might be in imparting engaged-ness, we can take that into account. How to make worship engaging via video is not the objective in this case, but rather it is experiencing, as best we can short of being there in person, “Engaging Worship” vs “Traditional Congregational Worship”. Just tell us “Trust me, this is engaging in person”, and we’ll take your word for it. I think it’ll be a worthwhile experiment. Shelby’s list is great, but I still want to ask “SHOW me what you mean!” And YouTube or Blip or whatever can let us do just that.

  9. Dan

    Tibra — Just by coincidence, we may be videotaping an upcoming worship service — if it happens, I’ll see if I can do something with that. Maybe clips from the worship service interspersed with commentary?…

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