Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 4

Fourth in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.

(C) Private devotions and small group worship in a post-Christian congregation, continued

(C.2) Small groups

Small group worship occupies a middle ground between private devotions and common worship. At its best, small group worship offers a continuing opportunity for renewal and reform. James Luther Adams (1976, p. 85) talks about this aspect of small groups when he describes the ecclesiola in ecclesia as a possibility for ongoing reform of voluntary associations:

In the modern period the ecclesiola has been the small group of firm dedication that sometimes promotes the disciplines of the inner life, sometimes bends its energies to sensitize the church afflicted with ecclesiastical somnolence, sometimes cooperates with members of the latent church in the world to bring about reform in government or school or industry, or even to call for radical structural transformation.

Small group worship can take on this positive, reforming aspect in post-Christian congregations. Feminist worship groups in the second wave of feminism (1960’s and 1970’s) may serve as an example of small groups helping to sensitize larger congregations to the possibility of ecclesiastical somnolence. Many such feminist worship groups worked on developing new worship language and new forms of worship that allowed men and women to be true equals (the wide-spread “Water Communion” in Unitarian Universalist congregations in fact originated with a small feminist worship group). Certain Neo-Pagan groups within a larger Unitarian Universalist congregation have operated in this way, challenging liturgical and theological assumptions of the congregation, particularly in the areas of feminism and environmentalism, while remaining fully connected with it. Outside Unitarian Universalism, we might consider the revolutionary role assigned to small groups (base communities) by practitioners of liberation theology.

Post-Christian small group worship need not look outside our Christian heritage (e.g., to Neo-Paganism or to newly invented forms) for inspiration. Interesting possibilities for small group worship exist within our own historical (Christian) tradition. For example, D. H. Tripp (1992, p. 449), in “The Office in the Lutheran, Reformed, and Free Churches,” says that in the 18th and 19th centuries, “individual Congregational ministers produced variants of the Anglican office, chiefly for local use.” Tripp notes that “provision for daily office concentrated on materials to help the individual express by prayer the believer’s in Christ’s priesthood,” but also, “even more generously, to enable the family to function as an ecclesiola through daily corporate worship.” This appears to be the tradition from which the Congregation of Abraxas drew to create The Book of Hours c. 1988, which set forth what might be termed a post-Christian daily office. The Congregation of Abraxas offered formats for four daily offices, saying that each one “is designed to be said privately (as a personal devotional discipline) or in common with others who gather to share meditation and prayer.”

But at its worst, small group worship can become a kind of esoteric flight from common worship. Where this happens, it likely results from the same kind of hubris that allows individuals to pursue a private devotional life while removing themselves from the demands of common worship. There is a particularly dark side to this hubris, and that is when bias results in the refusal to engage with persons who are different from ourselves by removing ourselves from common worship. Age and theology are common forms of bias that result in an esoteric flight from common worship.

Such small group worship services are designed to meet the needs of small in-groups, and tend to function as divisive elements, rather than as revolutionary or challenging elements, within the wider congregation or association. Examples of this kind of small group worship can be found throughout Unitarian Universalism. Two examples will suffice: there exist youth and young adults groups which exclude older adults and children from their small group worship and which avoid attendance at common worship; there exist neo-Pagan groups which remove themselves from common worship and solely participate in small group worship. Not infrequently, these small groups try to widen the division by creating new and esoteric forms of worship which act to exclude non-initiates. Of course, these problems (as we shall soon see) are not limited to worship services where there are few people in attendance.

Having looked at (all too briefly) private devotions and small group worship, we can return to an examination of common worship.

Next: Post-Christian preaching?

3 thoughts on “Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 4

  1. Phil on the Prairie

    I’m thinking that covenant groups provide a kind of small group worship that avoids the divisive elements you mention–especially the kind of group structure that has individual groups exploring a shared theme in a worshipful manner.

  2. Administrator

    Phil-on-the-Prairie — I’m thinking you’re right — call them covenant groups, or small group ministries, or cell groups, they could support intentional, non-divisive small group devotions. Actually, so could Sunday school classes for young people. I really like your idea of several small groups exploring a shared theme, and maybe that shared theme could derive from the kind of post-Christian lectionary mentioned earlier, which would also provide a structure for common worship and religious education.

  3. Lyn C

    Thanks so much for this series and for all of your thoughtful analysis.

    The comment about exclusive small group worship speaks to the heart of some of the dilemmas I deal with in my own work. I believe that there is a place for religious affinity groups such as Young Adult groups, groups based on gender identity, and small groups for specific spiritual practices within a pluralistic congregation. I agree with (what I am hearing as) your frustration when those groups become exclusive rather than connected to the larger, publicly-worshipping congregation. I’m a UU Pagan and a Young Adult, and I can’t begin to describe how nuts it makes me when small groups with whom I share identities don’t step up to their responsibilities to the larger UU community.

    Where I’m stuck is in healing the spiritual and social wounds that cause this closing off. I agree with you that participants in identity-based or practice-based small groups have a responsibility to stay connected. I advocate like crazy for Young Adults to be part of congregational life and intergenerational denominational life.

    I also see a failure of responsibility on the part of professional ministers (myself included) and other congregational leaders. When a small group starts to close off, I think they can be invited back into right relation with the congregation as a whole. That requires someone paying attention to what is going on with small groups. We also have responsibilities related to hearing the multiple voices and framing ways for all of the different constituencies to influence our shared worship life. I have repeatedly seen UU Pagans and Young Adult ministries (groups and otherwise) abandoned by the lay and professional leaders of congregations.

    I think a liturgical year such as the one you suggest would be really helpful in giving small groups an entry point into connection with the larger congregation. If the themes and sources of public worship are determined entirely inside the Senior Minister’s head, small constituencies within the congregation have no way of linking their small-group worship and activities with the rest of the community. Transparent worship planning and governance are really helpful in bringing together the multiple voices in a pluralistic congregation.

    Perhaps this failure of responsibility among leaders didn’t occur to you because it’s not a mistake you make personally – I trust you to make it your business to be aware of what’s going in with Youth and Young Adults and all of the other identity groups in your congregation. I know how committed you are to creating philosophical and procedural frameworks that include the whole intergenerational community.

    Again, thanks for everything. You rock.

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