Some criteria for seriously innovative worship

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….

7 thoughts on “Some criteria for seriously innovative worship

  1. Paul Oakley

    Dan, would you please flesh out Criterion 1? I am not sure I understand either the weakness you point out in “Circle worship” or the alternative, as you see it. I start to think I understand and then my brain careens right or left and I’ve lost the connection. Just a bit more for me, who am a bit slow on the uptake, evidently.

  2. Dan

    Paul @ 2 — Oftentimes, the very form of circle worship seems to force certain theological assumptions. Most noticeably to me, circle worship usually adopts (without much critical thought) the assumption of Neopagainsm or feminist Christianity that there is some kind of supernatural otherness that is a part of the worship service. Also noticeable to me is that circle worship is usually a closed circle that looks inward, which always irritates my liberation theology sensibilities — where is there room for the poor and the dispossessed to come in to the circle? — where is there room for people who don’t feel powerful enough yet to sit in the front row?

    The form of worship has theological assumptions built into it. It’s important to look for those theological assumptions, challenge them if necessary, and shape the form of the service as much as possible to allow for inclusivity.

  3. Paul Oakley

    I see. Interesting, because my assumption in the UU circle formations I’ve worshiped in was always distinctly humanist. The group came together, sufficient for that moment to its own needs, even though acknowledging its interdependence with all existence. The place for service to humanity came on parting. (Enter to worship, depart to serve, the old church saw goes.)

    I agree completely that “the form of worship has theological assumptions built into it.” In fact, I believe the setting in which the worship takes place also has theological assumptions associated with it.

    Sitting in front-facing rows of chairs or pews has much more problematic theological implications than does the circle, IMO. Among the possible implications:

    – The authority and control belong to the leaders.
    – The music and rituals are a kind of performance either on behalf of and for the benefit of the congregation or for their religious entertainment.
    – Worship is oriented to one of the 4 directions or toward a single, holy geographic location, with all worshipers oriented toward the same reality.
    – The important part of worship is the instruction of the sermon rather than the sharing of an experience of grace.
    – Religious meetings are modeled on business and governmental meetings or educational lectures where inequality, stratification, authority, control, and judgment are always present rather than being modeled on images from an inclusive theology.

    It could be one or more of those or something else. But what is absolutely certain is that the seating arrangement is not neutral. It might contradict the other messages of the service or reinforce them, But it always has a theological impact.

  4. Kat

    Re: Criterion 4 — what is the balance between being radically inclusive and being able to go deeper through more complex liturgy? I’m not sure if I’m expressing this correctly, but it has always seemed to me that the faiths that have the richest worship are not necessarily ones you can just walk in off the street and get everything right away. Catholic Mass comes to mind immediately because it is what I’m most familiar with, along with the adjectives complex, layered, nuanced, symbolic. Is it an attainable goal to be deep and radically inclusive? I find most UU worship I’ve ever attended to be quite shallow (to continue with that metaphor). There’s not really anything below the surface that becomes evident with or rewards repetition, study, contemplation. We put everything right up there on the surface. Just curious about your thoughts on this.

  5. Dan

    Kat @ 6 — First of all, you need to go to King’s Chapel next time you’re in Boston! They use a modified form of the Anglican liturgy (they originated as an Anglican church, and revised the Book of Common Prayer in 1785 to remove all references to the trinity). There were also several liturgical revivals within Universalism, though most have disappeared except perhaps Universalist National in Washington (since I haven’t been there myself, I’m going by their reputation).

    To answer your question, many people would argue that liturgical traditions like Anglicanism and Catholicism are more inclusive, since many of the same elements are repeated week after week. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer helps make their worship inclusive, because you can follow along, and always know where you are (also true of some of the Orthodox traditions).

    There was a beauty and depth in certain kinds of old-school Unitarian Universalist worship, which lay in the simplicity of the worship service, and its emphasis on the spoken word. The symbolism was no less profound for being quite simple: everything must be able to be seen and heard by all those present; the work of the people was to bring the word to life by hearing the word spoken; visual symbolism was kept to a minimum to get in the way of the eternal truths that all were partaking in through hearing the word.

    There are very few congregations that maintain that old style of worship based on simplicity. It seems to me that we are now in an awkward stage, where we have begun incorporating new symbols and rituals (the chalice, joys and concerns, and similar worship elements date only from the 1980s) that we still haven’t invested with any real depth or serious meaning. I suspect that the shallowness that you sense comes from this awkward transition — but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of these new symbols becoming invested with meaning, perhaps in another five generations or so.

  6. Kat

    @ Dan — Thanks for responding. A modified Book of Common Prayer=fascinating. I agree with your use of the word awkward.

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