Memorial services are on my mind at the moment, because I’ve led two memorial services in the past week and a half. Weddings are on my mind, too, because at church we are in the midst of reviewing our wedding policies. So today when I started thinking about how to create more engaging worship services, it suddenly occurred to me that common, ordinary Sunday worship has to be connected with memorial services and weddings.
Maybe I need to explain why they need to be connected. A memorial service, a wedding, and a regular Sunday worship service all deal with the big human mysteries: life, death, birth, suffering, hope, grief. Take hope and grief as examples. Regular Sunday worship is a time when people can, among other things, reflect on their day-to-day hopes and griefs. A memorial service is a time when people can, among other things, grieve the death of someone they loved and hope for a continuation of life. A wedding is a time when people can, among other things, grieve over losing a son or daughter or friend or sibling to a new household and a new more important relationship; and of course a wedding is a time of hope and joy.
Thus you can see that weddings, memorial services, and regular Sunday worship services share important themes. You could also add christenings or child dedications, and confirmation or coming-of-age services to this list. You could also add special services such as Christmas eve candlelight services. The same theological and religious themes run through all these types of services. That says to me that if you want to change regular Sunday worship services, or if you want to add other new worship services to your worship line-up, any changes should be linked to all the other special services your church offers.
Think about it this way. Every church is going to have a few people who are “twice-a-year attenders,” people who rarely come to regular worship services. But these people do attend Christmas eve candlelight services, they do come to weddings and child dedications and memorial services. And, with a fair amount of regularity, a child dedication or a memorial service touches one of these twice-a-year attenders deeply enough that he or she starts coming to church regularly. When that happens, doesn’t it make sense that the wedding or memorial service look enough like a regular Sunday worship service that that twice-a-year attender feels comfortable?
For example: as a minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I feel that means that as a minimum every service I conduct has to have something like a sermon. I feel that the sermon is perhaps the most distinctive part of Unitarian Universalist worship; after all, we claim to be people who think hard about religion, which is related to our claim to be people who disdain empty ritual as a kind of idolatry. Further, a Unitarian Unviersalist sermon (at its best) is really one installment in a long-term constantly evolving dialogue between the minister and the congregation, thus acknowledging the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. (Not that I’m a big fan of sermons myself — I don’t process auditory information particularly well, so I tend to drift off during sermons — but I recognize that sermons are central to my religious tradition.)
So a memorial service that I conduct will always have a reflection or homily on the deceased person’s life. A wedding that I conduct will always have a homily about marriage and the couple’s path to marriage. Child dedications are usually too short to include even a homily, but I do make a point of explaining what we are doing when we dedicate a child. And so on, for other special services.
To stick with the specific example of sermons for a bit longer, all this means for me that any alternative worship service I want to engage in on a regular basis has to contain something equivalent to a sermon. Maybe you can change the form of the sermon a bit, but any sermon has to be the original, thoughtful creation of the worship leader, something that engages the congregation in a long-term dialogue. To go beyond the specific example of including a sermon, any alternative or special worship service that I do has to feel enough like a regular Sunday worship service that if you attend one, you won’t be entirely at sea attending the other.
In short, I think it’s time that those of us who are advocates of alternative worship in Unitarian Universalism address these questions: Will your brand-spanking-new alternative worship format be able to handle memorial services and child dedications? –and– What is so central to Unitarian Universalist worship that it must be included in any alternative worship service?