You are here: Home > Resources > Experiment in alternative worship

An experiment in alternative worship

I wrote this description of alternative worship services at First Parish in Lexington (Mass.) back in 2002. Because of the ongoing interest in circle worship and alternative worship in Unitarian Universalist circles, I decided to revise this material, and make it available on the Web. If you're excited by the possibilities of circle worship, please read the cautionary notes at the end with great care. (Revised March, 2006)

Planning our alternative worship service
A theology for circle worship
Learning styles and intergenerational worship
Evaluation of the worship services

Planning our alternative worship service

Plans and priorities

In March, 2001, the three program staff then working at First Parish in Lexington (Massachusetts) began offering alternative worship services Sunday evenings. These three people were Rev. Helen Cohen, senior minister; Rev. Ellen Spero, assistant minister; and myself, at that time Director of Religious Education (DRE) and ministerial intern. In autumn, 2000, when Ellen first began working at First Parish as assistant minister, she began talking about possibilities for alternative worship services. Ellen, Helen, and I felt there was expressed need and support for some sort of alternative worship service at First Parish. But what form would it take?

Ellen made an initial formal proposal for this alternative worship service to lay leadership and committees, who offered valuable feedback which helped shape our plans. A few priorities emerged in the discussions following initial proposal:

Based on these priorities, we began to plan our new worship services.

Shaping time and space

We first had to answer two questions: How would we shape the space of the worship setting? And: How would we shape time through liturgy? We read about alternative Unitarian Universalist models for worship, although we were also open to the influence of non-Unitarian Universalist worship services.

When we started thinking about how to shape the space, we were drawn to the liturgical experimentation of Kenneth Patton and his congregation at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. As Patton had done, we decided to seat the congregation in a circle. This meant we would have to move the worship service from the main sanctuary, which had fixed pews, to the smaller Parish Hall, where we could set up moveable chairs. We arranged the chairs in concentric circles, with an open center and four wedge-shaped open areas.

Like Patton, we also decided to begin the worship services by lighting a flame, although we went far beyond what Patton had done with his flame. Patton's lit a flame in a lamp of Graeco-Roman shape, which simply represented the wisdom of the ancient world. In our worship services, a flame was lit before the beginning of the worship services (I thought of it this way: this first candle represented the "light of the ages," the truth that is available to humankind in all ages -- Helen and Ellen had differing understandings of this however). This candle stood outside the circle of chairs. From this flame, we lit a Unitarian Universalist chalice, representing how we as a religious tradition are one manifestation of the light of the ages. This chalice was part of the inner circle of chairs. Finally, towards the end of our worship services, persons in the congregation were invited to light candles of joy and concern, using a flame kindled from the chalice. These candles stood in the center of the circle, thus representing our primary emphasis on the gathered religious community.

Thus we moved from a flame representing the "light of the ages," to a flame representing Unitarian Universalism, to many flames representing our own individual lives. Both time and space were shaped by the lighting of candles.

A typical order of service

(First candle, outside the circle of chairs, was lit before worship service started)

Opening music (recorded music)


Opening words

Lighting the Chalice (candle in chalice, part of the inner circle of chairs, was lit by worship leader)

Unison Affirmation (the same affirmation used on Sunday morning)

Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is its sacrament,
And service is its prayer.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another
To the end that all souls shall grow
into harmony with the divine.

Song (songs were sung a capella, and we gradually built up a repertoire of simple songs that the regular attenders had memorized)

Offertory (with recorded music)

Centerpiece (e.g., sermon, play, meditation, other activities)


Joys and concerns (candles in center of circle were lit by members of the congregation)

Unison benediction (the same benediction was said by the entire congregation each week, usually as we stood and held hands)

This church is dedicated to the proposition that behind all our differences, beneath all our diversity,
there is a unity which makes us one and binds us forever together,
in spite of time and death and the space between the stars.
We pause in silent witness to that unity.

Social hour
The candles were left burning during social hour, which was held in the same room as the worship service.)

While we never discussed it, certainly Helen, Ellen and I were aware that coffee hour amongst Unitarian Universalists has largely replaced the table fellowship of eucharist, or communion, in more traditional Christian churches; thus, leaving the candles lit during social hour made our table fellowship of shared coffee and snacks into part of the liturgy. (As primary worship leader for these alternative services, and as someone with a feminist Christian theology, Ellen may have explicitly planned this I'll have to ask her sometime.)

A theology for circle worship

It's best to begin with definitions. A simple definition of circle worship is any worship service where the congregation and the worship leaders wit in a circle together. But while the simple shape of the service helps define circle worship, a theological understanding turns out to be more complicated. Not only that, but several different theologies of circle worship are possible. What follows is the beginnings of a conversation for a theology for circle worship.

For Ellen and me, the impetus for circle worship probably began in second-wave feminist theology. My understandings of circle worship came, at that time, primarily from my participation in feminist neo-pagan rituals and worship services. In addition to these experiences, I found myself drawing loosely on the understanding of circle worship outlined by Starhawk in Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics. In my loose interpretation of Starhawk, while there is a worship leader, circle worship requires the full and in some sense equal participation of all the worshippers, as reality is reshaped in and by worship to the end that good may prevail in the world. The image of the circle, therefore, grows out of the image of reality as a web: there are web-connections between persons in the circle, and there are web-connections between this circle of worship and all other circles of worship. Clearly, these non-hierarchical images of circle and web represent a feminist alternative to "rectangular worship" (to use Peter Richardson's felicitous term), with one or a few worship leaders in a hierarchical role over and above the mass of the congregation.

Ellen drew inspiration from the Christian feminist theology of Letty Russell, among others. In her book Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretations of the Church, Russell lays out feminist possibilities for many aspects of Christian church life. In regard to feminist explorations of new leadership styles, Russell writes: "This search for new styles of partnership in the church has become a worldwide movement dedicated to changing Jacob's-ladder leadership to leadership in the form of Sarah's circle." (p. 63) Russell draws upon the early Christian history of house churches as a model for alternative leadership styles. In terms of worship, Russell uses the image of the "welcome table," where all are welcomed equally; she quotes a poem by Chuck Lathrop:

Roundtabling means
no preferred seating
no first and last,
no better, and no corners
for the "least of these."

These understandings of leadership, welcome, and justice all shaped our evening worship services.

In addition, Ellen and I looked at a vespers liturgy by the Congregation of Abraxas and liturgies of Kenneth Patton. But we drew most heavily on the existing liturgy of First Parish, shortening and reshaping the standard morning liturgy for the purposes of our intergenerational, circle-based, evening worship. We continued to play with the liturgy for the year and a half that we continued these alternative worship services; indeed, that became an essential part of what we do. The liturgy had not been handed down from on high, never to be changed, but it was continuously reshaped by worship leaders and congregation, shaped by the connections we shared with all persons who worship with us.

Learning styles and intergenerational worship

Including children was a key element of our feminist theology of worship; children for us are not things to shut out of "adult worship"; rather, we felt, and feel, that children are sacred beings (as are adults) worthy of full inclusion in worship.

For this understanding, we drew in part from Engaging in Transcendence: The Church's Ministry and Covenant with Young Children, by Barbara and William Myers, who point out that religious communities are "called" into a "relational way of understanding and being" that we call a "covenant." Extending our worship covenant to children raised some practical and logistical issues, and Myers and Myers helped our understanding of how children may participate in worship. They suggest a carpet for children with quiet toys that is placed so that children can feel a full part of the worship community. We incorporated such a carpet as a part of the worship circle, in one of the wedge-shaped areas with no chairs.

Ellen and I went beyond that, however. Both of us had been trained as educators Ellen as a special education teacher, and I as a religious educator and we decided to apply our knowledge of learning styles to worship. We felt that traditional Unitarian Universalist liturgies emphasize spoken word too heavily for many children, so from the beginning the liturgy and the worship space were designed to accommodate not only the spoken word but also drama, dance and other kinds of movement, visual arts, etc. The worship circle included open areas to accomodate music and the lively arts; and the layout of chairs was easily rearranged to meet the requirements of a given service. The liturgy had only a few fixed elements at the beginning and the end, so the middle of the liturgy was extremely flexible.

Range of learning styles covered

The list below gives some idea of the range of worship elements we were able to successfully include in these alternative worship services. The primary learning style for each worship service (auditory, kinesthetic, visual) is identified. In parentheses, one or two primary multiple intelligences, as defined in the work of educational theorist Howard Gardner, is/are identified for each worship service (however, I assumed that all worship services by definition draw on the Existential intelligence, and so did not list that each time).

Other kid-friendly elements

A few other child-friendly elements should be mentioned:

Evaluation of these alternative worship services

I still feel that we had just begun to explore the potential of the evening worship services, when Ellen and I left First Parish in June, 2002. It would have been interesting to continue the experiment, perhaps especially if we had rescheduled the worship service to a better time slot (see below).

In terms of attendance, the results of this alternative worship service were disappointing. In the first three months of offering these worship services, attendance peaked at 45 people, out of an active membership of perhaps 200 people. However, attendance dropped to an average of about 12 by fall, 2001, rising only slightly in the spring of 2002. Three factors having nothing to do with alternative worship may have affected attendance. First, the events of September 11, 2002, may have lessened the taste for unfamiliar worship forms. Second, the senior minister of First Parish announced her retirement after 22 years of ministry in early fall of 2002; the assistant minister and I announced our own departures not long thereafter. Third, Sunday evening turned out to be a difficult time for many households to attend a second worship service; I now believe Saturday evening at the same time would be better.

At the same time, I now believe that, in spite of what they say, most people currently in Unitarian Universalist congregations are not interested in circle worship. Probably the only way to build attendance is to continue this sort of service long enough to attract newcomers who would prefer circle worship to traditional worship. Therefore, if you're not willing to make a five-year commitment to an alternative worship service, I now feel you shouldn't even bother.

Although it remained an unfinished experiment when it ended, over the intervening years I have drawn some conclusions from this alternative worship service:

  1. We were able to develop ways to integrate all ages, and I felt we proved that children, youth, and adults can be part of the same worship service and all get something satisfying out of that worship service.
  2. As a corollary, I feel these worship services functioned as a form of "distributed cognition," in which young people were able to perform above normal expectations for their age and stage of life.
  3. The structure of the space and the liturgy made it easy to include drama, music, visual arts, and spoken word into the worship services.
  4. The visual and temporal imagery of the candle-lighting, and the repeated, memorized worship elements, gave a strong structure that allowed more flexibility than in a traditional Unitarian Universalist order of service.
  5. Evening is a great time for worship. We had sunshine in spring and summer, and darkness in fall and winter, which led to some powerful worship moments -- like candles on dark winter evenings, and sun pouring in the windows in late spring.
  6. Alternative worship is time-consuming, and the more innovative the worship service the longer it took to prepare. It could easily take eight to sixteen hours to prepare for one particularly innovative forty-five minute worship service.
  7. We were wrong about the age group we thought we would attract. We thought we'd attract people under 40, but we had a pretty even age distribution among our regular attenders, from teens to elders.
  8. None of the proponents for alternative worship in the wider congregation became regular attenders at our alternative worship services. I suspect that many of the voices calling for an alternative worship service really wanted to radically change the Sunday morning worship service, and/or wanted to be the ones leading worship themselves.
  9. Circle worship is more difficult to plan for and prepare than traditional Unitarian Universalist worship. There are more variables for the worship leader to play with, and the addition of each variable increases the complexity exponentially. Do not underestimate the difficulty of leading circle worship.

One last conclusion I have drawn:

10. You'd be crazy to do something like this alone.

Copyright © 2006 Daniel Harper. All rights reserved.