“Worship” means many things to many people. It refers to acts and attitudes, celebrations and rituals, events shared by groups and individual experiences. It refers to ascribing value or worth to ideals, ideas, beliefs; to giving homage and praise to a god or gods; to taking time and intention to centering oneself and focusing on values and ideals. Definitions of “worship” are at best culturally contextual – there is no one right or shared definition. The following is how we describe Unitarian Universalist Worship at People’s Church.
Anglo- Saxon Roots
One of the most common ways to define or describe what the word worship means among Unitarian Universalist ministers is to trace the development of the word from the 12th century Anglo-Saxon roots. For example:
The verb worship means to shape worth. The meanings of worth suggest the purpose of worshipping: to come to be equal to, or to turn toward, the highest or best values. To worship is to give useful, instructive shape to those often abstract values, to symbolize or articulate them in memorable and helpful ways. We create, and we cut back, the words and symbols we use in worship according to their usefulness. They are never fixed, but do endure as long as they serve the purpose of showing us the good we strive toward (or of binding a worshipping community together).
~Rev. Paul R. Beedle, UU Minister, Stafford, TX
A Broad Definition
In the early 1980s, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) appointed a commission of ministers to write a resource booklet and guide to worship of UU congregations. The booklet produced by that commission in 1983 (Leading Congregations in Worship – A Guide) included the following broad description.
The aim of all worship is to help order the religious consciousness in the individual and in the group. To say that in a different way: it is to help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, to the world, to the totality of being. The aim of common or corporate worship is to help us face up to our individual and collective limitations and failures, and to open us to sources of creative, healing, transforming and renewing power. It is to help us discover how that which transcends our narrow individual existence can move us, challenge us, inspire us, stimulate us to think, feel, act and be. It is to help us declare, celebrate, rejoice in those things we have found to be “of worth. The aim of common worship is to help us reorder, reopen, reshape and interpret our experience to help us find the power to reaffirm again and again in word and deed what is worthy of our ultimate commitment. ~Commission on Common Worship – UUA 1983
Protestant Roots with New Diversity
Unitarian Universalism is a tradition coming from the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation, a decades-long struggle within western Christianity, to define sources of religious authority and forms of religious community. The most common Sunday Service in a UU congregation looks more like a protestant Christian worship service than any other kind of worship. Yet, in nearly 200 years of American Unitarian/Universalism, much has changed as the religious culture has become much more diverse. Therefore, our services include diverse elements and broad aims.
People’s Church Worship – Sunday Service
The language of “service” (as in Sunday Service) is reminiscent of Catholic and other forms of worship which were based on liturgies, or scripted conversation, designed to teach doctrine and re-enact shared beliefs among a community of believers. When we refer to the Sunday Service, we are referring not to a specific liturgy, but to a program of readings, music, meditations, essays, silence, sharing, and more, the goal of which is to remind us of our highest ideals while acknowledging the realities of human life.
People’s Church Sunday Service – The Gathering of the Community
We begin with The Gathering of the Community, which includes:
- Music for Gathering – welcoming, inspiring, and/or contemplative, to help people bring their attention to this time and place
- Welcome – an assurance that all are free to attend and participate
- Announcements – an educational moment, to inform about the priorities, work, and current events of the congregation
- Introit – usually a song or music, to signal the setting aside of regular or daily concerns and the intentional turning to a time of reflection and aspiration, together
- Opening Words – a statement to remind us why we gather – in this place, in this w
- Lighting of the Chalice – the symbol of our liberal religious heritage, an affirmation of our core values of religious freedom, reason and embrace of diversity
- Opening Song – re-affirming our gathering and our intentions, using our bodies and breath
People’s Church Sunday Service – Affirming Our Connections
Having taken time to settle in and focus our attention and intentions, we move to Affirming Our Connections, which usually includes:
- Wisdom from the World’s Traditions – a reading from one of the sources of wisdom for our religious growth and learning, from any and all of the classical religious traditions, or from poetry, prose, science, etc.
- Sharing Service – a story for all ages, aimed primarily at elementary aged children, to help them learn about our tradition, to help them know and feel that they are a valued part of our inter-generational community, and to help them understand what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. The children and youth leave for their classes following this time of sharing.
- Pebbles of Joy and Sorrow – a time to share with each other the most important things that are happening in our lives – our experiences of loss and gain, of birth and death, of fear, of joy and gratitude of sickness, recovery and health. This kind of sharing is very important for us as a community, to know what is true and real for each other and therefore for ourselves – to affirm the realities which connect us. It is also a very big challenge: to tell our own truths to focus on the most important things. This is not a time for political opinions, announcements of events, stories about other people, or long-winded details.
People’s Church Sunday Service – Searching for Wisdom and Inspiration
Having been reminded of what we share, we move into Searching for Wisdom and Inspiration, which usually includes:
- Spoken Meditation and Sharing of Silence – to nurture contemplation, honesty, and inner peace
- Music for Reflection
- Readings – introducing important points or perspectives to be explored in the sermon
- Sermon or Presentation – focusing on a topic of importance for our religious, spiritual, and congregational lives, for education, inspiration, challenge and comfort
- The Offering – the sharing of our resources towards living out the missions and goals of the church. If you are visiting you are not expected to contribute – but if you choose to support our shared work, we welcome your contribution.
- Giving Thanks for All That Sustains Us – our collective reminder that life is a gift, and together we can make a difference
- Sharing and Discussion – an opportunity for responses to the sermon, as time permits
People’s Church Sunday Service – Returning to the World
Finally, we arrive at the time of Returning to the World, which usually includes:
- Closing Song – once again to engage our bodies and breath in our intentions
- Closing Words – a reminder to keep our ideals in our minds and hearts amidst the distractions of daily life
- Postlude – music for going out together