Christian worship matters (even to UUs)

I, a Unitarian Universalist, attend a Christian seminary (actually, I’ve attended two Christian seminaries). And one of the classes I was required to take was an introduction to Christian worship. This is required by the seminary, mind you, not the Unitarian Universalist Association, which does require familiarity with worship in UU contexts for its ministerial candidates. In a recent online discussion among UU seminarians, the merits of UUs studying Christian worship in seminary were brought up. I feel strongly that an introduction to Christian worship should be a class that all candidates for UU ministry take. Why, you might ask?

Our tradition is Christian. Yes, even for those UUs who want nothing to do with Christianity. We come from Christian roots, and our whole way of understanding religion is tied to Christianity. You can call it a church or a society or fellowship or what have you—but that group comes out of a line of Christian ecclesiology (study of the church) that still defines our very understanding of our religion. Our very way of understanding our religion, as collections of people in faith communities that come together for weekly worship, is a Christian way of being a religion.

Our worship is very Christian, too. Sure, you can remove the cross, take out communion, forego baptism, etc. But you know that worship service you do? Yeah, the one with the hymns (mostly written by Christians, btw) and the readings (sure, maybe they aren’t from the Bible anymore, but still) and the sermon, and the opening and closing words (even if you don’t call them an invocation and benediction)? That’s the prototypical Protestant Christian service, even if you’ve done your best to remove Jesus from it. And, wait, what time did you say you meet each week? Was it Sunday morning? That’s funny, since that’s when Christian churches have met for a number of centuries.

OK, the last paragraph was a bit snarky, but I hope my point is made. Our way of thinking about what a religion is and how one worships is still very much in the Christian framework, even if some UUs have a theology that is not Christian. And understanding the meaning, the intent, and the methods of Christian worship makes for better worship in our churches. A deeper understanding of what worship can and should be makes better worship, even if we do things a little differently from our mainline brothers and sisters.

There’s another reason, too, for UU seminarians to study Christian worship. It’s one I’m loath to say in a public forum, but I think I have to speak my truth about this: I’m not entirely sure there are very good UU-specific worship classes or materials out there, at least not at the level of real liturgical theology. There are practical materials, sure, and some that tackle what good worship might look like (this one, for instance), but the last really good, in-depth UU (or really just U, I suppose) work on worship was by Von Ogden Vogt. I think this shows, frankly. There are too many UU congregations doing really tepid, shallow, uninspiring worship. And the worship I have seen from UU ministers who didn’t study Christian worship is not as good as that from those who have. I don’t have great evidence to back this up, but it’s been my experience as someone who goes to a lot of churches and has participated in a lot of UU worship.

What do you think? I’m especially eager to hear from those who plan and conduct worship.

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4 Responses to “Christian worship matters (even to UUs)”
  1. Christian wrote:

    There’s another reason, too, for UU seminarians to study Christian worship. It’s one I’m loath to say in a public forum, but I think I have to speak my truth about this: I’m not entirely sure there are very good UU-specific worship classes or materials out there, at least not at the level of real liturgical theology.

    Of course, this assumes that the liturgical worship model is the only way to worship (or maybe the preferred or default model for worship).

    From pre-merger and post-merger Unitarian Universalist history, we have “circle worship” and other non-liturgical variations created for UU youth and young adult ministries (LRY, YRUU, CUUYAN, etc).

    And the trend for many Christian churches to move away from traditional liturgical worship to contemporary worship models. One of the largest UU congregations (All Souls in Tulsa OK) is doing regular contemporary worship services on most Sundays. But All Souls Tulsa is the exception in UUism.

    • Christian says:

      Steve, I think your examples actually strengthen my argument. I’ve been to Tulsa’s contemporary service. It is a very strong Protestant-style service with a particular music focus that comes from the Gospel (mostly black contemporary Gospel) tradition. It is very liturgically grounded, as is Marlin, I know. Circle worship is a little more complicated. I think, in a very particular context, it works, and clearly, those who love it have experienced this. But I don’t think it does other things well — inviting new people, worshipping with large groups. And, sadly, I’ve seen a lot more mediocre circle worship than really great circle worship, which may be a point in favor of really studying worship, too.

      • Christian wrote:

        And, sadly, I’ve seen a lot more mediocre circle worship than really great circle worship, which may be a point in favor of really studying worship, too.

        You may want to Google “Sturgeon’s Law.” Many years ago the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said at a science fiction fan convention that 90% of science fiction is crap. Folks were shocked to hear this. He then went on to say 90% of everything is crap. The 90% crap rule probably applies to UU worship … even the more traditional liturgical varieties of worship. Once one realizes that it does take the pressure off a bit.

        Personally, I didn’t feel that All Souls Tulsa’s service was that “liturgical” in terms of the readings used and the songs (not hymns) that were sung. Marlin was still using the “sermon sandwich” model for worship where a whole bunch of singing and other stuff surrounds a 20 minute-or-so chunk of sermon. But it wasn’t using traditional liturgy or hymnody. They save that stuff for the early service on Sundays.

        Regarding the ability to welcome new people into a community, circle worship and other forms found in youth conference settings are probably not best suited for welcoming newcomers into community. Youth conferences use other approaches for welcoming newcomers (e.g. touch groups).

        The tradeoff that one makes with having newcomer-accessible worship on Sunday mornings vs. the less-accessible worship types (e.g. circle worship) is one of spiritual depth and community bonding. Camps and conferences achieve a degree of depth and bonding that would be nearly impossible to achieve on Sunday morning.

      • Christian says:

        I feel like we’re speaking different languages here. I’m not advocating specific liturgies or even styles of worship. What I am advocating is the study, understanding, and appreciation of liturgical theology (that, the theological underpinnings of worship — the whys, not the hows). I want our ministers to have really thought about what worship means, how it should be constructed, and what the point of it all is. I think the best way to do this is to take a serious introduction to worship class, and until there is a serious, comprehensive, contemporary work of UU liturgical theology (the last one I know that fits that bill is Von Ogden Vogt’s Modern Worship, and that’s from 1927), that will best be served in Christian contexts, and for the reasons I said in my initial post.

        I also have to say that being told 90% of the worship out there is crap, while holding true with much of what I’ve seen, is not something that takes the pressure off me. It makes me want to make that better, even if it’s only to decrease the percentage to 80. And, though this is beside the point, I’m pretty sure those were”hymns” (that is, songs of praise or worship) that were used in Tulsa’s service, just contemporary ones that are heavily influenced by secular music styles.

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