Article: How We Worship

A two-part newsletter column written for my former church about worship. Parts are broadly applicable. Enjoy.

Part 1

A few months ago, I was researching a now-forgotten subject online and ran across the same subject: practical direction on “how we worship.” In the first case, the we was the Konko-kyo, a monotheistic Japanese “new religion” based on Shinto. (They and the Unitarian Universalist Association have occasional contact.) The second we was a Ukrainian Orthodox church. Though the content was different, both articles were concerned with the practical, everyday aspects of worship.

Such a concern is less obvious in the wide swath of “mainline American Protestant churches,” of which ours is one. I suppose there are two reasons for this. First, it was assumed that anyone new to a church like ours would have had a similar experience in a church with worship customs more-or-less like ours. When I first came to UNMC, I reviewed more than a half-century of letters of membership transfer, I saw that we have been linked to Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian, and (of course) other Universalist churches across the country. Though there is a good piece of diversity within that mix, it is still true that its members are expected to learn the ways of worship through participation and osmosis.

The second reason is that as a tradition that is a self-conscious “reform” from another tradition – and here I mean wider mainline Protestantism, and not just Universalism – one of the points of reform was a simplified form of worship, and ostensibly a simplified form of worship should be accessible and even self-evident. Norms change like the tides. Should the style of worship be informal, immediate and focusing on the personal? This typifies the “low church” approach. Or should it be structured, eternal, and focusing of the global, even cosmic? This is the “high church” trajectory. This church is on the high church end of a low church tradition, so the differences are hard to tease apart. Nevertheless, once you know how to worship here, each step can seem pretty logical – at least in theory.

But worship is not the goal of a logical or emotional process, but the goal of a human cultural process that, ironically, tries to escape from culture and find closeness with God, who cannot be captured by culture or anything human-made. We bring our rational and emotional selves to worship, but fundamentally, worship is learned so we can be mature in faith to approach God with or without it. In worship, we learn not only who God is, but what God is making out of us, and in return what are a set of appropriate responses to other people and the natural world.

The subtle and direct directions in worship, the printed material, the emotional cues, and the learned worship elements, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Declaration of Faith, the versicles, the doxology, and the placement of the amens, are more than just words: these make up the form of worship. But the content of worship is the collective action of the entire body of the church engaged in being near to God, and this is neither a direct or “reformable” action.

Part 2

Last month, I wrote you on some points of theory of worship; this time, I would like to explore the worship service as we have it. There is a branch of theology called liturgical theology which concerns how our worship informs our belief and our belief informs our worship. I cannot promise to explore the depths of this subject here – particularly in a church like ours where there is no binding theological basis distinguishing members from nonmembers – but simply broach it, and offer some insights to the form of worship. Exploring the content is a part of the act of worship itself; indeed, it is a way that each of us can participate in worship. This participation needs to be experienced (and the experiences shared) more than explained. So let this be the first word on worship, and not the last.

The way we worship on Sundays here at UNMC has not changed that much in the last hundred years, and perhaps back to the church’s first worship service in 1868. A few elements are certainly more recent – the “Our fathers’ God, to thee” and Children’s Time, included – and if published accounts are any help, the sermon is probably much shorter than it was a hundred years ago. Of course, worship changes in tone as generations (and individuals) come and go, and even the space itself has an impact on what seems possible or desirable. Our Romanesque sanctuary enhances the quality of worship, for example. We are left with the forms and words to examine.

One of the reasons the worship service has so much gravity is because the form is old and broadly-held. We have been compared with low church Episcopalians, and this is true to the degree that our worship practices come from the same English Reformation rootstock as the Episcopalians. We and they, in turn, share forms and rhythms of worship with an extraordinarily vast swath of Christian people going back at least as far as the fourth century. Because local languages and developments obscure this underlying unity of form and rhythm, liturgical scholars have developed ways to compare the services by dividing them into discrete units.

These units are not unlike acts in a play, and we have “five act” worship.

The first act sets apart our time as worship. We enter, hear the organ, and sing a hymn. The liturgist offers words, including prayer, that sets the tone and theme. (If we had bells, we would ring them here.)

The response to gathering as a community is praise to God in the form of the responsive reading and the anthems. Here the five-act theme breaks down a bit, as “act three” blends in. This act is where we are enriched and confronted with what God is saying through the tradition of scripture, and its response in the sermon. (Nobody has a good answer for where to put the announcements, but I think the liturgists make a good transition.) “Act four” also jumps in; this is where we respond to God in prayer and in our actions, symbolized by the offering.

The final act stands unmixed, and is parallel to the first. The organ meditation lead us back to everyday life, and the final hymn reinforces our individual mission (if I can find a text and tune that stimulates the mind and senses) as heirs and vessels of God’s love and promise. I like to think that is why I bless the congregation, and this blessing is confirmed by an amen. The organ postlude is like the sun breaking into a new day.

Thus, our worship informs our faith, even as our faith informs our worship.

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