Say no five times (sure to irritate everyone)

Two weekends ago, Hubby and I went to IKEA, going most of the way by subway. On the ride, we made a list of habits and practices that we would not accept in the new church. In a low moment, we thought the church just might as well have no people — that’s one way to fix the problem! — but we regained our composure over lingenberries.

But on reflection, there are some things that I will insist on. And I’m sure I don’t have a single reader who will agree with all five. Here goes.

  • No flaming chalice. Apart from being a Unitarian (that is, not Universalist) emblem, the rituals associated with what could be a simple lamp-lighting have gotten too often sectarian and even a bit creepy.
  • No Sunday School. This is a mode of faith formation who’s time has passed. There have to be better options, especially considering the space and liability demands it brings. One of many reason I read Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Dan Harper.
  • No liturgically-collected financial offering. We’ll take money, and perhaps even on Sunday if there’s no fuss, but if it really is “the sacrament of the free church” then we need to revisit our ecclesiology and class assumptions. And I don’t know a single young person who carries checks; some don’t even have any, and I’m not betting on bills with zeroes on them. Hint: they do use PayPal, Google Checkout and the like. Plus it probably causes more anxiety among guests than the good it creates. Heck, the last time Hubby and I were in church together, the usher passed us by. There’s no winning with this.
  • No membership book. That is, a literal book. Again, this isn’t 1830.
  • No children’s story in worship, also known as “a quaint tale for the sake of the adults using minors as set pieces.” And, on a personal note, at 6-foot-4, I’d have to be folded into thirds to be anywhere near the wee ones.

Whew! that’s a load off. And to think there are still some people who think I’m a traditionalist crank. (I’d add “no fattening snacks with coffee” but that might cause a riot.) Now, surely you can see how reasonable that all is, no?

71 Replies to “Say no five times (sure to irritate everyone)”

  1. I agree with all your sentiments but wonder if you may rethink a couple things. #1 Even though “Sunday School” is passe, I hope you plan on having some youth programming – perhaps a special worship service for them as I’ve seen larger churches do? Or Youth Group Bible Study? #2 Tithing and financial giving is part of spiritual practice, so while I agree that no one has cash anymore, I’d be interested in seeing how you can create a new way for people to give.

  2. @Anna. Yes to lifelong faith development, no to the institution of Sunday school, probably with an emphasis on mentoring and parent education. Funding would be easier: a combination of checks mailed (my age and older), direct deposit and various services like PayPal, Amazon Payments and Google Checkout. (skewing younger, but not always.)

  3. Re: chalice — I’m not promoting the use of the chalice by any means, but some of us think its liturgical use is a combination of the Unitarian 2-dimensional chalice symbol with Kenneth Patton’s ritual lighting of a quasi-Greek “lamp of wisdom” at the Universalist Charles Street Meeting House (Patton’s “lamp of wisdom” looks very much like early three-dimensional chalices). I once asked David Bumbaugh about this, and he said he had thought exactly this, though he couldn’t prove it.

    By the way, the first time my Unitarian mother saw a flaming chalice being lit in church, she muttered under her breath, “Graven images.” My sentiments exactly. No reason to drag false idols and golden calves into a new church start.

    You could, however, make an argument for lighting a lamp based on the ancient liturgy described in the Apostolic Tradition: “When [Saturday] evening comes and the bishop has arrived, the deacon brings a lamp….” Even though it’s for the Sat. vigil before Sun., it’s an interesting liturgical idea.

    Re: No Sunday school: I still run a Sunday school here in Palo Alto; parents expect it, and it is a draw for newcomers with children. It is very hard to get completely away from Sunday school. However, I work to make Sunday school look more like worship, and children are in every worship service every week for at least 10-15 minutes.

    By the way, personally I reject the concept of “faith development” because it implies a primarily cognitive development — Fowler, who originated the term, was talking about cognition. “Religious education,” Christian education,” “catechesis” — all seem to me to be much better terms than “faith development.”

    Re: offering — I’m with you. Except that there is a long liturgical tradition, going back to the earliest Christian church, of some kind of offering related to the service. The Apostolic Tradition mentions bringing food to share, and other ancient liturgies imply that sharing food was an important way for rich people to share with poorer people in the congregation. Thus, some kind of offering taken for the poor seems to me to be in the spirit of some of the oldest Christian liturgies.

    Re: membership book — I’d have a hard time giving that up. In the New England church tradition I grew up in, the membership book is such a powerful symbol; the Geneva, Illinois, UU church uses a membership book that dates back to the founding of their congregation in 1843, and you get to write your name in the same book as Celia Parker Woolley (minister there in 1893) and Charles Lyttle (minister there for 50 years).

    As you can tell, I like old things — “seek the old paths and walk therein.”

    Re: Children’s stories — Yes, they are simply dreadful. And since they are dreadful and since there is no old liturgical justification, they should be jettisoned.

  4. As an adult convert (and I use that awkward term rather than “come-outer” because I was out of church 20 adult years before I became a UU and because such terminology is, in any case, nonsense on my ears) in a UU congregation that was never U or U but UU from the get go, I don’t have any issues with this or that because it is U rather than U. That said, I’m in favor of candles out the ass rather than the single chalice flame. And, yes, I recognize that the flame in the chalice never did have any reliable meaning and to this day is explained all loosey-goosey, and was never the symbol even of all of Unitarianism before it, encircled, was attached to an empty circle from which the Universalist of-center cross had been ripped. So let’s light banks of candles or lamps, and then, post-prelude, open with a prayer.

    On the no Sunday School point, I want to see what some alternatives are. I know that I am completely against the model that has worship as the adult activity in the same time slot as children’s religious education. In this I favor the fundamentalist pattern of my upbringing: nursery for babies and tots with everyone else in the service. And not by dumbing down the service, though it might necessitate some modifications here and there of a non-dumbing-down type.

    I agree 100% that we can do without moneychangers in the temple, that membership BOOKs are of the past, and that the Story for All Ages is not for all ages and is in every way a travesty.

  5. Ah, perhaps I’m not such an outlier.

    Thanks, particularly, to Dan for noting the origins of “faith development” and its peril. I know you care deeply about this and know far more than I. I need to read your newest post a second and third time for understanding, but is there an older blog post that has more detail about Fowler and your objections.

    “Religious education” it is, however, for the blog. I’ll change the category name currently “faith development.”

    As for the offering, prayer also serves this function. And since “the relief of distressed brethren” is a common use of the offering — and I’m quoting from memory from the Gloucester church’s founding document — certainly a Universalist view of money. But I think open and transparent process about how the church funds its projects and relief would be more meaningful and less distracting in today’s setting.

  6. The Sunday School is the main engine of growth at my UU church–it’s what brought me and my wife, and the dozen or so other couples who’ve joined in the last few years, into the congregation (plus, obviously, the nearly thirty kids associated with us). The result has been a dramatic revitalization of the congregation, such that we were able to move into our own church building (we’d been in a converted house previously), hire a full-time minister, develop much more robust adult programs, and there’s a large group of talented people here to lend their skills in everything from service music to administration. So Sunday School is not at all a passe practice.

    Our church does all five of the things you object to, and it is growing like gangbusters (more than 20% growth over the past half dozen years). None of the other four would be a deal-breaker for me, but if there wasn’t something appropriate for all our kids (ranging from babies to toddlers to primary schoolers–there are high schoolers here too but not in the recent contingent I’m talking about), not a one of us would come. So if you’re throwing out Sunday School, you’d better be pretty darn sure it’s replacement meets the needs of parents and children. I’ll admit to skepticism that a non-parent such as yourself can pull off something that parents will find truly attractive. But maybe there is something genuinely better that you’ve been exposed to.

  7. I’m with you on everything, especially the offering. I would take an offering with the statement that it is to go exclusively for the congregation’s external ministry and the reminder that bringing food or toiletries for the food bank also counts as an offering. This reminds folks every Sunday that it is not just about us.

    Sunday school is a deal breaker though. I know of no UU congregation that thrives without a committed religious education program. In the olden days, before we had R.E. wings, the ministers often met with children & youth after the service to answer their questions and discuss the sermon. Faith development was often done in the context of shared experience in community rather than something presented in separate rooms and separate education.

    Don’t like the children’s message, don’t like the chalice light that much.

    As for the membership book, it is or was virtually required in Massachusetts where clergy were/are legally bound to keep records of membership, marriages and deaths. Yes, if it is one the books it probably is never enforced but some of those details are important. When my grandmother applied for a passport in the 1960s she took in church records because the town hall where her birth was recorded in South Carolina burned down. Church records, including the membership book, are still important.

  8. I was raised Catholic, and when I jumped ship for Protestant waters, I found myself puzzled by a few practices.

    In particular: growing up in a Catholic church, I never skipped the liturgy for religious education, which came at a separate time. The notion of not worshiping with the community until you are “old enough” is not a particularly useful practice for faith formation, which occurs through liturgy as well as pedagogy.

  9. @ Peregrinato – I never encountered “the notion of not worshipping with the community until you are ‘old enough'” until, at age 45 I came to UUism. I grew up fundamentalist and tried a variety of charismatic/ pentecostal churches as a young adult before settling in for some years with a Community Church that was unaffiliated with a denomination but that had a Lutheran minister. Everywhere I went before leaving religion in my mid 20s for a 20-year hiatus did the same thing. Worship and Sunday School were at different times. Children attended worship with their parents. And adults went to their own age-grouped Sunday School classes. I was surprised at the age segregation of UU churches.

  10. It definitely happens in UCC churches too, unfortunately. I suspect that it happens similarly in Presby venues. I have seen critiques of it coming from mainline Protestant religious education literature.

  11. Scott you are definitely not an outlier.

    I’m with you on all of it. And while I understand all those who talk about Sunday School being such a great draw, from what I got from my religious ed classes at seminary–it’s actually not that great draw (I’m sure Dan Harper will correct me if I’m wrong). That doesn’t mean that I don’t think there shouldn’t be religious education, there must be. But the Sunday School model that most UU churches use isn’t that great.

    And as another one who grew up sitting in worship with my parents, I

  12. sorry….technical difficulties….

    as I was saying…I am another one who grew up sitting in worship and wonder why so many UU churches seem to be so resistant to having kids in the service.

  13. I’m only one person, though I know that my sentiments are shared by at least most of the other parents of young children in my church. So this is going to be an anecdotal response, but not purely an individualistic one.

    There are many reasons why UUs don’t want kids in the service with them. One major reason is that many UUs are older adults who find children distracting (even the best-behaved ones are prone to noise and fidgeting, and babies will cry). They want a nice, proper, smooth-running service, rather like attendance at a concert or lecture. I don’t share this attitude–in fact I resent it–but I can understand where they’re coming from.

    But the reasons for us parents are very different. As a young couple alone in an unfamiliar city, far from our family and friends, with young children constantly on us in our small apartment, church has been literally our only respite from parenting. By allowing us to park our children for 60-90 minutes once a week, the church has done us a deeply valuable service toward maintaining our health, sanity, and spiritual lives as individuals, as well as that of our family. For an hour or so, my children are safe, warm, and cared for by someone other than us. During that time, my wife and I can temporarily let go of our constant other-directedness and spend a tiny portion of time caring for ourselves. We can pray and meditate, listen to the sermon like adults (rather than consume children’s songs and TV, and the babble of very little people, our main sources of input during the other days of the week), and breathe out. Without the kids right there climbing on us, we can remember again that they are a gift from God, that all of us are held by Love, that there is support and we are not doing this alone. It makes us much better parents, but more importantly it keeps our souls from drowning in messy faces and dirty diapers.

    If the kids are in the service with us, neither my wife nor I can get even the slightest bit of spiritual sustenance. The kids will not sit still and will not be quiet. Even when they are temporarily sitting still, we are on-duty, steeled for the next moment when one of them will shout something out and all the older church-members will turn to glare at us. There is no way to discipline them to the point where they will not disrupt the service: and God help you if you threaten a kid with a spanking or speak angrily to a kid while at a UU church–you’ll probably be told to leave the congregation.

    So from a parent’s point of view, kids need to not share the pew with us, at least not until they’re much older. But for the sake of the kids, I also want Sunday School. I went through UU Sunday School and it was great. It was among the most shaping experiences of my entire life. I can’t even imagine who I’d be if I hadn’t experienced it. I am a far better person, husband, and father for having had UU Sunday School. And as much as we try to nurture our kids spirituality, I also want them to get regular instruction from people who are not me and my wife. There is real benefit to exposure to a wide range of views and styles, plus because we have input into the curriculum we can be confident in what our kids are exposed to.

    I find Sunday School empowering. A church without it would have to have a very good replacement if I and my peers were going to attend. I can’t even imagine what that would be, and I still have suspicions about childless people–no offense Scott and Kim, but I have to call them as I see them–trying to reconfigure church in ways that will basically ensure my exclusion.

  14. Paul @ 4 writes: “I know that I am completely against the model that has worship as the adult activity in the same time slot as children’s religious education.”

    Unitarians and Universalists were taking children out of the main worship service and putting them into Sunday schools c. 1920s-1930s, their justification being the new insights of Piagetian developmental psychology that showed that predicted that children’s cognitive abilities were not able to appreciate worship services. Prior to that time, all ages attended worship services at U and U churches, although some U and U churches forbade young children (say, 5 and under) in worship services — it was expected that the wife would stay home and take care of the littlest kids while the man of the house went to church with older children.

    Taking children out of the worship service and putting them in the Sunday school was also done out of kindness to the children. Many kids obviously hated going to worship services — all they could see was the back of the pew in front of them, and they mostly didn’t understand what was going on. Kind-hearted religious educators who loved children, and who wanted children to like religion, started holding child-friendly Sunday school at the same as the worship service. So there were really good reasons behind holding Sunday school at the same time as the main worship service — we see the downsides all too clearly now, but we forget the good reasons behind the move.

    If you want to have younger children in a worship service, the best approach I’ve seen is in the book _Engaging in Transcendence: The Church’s Ministry and Covenant with Young Children_, by Barbara Kimes Myers and William R. Myers.

    Paul @ 4 also writes: “I’m in favor of candles out the ass”

    Me too.

    @ Kim — Some congregations find programs for children are a major engine for growth; some don’t. You write: “But the Sunday School model that most UU churches use isn’t that great.” — This is the real point. We UUs had a pretty good model for Sunday school in the 1990s, and Sunday schools were growing then, but it needs to be revamped.

    Jeff @ 13 — To me, this is the real point of Sunday school — I often think of it not as a program for children so much as a pastoral response to the sometimes overwhelming demands placed on parents who have little or no extended family or other support network to help them raise their kids. You can’t believe what an important ministry it can be for a congregation to give stressed-out parents an hour of adult time every so often.

  15. @Jeff…no insult taken. I readily acknowledge the fact that I do not have children and probably won’t ever have children.

    I will also acknowledge a big cultural difference that’s becoming more apparent to me the longer I stay within UU-dom…..I grew up in a black church and it was a positive experience that affected me greatly. And no black church that I know of shuttles kids off to Sunday School while their parents are in worship. The closest thing I’ve seen to that is what is called Children’s Church–and in the places where I know it happens it only happens once-a-month and it is modeled exactly like the worship service that the adults are getting.

    The reason I believe that children ought to be in worship with the adults is simple (to me)…there was no other time in which I was going to be with that wide a range of people who were not my age. That church raised me…I have more grandmothers and grandfathers…aunts and uncles than any child probably has ever imagined having.

    The reason I’m concerned about UUs shuttling kids off to Sunday School while worship goes on is that I feel that it creates 2 churches…the one for the kids and the people who work with them and the one for the adults who don’t want to be bothered by circle of life. Babies cry…shock of shocks. Kids fidget a little…and? Heck…I know a bunch of adults who fidget a little in church.For all the minor inconveniences that having children in worship might create, there are so many advantages to those children by being in an environment where it’s not just people their own age. If we really do believe that it takes the village to raise a child, when are the children ever going to interact with the elders who are not their parents?

    There’s more that I could say, but I’ll stop here.

  16. I confess that I like Sunday School for everyone and don’t see the need for older children to be escorted away from the congregation during service. But I guess the question is where does older start..
    In my former tiny congregation; we had two baskets for donations, one went to the group and the other to a woman’s shelter. Mentioned in the announcements, but not passed around.
    I like the chalice myself, but maybe I’m immune to certain types of creepiness? Of course I like rituals.

  17. I started going to Unitarian Sunday School sixty years ago and continued all the way through high school. And what a wonderful experience it was! It was the only hour of my week that I was with kids like me–there were only a few U families in my school district–and it nourished my self-esteem and intellectual freedom for another week. As a kid, I also enjoyed the parent-free time of developing rapport with other adults in the congregation. I resented the once-a-month visit to “big church” because I missed my friends and was bored, bored, bored.

    As a stay-at-home mom a quarter-century ago, I found childfree church to be one of the few times during the week that I had to myself, a blessed time: me and the community, me and ideas. As Jeff points out, it’s the one time of the week that I was neither on guard nor distracted by Raffi!

    When my daughter was in grade school, our congregation instituted the practice of having kids in big church for the first 20 minutes or so. We went to the service with drawing materials, and my daughter sat on the floor and used the chair as her drawing table. Other kids were not so well provided for and ran up and down the aisles screaming, undisciplined by their parents. Now I have seen Quaker children sitting in silence at meeting and Protestant and Orthodox children quietly following their parents’ lead, so I don’t think wild, disrespectful behavior is the fault of the children–I think it’s the failure of UU parenting, which often suggests that the only way to rear an open-minded child is by empty-headed training. Incidentally, my daughter’s own view about coming to big church with me was that other kids might tell their parents they enjoyed it, but they were only telling adults what they thought the adults wanted to hear.

    One thing to bear in mind about separation of the children, as opposed to R.C. practice, for instance, orthe practice of the African-American church, is that UU services still focus on the sermon. We choose our ministers, ultimately, for their preaching–and we expect them to operate at a pretty sophisticated level.

    In the R.C. mass and Orthodox liturgy (and, I expect, Lutheran and Episcopal services) the elaborate liturgy arrives at a specific end. People attending can take it in on all sorts of levels. That’s not what UU services are about or for. In African-American services I’ve attended, there’s a prescribed order of things, but of many things–involving many different people coming and going and singing and maybe dancing–lots of activity to keep the attendees absorbed. Again, not like our services.

    Since the liturgical services focus on the Host (or whatever simulacrum the Lutherans and Episcopalians have) you really cannot compare why people are present or what they might get out of it. Unless we change the purpose and focus of the UU service, it might not be wise to take our lead from the style of denominations whose services’ purpose is so different from ours.

    Having grown up a U (and then a UU) all the stuff with the chalice was foreign to me when it first appeared. It seemed to suddenly be in a lot of places around the mid-80s. I assumed it was added into the service to give newcomers a ritual they might find comforting. It also, I suppose, gives a reason for furniture and decoration down front–since there is no longer need for a communion table, for instance. I love the John Hus story of the chalice, apocryphal or not, but think our current procedure does venture into graven image territory. (And I wear a chalice!)

    Passing the plate isn’t inevitable during a service. Many Quakers, for instance, do not do it at all, but have a slot or basket where money or checks can be put on the way in or out of the meeting room. Some UU congregations announce that they are totally supported by pledges and therefore, their collection today is for a given piece of social action. My most recent home UU congregation was not at all well off, but counted the plate as a different pot of money from what came in in pledges. Whatever style a congregation chooses, it’s essential that congregants know what it is and it doesn’t hurt for an announcement to be made stating it (it’s what many Quaker meetings do).

    I am delighted to hear that not everyone is enamored of the children’s story. Some of the lamest moments in a UU service come at that time. I’d be interested in hearing from some young teens what they remember thinking about it at the time. (My daughter, now 26, doesn’t remember what she thought then.)

    FWIW, I kept attending until I was about 24, when I just moved to a large California city. The congregation there was almost at the point of schism over, IIRC, whether or not to fly the U.N. flag out front instead of the U.S. flag. I was shocked at such irrelevant bullshit, and when I got married at 30, married in my husband’s denomination. Then at 33 I felt I just had to find my own way again, and was drawn back into UU by a brilliant, charismatic preacher. It was the preaching and community that brought me back.

    I think we have room in the denomination for just about any style congregation a minister is able to summon. And we learn from each other–after all, there was a time before the chalice and candles of joy and concern spread out to all of us, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find congregations that decide to do without them again.

  18. Certainly the issue of the sacramental aspect of liturgy for the RC and Orthodox is at play in whether we keep the children in or usher them out of the room, but I believe there’s more to it than than.

    All of worship contributes to faith formation. Otherwise we are suggesting that the only thing of value in a Presbyterian, UU, UCC, etc. worship is the sermon, which makes the rest seem like filler or entertainment (and that’s too often how it is treated).

    Speaking personally, I can say that by being exposed to Catholic worship as a child, I was exposed to imagery and language for the divine and the human experience of the divine that was not simply about receiving the Eucharist. Even if there were times I was bored and didn’t care (and yes, there were times)… it was part of the environment I was reared in.

    Protestant worship which only focuses on a sophisticated sermon is (to me) a bit too heady; it loses sight of the human as a sensory being who needs to do more than just cogitate on a profound sermon.

    Ultimately this is pointing not just to issues of “what do we do with our kids” but how do we envision or interpret the meaning and significance of worship.

  19. @ Diggitt – You and I have had this conversation before. And I do seriously appreciate the points you make.

    I am thinking back to my anti-liturgical fundie upbringing which was non-sacramental and minimalistic in ritual forms, focusing fully on the sermon and structuring the rest of the service through hymns, not spoken words except for prayers. My father was an elder frequently serving at the “Lord’s Table” and my mother was one of two pianists. So some of the time my brothers and I were not directly supervised by our parents at every moment. However, much as conservatives such as they hated Hillary’s reminder that it takes a village, that is what happened. Other adults kept their eye on us when our parents were otherwise occupied.

    We do need some form of that in our churches, no matter what the particulars turn out to be. The single parent or overwhelmed parent needs the community. But that requires a culture where the community members are willing to act as a community and parents that are willing to allow the community to have some degree of reasonable temporary authority.

    You’re absolutely right that wild, disrespectful behavior is NOT the fault of the children but of an inadequate model of child rearing that appears to be very common in society at large.

    @ Peregrinato – You wrote: “All of worship contributes to faith formation. Otherwise we are suggesting that the only thing of value in a Presbyterian, UU, UCC, etc. worship is the sermon, which makes the rest seem like filler or entertainment (and that’s too often how it is treated).”


    Personally, I am in favor of deemphasizing the sermon in UU worship. I think it is fairly clear that the average congregant doesn’t take in anything resembling the fullness of a sermon – or even its outline. So it should be possible to do some shorter-spurt verbalizations – themed reflections for example. Or… well, the opportunities are wide open. Even without a sacramental focus, there is no need for 20 minutes of hopefully unified rhetoric to fill a slot in the service.

    If we do shorter spurts, all but the youngest children should be able to adapt. And if the realities of child rearing among our congregants doesn’t allow for a reasonable level of decorum. It is still possible to have children in the service for all except the sermon. After all, do children hate music? (Or do we just do lousy, boring music?) And if we allow a few rituals in, there is plenty of room for children to participate in rituals. And we can leave off the announcements until the end, like the Quakers do, so the children don’t have to sit through that blather…

    @ Dan’s response to Jeff – If we agree that the real (or primary) aim of Sunday School/ RE is not the children’s program itself but a pastoral response to parental need for some kid-free time to process some adult community building, then I suggest that we simply be honest that that is our real aim.

    But in my idealized world, worship is an embodiment of community, an act of incarnation of community in a way that only happens when significant swaths of the community commune together across any potential internal dividing lines. And unless we believe that our children are not part of our community, then we need to find ways to include them in worship. Community coalesces in worship in ways that make service possible in our smaller group projects, that make pastoral responses possible both for giver and receiver, and that give us common ground as a group to go forward in our spiritual formation in greater than idiosyncratic ways.

    And thanks for the book reference, Dan. I will put it on my list to read ASAF.

  20. The notions of no collections and no signing of a membership book are the two that bother me. Many congregations now use that collection to give away to other organizations in the community. I would hate to see that lost. To be able to add an electronic giving component would be a plus.

    With regard to signing a membership book it seems a fitting finale to a progressive and formalized relationship with the congregation. That in itself may seem somewhat old fashion but the connection membership creates to a sense of responsibility and privilege have always been my rationale for keeping it.

    The general attitude that our younger members no longer use cash, checks, sign books, read books or magazines on paper may be right, though I hope not, falls in the same category as saying an email is a perfectly fine substitute for a thank you note. It is a substitute but it does not carry the same sentiment. Writing a check or putting a twenty in the plate speaks more to me about generosity than perhaps getting home and making a PayPal transfer to the church, if one even remembers.

    All good things to think about though and a good reminder to never accept anything just because “that’s the way we have always done it.”

  21. I grew up attending a UU church and going to its Sunday school/RE and it was so valuable to me. For most or my time growing up my family lived about a 40 minute drive away form the church in a town on the outskirts of the city. So having me sit through the worship service would have deprived me of an opportunity to be and learn with folks my age that where more like me then those in the schools I attended. Yes I was the only one in all my classes throughout my time in elementary and high school who was UU and this time in RE and the time I had in the church’s youth group is probably the main reason I am still involved in UU community today.

    Yes their is things we can do to have more of a mixing between the RE folks, the youth and the
    Sunday worship service attendees. But it is to late for us to put the cat back in the bag or Pandora back in her box and I would not wont this to be don. Besides some of the traditions that have come out of the UU RE programs and UU youth groups and the wider UU youth community are vibrant and highly nourishing thing for the young people involved in them. Yes a significant amount of this did came about precisely because its populations where for the most part left to their on affairs, but this dose not mean that they have not become valuable or even cherished by others, because they have and I am one of those who have cherished them. This is most evident in UU youth groups and the wider youth community which was known as YRUU and is till in some parts of North America wen it comes to how worship is down. So if more of a integration is to be made then a meshing or even a mashing up of these styles I feel needs to take place in UU churches.

    About the flaming chalice I would say that not using it because Universalists or Unitarians did not use it in the past is a pore reason. I say we UUs would do well to look at what the flaming chalice has become to represent wen deciding weather or not to use it in worship service. For me the flaming chalice has come to represent all the good thing that have come about in UU and the lighting of it represents that to me.

  22. Scott: raised a daughter as a UU, but still I am so with you. Let me know when you open your church–I’ll be there! Or better yet, let’s write it down as a module to do on a weeknight at UU congregations. We’ll see who comes and how that PayPal account grows…

  23. Oops. Clicked submit before rereading. Bad David. Let’s try this again:

    Hm. No chalice, no offering, no membership book, no explicit children’s time. These all strike me as ritual gesture-symbols that have developed (whether within the UU tradition or outside) as tangible representations of things we value–they mean what they mean because we’ve educated our community about those meanings. Which prompts two questions in reply:

    1. How will your new church affirm and celebrate the things (transcendence, sacrifice, community, education) that these “1830ish” symbols represent for the churches that use them? (And yes, I’m assuming you do share those values.)


    2. How will you keep your congregation (and their visitors) from experiencing the same insistent “ugh” reaction against those new gesture-symbols that you have against these old ones?

    Interesting thought exercise, at the very least…..

  24. Your prescriptions for a church service are quite similar to those of some staunchly humanist UU ministers I know. I find the similarity interesting. In both cases, I think idealism is trumping reality.

    I would be highly skeptical that most UU ministers can run a full church service that is really of interest to both adults and kids of all ages except the youngest. If you can do it, more power to you! However, for most ministers, I think a service without RE at the same time would not be perceived as welcoming for most parents with children. Whether or not other churches have done it in the past or do it now is irrelevant. The question is what works for this church community, where we want (I think) this church community to be broadly welcoming.

    As a practical matter, not “passing the plate” reduces revenue raising. It also may reduce charitable giving from the church to various causes. We can wish this weren’t so, but that’s the reality.

  25. If not passing the plate reduces a church’s charitable giving then that’s a crisis in its priorities. The use of loss offering to give to local charities strikes me as crumbs-sharing.

    And these comments have lessened, rather than increased, my sympathy for church school and parents that demand it. (It might be stronger if churches show a fraction of concern for single or childfree people, or if I lived in the child-heavy suburbs.) My concern for the education of all the church’s members remains strong, but not a particular mode.

  26. I am not tied to the Sunday School model, but I’m wondering what your alternative model would be? What does programming for children look like (or programming for everybody that genuinely includes children fully)?

    As for the chalice lighting, I get that your congregation will be a Universalist one, so not adopting a Unitarian tradition makes some sense (though I tend to be an embracer of all of our traditions). But what is this “creepiness” you mention? And can’t you, as a religious leader, make a ritual of it that is deep, meaningful, and real? I think the chalice is a symbol of something important about our faith — our call and commitment to help those in danger, as in the historical setting from which the chalice comes, the work of the Unitarian Service Committee in helping Jews and other persecuted minorities escape Europe during World War II.

    Interested to hear your thoughts.

  27. @Christian. Investing deep, sectarian meaning — and meaning that indicates participation in a group — in a lamp-lighting is creepy. Let me underscore how deliberately sectarian this is. There’s nothing there I’m interested in salvaging.

  28. Well, Scott, what WOULD you be left with then?

    Let’s just get together and hold hands and sing “Kuumbaya, My Lord”?


    Bear in mind this is a cheerful and mild rattling of your chain. No malice intended. 🙂

  29. @Tracie: I suspect that Scott’s aversion to sectarian ritual stems from a more ecumenical Christian incarnation of Universalism. This is a stream of Universalism that is small-c catholic, but nearly extinct today.

    I would add that the trend in religious education across denominations has been away from traditional Sunday schools, where attendance has been declining across the last decade. The trend has been towards learning experiences outside the walls of the church, learning events outside Sunday morning, and multi-household small groups that meet for a combination of fellowship and learning.

  30. Being a small-towner, I wonder if someone could point me to a handful of real-live congregations (of any denomination) that I might observe that are following the model of RE Derek describes. It is completely outside my range of experience. All the churches I know do children’s RE as Sunday morning classes.

  31. My thoughts:

    #1 – I have a chalice at home and enjoy it, but I have never gotten much out of the chalice at church, so I have no strong feeling about this, and would be okay with it leaving.

    #2 – I have long thought that children should be a part of worship, but that’s not really what you say here. You say “No Sunday School.” And I would be okay with no Sunday School and think there are a lot of exciting possibilities for ways of doing it better. In my former life I was a Sunday School teacher, but it was in the Muslim community, and actually – the “school” did not take place at any mosque (we rented classrooms from the local state university); was open for ALL Muslims in the community, and of course had nothing to do with worship service as Muslims have their communal prayer on Fridays. I think different models of Sunday School for small congregations would be especially interesting – a lot of programming could happen out of doors or what-have-you. The tough thing of course is scheduling it; families tend to be “booked” all weekend.

    #3 – I can’t comment much on the removal of the offering; I used to count the monies received at offering and it could be quite significant. Granted, it was a large church, but it wasn’t unheard of to collect hundreds and hundreds of dollars in cash (we didn’t even count the checks). I think the best way to implement this would be as an experiment. It’s easy enough to test this – try it out for a few weeks or months and see if contributions increase/decrease.

    #4 – No membership book. I don’t see this is as something that causes problems and it seems to hold value for many people as a long-standing tradition. Personally I have no preference, but what would be the point?

    #5 – Yes, please in the name of all that is holy, get rid of the children’s story time. It always seemed like a patronizing show to me, even when I don’t think that was the RE person’s intent. I would much rather have seen that time spent doing something more substantive for the children.

  32. I agree that the Children’s Message or the “Story for All Ages” as it is often seen does more to promote intergenerational barriers than to bridge them… a vibe of ‘look at these cute kids who are here for your entertainment’ and ‘this story is only for the kids and has nothing to do with the broader liturgy.’ I am all for throwing it out as such.

    But I hope we don’t throw out good storytelling in the process. Stories can take us to an emotional depth sometimes difficult to reach in a more traditional format of sermon. (And can be found at the center of most of the world’s sacred texts.) Especially when we do multi-generational worship, I favor a model that involves well-integrated, good quality story-telling, and a message (interpreting and deepening said story) broken into several shorter reflections interspersed with really good and really accessible music.

  33. I grew up UU, and don’t recall anything of chalices before we moved overseas in 1971. Which doesn’t mean that they weren’t there, but certainly didn’t stick in my childhood memory. And that said, I don’t think I share Scott’s concern that it appears wildly sectarian or creepy. I see it as simply a liturgical act that helps demarcate the beginning of the service and allows some UU value to be held up. I wouldn’t invest any effort in reforming that point. Worrying about graven images is a joke. Now, if you can cast them down as idolatry, I’d pay a bit more attention. But I’ve yet to see anyone even come close. I see more idolatry around the 7 principles in the precise words they’re in….

    If one were serving a congregation of the young, abandoning the offering might be viable. But claiming that it doesn’t serve the reality of the young, when the bulk of our congregations *aren’t* young, seems to be catering to a very minor issue. Further, insofar as the objective is to actually raise any money (for whatever end), the idea that people will go home, remember to log in and PayPal (or whatever) $10 to the church is a fantasy. A *very* few will. And PayPal will suck away a percentage. And those who’d have dropped cash in, or a check, won’t. Church isn’t all about making people comfortable–the offering is an opportunity to share. We just need to do a better job of that, and holding that up.

    As for RE, I’m with you–in some manner. It desperately needs to change. Paul, there are at least two UU congregations that are going something differently. One I can’t recall… (dammit) and the other is in Hobart. I’ve heard tales that the everybody-in-service model can and does work in a UU setting (with changes, obviously!), and that so can/does RE for all, either before or after the service.

    Signing the book should be a ceremonial act–the real membership documentation that’s “signing in” needs to be handled differently. But ceremonial acts aren’t meaningless (in fact quite the contrary).

    A “Story for All Ages” that is a throw away, because we are supposed to have a story, and this one is either unrelated to the service or vaguely so, is an abomination. But that only points to the value of a story that really *is* significant. The last sermon I preached to my internship congregation could *not* have been preached without the story.

  34. So glad to see a developing consensus about the children’s story. And also happy to know that someone else has felt that it’s when the children are brought out for an “Oooh, so ka-yute” moment. I mean, yeah–little kid are frequently cute, and they’re real cute when they’re behaving in a stereotypical way like sitting on the floor listening to a story. But what service is it to the kids, really? And what religious purpose does it fill for the adults present?

    I don’t get the idea of dumping the membership book. If you’re a minister starting a congregation and don’t have a membership book, well–it’s your congregation and you can have create traditions you want. But going into an established congregation and announcing you want to scrap the book? What on earth for?

    I have long felt that the lack of ceremony around joining many of our congregations only creates the impression that membership, and its responsibilities, don’t matter much. IIRC, when I joined All Souls in NYC, about 1980, the elderly man who held the book as I signed it shared in a father-son line that went back nearly a century, and that helped give the signing meaning.

    For people who cherish the UU “tradition” of lighting the chalice at the beginning of the service, I do want to repeat that this so-called tradition is only about 25 years old. On the other hand, 25 years ago, more of our older congregations probably still displayed crosses that have since been removed. Evolution is inevitable.

    I note that nobody has mentioned Chalica as we discuss tradition.

  35. Diggitt — who said anything about removing membership books from congregations that have them? And indeed, a ceremony should take its place. (Several people have read words I never wrote.)

    And the less said about Chalica the better.

  36. That’s right, Pat! I had forgotten about Hobart. Preaching there required a change in sermon style, so I had stuff to pass out (different kinds of rocks). It ws a challenge but I enjoyed it, and all the congregation seemed to appreciate it.

    In fact–that’s a good point. However Hobart arrived at the custom of having the kids in church for the sermon, it was not for the sake of cuteness. Nor is children in Quaker meeting, or kissing the icon and getting communion at a Orthodox service. They really are learning to appreciate what it is their parents attend services for.

  37. About membership I always fond it funny that one joins the local congregation instead of joining UU as a whole wen they join in the UU world. It would be good I think especially for young folks if they new wen joining that if they had to move for work, school or to start a family that they could take their membership with them. I think this would get more young folks to join UU, identify with UU and give more time and money to it. I now their are historical reasons for having the joining tied to the local church but, I think it is time for us who are part of the UU family to work towards moving the our joining tradition away from local church joining to joining UU as something bigger. This would also open up the possibility of us letting folks join UU who live in paces with no UU Church.

  38. @ Pat #33 – Yes. I knew about Hobart having the children in worship with the adults. Tina and I have exchanged comments on this a few times. What wasn’t clear in my mind was how children’s RE was handled. In fact, last time it came up I understood there to be no DRE, as well as no Sunday School classes. And it was not clear how children received any age-specific learning such as RE is aimed at. The website is less than helpful about explaining how it works. I’ll need to talk with Tina again, Karen being away student ministering. I would love to visit, but I’m student ministering myself.

    @ Diggitt #36 – It is a crucial distinction you make in the second paragraph. Not having kids in worship in order to see them or appreciate their cuteness or to feel proud of them but, rather, to provide them religious socialization – to train them to be a part of the worshiping community rather than separate from it.

  39. The contrast is striking between the comments in this discussion and what might have been heard in the past.

    People who came to UU in the past were often so wounded that whatever they found in UU they wanted to be different from their past experience. Many of the language battles found in our congregations — over use of words like ‘God’, or ‘worship’, or ‘church’ — were the result of this pain. By the 80s there began to be a response to this; UUs wanted to be recognized as being the something that we are, not the not-something that new members seemed to need us to be.

    Fast-forwarding to this conversation, I am hearing voices objecting to the fact that we are not like where you came from! Among other things, that suggests that a younger generation has not been so wounded by their original religious experiences and are not so relieved to find UU that they will accept its ways without questioning.

    In answer to Devin’s question about joining the denomination rather than a church: this is because the UUA is an organization made up of congregations, not of people. Our congregations each are responsible to their own members; this is called congregational polity and it goes back to our very beginnings in this country. I have moved at least a dozen times as an adult UU and would never have wanted to automatically be assigned to the nearest congregation in my new home. Since congregations vary so much from one to the next, it meant that I needed to search to find the place I belonged each time, which made me a more valuable member when I actually found that place. We would not be the UUs we are if we had new members who were assigned to us, rather than being with us because they wanted to be with us.

    For people who live where there are no congregations, for decades we have had the Church of the Larger Fellowship and more recently, the Church of the Younger Fellowship as well.

    I would like to hear other responses to Devin.

  40. To continue from Diggett’s response to Devin…

    If I understand Devin’s position re membership in the denomination rather than in the congregation, he believes it would make us more attractive if we made the denomination loom larger in people’s minds rather than membership being attached to the local congregation. And yet we frequently hear – and the president of Meadville Lombard teaches every January a class – about the growing post-denominational reality of religion in America. Non-denominational churches seem to be doing better than the denominations at retaining people or even gaining.

    And in January this year I visited a Methodist church plant in Chicago that is doing quite well for being less than a year old (even considering the influx of cash from the denomination). But through the entire service, never once was the denominational identity mentioned. And on the website</a, you have to drill down to a third level to find a faq, where it is revealed that the church is affiliated with the United Methodist denomination. It is mentioned nowhere else.

    And David Owen-O-Quill, whom I like and greatly admire, his new church Micah’s Porch Community Church even more completely avoids reference to denominational identity. It is not listed as a Unitarian Universalist emerging congregation, though its minister is an ordained and fellowshipped UU minister. Yet at the website, his previous congregation, which is a UU congregation, is not listed as a UU congregation but as a “justice-centered congregation.”

    These two young congregations appear to be appealing to young adults, among others. In short, it at the very least does not appear that a denominational identity is that important to people coming to church from outside. It may even be a turn off.

  41. After poking around Hobart’s website, it’s clear that there is Adult RE at 10 am, as well as children’s. Service starts at 11.

    Devin, there are another 2-3 times as many people who report being UUs as those who are members. There’s nothing to suggest that they’re eager to fund or attend a UU congregation–nor that they want to support the UUA. What do you imagine that would be so different (and wonderful) that it would attract a lot of these folks?

    I know people who drive a long way to get to their congregations–driving *past* congregations that don’t appeal to them. The truth is that people want what they get from their congregations, and have no real attachment (by and large) to the UUA. The ones that *do* have that attachment are usually the people who join a congregation anyway…. Or they help start a new one.

  42. @ Paul – Regarding congregations that have moved towards RE outside of Sunday School….

    The churches I have encountered that have moved away from traditional children’s Sunday School have not always abolished it; but have put more energy into the alternative programming.

    The Episcopal Church where I presently serve as Youth Pastor has de-emphasized children’s Sunday School because many of the children rotate service as acolytes or in the choir. We have childcare for very young children, but they are still expected to join the main service for communion. And so we have invested alot more time and money into spiritual enrichment events, afternoon family service projects, and a Sunday afternoon class + meal.

    I also know of a number of Quaker meetings that have childcare running in parallel with the last two-thirds of meeting for worship; but who at a different time (and sometimes a different day) hold what they call a “meeting for learning”. This has religious education choices available for different age groups.

    Lastly I would note that a fair number of Evangelical, Lutheran, and Catholic churches have renewed their past practice of offering RE in the format of a Wednesday evening program which sometimes also includes a meal and/or short worship service. If it includes some worship, it also reaches out to members of the faith who must work on Sundays.

  43. Sacraments?

    Where? Seriously, now.

    I’d LOVE to see Holy Communion. I’m totally nuts about that. But…no one is willing to do it.

  44. my current UU Congregation has no membership book.
    I had not even thought about its lack until reading the comments above.
    Tracie@42: There are a few UU Congregations that have Communion. Depends on the makeup of the congregation.

  45. @ Derek – Thanks for your reply rounding out the picture of religious education. In all the visits to non-UU churches that I make, I notice whether children are present for part or all of the service, but frequently things that qualify under the heading RE other than Sunday School are not clearly indicated in ways an outsider can decipher.

    My follow-up, I guess, is this:

    Everyone knows that in today’s families children and parents have activities strung all over the weekly schedule. That Sundays can be difficult because of sports and other non-church actvities’ demands on time. Where Sunday used to provide a time when most people could make it to church/ Sunday School if they wanted to, that no longer is the cultural reality. But there apparently is no other time that satisfies the schedules of the majority in a congregation any better. So how does attendance at Sunday School compare to attendance at religious education activities at other times of the week? And does a church need to offer multiple schedules for RE instead of the single weekly slot, whenever that falls? And if so, where do the people come from to staff extra RE time slots?

    I’m not a logistician. But it seems really difficult to me.

  46. @Paul

    You are correct. It is difficult, and the multi-time event model has severe limitations linked to staff and volunteers. And many people are only willing to commit to one event at a time. We are, I think, in the midst of a major momment of adaptation. And I do not think that we have seen the end of it.

  47. Paul – Thank you for bringing up this point regarding family availability. The reality is that there are many other draws for activities one might do on a Sunday morning besides church. And I also think many of our churches are in a non-profit “service-providing” frame of mind. I spent an hour perusing congregational websites and it is amazing how many events and groups that congregations with <200 members have going on. I have to wonder if getting people to core "programming" would be easier if they weren't filling up their schedules with all the other stuff. But maybe the churches have been this way for so long that without all the non-worship/religious ed stuff, people would leave.

    A sign of a church's "vibrancy" is often how many active affinity groups they have.

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