SeanDen contributes this to the comments on my last post,
YES YES YES YES YES. I am so glad that Sean said this, as I wanted to write more about this in the original post but decided to save it for further reflections.
People often come through the doors of a church for the first time because they are IN PAIN. They are SUFFERING. And how many of our worship services absolutely fail to acknowledge that possibility or to minister to it? Perhaps it is addressed in a brief sentence in the Opening Words (“we seek here wholeness/we seek here healing”), but just as soon as you’re chugging along into the readings (some cerebral thing about how belief in God must be linked to a particular neurological phenomenon, or an excerpt from an article in the NY Times — nothing from the ancient, nothing from a Scripture we might recognize and react to with hives — and the sermon (which should be heavily researched and appeal to the MIND (above all, be impressive!), most UU services I attend are interesting at best, and embarrassing pep rallies at worst. We walk up to the door marked “sacred,” point at it and say some fancy little words about it, and then turn right around and sit back down in the lobby. We have such mixed feelings about what might be through that door. Silence. Unknowing. Suffering. Eternity. Cold, dark, space. The living God. A direct experience of “that transcending mystery and wonder” that might, if we let it, bring us to our knees in awe, or bring us to tears, or bring us to repentance, or great shared sorrow, or profound humility.
When I prepare worship, I have one inviolable rule: “If this worship service could not minister to a person who has arrived in serious emotional pain and need this Sunday morning, I will have failed in one of my most serious religious obligations.”
I don’t want to lift myself up as some great ministerial exemplar, because I’m not. What I am is a very, very hard worker and Calvinist-tinged control freak about worship. Want to know why I don’t ever go out on Saturday nights when I’m leading worship the next day? Because I spend Saturday nights with a fine-tooth editorial comb, reviewing every element of the worship service and double checking for shallowness, triumphalist laziness, snark, and blithe assumptions about who “we” are. I pray through the community and consider the variety of souls who are likely to gather in those pews. And I make it my business to assure that there is at least one significant place in the service that would minister to someone who came to church that morning in the midst of personal tragedy.
I don’t ever begin my preparations for Sunday worship hoping to inspire people to become UUs. I have never in my life walked into a church on a Sunday morning needing to be inspired to become an anything. I have gone needing to experience being human with a community of people who were similarly desperate for an hour of deep connection to the larger and deeper aspect of life.
When I have taught Worship and Liturgy to seminarians I have always emphasized that each worship service has one purpose: to minister to the people who have gathered there. It is not to give a fascinating lecture, it is not to validate a group’s sense of specialness and superiority. It is to minister to the people, which requires honesty, truth, love and courage. To minister to any group of people, we must love them enough to spare them the ego indulgence that we can all find so easily from other sources.
It begins with ministers refusing to indulge ourselves.
Our worship should be deep and serious even if it is somewhat informal. It should be deep and serious even though it is a celebration of life. Serious does not mean lacking humor or liveliness – it is not a synonym for sombre. To worship seriously means that we never, ever forget the person who has arrived bearing a burden of suffering too great to name or acknowledge. It means that while we are laughing and singing and greeting each other with a smile, we never lose sight of the fact that this is our hour to get honest with ourselves and our God. Congregations that keep worship at the ego gratification, group-bonding level are failing in their mission, no matter how many other good works they may be doing in the wider community. Our mission and purpose is ultimately a spiritual one, not a political or social one. We are not called to be communities of shallow, self-congratulatory activists. Too many of our current worship offerings cultivate that congregational identity. I believe there are hundreds of thousands of visitors to our congregations who have visited us, experienced that shallowness of vision, purpose and behavior, and gone away with hopes crushed.