The word “worship” means many things to many people, and is defined in many different ways. 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, and 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 generally understood and shared within specific cultural contexts. There is no one right definition or one shared definition.
One of the most common ways to define or describe what the word worship means among Unitarian Universalists is to trace the development of the word from 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
In the early 1980’s, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) appointed a commission of ministers to write a resource booklet about worship in UU congregations. The booklet produced by that commission in 1983 (Leading Congregations in Worship: A Guide) included the following broad description of worship:
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 reinterpret 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
Historically, Unitarian Universalism is a tradition which evolved 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. Because of this heritage, 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 the nearly 200 years of American Unitarian/Universalism, much as changed, as the religious culture has become much more diverse. Therefore, our services include diverse formats and elements and broad aims.
The language of “service” (as in Sunday Service) is reminiscent of Catholic and other forms of Christian worship which are based on liturgies, or scripted conversations 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 liturgical format, 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.
At the Fellowship, the Sunday Service has specific aims, which are described every week in the ordering of the parts in the Order of Service. Each service is divided into four main parts, or movements, which are outlined and detailed below.
We begin with The Gathering of the Community, which includes:
Music for Gathering – welcoming, inspiring, and/or contemplative music, to help people bring their attention to this time and place
Welcome – brief introductions from service leaders and participants, and an assurance that all are free to attend and participate
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 way
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
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.
Time for All Ages – 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 intergenerational community, and to help them understand what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. The children and youth leave for their Religious Exploration sessions following this time of sharing.
Sharing of Sorrows and Joys – a time to share with each other the most important things that are happening in our lives –-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 and 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. This practice of sharing truths is usually followed by a meditation on breathing and on connectedness, then shared singing.
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 – expressions of important points to be explored in the sermon
Sermon, Homily or Presentation – focus on a topic of importance for our religious, spiritual, and congregational lives, by a minister or guest speakers.
The Offering – the sharing of our resources towards living out the mission and goals of the church
Giving Thanks for All That Sustains Us – our collective reminder that life is a gift, and together we can make a difference
Finally, we arrive at the time for Returning to the World, which usually includes:
Announcements – an educational moment, to describe some of the priorities, work, and events of the congregation
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