Sunday, October 22, 2017

Worship Services: Top Ten Practices

Touring and Learning

I tour, preaching at congregations throughout the US, mostly West of the Rockies. In my touring I've run into some elements of worship that work so well that I've remembered them and try to offer them to other congregations. Below is a list of worship elements that I admire.
The author with her tiny home,
visiting the Sepulveda UU congregation

The worship service that works for me is all of a piece, with the hymns, performed music, readings, time for all ages, etc. all serving one message or theme for the service. Sometimes I think of the service as a necklace. I have many hand-made necklaces from my mom and sister. In shops I observed them carefully selecting different beads and baubles that worked together, each one adding to the overall look of the necklace. A religious service is made up of pieces that need to work together in the same way. Each one can be unique, but they all need to serve the main idea.

Ten Excellent Ideas

In no particular order, here are ten ideas I treasure for religious services:

Children's book by author's mother
1) A "time for all ages" that isn't just a story. It is an interactive time that is specifically introducing the message of the day. It must be explicitly is relatable to all ages. Puppets, Q and A, acting it out, illustrations on a slideshow, inviting sound effects or participation from the whole congregation, rhythm play, and pretty much anything beyond a simple story are good. (OK, sometimes it can be a story but never simply reading from a storybook!) (Credit to my Religious Exploration colleagues in the Pacific NW)

2) Joys and Sorrows, not joys and concerns, followed by pastoral SONG and PRAYER. Including a pastoral song and a prayer drive home that this is sharing deep personal milestones in religious community. It is not speaker's bureau/group therapy/political soapbox... When a particular event is on everyone's minds (like "back to school" when doing joys and sorrows with kids at that time of year, or "the tragic shooting in Las Vegas" recently) it works well to begin joys and sorrows by naming that one thing. I make notes on the themes in the spoken joys and sorrows so that I can name them in the prayer afterward. I've borrowed from Reverend Dana Worsnop the phrases "We hold tenderly..." and "We hold joyfully..." to preface those references. In my Pagan and earth-relating practice the joys and sorrows portion of our time together usually is after the main working, after the central ritual. I'm curious how many congregations have done that? Have you put Joys and Sorrows after the sermon? How does it work for you?

3) MUSIC/Singing!!! I often sing the call to worship. A service will include a song of gathering (opening hymn), singing the young people out, a pastoral song, and a song of blessing (closing hymn). A pianist who is able to add gentle piano under joys and sorrows or a prayer, or particular reading is a gift. Including the ASL interpretation with the songs makes it a whole body experience that is accessible for more people. Singing together before the service... which helps with starting on time! (Credit to the many music directors I've had the honor to co-create with, Mark, Tom, Bert, !)

4) Announcements/news of the community outside of worship (before or after). Some congregations project the announcements before and after the service on a self-running slideshow. One congregation had the slideshow of news running in the fellowship hall during refreshments and conversation after the service. (Credit to UUC Salem, OR)

Necklace beaded by Anne Warren Smith (author's mother)
5) Symmetry - call to worship and benediction frame the service beginning and end, both by the same person (usually the minister). Chalice lighting and extinguishing are led by the same person (usually the service associate). On a related note: One congregation explicitly clarified which elements of the liturgy belonged to "the people" and which to "the minister." I found that useful in thinking about the service as a whole. The Joys and Sorrows, offering, and chalice lighting/extinguishing belong to the people and are the domain of the service associate. The call, benediction, and sermon are the domain of the minister. (Credit to Pagan and Earth-relating communities and CUUPS for the finely honed sense of ritual.) Tapestry of Faith images
6) Break up the wall of words. I often offer a sermon 'part 1' before the offertory (5 mins) and 'part 2' after the offertory (15 mins) Sometimes the sermon 'part 1' is a reading offered by lay folks. It can work very well to spread the sermon out across the whole service, by including 2-5 minute speaking before a hymn that illustrates the concept, or including a longer introduction to a reading or shared activity. Guided meditations, body prayers, singing fragments of song, silence, and ringing a bell all allow folks with different learning styles to connect to the message, and break up the deadening effect of a classic "20 minute sermon." (Gratitude to the congregations in Seattle, New Mexico, and Arizona for welcoming experimentation with this.)

7) Slideshow - when possible include graphics and prompts and words of hymns. No need to print paper. Hymnals are for the folks who can read music. (I personally prefer singing songs that don't require music skills to make them sound good and be fun to sing.) The slide show can give credit for readings, hymns, and performed music so you don't take up verbal space to share that information. (Credit to the UUs of Honolulu, HI)

By Louise Docker from Sydney, Australia
(My heart in your hands)
[CC BY 2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons
8) Offering BEFORE the sermon. This isn't a service that gets paid for, it is an experience of community. Contributions should come from the experience of community, not from the judgement of the worth of the speaker's message. When introducing the offering however you do it, I appreciate saying "give and receive" to remind people that they, too, are the community that receives the offering... (Credit to First U of Ithaca, NY)

9) Include! Notice who is up front representing the congregation. When the service associate and minister are both middle-aged white women, then perhaps seek out a young man of color to offer the reading. Explicitly name various identities and backgrounds in the greeting and welcome, pastoral prayer, sermon. Use the microphone, use slides, create wheelchair cutouts in the seating area, create and label an area that is scent-free seating and a space where people with service animals can be seated so that those with allergies can choose their seats an appropriate distance away. Provide "activity packs" for bored children. Actively appreciate the baby noises from the pulpit to help normalize inclusion of all ages. (Credit to First UU of Salem, OR)

10) Blocking... Processing in and out, saying the benediction from the floor, being seated up behind the pulpit so the preacher can see the assembled community, greeting people after the service at a main door they exit through... All about paying attention to where our bodies are. This includes reducing the 'upping and downing' and the long trips from pew to pulpit for board greeter, service associate, guest speakers, congregants during joys and sorrows, etc. As a safety note... The minister, who is positioned to see all the exits and all the congregants, should have a cell phone handy so that if there is an emergency they can dial 911 or take appropriate action. (Credit to Reverend Hope and UUC of Central Nassau, NY)

11) And a bonus idea: Plan the service on a Google document. That way the music person, minister, service associate, RE director, and office person can all contribute and see exactly what is in the service all the way up to the day of. Any last minute responses to world events? Put the extra candle-lighting words in the script and everyone has them. Avoid sending the order of service back and forth. Get the music director involved in the theme EARLY so that music can be prepared that supports the overall message. (Credit to First Unitarian of Portland, OR)

These are all things I've experienced great success with at various congregations and I try to carry them with me to other congregations. But always, we all benefit from the advice of Rev. Barbara Wells Ten Hove: We practice "Sacred Flexibility" during our worship, because we know the divine mystery has much to teach us from our surprises as well as our well orchestrated moments.

Just for Fun 

Here's a public Facebook post from Matt Meyer along the same theme. (I love all of these!)
Matt Meyer
Everything I need to know about worship leading, I learned from Lady Gaga last night:
-Honor the ancestors: She called in the women who preceded and paved the way for her.
-Have good visuals and invest in a good sound system.
-Invite people to sing along and show them how to clap on 2 and 4.
-Incorporate different styles of music: this show was like an eclectic tour of American pop through the ages.
-Attentiveness to use of metaphor: "I want to ride your disco stick"
-Make your theology explicit: "Everyone belongs in the arms of the sacred"
-More rehearsal is always better: Every transition was as tight as could be.
-Allow for the element of surprise: As exemplified in costume changes and/or fireworks.
-Explicitly welcome multiple identities and represent them in your leadership.
-Take instrumental breaks.
To book Reverend Amy at your congregation, religious gathering or civic group, contact by email at or look at her schedule on You can also find more information about religious services on the website.

1 comment:

  1. Having music, no matter how soft, during speaking is a problem for those who find hearing difficult. Hearing aids, for example, switch into music mode, making the words sound muffled and unintelligible. Also, for someone who is 'noise-deaf', it is impossible to distinguish the sounds we want to listen to from the background noises. Background noises need to be minimized, so we can listen to the words of joys and sorrows or the sermon.