We are One – Coming Changes in Worship

Mark-office-2016Last spring we began some important conversations around who we are and what we do as a truly multigenerational congregation that are opening up some new thinking. Like many churches, the model that we tended to follow divided what happened on Sunday mornings into two areas: “Worship,” an activity that was principally for adults, with occasional visits from children, and “Religious Education,” an activity intended principally for children.

In “Religious Education,” children were assigned to age-specific classes where adult teachers conveyed content of an agreed-upon curriculum. A sort of tacit understanding was that in time children would learn the stories and lessons that arise within our tradition and that would prepare them well for when they headed out into the world on their own.

There is a lot of good in that model – I’m a product of it myself – but in recent years people have been questioning whether it fits us. For one thing, it splits us into separate communities that rarely interact, and that doesn’t feel right. Families especially would like more opportunities to worship together, and both older and younger people would enjoy more chances to get to know each other. For another, we don’t really see our children as containers to be filled. Rather, we see them as curious, questioning souls who we hope grow into spiritually mature human beings. As William Ellery Channing put it nearly 200 years ago, “the great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but stir up their own.”

We’ve come to see that what we hope to achieve is not so much “religious education” as “faith development.” We seek to guide and encourage a nascent faith, that locus of trust and love that exists in every person, not so much by conveying information as seeking to awaken and develop a capacity that is already within us. Of course we still have much to convey, but it comes more often in the form of stories than facts and figures. And, more importantly, we remember that this is lifelong work: not just for children but for all of us. Joy Berry and I as well as other staff and lay leaders are still processing all that we learned in those conversations last spring, but expect to see our lifelong learning play out as we enter the year ahead.

One change I want you to know about will begin on September 11, and it’s intended to help break down the boundaries that our Sunday morning structures can create, albeit unintentionally. Beginning September 11, we will begin every Sunday service gathered as a full community with our children present. We will sing together and share a story or ritual together before separating for continued worship in our Sanctuary and Spirit Play and other activities elsewhere. Note that there will be opportunities for adult classes and activities on Sunday mornings outside of worship and more opportunities for older children and youth to participate in worship.

It’s a pretty big change, and I welcome your feedback on how it’s working for you. It will stay in place at least through the fall, and then we’ll assess what tweaks or changes we need to make. In the end, our goals are simple: to increase spiritual depth in each of us, to build a caring community across the congregation and to put that community to the service of freedom, justice and love in the world.

Rev. Mark Ward is the Lead Minister of UUCA.