Pastors nationwide know the pressures from their regulars at worship: Choose familiar hymns; use humor, but don't be glib; and whatever you do, wrap up the service within an hour.
In recent decades, worship services have bent in these ways and myriad others to suit the personal tastes of a fickle, church-hopping public, according to Marva Dawn, keynote speaker at July's Craigville Colloquy.
Although people seem to be getting what they want on Sunday morning, she said, they aren't getting what they need—active engagement in the praising of God.
"We have turned worship into a consumerist item where nobody wants any cost," Dawn said. "We don't want the discipline that means worship is work. We want an easy commodity. [But] the nature of commodification is that you always need more and you're never satisfied ... Don't you think church should be the last place where the marketers have the last say?">
Challenging hearers to push beyond "idolatry of self" to active worship of God, Dawn kicked off the 19th annual meeting where UCC pastors, theologians and laypersons spend a week on Cape Cod in Massachusetts connecting theology to current issues. This year's theme of "Christian Worship and Witness in Our Times" compelled 68 participants from as far as Wyoming and Florida to spend five days discussing—and debating—why we worship, if not solely to be entertained.
One group of eight, meeting on a porch in the rusty glow of sunset, used a black marker and newsprint to brainstorm possible reasons for gathering to worship.
The list kept growing—"to equip saints for ministry," "to proclaim the gospel," among others—until someone added, "to praise God.">
"I have trouble imagining a God who really needs our worship," said the Rev. Ray Kostulias, pastor of First Congregational UCC, Park Ridge, N.J. "Worship is for us, so that we'll be radically changed by the experience, shaken out of our realities ... I want [churchgoers] to be pumped up, to be shocked, to be knocked off their feet, that there could be some kind of explosion of the Spirit.">
"I'd like to have that just once," quipped the Rev. Jeanny House, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Rock Springs, Wyo.
Master the disciplines
In past years, the UCC's Confessing Christ movement has used the colloquy to bring scripture and orthodox tradition to bear on contentious issues for the denomination, such as the limits of salvation and the ethics of cloning.
But this year, the more unifying topic of worship took center stage as planners asked what the church is called to be in and for an uncertain world.
"We are part of a world torn apart. On 9-11, we found out what the rest of the world lives with," said the Rev. Bob Stewart, a group leader and pastor of Good Shepherd UCC in Reading, Pa. "What is it, then, that the church has to offer in its proclamation every Sunday that Christ will come again?">
Dawn, whose 16 books address worship and modern culture, urged congregations to master the disciplines of worship, from singing to memorizing collective responses in the ancient liturgies. In making her case, she took aim at some accepted UCC conventions, such as having separate services for traditional and contemporary worship.
"I believe God has eclectic taste," Dawn said. And if some don't care for certain selections?
"When I hear someone say, 'I didn't like that song,' I have a simple response," Dawn said. "I say, 'So? We weren't worshiping you.'">
Reach out to the lost
Yet for the Rev. Paul Sangree, who spearheads a contemporary-style service at Bethany Congregational UCC in Foxboro, Mass., worship geared toward certain preferences is inevitable.
Sangree argued that the church has always been influenced by preferences. "Instead of worrying about the preferences of the people inside the church," he said, "let's worry [at one service] about the preferences of people outside the church...My highest value is reaching out to lost people because I think lost people matter to God.">
At week's end, as former debate partners embraced and joined hands for prayer, the conference's ecumenical observer, the Rev. Demetrios Demopulos of the Greek Orthodox Church, gave them credit for spending time on a topic dear to all Christian groups.
"I'm heartened to see," Demopulos said, "that people who are concerned about [worship] can so willingly and peacefully discuss their differences.">
The Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald is a freelance religion journalist and pastor of Union Congregational UCC in Amesbury, Mass.