Illustration by Lisa Zador | Artville.
In December, every UCC congregation will receive an early Christmas present from the UCC's Local Church Ministries—and, yes, it's just what you've been asking for.
The do-open-before-Christmas gift comes in response to an oft-heard request from pastors and lay leaders who say their congregations want more "praise songs that have inclusive language and reflect UCC theology," explains Arthur Clyde, the UCC's minister for worship, music and liturgical arts.
Intended to be more than "just a bunch of songs," Clyde says the newly-created music will come packaged with a plethora of new liturgical resources as part of the denomination's attempt to dialogue with congregations about ways to improve the quality of the church's worship and its members' understanding and appreciation of the experience.
In 2003, General Synod 24 in Minneapolis passed a resolution calling upon the church, in all its settings, to place renewed emphasis on worship vitality, and it asked the church's national setting to provide resources to inspire new energy and excitement for worship planning. "Worshiping into God's Future" is Local Church Ministries' innovative and far-reaching response to that request.
ÔGift' is in the mail
The gift set will include a booklet of liturgies, worship ideas and discussion questions; a music CD and praise songbook that complement the new prayers and worship patterns; and a CDROM with new liturgies, song texts for use in bulletins or projection, and 12 evocative, artistic images for use in worship or discussion.
The Rev. Sidney D. Fowler, the UCC's minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation, says the resources are being mailed to congregations for use and enjoyment—yes—but also as the next phase of the worship-enhancement project and as a way to spark experimentation and conversation at the local setting.
Fowler says the resources are intended to be tools to encourage congregations to reflect deeply on their worship, to serve as fresh ideas that can be tried out and responded to, and to help inform and guide the future development of worship resources.
"We want the churches to see this as a gift to them," Fowler says, "but we are also appealing to the church to respond to them."
Therefore, Fowler says, the reach of the project is not only to document current worship modes, but to uncover future trends and directions.
"It's not just about what churches are currently doing," he says. "We're not only interested in patterns, but also possibilities. How are we entering the future? What do we need more of?"
Explains Clyde, "It's intended as a sample of what the church could be using more of, examples of what musicians in the UCC could create."
In fact, UCC people did create the new songs and liturgies, which were developed using the synergetic talents of a diverse team of vocalists, liturgists, pastors, instrumentalists and writers. Many of the liturgies were developed organically by local congregations and are being shared, perhaps for the first time, with the larger church.
Singing to God in Ôchanging times'
Clyde describes the 23 new musical pieces as "praise songs" or mantras, some in repetitive TaizZ style, that employ easily-remembered melodies and words so that worshipers can enter the experience quickly, without being bogged down with having to follow lyrics too closely. The songs and liturgies include settings for gathering, communion, baptism, times of prayer, and for sending forth.
"We have heard many times, from many different people that there is a need for some new kinds of songs, simple and easily repeated," Clyde says. "So [these UCC musicians] made up a wish list for the church, and they created these songs and are now saying, ÔLet's see if the church likes them.'"
"More has happened that just a group of people getting together and writing some songs," Clyde explains, "It was an exciting, energizing process."
The CD's liner notes emphasize the musicians' attempt to chart a new course for the use of music in worship.
"As diverse in their style as are the musicians and writers who created them," the CD cover proclaims, "these new compositions attempt to answer a question for worshipers today: How shall we sing in changing times?"
Not supplanting, but adding
Clyde cautions, however, that the new songs were written to enrich, not overtake, current hymnody in the church. "They can easily be blended together in a worship service with traditional hymns," he says.
Fowler says it's important to remember that, for many Christians, music is not only a backdrop for worship, music can be the heart of worship.
"Rather than saying music is an inherent for worship," Fowler says, "[these musicians] are taking another step and saying, Ômusic is worship, music is prayer,' and this suggests that music is liturgy. That's a powerful shift."
Fowler says that, in addition to the musical selections, the new liturgies have been developed, or offered by UCC congregations, to present new possibilities. Some of the new offerings include, for example, briefer communion liturgies, rites of passage for youth (such as when one receives a driver's license), or words for use in times of significant life transition (such as retirement or job loss).
In all, the liturgies offer at least 30 creative possibilities for thinking afresh—and experimenting—with new worship forms.
Inviting churches' real participation
Fowler emphasizes that, as a survey project, "Worshiping into God's Future" attempts to invite churches' real participation, exploration and response.
"What we're asking is for a church to go beyond answering a survey question, but to reflect on its practices, to use these resources and to experience God in them. Then tell us what resources are really needed. Are they useful, not useful?" Fowler says, "This project is grounded not just in a quick fix, but in the working, worship life of the church."
In the end, Fowler insists, the project is not intended to change congregations, but to involve them.
"We feel like if [feedback] comes from the direct practice of a congregation, we'll get better results," he says. "The critical step is to have them reflect on what they already do, and talk about it, and at least have a better sense of why they do what they do."
The trick, he says, is to remain open to new possibilities.
"Don't put exciting in a box," he teaches. "Exciting can mean many different things to many different people."
What is ÔWorshiping into God's Future'?
"Worshiping into God's Future" is a response to General Synod's call for church-wide discussion of the UCC's worship life. Among its purposes:
To discover worship practices and understandings throughout the UCC.
To identify needed resources for worship renewal.
To look at worship training and education.
To consider enhancing the Book of Worship and The New Century Hymnal.
What's the project's timeline?
Earlier in 2004, all congregations and members of the church were invited to participate in the first-phase of an historic survey of the UCC's worship life. Just under 9,000 surveys were completed, representing more than one-third of the UCC's congregations. Some of the survey's findings were reported in the June 2004 edition of United Church News; however, a more-thorough final analysis by the worship and education ministry team and the UCC's research office will be made available.
Now, the project's second phase involves wide distribution of trial liturgies, new music and visual images for use by congregations. Each local church is being asked to use—then reflect on Ñthe resources and report back.
What's being mailed in December to each congregation?
Prayers and Patterns for Worship, a booklet of liturgies, worship ideas and discussion questions.
Sing Prayer, Sing Praise!, a music CD and song book with songs for worship in conjunction with prayers and patterns for worship. Accompaniment versions will be available at ucc.org/worship.
Words and Images for Worship, a CD-ROM with texts of liturgies, songs for use in bulletins or projection, and 12 evocative, artistic images for use in worship or discussion.
What are churches asked to do, specifically?
During January, try out as much of the material as desired, then respond online or return the form by April 11. Information gleaned will be reported to General Synod, July 1-5, in Atlanta. For more information, contact the Rev. Sidney D. Fowler, minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation, at 866-UCC-UCC4, ext. 3869 or email@example.com or Arthur Clyde, minister for worship, music and liturgical arts, at 866-UCC-UCC4, ext. 3870 or firstname.lastname@example.org.