Monday, December 2, 2019

Preaching and Worship

In congregational communities, the central venue for offering ministries of many kinds is the pulpit. Sermons express - "proclaim" - our highest aspirations, the larger vision for a particular congregation’s ministry, pastoral words of comfort for hurting people, and prophetic demands for justice and peace. The sermon is the most in depth element of the worship service in that the themes, the values being lifted up for us are explored in greatest detail through that sermon.
Yet the sermon cannot be reduced to mere text. Preaching is an embodied act, one in which words are given life through their delivery by the preacher using his or her voice tones, inflections, gestures and expressions. In my own preaching, I often find my delivery of the sermon is most effective when I step away from the pulpit and can walk around, incorporating movement in the delivery of the message. 

Preaching at installation of Music Minister, William Ross
First UU Church, San Antonio, TX, September 2006

My sermon topics vary widely. I believe in drawing upon many faith traditions and many spiritual and intellectual disciplines to inform my sermons. I have experience with theme-based ministry, and have preached on a “theme of the month” at three previous churches. (At one of these three congregations, which valued theologically sophisticated sermons, the monthly themes were theological topics.) I also find real value in going deeper into a particular religious tradition, to unpack the many insights that tradition can offer on a variety of themes while watching to avoid the trap of cultural misappropriation. One year, I focused on three traditions, preaching once a month (each) from: the Tao Te Ching, the Bible (specifically, the Gospels), and an explicitly Unitarian, Universalist, or UU source. Each of the three addressed the same theme, with the insights from the particular tradition. Over the year, this allowed for comparing multiple teachings from the same tradition with one another. It went well beyond “cafeteria theology” (sampling an idea here, or spiritual practice there, all out of context) to understand each tradition and its insights more richly.
I find my emphasis, in most sermons, is more inspirational than intellectual. Theological and intellectual themes regularly inform and are expressed in my preaching on any given Sunday - I was a philosophy major in college, and the value of exploring the "big ideas" is clear to me. However, my general style is to draw these themes out of stories that not only illustrate these themes but also help people connect on a more visceral level. My goal in preaching a sermon is for people to leave with a little food for thought, but more so with an inspiration to commit to another aspect of life.
Preaching, of course, is only one aspect of the worship experience. The Sunday morning gathering - especially the worship service - is the primary moment that guests and newcomers encounter the life of a church. All churches, especially UU churches that affirm the worth and dignity of everyone, are called to embody and practice radical hospitality. “Radical hospitality” is both inviting people through the doors, and also taking every meaningful step to make the church as welcoming to these guests as possible. Whenever a church is considering any decision regarding its worship, I always encourage worship leaders to ask themselves, "How will our guests and newcomers experience this?" While this is never the only issue to consider, not to give weight to it inadvertently hinders the work of the church to welcome others.

Co-officiating wedding of colleagues, Revs. Christian and Kristin Grassel Schmidt
Cedar Lane UU Church, Bethesda, MD, August 2010

Each congregation has its own particular worship traditions, and I feel no need to abandon completely the order of service that has evolved in a church. However, some changes may be appropriate. The key question is not, “What do I [as minister] think the church should change about worship?” Rather, the issue is, what is the church’s mission and vision, its core purpose for being and doing ministry, and how can their worship best help them live that? Anything in a congregation’s liturgy that distracts the church from living out its mission, from living into its vision, should be examined carefully for alternatives.
Another vital avenue for participation in worship is music. The more people who sing or play, the merrier - and often it really is more merry that way, for the wide involvement not only fills out the sound, but can feel more inviting. While I regret that I don't play an instrument, and I'm not a strong singer, I am a great lover of music of many forms. I appreciate classical, formal music, especially when well-played, but find that meaningful and moving worship experiences can be conveyed through jazz, gospel, folk, blues, rock, and even country music. (I am, after all, a native Texan.) While I see great value in those churches with strong formal music programs, I have experience and interest also in exploring more contemporary forms of worship, with congregations that are open to trying new things. (And I should note - one element of my ministry that is most frequently noted, by members of every church I serve, is that when the music is lively, you're gonna see me dancing and clapping along in the chancel.)

[Note: The titles link to PDFs of sermon texts; some are complete texts, while others are intentionally incomplete sermon notes.]

[Note on Audio: The MP3s linked to the word "(audio)" are podcasts of the sermons. Each begins with a standard intro clip; the sermon begins between 1:50 and 1:55 on each MP3 file.]

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