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A small selection of resources from previous versions of this Web site.

An experiment in alternative worship (2002)
Forming support groups in a congregational setting (2006)



An experiment in alternative worship

I wrote this description of alternative worship services at First Parish in Lexington (Mass.) back in 2002, revised it in 2006, and made some small revisions in 2021.

Although we worship leaders, and the regular attendees, had great fun with our alternative worship service, the time taken up in staff hours and volunteer hours ultimately wasn't justified by the small attendance. This is unfortunate, because our approach to circle worship turned out to be good at engaging both head and heart, good at incorporating persons with developmental disabilities, and it was welcoming to all ages. While our approach to circle worship wasn't practical in the long run, perhaps someone else can achieve the same results with less effort.

Plans and priorities

In March, 2001, the three program staff then working at First Parish in Lexington (Massachusetts) began offering alternative worship services Sunday evenings. These three people were Rev. Helen Cohen, senior minister; Rev. Ellen Spero, assistant minister; and myself, at that time Director of Religious Education (DRE) and ministerial intern. In autumn, 2000, when Ellen first began working at First Parish as assistant minister, she began talking about possibilities for alternative worship services. Ellen, Helen, and I felt there was expressed need and support for some sort of alternative worship service at First Parish. But what form would it take?

Ellen made an initial formal proposal for this alternative worship service to lay leadership and committees, who offered valuable feedback which helped shape our plans. A few priorities emerged in the discussions following initial proposal:

  • We wanted to work with "circle worship," where the congregation sits in a circle (more on this later)
  • We wanted the liturgy to be different from, but to maintain a connection to, the standard Sunday morning liturgy at First Parish
  • We wanted a worship format where families could worship together, i.e., a worship format where children could participate fully in worship (as DRE, I was a primary advocate of this)
  • We wanted to balance spoken word with visual and kinesthetic worship elements, to nurture persons with differing learning styles (as DRE, I was particularly interested in reaching children with differing learning styles)
  • While we were all committed to the sermon as important in Unitarian Universalist worship, we wanted to balance the importance of the sermon with other elements of the liturgy; and we were willing to interpret sermon very broadly to include more than just the spoken word

Based on these priorities, we began to plan our new worship services.

Shaping time and space

We first had to answer two questions: How would we shape the space of the worship setting? And: How would we shape time through liturgy? We read about alternative Unitarian Universalist models for worship, although we were also open to the influence of non-Unitarian Universalist worship services.

When we started thinking about how to shape the space, we were drawn to the liturgical experimentation of Kenneth Patton and his congregation at the Charles Street Meeting House in Boston. As Patton had done, we decided to seat the congregation in a circle. This meant we would have to move the worship service from the main sanctuary, which had fixed pews, to the smaller Parish Hall, where we could set up moveable chairs. We arranged the chairs in concentric circles, with an open center and four wedge-shaped open areas.

Like Patton, we also decided to begin the worship services by lighting a flame, although we went far beyond what Patton had done with his flame. Patton's lit a flame in a lamp of Graeco-Roman shape, which simply represented the wisdom of the ancient world. In our worship services, a flame was lit before the beginning of the worship services (I thought of it this way: this first candle represented the "light of the ages," the truth that is available to humankind in all ages -- Helen and Ellen had differing understandings of this however). This candle stood outside the circle of chairs. From this flame, we lit a Unitarian Universalist chalice, representing how we as a religious tradition are one manifestation of the light of the ages. This chalice was part of the inner circle of chairs. Finally, towards the end of our worship services, persons in the congregation were invited to light candles of joy and concern, using a flame kindled from the chalice. These candles stood in the center of the circle, thus representing our primary emphasis on the gathered religious community.

Thus we moved from a flame representing the "light of the ages," to a flame representing Unitarian Universalism, to many flames representing our own individual lives. Both time and space were shaped by the lighting of candles.

Typical order of service

(First candle, outside the circle of chairs, was lit before worship service started)
Opening music (recorded music)
Opening words
Lighting the Chalice (candle in chalice, part of the inner circle of chairs, was lit by worship leader)
Unison Affirmation (the same affirmation used on Sunday morning)
Song (songs were sung a capella, and we gradually built up a repertoire of simple songs that the regular attenders had memorized)
Offertory (with recorded music)
Centerpiece (e.g., sermon, play, meditation, other activities)
Joys and concerns (candles in center of circle were lit by members of the congregation)
Unison benediction (the same benediction was said by the entire congregation each week, usually as we stood and held hands)
Social hour (the candles were left burning during social hour, which was held in the same room as the worship service)

While we never discussed it, certainly Helen, Ellen and I were aware that coffee hour amongst Unitarian Universalists has largely replaced the table fellowship of eucharist, or communion, in more traditional Christian churches; thus, leaving the candles lit during social hour made our table fellowship of shared coffee and snacks into part of the liturgy. (As primary worship leader for these alternative services, and as someone with a feminist Christian theology, Ellen may have explicitly planned this — I'll have to ask her sometime.)

Theologies for circle worship

A simple definition of circle worship is any worship service where the congregation and the worship leaders wit in a circle together. But while the simple shape of the service helps define circle worship, a theological understanding turns out to be more complicated. Not only that, but several different theologies of circle worship are possible. What follows is the beginnings of a conversation for a theology for circle worship.

For Ellen and me, the impetus for circle worship probably began in second-wave feminist theology. My understandings of circle worship came, at that time, primarily from my participation in feminist neo-pagan rituals and worship services. In addition to these experiences, I found myself drawing loosely on the understanding of circle worship outlined by Starhawk in Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics. In my loose interpretation of Starhawk, while there is a worship leader, circle worship requires the full and in some sense equal participation of all the worshippers, as reality is reshaped in and by worship to the end that good may prevail in the world. The image of the circle, therefore, grows out of the image of reality as a web: there are web-connections between persons in the circle, and there are web-connections between this circle of worship and all other circles of worship. Clearly, these non-hierarchical images of circle and web represent a feminist alternative to "rectangular worship" (to use Peter Richardson's felicitous term), with one or a few worship leaders in a hierarchical role over and above the mass of the congregation.

Ellen drew inspiration from the Christian feminist theology of Letty Russell, among others. In her book Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretations of the Church, Russell lays out feminist possibilities for many aspects of Christian church life. In regard to feminist explorations of new leadership styles, Russell writes: "This search for new styles of partnership in the church has become a worldwide movement dedicated to changing Jacob's-ladder leadership to leadership in the form of Sarah's circle." (p. 63) Russell draws upon the early Christian history of house churches as a model for alternative leadership styles. In terms of worship, Russell uses the image of the "welcome table," where all are welcomed equally; she quotes a poem by Chuck Lathrop:

Roundtabling means
no preferred seating
no first and last,
no better, and no corners
for the "least of these."

These understandings of leadership, welcome, and justice all shaped our evening worship services.

In addition, Ellen and I looked at a vespers liturgy by the Congregation of Abraxas and liturgies of Kenneth Patton. But we drew most heavily on the existing liturgy of First Parish, shortening and reshaping the standard morning liturgy for the purposes of our intergenerational, circle-based, evening worship. We continued to play with the liturgy for the year and a half that we continued these alternative worship services; indeed, that became an essential part of what we do. The liturgy had not been handed down from on high, never to be changed, but it was continuously reshaped by worship leaders and congregation, shaped by the connections we shared with all persons who worship with us.

Learning styles and intergenerational worship

Including children was a key element of our feminist theology of worship; children for us are not things to shut out of "adult worship"; rather, we felt, and feel, that children are sacred beings (as are adults) worthy of full inclusion in worship.

For this understanding, we drew in part from Engaging in Transcendence: The Church's Ministry and Covenant with Young Children, by Barbara and William Myers, who point out that religious communities are "called" into a "relational way of understanding and being" that we call a "covenant." Extending our worship covenant to children raised some practical and logistical issues, and Myers and Myers helped our understanding of how children may participate in worship. They suggest a carpet for children with quiet toys that is placed so that children can feel a full part of the worship community. We incorporated such a carpet as a part of the worship circle, in one of the wedge-shaped areas with no chairs.

Ellen and I went beyond that, however. Both of us had been trained as educators — Ellen as a special education teacher, and I as a religious educator — and we decided to apply our knowledge of learning styles to worship. We felt that traditional Unitarian Universalist liturgies emphasize spoken word too heavily for many children, so from the beginning the liturgy and the worship space were designed to accommodate not only the spoken word but also drama, dance and other kinds of movement, visual arts, etc. The worship circle included open areas to accommodate music and the lively arts; and the layout of chairs was easily rearranged to meet the requirements of a given service. The liturgy had only a few fixed elements at the beginning and the end, so the middle of the liturgy was extremely flexible.

Topics and formats

The list below gives some idea of the range of worship elements we were able to successfully include in these alternative worship services. The primary learning style for each worship service (auditory, kinesthetic, visual) is identified. In parentheses, one or two primary multiple intelligences, taken from the work of educational theorist Howard Gardner, are identified for each worship service.

  • Meditation: Walking meditation -- Kinesthetic (Bodily-Kinesthetic and Intrapersonal)
  • Meditation: Sitting meditation -- Auditory? and Kinesthetic (Intrapersonal)
  • Anti-racism: Verbal sharing with movement ritual -- Auditory and Kinesthetic (Interpersonal and Bodily-kinesthetic)
  • Prayer: A body prayer -- Kinesthetic (Verbal-linguistic and Bodily-kinesthetic)
  • Imaging the sacred: Making collages -- Visual (Visual-spatial and Interpersonal)
  • Sacred song: Singing -- Auditory (Musical-rhythmic)
  • Jazz service: Music -- Auditory (Musical-rhythmic)
  • Asteroid B-612 [from The Little Prince]: Dramatized story and drawing (Verbal-linguistic and Visual-spatial)
  • Christmas: Dramatized story (Verbal-linguistic and Musical-rhythmic)
  • Hanukah: Drama (Verbal-linguistic and Visual-spatial)
  • Garden of Eden [from Genesis]: Dramatized story (Verbal-linguistic)
  • A Mad Tea Party [from Alice in Wonderland] : Drama (Verbal-linguistic and Visual-spatial)
  • Mother's Day: Story (Verbal-linguistic)

Child-friendly elements

A few other child-friendly elements should be mentioned:

Snacks and drinks were a key part of every worship service. Children and adults were invited to have snacks and drinks during the worship service, and were invited to get up at any time during the service for more. Thus, we extended our "table fellowship" throughout the worship service. (Ellen in particular talked about food as a key part of our worship ministry.)

For practical reasons, we were limited to using primarily recorded music, but we used that to advantage as we were able to use some popular music more familiar to teenaged youth, to help them feel more welcome.

Finally, overall the evening services were deliberately less formal than the usual Unitarian Universalist services. We wanted the worship space to feel more home-like, not unlike the notion of church-as-domestic held by some of the Prophetic Sisterhood.

Evaluation and analysis

I still feel that we had just begun to explore the potential of the evening worship services, when Helen, Ellen, and I all left First Parish in the same month, June, 2002. It would have been interesting to continue the experiment, perhaps especially if we had rescheduled the worship service to a better time slot (see below).

In terms of attendance, the results of this alternative worship service were disappointing. In the first three months of offering these worship services, attendance peaked at 45 people, out of an active membership of perhaps 200 people. However, attendance dropped to an average of about 12 by fall, 2001, rising only slightly in the spring of 2002. Three factors having nothing to do with alternative worship may have affected attendance. First, the events of September 11, 2002, may have lessened the taste for unfamiliar worship forms. Second, the senior minister of First Parish announced her retirement after 22 years of ministry in early fall of 2002; the assistant minister and I announced our own departures not long thereafter. Third, Sunday evening turned out to be a difficult time for many households to attend a second worship service.

At the same time, I now believe that, in spite of what they say, most people currently in Unitarian Universalist congregations are not interested in circle worship. Probably the only way to build attendance is to continue this sort of service long enough to attract newcomers who would prefer circle worship to traditional worship. Therefore, if you're not willing to make a five-year commitment to an alternative worship service, I now feel you shouldn't even bother.

Although it remained an unfinished experiment when it ended, over the intervening years I have drawn some conclusions from this alternative worship service:

  1. We were able to develop ways to integrate all ages, and showed how children, youth, and adults can be part of the same worship service and all get something satisfying out of that worship service
  2. From a Vygotskyan developmental perspective, mixing adults and young people in worship services allowed the young people to perform above normal expectations for their age and stage of life
  3. The structure of the space and the liturgy made it easy to include drama, music, visual arts, and spoken word into the worship services
  4. The visual and temporal imagery of the candle-lighting, and the repeated, memorized worship elements, gave a strong structure that allowed more flexibility than in a traditional Unitarian Universalist order of service
  5. Evening proved to be a good time for worship, with sunshine in spring and summer, and darkness in fall and winter, leading to powerful moments like candles on dark winter evenings, and sun pouring in the windows in late spring
  6. Alternative worship is time-consuming, and the more innovative the worship service the longer it took to prepare. It could easily take eight to sixteen hours to prepare for one particularly innovative forty-five minute worship service
  7. We were wrong about the age group we thought we would attract. We thought we'd attract people under 40, but we had a pretty even age distribution among our regular attenders, from teens to elders
  8. None of the proponents for alternative worship in the wider congregation became regular attenders at our alternative worship services; I suspect that many of the voices calling for an alternative worship service really just wanted to change the Sunday morning worship service, and/or wanted to be the ones leading worship themselves
  9. Circle worship is more difficult to plan for and prepare than traditional Unitarian Universalist worship: there are more variables to play with, and each new variable increases the complexity; do not underestimate the difficulty of leading circle worship
  10. One last conclusion: You'd be crazy to do something like this alone

Copyright © 2006 Daniel Harper. All rights reserved.


Forming support groups in a congregational setting

This is quick-and-dirty checklist for forming support groups in congregational settings. Originally written in 2006, it has been revised a couple of times since then.

A support group is typically a small group of people who are facing similar problems or issues, or who share a common idneity, or who are in a common life stage. People in a support group come together on a regular basis to share their stories, give each other moral and spiritual support, and listen deeply to one another. Examples of support groups: women’s groups, youth groups, chalice circles, small group ministries, etc.

Organizational and logistical matters to consider:

1. Covenant or basic agreement

A short behavioral agreement (a “covenant,” in current UU jargon language) is needed:

  • Include a statement of purpose for the group
  • Include a statement of confidentiality (e.g., “What’s said in this room stays in this room”)
  • Review the agreement regularly, plus every time a new member joins

2. Time and place

  • Decide whether to meet monthly, twice a month, weekly
  • Decide what time and day to meet
  • Decide where to meet
  • Decide length of meeting time (60 to 120 minutes)

3. Basic structure of a typical meeting

The basic support group in a Unitarian Universalist context will follow this format more or less:

  • Opening words, and/or light chalice
  • Check-in, where each person has time to speak without interruptions about her/his life since the past meeting; typically each person is limited to 3-15 minutes during check-in (depending on the size and purpose of the group; some support groups exist only to give members time for extended check-ins)
  • Discussion or program time (optional), where members consider a specific topic related to their group’s purpose
  • Time to socialize
  • Closing ritual (e.g., regular closing words), then remind everyone of time and date of next meeting

4. Roles for group members

At least two roles need to be filled, formally or informally:

  • Convener convenes a meeting by reminding members of meeting times in advance
  • Facilitator facilitates a meeting by keeping group members to agreement and time

Other roles may be appropriate for some support groups. Many support groups ask members to rotate in the role of facilitator, sometimes in the role of convener.

5. Logistics

Child care, sharing or providing transportation, other logistical details.

6. Relationship with host congregation

This includes at least the following:

  • What support the congregation provides (meeting space, training and support for group leaders, supervision and conflict resolution, etc.)
  • How support group supports the congregation (e.g, quarterly service to congregation, monetary contributions each meeting, etc.) to the congregation
  • Support group knows to whom they are accountable (Board, minister(s), etc.)

7. Admitting new members

Support groups may be open or closed, depending on whether new members are admitted or not.

  • Open groups admit members at any time. They must have a plan in place for what to do if their group grows (split into two groups; find a bigger room; etc.). The largest support group I know of had 45 members; they had program time one week and timed check-in another week. However, 8-12 members is a more common size.
  • Closed group do not accept new members. However, due to natural attrition, closed groups will need new members every so often, and a closed group needs to determine how and when it will admit new members.