Helping small non-Christian congregations: 2. Sunday by Sunday

It’s tempting for the worship committee (or like) of small congregations without a regular preacher to act like talent scout for a lyceum series. (I’ve seen this among non-Unitarian Universalists, too.) If all else fails, the “sermon slot” must be filled. A small drama or pagent, poetry reading, panel discussion, or special music event can be slotted in from time to time, but the place it fills is the sermon slot. If the Sunday service has an identifying description, nearly all of the time it will be the title of the sermon. It has become the heart of what’s done on Sunday morning. Wrangling willing speakers — if my experience on the other side of the equasion is any indication — is a difficult and thankless task. Even worse, the quality suffers, and the variety (which could be high) tends to boil to “my impression of this important thing” and “this is why Unitarian Universalists are different than X.”

There ought to be a better way.

Most — since this includes the Catholics — Christian churches use a church calendar, a duplex arrangment where (1) the life of Christ, centered on Easter, is played out in one- and three-year cycles, with (2) the lives of the saints and other commemorations peppered in, the so-called sanctoral cycle. Some “sermon centrality” has been softened by relying on the themes that draw naturally from the church calendar. These so-called lectionary sermons — even the so-so ones — receive reinforcement from the matching hymns, prayers, and the lessons themselves. Sure, topical preachers usually craft a service with these features, but it is much harder. And this doesn’t even consider the sensibilities of those who really don’t care about the sermon, and get their sustainance from non-spoken cues.

So how does this relate to the non-Christian congregations? Perhaps they should develop a church worship calendar. But it would out of necessity be an amplified sanctoral cycle (which we do: Martin Luther King Day, United Nations Day, and forth) based on the seasons, or likely a combination of the two.

If I — and in practice, this ought to be a group effort — were setting up such a calendar, I would make a chart of every day of the year, and highlight the Sundays. Then I’d add in the special days that the congregation values, and transfer the fixed dates to the nearest Sundays. I’d then try to identify them with words that express values: truthfulness, mercy, hope, integrity, and the like. That might fill in a quarter or half of the Sundays.

Now I’d bring in a clue from series preachers. A series of related themes have a synchonicity that isolated themes can’t generate, but the series should run from three to five weeks. I’d identify overarching themes that can center on (or bridge) the special dates/themes already decided. One comes to mind: United Nations Day (October 24) makes me think of international unity, while All Souls Day (November 2) reminds me of the unity between the living and the dead. I’d try to flesh out a series of three to five weeks that expressed other themes of human unity, for example. If you can build up to a thematic climax, so much the better. Complete the year, knowing that a few stand-alone services will probably pop up.
Now here comes the hard part. I’d write a declarative theme for each Sunday, but with a good verbal rhythm. Lines from hymns might be a good choice, and I’d make that the “title” for the service, if one is required. And more about that declarative theme next time.

But here’s the kicker: get speakers or sermon-slot elements to match the theme. With the themes known so far in advance, I think it would be easier to people to look forward and select a theme than just filling time that yawns threateningly.

Author: Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

4 thoughts on “Helping small non-Christian congregations: 2. Sunday by Sunday”

  1. Yes, post-Christian congregations (my preferred term, ’cause if you meet on Sunday morning you’re not particularly *non*-Christian) do need a liturgical calendar. When I was at Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), we had done some of that work — we also had some resources for Southern hemisphere folks, as well as some resources for non-U.S. folks. If your small congregation belongs to CLF (and if you don’t, then join), ask if they still have the seasonal resources.

    A nice side-benefit of coming up with a liturgical year for post-Christian congregations is that you can then coordinate what’s happening in Sunday school with what’s happening in worship service. We’re doing that here in our little New Bedford congregation, so while the children are off in Sunday school they often hear something related to what the parents are hearing during the sermon.

    Someday I will write something more extensive on what we’ve been doing in New Bedford with a post-Christian liturgical year — yup, I’ll write that up RSN (Real Soon Now).

  2. I agree with the worship-teaching tie-in and see it as a benefit of a liturgical calendar. The up-side of a sanctoral style calendar is it overcomes the climate, including the differences between the different parts of the United States.

    I still prefer non-Christian because post-Christian suggests supercessionism.

  3. Antrhopologically, the traditional church calenders fit the seasons of the year in the northern hemisphere, so you should start there ..the seasons of the year are like tides in our lives, and 2000 years of Catholic customs mirror this experience…and don’t rely only on the “liturgical calander”…check for the fiestas and popular feasts that drive born again types up the wall…these are “pagan” in origin, i.e. have their source in the heart of people rather than the bible.

    That is why many Wiccan festivals mirror Catholic ones, not because they copy Catholics, but because the Catholics wisely chose to “baptise” the already existing festivals and use the universal religious themes in them but add Christian elements to them).

    So Easter is a festival of rebirth in the time of spring plowing, when the flower start appearing.. Christmas is about hope in the solstice, and is for children (or in ancient Rome, slaves) since fate orthe wheel of life reminds us that the last shall be first. And lovely May for Catholics is the month of Mary, of motherhood, and of love and marriage–hence “mother’s day. All Sould day in November, when plants are dying, remind us of our own death and the ones who have left this world…etc.

    the way the themes melt into one another is important (all souls day leads to the end of the world cycle, to Advent which is preparing for the child to be born, and the new circle of life). So try getting something like the Catholic woman’s book of days…

    You might want to refer to the Pagan book of feasts.

    However, your “post christian society” is probably full of people hurt by Christians. So you may need to hide their origins to reach the hearts of your congregations.

    And, of course, if you live in the tropics or south of the equator, things might need to be rearranged…

  4. Valdosta UU was beginning something similar as I was leaving for Atlanta. Having a monthly cycle to further structure the year, because they were already tying things in to holidays and seasons, etc. Let’s see if I can find the description:

    1. The first week of each month will begin with “Stories of Individual Search.” Members of our congregation will share accounts of their personal experiences in response to questions raised by our heritage of worldwide myths, national legends, and religious stories. The call for written entries will be published in the newsletter the month before each service will be performed. The Sunday Services Group will provide editorial assistance and encourage participants to attend a workshop/rehearsal of the readings before the service at which they tell their stories. Discussions may follow these services, depending on the length of the services and the wishes of the storytellers.
    2. “UU Roots and Branches” services on the second week of each month would show how our congregation is embedded in our particular faith. Each month we will look at an event/period/person from Unitarian Universalist history, then at the current legacy in terms of UU action in the world today, and finally at how our own church is currently strengthened and challenged by these larger movements. We will invite UU ministers and laypeople from other congregations/organizations to speak, as well as ask our members to further research and speak on areas of their own enthusiasm. Discussions will follow these services, after Meet and Greet.
    3. On the third Sunday of each month, “Constellations of Faith” services will investigate other religions of the world . Michael Stoltzfus will be giving regular presentations in the fall, but we will also invite speakers and ministers from other faiths to speak and will invite our own members to research areas of their own special philosophical/religious enthusiasm, perhaps with an occasional call for entries in the newsletter. We will also experiment with playful and/or dramatic forms, such as unrehearsed congregational plays in which members are encouraged to read different parts. Discussions will follow these services, after Meet and Greet.
    4. “Natural Cycles as Frames for Search”
    On the fourth week of each month, we would focus on explorations of the wider human and natural cycles of infancy to old age and and of spring to winter, celebrating seasons, holidays, commemorative events, and stages of growth. The congregation will consider two or three questions given by the service-leader, write individual semi-spontaneous one-sentence answers, and share them with the rest of the church if they wish to. Interspersed with these will be some of the more commonly used UU services such as the Water Ceremony, Day of the Dead, the Flower Ceremony, etc. with a slightly looser participatory structure like that of Joys and Concerns. A discussion will follow each of these services, after Meet and Greet.
    5. “Faith and Other Forms of Search” There are four months between July 2005 and June 2006 that have a fifth Sunday. On these days we will invite writers, scientists, philosophers, historians, and speakers from other disciplines who can share insights on different ways to investigate, celebrate, and shape larger meanings for our lives.

    That way when they invite speakers they fit them into our structure, rather than shaping our structure around someone not even a part of the community.

    Anna

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