Should Christian worship have non-biblical readings?

Having non-biblical readings has become such a canon among mainline Unitarian Universalists that Unitarian Universalist Christians face a crisis on the subject of readings. Is it proper to have non-biblical readings in worship?

The question of authority isn’t clear-cut. My home library has several works of daily readings: selected sections meant to be read regularly to enrich one’s faith, and not just in private reflection. Robert Atwell, the compiler of one such work (Celebrating the Seasons) notes in the introduction (page iii.) that

In monastic custom… the Scriptural reading at Vigils was supplemented by a non-Biblical lection. In the words of St. Benedict’s Rule: ‘In addition to the inspired words of the Old and New Testaments, the works read at Vigils should include explanations of Scripture by reputable and orthodox writers.’ The reading of commentaries (presumably on what had just been read) enabled the monk not only to engage with Scripture more intelligently, but also to place his personal meditation within the context of those of other Christians from different ages and traditions.

We’re not monks praying Vigils, but in our liberal-Reformed tradition we insist on the considered and thoughtful expounding on the lessons in the sermon. The lesson does not disclose itself, and we rely on the preacher to unfold its meaning.

In this sense, the non-biblical reading acts — or could act — as a replacement for the sermon, not the revealed word. But current Unitarian Universalist practice is far removed from this. When — about a century ago — Unitarian and (to a lesser degree) Universalist ministers cast abroad for non-biblical preaching texts, they drew from weighty stuff: often the classics, or a work of philosophy, or — as a standby — a bit of Shakespeare.

But today, it’s not uncommon for a liturgical element from the back of the gray hymnal, or a segment from a ministerial contemporary to be pressed into the role of scripture. It an odd thought that a minister might visit a church and hear her or his words — not unjustly quoted within the sermon — elevated to the role scripture once held. It’s hard to shake off our flippant and shallow reputation if that’s the norm.

So, there may be a place for non-biblical readings in Christian worship, but to help us hear and understand the word of God: not to become it.

Asking Micah Bales’s question: Are we capable of planting churches?

A cautionary tale. I’ve worshipped with Micah here in D.C. so I sawa little of what he described but I’m certainly no Quaker, and (happily) have since gone back to my old church. But the critical mass issue is one that Unitarian and Universalist Christians are going to have to grapple with, in part because we’re probably too radioactive to attract ecumenical partners. Which is its own shame.

If Quakers don’t have the strength or inclination to seed new congregations, perhaps it’s time to partner with those who do.

Source: Are Quakers Capable of Planting Churches?

A service without…

At the risk of austerity-mongering,  it’s worth asking what a small, or new, or fragile church can do without in its worship to make worship sustainable, and to free up money and energy for other parts of church life.

Some things come to mind; here I’m thinking of middle-of-the-road mainline Protestantism. You could have worship

  • without a meeting-place you own
  • even without a fixed meeting-place
  • without a full-time or resident minister
  • without a sermon, or at least a long, originally-composed sermon every week
  • without an organ, and probably without a piano
  • without a choir
  • without hymns

The list goes on, but you may already have experienced one or more of these “deprivations” in your own church. You might not even consider it a deprivation.

I’ll be looking at some of these options on and off for the next few weeks under the banner of “doing what you can, but doing it well.”

Burnout is a real risk under diminishing resources and opportunities. Burning out the leadership, leaving them hopeless, is not an option. Or else you’ll be

  • without a church


Bleg: how does the lectionary or church calendar work in once-a-month churches?

This is a blog-beg for preachers and ministers of any denomination who preach or have preached in churches that meet less than weekly, and who use a lectionary or observe a traditional church calendar. I appreciate your sharing this with anyone who has experience.

In short, how do you make it work? Do you use the lessons or propers of the day however it may fall? Do you pick from one of the Sunday lessons since the last worship service? Or before the next? And what about major holidays?

For a church that meets once a month or so, do you transfer Easter and Christmas (and Pentecost, today) to the nearest service, or rely on members worshipping with another congregation at the proper time? And if you do transfer the holiday, is it a kind of Lent-Easter/Advent-Christmas service? And how does that work?

Churches that meet infrequently probably aren’t high on anyone’s list, so it would be a great help to share ideas and resources. I’d appreciate details in the comments.

Central East: more interim ministers needed than available

Submitted without comment. An unlikely circumstance, given the fact there are far more ministers in Unitarian Universalist Association fellowship than settlements. But there you are.

We are in an unprecedented situation with regards to the interim ministerial search this year, one that has not occurred in the recent history of Unitarian Universalism.  In the broadest description, the issue is that there are significantly more congregations this year looking for interim ministries than there are ministers available to fulfill those interim ministries.  Not Interim Ministers… ministers.

Source: Important Information about Interim Minister Searches This Year

The United Methodist “worship web”

A little lunchtime Googling led me to this page, which has a large selection of United Methodist worship resources.

Welcome to the collection of resources from The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) owned by The United Methodist Publishing House.  These are offered on our website by written agreement between The United Methodist Publishing House and Discipleship Ministries.  Congregations and other worshiping or church-related educational communities are free…

Source: Book of Worship –

Kentucky joins the unincorporated nonprofits club

I’ve written about the option of organizing churches as unincorporated nonprofit associations in states that provided for them by law. That provides structure and protections more like what you have in a nonprofit corporation but with fewer complications. Unfortunately, that’s not too many states. Last month, Kentucky joined the club.

Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law new regulations making the governance of nonprofits and the management of small associations easier.

Source: Kentucky Updates Rules Governing Nonprofits—For the Better – NPQ – Nonprofit Quarterly

UUA: Emerging Ministries process announcement

Saw this today. Will examine later and hope to come up with creative ways to make use of this new UUA status.

Emerging Ministries are any new group or project that is grounded in Unitarian Universalism and brings people together in covenanted and intentional ways.

Source: Announcing (new and improved!) UUA Support for Emerging Ministries

Brooks on prayer

I’m moving through my copy of Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s 1874 Our New Departure: or, The Methods and Work of the Universalist Church of America — his manifesto for the Universalist church — to his chapter on prayer. It’s a goldmine of Universalist attitudes, so I’m lifting out quotations; this is the first of two parts.

He starts on prayer in his overview (p. 43)

How many [Universalists] there are who pray in the voiceless secrecy of their communion with God, it is for no human pen to assume to say. But the custom of family, social, or stated private prayer does not, to any considerable extent, prevail among us, because there is no prevailing sense of duty in these directions; and how rare it is to find those in our congregations who can be called to lead in public prayer, we all know. We have opinion rather than faith; more nominal assent than spiritual impulse or purpose.

from page 176

Since I entered the ministry, it was not usual to find family prayer even in the homes of our ministers, while a family altar in a Universalist layman’s home was a thing almost unheard of. The home in which I was reared — reared most tenderly and carefully — was a fair type of the best Universalist homes in this respect, my mother being a church-member, of devout mind and heart, and my father, though not a church-member, a most upright and scrupulously conscientious man, whom, to the last, nothing but serious illness could keep from his place at church, so long as he could get there. The children were trained to revere and read the Bible, to honor the Sabbath, to love and practise goodness, and to ‘go to meeting’ with punctilious regularity. But — saving that we children, in our earliest days, were taught to ‘say our prayers’ every night on going to our pillows — the voice of prayer was never heard in our home, except when the minister was with us to ‘say grace’ at table. And this, so far as my knowledge extended, was the universal rule among us as a people.

from pages 176-177

The propriety of prayer — at least to some extent — is not open to debate. They would not see it dispensed with in our Sabbath services, at the marriage altar, in the chamber of the sick, or at the burial of the dead. They not only recognize, but, if need be, would insist upon, its fitness on these and various special occasions.… For if we should pray at all, it can only be because there is, for some reason, use and power in prayer. What mummery all praying is if so much as this be not true? And if there be use or power in praying at all, then the more we have of prayer of the right sort, under suitable circumstances, the larger the measure of use it will serve, — the greater the degree of power it will impart. Public prayer being well, then why not private prayer? If prayer in the church, why not in the home? if prayer in the pulpit, why not in the closet? if prayer on special occasions, why not as the habit of life?

There is a view of the subject which seeks to avoid the difficulty of this question, How? presents, by affecting to affirm the use of prayer, and at the same time alleging that it avails nothing with God, — only does us good on the same principle that religious meditation serves to strengthen, soothe and uplift us. This theory has found some advocates among us. But it seems to me — and I think I may say, to nearly all of us — a theory most unsatisfactory, and every way open to objection. No really devout mind can fail instinctively to shrink from it, and protest against it. Not only does it deny the Psalmist’s statement that God heareth prayer, — i.e. hears in some sympathizing and responsive sense, — and equally deny Christ’s repeated assurances to the same effect, but it makes prayer a travesty of devotion as actually as though there were no God.

From page 179, a bit of humor

Or, still more like perhaps, it is as if one, desiring to scale a mountain, should stand in a basket, trying to lift himself by going through the motions of pulling at a rope which he knows does not exist, but which he plays is dangling from the sky and fastened to the basket, all the while invoking the aid of some deaf or helpless friend!

From page 180

It is important that we should duly keep in mind the fact of man’s freedom; but it is even more important that we should take care not to overlook or compromise the grander fact of God’s freedom. Because this fact fails to be properly taken into account, there is, in the habits of thinking quite too widely prevalent touching this whole matter of God’s connection with us, not a little virtual Atheism. We hear a great deal about the laws of nature, and the established chain of causation, and the inviolable order of things; and there are those who never weary in insisting that it is not at all probable that this machine-like fixity and succession of events ever has been, or ever will be, intermitted in answer to anybody’s prayers.

The trouble with custom-crafted words

So, then, what might future worship look like? And what will it accomplish?

Peacebang, that is, blogger, Unitarian Universalist minister and friend Victoria Weinstein asked, and I replied

One concern I have is the cultural norm, among Unitarian Universalists, for creating and finding the right words for every service: weddings, funerals, dedications, Sunday services, the lot. The right words, and lots of them.

This tendency comes from the laudable standard of speaking to the context of the ministry you’re in, and the liturgical tradition of the centerpiece sermon and the long prayer, composed by the minister.

I’m not saying we should abandon either, but we should count the cost, not only in the salaries of those who draft them, but on the dependence the words create. And this has spread to new compositions to open worship, close worship, kindling flames, talking to children — even reaching to preaching texts.

Dependence? We like to think of ourselves as a laity-driven religious movement, but that’s only true in certain constrained ways. If our religious experience relies on an endless stream of original composition, or at least curated selection, then someone has to produce it or find it. And that speaks of specialized skills — or haphazard results. Is this creative output our most pressing need?

While traditions with liturgical textual traditions seem restrictive, the access to a reliable, common language of faith can also be very liberating.