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 Contents: UU World May/June 2002
Contents: May/June 2002

Alternative worship styles draw younger crowds

by Donald E. Skinner

When the house lights go down and the techno dance music comes up at the Shoreline Unitarian Universalist Church north of Seattle, worship gets physical. In Salt Lake City, a saxophonist and bassist are often part of the worship team. In Tulsa and Boston, dancers and actors may share the platform during some services.

Across the continent, our congregations are trying out innovative worship services as a way of jazzing up their offerings or complementing traditional services, often to appeal to young people who have grown up with nontraditional, interactive worship services.

Nowhere are these new services more cutting edge than at Shoreline, where the Rev. Thomas Anastasi and a team of members occasionally put on a rave-like service. The idea, says Anastasi, is for people to engage their bodies. Such a whole-body experience is common in other traditions, he said, including some forms of Sufi dancing and Pentecostal trance dancing, which are physical forms of prayer. "We're trying to make available for UUs a form of these very ancient traditions," he says.

At these services people dance, move and stretch, or sit praying or meditating. Rave services hold a special appeal for youth and young adults "because they can move around instead of sitting in straight rows listening to someone talk," says Anastasi. "They've been the most successful intergenerational services we've ever had."

First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City has offered Sunday night Jazz Vespers services. They attract about two hundred people, mostly non-UUs, says the Rev. Thomas Goldsmith. Local musicians provide the jazz and Goldsmith provides a meditation and some humor. "It's deep jazz," says Goldsmith. "It takes folks down into a deep spiritual space and then lifts up the spirit with hope and rhythm. It hasn't been a big membership thing for us, although there are some who say, 'I gotta try this church on Sunday morning.' But in the community we have become identified with it."

The Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City offers a service of poetry, jazz, and meditation one Sunday night a month, led by the Rev. Galen Guengerich. "It's an effort to place worship in a different context," he says. "The service works because the music and poetry are reliably good and because people are looking for a place of solace, sanctuary, and reflection."

Some services have the added benefit of becoming small, supportive groups for those who attend frequently. At All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, the decade-old Service for the Soul attracts up to twenty-five people on Friday evenings, most of them regulars. The lay-led service includes readings, piano music, candle lighting, and a period of meditation. "People like its very intimate quality and the opportunity to share joys and concerns with others," says Karen Neal, a participant. "The service is very different from Sunday morning. Very personal." Members sometimes go to dinner afterward and the group also has quarterly potlucks.

At the Universalist Unitarian Church of East Liberty in Clarklake, Michigan, the Rev. Susan Smith holds a midweek Followers Service about the teachings of Jesus. It includes prayers and praise, a lot of hymn singing, and a brief homily. The church has 110 members, about a dozen of whom regularly attend the midweek service. "What people get out of it is to sing familiar songs and experience deep sharing," says Smith.

At the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Saugus, Massachusetts, a monthly Friday night service is aimed at people who can't come on Sunday mornings. It includes a meditation and music by local songwriters and musicians. "In the future we're planning services that will focus on specific needs such as terminal illness, AIDS, and personal loss," says the Rev. Holly Baylies.

All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has been attracting young adults with its Sunday night Soulful Sundown services. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar launched Soulful Sundown at the First and Second Church in Boston, then transplanted it to Tulsa, where he is now senior minister. Justin Schroeder, director of young adult and campus ministry programs, and Rick Fortner, music director for the 1,017-member church, organize the weekly service, which attracts eighty to one hundred people, including many non-UUs, and complements two traditional Sunday morning services.

Primarily a musical service, it includes a welcome to the church, brief commentary, personal sharing through candle lighting, and a video clip that illustrates the evening's theme. Paid local musicians are recruited. Schroeder says the service has helped college students get involved.

Soulful Sundown has also continued at the First and Second Church, and is under way at other congregations. (A guide to creating a Soulful Sundown service is available from the UUA Bookstore, 800-215-9076; $15.)

At Shoreline, the rave services are called Ekstasis, the Greek root of our word ecstasy. Although raves in the music world are often associated with use of the drug ecstasy, Shoreline's "are about real ecstasy. A primal yearning the human body is too often denied in our traditionally cerebral worship liturgies," Anastasi says.

Shoreline also offers a Good News Singing service. Two Wednesday nights a month people get together to sing gospel and popular songs from UU, Baptist, and other traditions. "It's an authentic worship experience," says Anastasi. "All we do is sing. Like the Ekstasis services, Good News Singing offers an opportunity for people to engage their whole bodies.

"I am forever looking for ways that people 'not like us' can come into the UU realm. My interest in Ekstasis and Good News Singing is simply a way of opening doors."

 Contents: UU World May/June 2002
UU World XVI:3 (May/June 2002): 48-49

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