On Saturday, April 8, six members and friends of First Unitarian Church attended an event called “Transform Sunday Morning! A Worship Arts Conference” at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills here in Pittsburgh. Those attending from our church included Chrisie Ambrass, Brian Junker, Steven Mead, Emily Pinkerton, Michael Safran, and me. About one hundred Unitarian Universalists from congregations near and far attended this event.
Our presenter was Dr. Marcia McFee, who has had a most unlikely career path. After several years working as a professional dancer in musical theater on Broadway, she attended seminary and earned her M.T.S. from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City and her Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. As explained in her 2016 book Think like a Filmmaker: Sensory-Rich Worship Design for Unforgettable Messages, Dr. McFee’s passion is drawing deeply and creatively on artistic expression to create more meaningful worship experiences.
Here are some of the things she lifted up in her presentation:
- We can combine five different forms of artistic expression in worship: visual arts, verbal arts, music arts, media arts, and dramatic arts.
- We can combine or “layer” different modes of artistic expression to create more powerful worship experiences.
- Because it is beyond the reach of most churches to create highly expressive worship experiences from scratch each week, it can be useful to choose
a spiritual theme and explore it over several weeks in a worship series of three or four Sundays where some elements remain present throughout
the entire series.
- Worship teams can create worship where all the elements are coherent and mutually reinforcing, but planning ahead is essential. For example, a worship
team might need to start planning ten weeks in advance for a month-long worship series.
- Many people – perhaps even the entire congregation – can be invited to contribute ideas and suggestions for exploring a particular spiritual theme even though a smaller number of people may have responsibility for making decisions about how to weave the worship elements together.
Here at First Unitarian Church, we have been experimenting with innovative worship for some time. Just consider the variety of performing arts groups that we have enjoyed over the years: the Sanctuary Choir, the Folk Orchestra, the Family Choir, the Dance Choir, the Young Adult Spoken Word Choir, and most recently, Joyful Noise. In the past couple of years, we have had two different artists-in-residence. And this year, we have tried some innovative things such as the blessing of hands using water and spoken word (Sunday, January 22), having visual artists and writers actively engaged in their creative process during worship (Sunday, February 19), staging live conversations during the sermon to illustrate the message of the sermon (Sunday, March 12), and hearing readings about the four stages of a spiritual journey presented by four different people reading from four different areas of the Sanctuary (Sunday, April 23).
But we could be still more imaginative and expressive. Starting in September, here are some things we will be doing:
- We will use our Soul Matters spiritual themes as guides for doing month-long worship series.
- We will plan not just one Sunday at a time, but an entire month at a time.
- We will do our very best to begin our planning process ten weeks in advance.
- We will draw on multiple forms of artistic expression, and we will find ways to combine or “layer” them.
We may also experiment with including people in our Sunday Celebrations Team who would never say a word as worship leaders, but who could contribute through their skill in visual arts or media arts or dramatic arts.
Marcia McFee has provided a very useful framework for bringing more artistic expression into worship. For those of us who are engaged in worship design at our church, this new approach offers a method for bringing forth the innovative artistic expression that we have long been seeking to offer as part of our worship celebrations.See you in Church!
Rev. David Herndon