Rev. Ron Phares

Essay: Turning Away from Worship and Toward Practice

Unitarian Universalism is, and always has been an evolving faith tradition. Indeed, one of the aspects of our tradition that most attracted me when I was searching for a spiritual home was the willingness of Unitarian Universalism to question and experiment with age-old as well as boundary-pushing conceptions of justice, liturgy, and the holy. We do not do this frivolously. We do this to uncover the essence and means of honest religion.

I am interested in the power of religious vocabulary. The congregation I serve indulges this interest. Together we reflect on prayer, god, spirit, sermon, salvation, and other religious words in a cool-hearted way that leads to their continued employment or disuse. For instance, we now call the “sermon” a reflection as it seems more accurate and inclusive, less hierarchical and still quite religious in its tone. On the other hand, we have worked to reappropriate the word prayer as an exercise available to atheists and theists alike.

It should then come as no surprise that the first question I ever asked a UU minister was, “In a UU context, what is worship?” The minister astutely informed me that the word worship comes from the Old English worthskype, which translates as something like, acknowledging things of worth. I could live with that. I did live with that for some while.

But I cannot say that I was entirely satisfied.

It’s true, the word worship does do some really good things. It decentralizes the self by placing a subject of worship (a thing of worth) in the center of the religious experience. That is important because without a religiously decentralized self, it would be all too easy to wind up worshiping ourselves! That said, centralizing a subject can also result in the subject becoming an idol. Idolatry may then lead to an abdication of responsibility, or a method for the manipulative wherein “God/Odin/Shiva wants you to/ forbids you to…” becomes a means of control.

More than that, the broader cultural understanding of the word worship simply overwhelms our attempts to use the word with clarity. The conventional understanding of worship leaves an idolatrous impression. Like an after-image; so that everytime we say worship, we blink and see this old liturgical image overlaid on and in contrast with our intellectual understanding that it is really about acknowledging worth and de-centralizing the self.

I am not convinced that either the origin or common usage of the word worship actually describes with real effectiveness and accuracy what we UU’s do each Sunday. Further, in engaging an American population that is rejecting church or is heretofore entirely unchurched, I do not think the word “worship” speaks to what the future requires for healthy, powerful, communal religious engagement. For their sake and for our own sake I believe it is time to understand that, in all the nuances it has gathered to itself over the centuries, the word worship does not comprehensively nor powerfully nor perhaps even adequately convey what we actually do.

Simply put, the word worship does not cut the 21st century mustard. Even in its most apologetic definition, free of the “bow, stoop, venerate” stranglehold, worship just does not comprehensively name what we as UUs do.

If we are an evolving tradition then let us evolve! Let us be bold! Progressive! The future demands our evolution. The world needs a big tent religion that has the non-dogmatic tools to discover the spiritually fundamental and make it practically applicable. That’s us!

But what word carries the same weight as worship? What do we do together? Why do we gather? Finding a word that actively, powerfully, compellingly names all of what we do together on Sundays and conveys why we do it is the word that will serve our purpose.

We gather to frame, inform, and generate a religious path that is grounded in integrity and gratitude and capable of transformation. On Sundays we are invited to practice being our best perspective – our deeply connected, compassionate perspective. In short, we come together to find power in the practice of our faith and to find, in our faith, a course for that power that is a gift to the world.

We gather to make a habit of our faith until it becomes second nature and subconscious. When our values-based faith becomes second nature and subconscious, it finally becomes powerful enough to really transform ourselves and our world. This takes practice. Lots of practice. And that is exactly what we are doing every Sunday; practicing our faith.

So it appears that there exists a comprehensive word that describes what we do when gathered. We practice. All the better that, like worship, practice is both a noun and a verb. We go to a practice. And we practice.

The word practice has religious precedent and significance. It has roots and legitimacy. We can easily understand and imagine the concept of spiritual practices. Meditation, yoga, journaling, prayer, exercise, chanting, reading, reflecting, and singing are all spiritual practices.

Think of a dancer. When a dancer goes to a dance practice, they prepare themselves to perform. They might practice minute technical drills or a whole piece. In any case, when the lights go on, the dancer is prepared and the practice integrates with the performance. By then the moves are second nature and subconscious.

What do we practice together on Sunday mornings? We practice our entire faith in component parts: in singing, relating together, praying, meditating, reflecting, telling stories, generously giving. These are the technical exercises, if you will. We do this so that we might integrate our practice with the whole piece; that is, so that we might live our values as articulated in our Principles. In other words, we practice making a habit of our faith until it is second nature and subconscious. Our performance is life.

This isn’t a description of some hazy ideal. This isn’t a “should.” This is in fact what we already do. This is an observation as much as it is a prescription. The change is not in our activity, but in our understanding of our activity. It is a powerful change.

What would happen if we understood that on Sunday mornings we come together to practice our faith so that it becomes second nature and subconscious? What if this understanding was so central that it became the word we use to describe our time together on Sundays? We would not only more fully live our faith, but our faith would then begin to live us.

Within this understanding there is room for atheist, Christian, and most other varieties of spiritual engagement. This understanding also applies to, and might appeal to, those who claim to be spiritual but not religious.

It is, I think, accurate and honest and therefore more powerful than the word worship when used by Unitarian Universalists in all our diversity. And which is more compelling, acknowledging value or practicing values?

The congregation I serve has embraced this change with a healthy balance of play and earnestness. The word practice is being used far more than worship ever was. I am getting the impression that it has clarified and given real formative force to our liturgical time together. Not only does the change appear to be effective, not only has it instigated reflection and challenged us, it has proven to be fun.

We do not despise the word worship by any means. However, by replacing it with the word practice, we have found ourselves more invested, more on the hook. It is a change grounded by our evolutionary and religious heritage. It reaches for our future, and is grounded in that which we already do without naming it. Naming what we do practice empowers congregants and congregations to integrate our faith more mindfully into our lives.