It is not uncommon when Unitarian Universalist congregations want to take on something important – to address a big issue or begin some new action – to turn to the worship service.  “We should do a service on this!”  someone will say.  Sunday is, after all, the time when the greatest number of people is gathered together in one place.  If you want to get a message out, or want people to feel the importance of something, the sanctuary on Sunday seems to be the place to do it.

Yet in recent years people from congregations of all kinds have offered the critique that worship that focuses on social justice is “too political;” that it’s not “spiritual enough.”  By this, people mostly seem to mean that a lot of so-called “social justice” Sundays feel more like a fascinating presentation on the topic, or a rallying call to action, rather than a soul- and life-transforming experience of worship.

Is it possible to offer a call to action while still creating the life-changing experience of worship?

As congregations prepare for the “Justice GA” in Phoenix, 2012, many are asking just this question.  Is there a way to appropriately and authentically bring immigration justice and GA preparation into worship?  Of course.  It is important, though, to keep in mind what worship is and what it is not.

Worship is not – should not be – merely an intellectually enlivening presentation on a topic of importance, surrounded by lovely music.  The origin of the word “worship” is the Old English word weorthscippen, which has to do with lifting up things of worth.  Worship, then, for Unitarian Universalists, is a time for intentionally lifting up things of worth for a community to engage with.

“Engagement” is an important consideration.  We are learning, as a movement, that worship that simply stimulates the brain does not fully feed the deep hunger with which people come to our sanctuaries.  We need the engagement of our hearts as well as our heads – we long to touch these “things of worth” with as many of our senses as possible.  We want to be moved by the encounter. Transformed.

If, then, some of the issues that we’ll be exploring in Phoenix can be brought to bear on the living of people’s lives wherever they are, and done so in a way that they can feel the connections, then it is appropriate for worship. For example,

  • Consider the music you choose for the service.  Can you project images that might be evocative?
  • Ask yourself whose voices and perspectives can be included in the service – either through the choice of readings or choice of participants.
  • Explore how first-person story telling can be used to make an abstract topic specific and concrete.
  • Might you consider turning up the heat in the sanctuary, or printing the Order of Service entirely in another language, as way of getting people in touch with their feelings of discomfort and disorientation?

Always asking the question:  How will this worship experience connect with the interior of our lives and move us?  After all, in the end, at its heart, isn’t all justice work spiritually transformative?

Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom was the founding Director of the UUA’s Office of Worship and Music Resources.  He  is  now the Lead Minister at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.


From the Editor:

Two of last week’s comments illustrate beautifully Rev. Wikstrom’s call for connecting immigration justice issues with people’s lives and touching their hearts.

Mandy Neff talks about the risk she took in sharing a personal story during the Time for All Ages.

Rev. Nate Walker composed a moving story of a child that represents many who have come to this land, connecting it with his congregant’s concerns about ethical eating.

How have you touched people’s hearts and souls, as well as their minds, through worship that focuses on migration and immigration? What stories have you told? What music have you chosen? What worship elements have been effective?

About the Author
Gail Forsyth-Vail
Gail Forsyth-Vail is the Adult Programs Director in the UUA Faith Development Office. She is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master’s Level, who served congregations for 22 years before coming to the UUA in 2008. The 2007 recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education, she has written or developed many religious education resources for UUs of all ages. She and her spouse, P. Stephen Vail, are proud and happy parents of three young adult Unitarian Universalists.


  1. Barnaby Feder

    I appreciated Erik’s challenge to think about how our worship services can help power us toward a meaningful GA in Phoenix and effective social action work on immigration issues. I speak as a former business reporter who has long been dismayed about how divorced much of our social action work is from a realistic understanding of how complex the economy is and what drives corporate and political cultures (we tend to overestimate the role of greed and underestimate both fear and the human attachment to positive illusions, that is explanations of reality that, however unlikely, may be true). I also speak as a half-time intern minister at a fairly large congregation and a half-time consulting minister at a small one. Effective worship connects us emotionally to the experiences of the oppressed (I loved the simple suggestion of printing the program in a foreign language). More importantly, it leaves us feeling called for the sake of our own spiritual health to engage in justice work. That points to the need for convincing theology — or some adequate substitute — in our services.

  2. Deborah Weiner

    Wikstrom challenges us: “Worship is not – should not be – merely an intellectually enlivening presentation on a topic of importance, surrounded by lovely music.” So often, we expect to be moved by an inspiring sermon, great music, other worship elements that will support the theme and stir our souls. Afterward we socialize, talk about how great the service was – and leave. We come back, weekly, to be refreshed, but the refreshment doesn’t last.

    And is it any wonder? Truly transformative worship is about what happens not only on Sunday but during the rest of the week, and in every part of our lives. If we are to live out the challenge of being justice-seeking and freedom-loving people, then we must embrace the opportunity to carry forward justice and equity every day of the week: in the community, the public square, and in our cathedrals, mosques, churches.

    — Deborah Weiner, Lexington, MA


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