October 7, 2016
Who is worship for? Everyone!
It’s not a unanimous opinion, but it’s nearly so. We as a congregation—and definitely we on staff and in leadership—believe that our congregational worship services should be accessible to anyone who wishes to be part of them. This belief was reaffirmed in our recent congregational conversations. **
And we recognize not only that the worship services should be accessible, but also that we all benefit when we experience multi-generational activities (in worship and beyond), and when we build relationships with non-family-members who are older and younger than we are. We middle-aged folks need to nurture relationships with people in their 80s and in their 20s. Baby Boomers need relationships with toddlers and teens. Children need the guidance of elders who are not their parents.
We all benefit from multi-generational community.
Lately, though, we’ve experienced increased tension among generations, especially when we’re in the sanctuary, and mostly around the question of whether worship is for everyone or only for grown-ups (or, more specifically, for quiet, still, and attentive grown-ups). The primary tension lies between families who bring their young children into worship, and those who have trouble hearing or concentrating on the worship experience in the presence of even minimal movement and noise. Multiple times recently during worship, parents have been singled out by other congregants—either with dirty looks or with encouragement to move out of the sanctuary—when their children were behaving like children. Not crying, not having tantrums, but also not sitting completely still or being totally silent.
One key factor in this tension is the existence of our chapel—a small space within which individuals can see and hear the worship service, but where those in the larger sanctuary can’t see or hear the chapel activity. Some people like being in that room during worship—they feel more free not to sit still, or to arrive late or leave early, and they like its more intimate feel. But I’m told also that it can feel separate, secluded; it’s more awkward to sing, because there’s not the sound of singing nearby; and when someone else directs a family to go to the chapel, it can feel like a kind of exile.
The chapel is a sound-insulated room that is available for anyone who would like to watch and listen to the worship services in a more private space. But despite efforts on my part and others’, some in the congregation have deemed the chapel a “crying room” —i.e., the place for crying babies, or for any other restless children. Of course some families with restless children will choose to use the room for that purpose—it takes the pressure off of them, they feel a little more relaxed, it may be easier to nurse or otherwise console a baby there.
But the sanctuary is for children, too. How else are they to learn the full scope of what a religious community does, if they’re not included in it?
For those of us (like me) who haven’t felt compelled to use the chapel during worship, I wonder how it would feel if someone else decided for me that that’s where my family and I should sit. Would I feel welcomed, included? More likely, I would feel embarrassed, ostracized, unwelcomed, and possibly shamed. I don’t think any of us wants to invoke those feelings in a fellow worshipper.
We on staff and in volunteer leadership intend to make some concrete changes that we hope will help clarify expectations for all of us—long-timers and newcomers alike. We’ll put a sign on the chapel to reinforce what that room is, and is not. We’ll take more care in planning the first 15 minutes of worship services so that all of us, of all ages, are more consistently engaged. We’ll experiment with the services that are fully multi-generational (i.e., when there’s no separate children’s programming and we encourage many children to be in worship). We’ll do some more training with our ushers and greeters about tactics for orienting and welcoming families with children. We’ll create some new ways of communicating (in print and electronically) with newcomers about where things are and what are the typical routines on Sundays.
Let us keep in mind that worship is for everyone, of any age, even those who are a little more restless than the rest of us. And let us also remember that the sanctuary—especially during worship—is a unique space, and it asks for a kind of reverence and respect that is different than other contexts. It’s not a family’s living room, nor a classroom, nor a jungle gym. But nor is it a concert hall or a monastery. The sanctuary, during worship, is a place for a variety of people to gather in praise, in prayer, in grief, in lamentation, in joy. Each of us has individual needs in that space, and each of us is called to honor the needs that others bring there.
All of us must nurture and cultivate the worshipful atmosphere that is called for—not by policing others’ behavior, but by being in real relationship with one another, being kind, asking curious questions instead of making assumptions, and by always asking ourselves what else might be going on with another person before jumping to conclusions about them.
Let’s trust others to use good judgment for themselves and the members of their families, and let’s make a concerted effort not to judge one another… or glare at them… or rush to invite them to leave the sanctuary, even if we intend to be helpful in sharing options with them.
Before we speak to, or turn a frustrated gaze upon, a fellow worshipper, let’s ask ourselves, “How would I feel if I were that person, trying to juggle multiple family members and have a meaningful worship experience myself?”
Finally, if you haven’t read Robin’s In Between Sundays post from a couple weeks ago, in which she reminds us that everything a congregation does is its religious education curriculum, please do.
It takes a village, and we are the village. All of us.
Paige Getty, Senior Minister
** Over the past two weeks, Robin (Director of Religious Education), Kären (Assistant Minister), and I have hosted three congregational conversations, which have been attended by a total of 34 people. In these conversations, we’ve shared personal stories of how we benefit from being in multi-generational community; we’ve heard from parents about feeling shamed by other congregants; we’ve heard from newcomers who feel that their families are unwelcome at UUCC; and we’ve heard from others who feel that some congregants—not only children!—behave disrespectfully in worship. We’ve also brainstormed concrete ideas for addressing these tensions and cultivating a truly more welcoming community.