How many churches have you been to lately?
I was struck some years back by something in the John Grisham novel The Last Juror. It’s not great literature, but it was a good read, especially since the main character was the editor of a fictional small-town Mississippi paper, and at the time I was working as a reporter and editor for a small-town newspaper in that state. There was a memorable part that seems even more significant now, given that I’m working to become a minister. The editor, who narrates the novel, has a weekly column in which he attends local churches and writes about the experience.
For the past two years, I have spent a lot of time guest preaching and visiting UU churches. I moved away from my home church to start seminary, so I didn’t have a place I was used to going to every Sunday. It also occurred to me that for the rest of my life, I will have a specific place I’m supposed to be most Sundays (my internship church and then whatever church I am serving as parish minister, assuming plans work out). So these past two years, I have consciously taken the chance to see what UU worship (and worship in a few other traditions, too) looks like at a bunch of different churches.
This past year, I guest preached at a few churches in Massachusetts: the UU Church of Medford, the First Parish Church of Hubbardston, First Congregational Parish in Petersham, the First Church in Salem, Unitarian, the UU Church of Wakefield, and the First Parish in Needham. I visited a few others: King’s Chapel, where my wife works, First Church in Boston, Arlington Street Church, Community Church of Boston, First Parish in Brookline, First Parish of Watertown, First Parish in Weston, First Universalist Church of Salem, and First Parish in Cambridge.
In Texas, I have guest preached at my home church, UU Church of the Brazos Valley, the Thoreau Woods UU Church in Huntsville, San Marcos UU Fellowship, First UU Church of San Antonio, First UU Church of Austin, the UU Church of Corpus Christi, Bay Area UU Church, Northwest Community UU Church, Wildflower UU Church, Amarillo UU Fellowship, and the UU Fellowship of Bell County. I attended others, including Live Oak UU Church.
And a few in other states, too. I preached almost two years ago at UU Church of Little Rock, Ark.. I’ve attended others, too: All Souls Tulsa, All Souls D.C., Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md., , and Church of the River in Memphis.
So, what’s the bottom line? I won’t review every one of these—that’s not my place, especially since it might veer into criticizing my colleagues in ministry. But I will say that, even based upon one visit, you can tell which churches do worship well. They are organized, they put people in worship who are engaging, and they make everyone feel involved. The best of these of those mentioned above? Arlington Street, All Souls D.C., All Souls Tulsa, top the heap, Weston and Church of the River right behind them, probably. It’s probably no coincidence these are larger churches. They have greater resources to put into worship, but they also probably have more people in part because they do great worship (examining that relationship might be a whole new blog post at some point).
So, where have you been to church? What worship really moved you? Do you drop in at the local UU church if you happen to be out of town on a Sunday? And what makes for good worship? Let me know.