“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
— Proverbs 29:18
I believe Unitarian Universalism is a faith that can change lives when guided by a vision. And worship on Sunday is our best opportunity to help people come alive as part of the congregational vision.
But people are busy. Some can only commit to an hour or so each week to focus on their spiritual development. So it is up to us to deliver. If what we offer is excellent they will come back. Not because we’re nice people with good politics but because we are solving a need in their lives. They need spiritual connection and growth. They need a place that can promise them insight and then deliver on that promise. A transformative Sunday service is the first and most accessible step of the spiritual journey. By building a strong foundation here we are able to cultivate aspiration and commitment within the community.
I believe music is more important than the sermon. I know how that statement sounds and I don’t say it with any phony humility or any fake flattery. I am very comfortable with who I am as a preacher and I think I’m pretty good at it. The sermon is the single most visible worship element and it anchors the worship experience. And, while the sermon can light up our minds, music sets our spirits free.
Good music is so essential I truly people will come to listen to mediocre sermons week after week if the music is great. But people will not come to listen to great sermons if the music doesn’t bring them to life. This is because the spiritual journey is about experiencing a sense of freedom. It is about diving into the experience of knowing what it really means when we sing “There is more love somewhere there is more love somewhere and I am going to keep on until I find it there is more love somewhere.” If you have that you don’t need anything else.
Over the years I have worked with so many people who feel lost when it comes to their spiritual lives. They struggle to articulate what is most important to them, where they feel connection, and how to identify what they are experiencing. The sermon can both entertain and educate, but I strive to set my sermons within a context to help people map their journey
One of the ways I do this is by preaching from a thematic calendar designed with an aspirational arc of spiritual development. It is difficult to dive into a deep understanding of forgiveness or courage or surrender in a single sermon. So I enjoy using the whole month, with help from my team, to explore a theme through the sermons, RE, music, and small groups so as a congregation we can wrestle with these important theological topics from a few different angles.
The purpose is to help people feel spiritually competent. When people start to develop spiritual competencies they not only become more articulate around spiritual ideas and they are also able to apply them to their lives more easily.
Preaching sets the tone for this. It is the most obvious teaching tool we have in a congregation. I have included a few sermons to help you get a feel for my style and voice.
Try to praise the mutilated world
(I personally feel that I am much more dynamic in the pulpit, but I only have video recordings from this COVID period.)
An invitation to empty
Why is repentance a bad word?
What has to die for you to be reborn?
Something is calling from across the threshold
Now that he is safely dead
The more beautiful world
John Austin, PhD.,
Director of Music at UUTC
When Ian White Maher came to our congregation, I had only recently become Choir Director (now Director of Music), although I had been active in the choir, both as singer and pianist, for several years. We were not sure what to expect; the rumor mill was in full swing.
But what arrived in Ian White Maher was such a pleasant surprise for everyone. He described himself as a “UU evangelist,” and soon swept up most of the congregation – there were few his presence didn’t reach – in his joyful enthusiasm for our faith. As Director of Music, I was among those who had the most to learn from him. Particularly the “teal book,” otherwise known as Singing the Journey. We had rarely used it in our congregation prior to Ian’s arrival, but now some of our favorite congregational songs are in that book. Working with Ian, both in our regular weekly staff meetings and in our one-on-one conversations, was always pleasant, to-the-point, and efficient. He definitely had his ideas and was not shy in promoting them, but was also always open to other ideas from others on the staff. I remember that especially from our worship committee meetings, when we would discuss his ideas for changing parts of the service. I almost always came away convinced that Ian’s would be the best way.
Working with Ian White Maher as the minister at UUTC was pure joy for me, and I could see that same joy reflected in the faces of others in the congregation on Sunday mornings. I would recommend him without reservation to any UU congregation searching for a minister who will bring his joyful enthusiasm for our faith into their worship services.