Why What Happens In Worship Matters

In the previous post, I noted that thinking about the worship experience as preparing us "to go out in the world and face another week" suggests that worship is a refuge from the world where we rest and recharge, but where nothing actually happens.

The division between the world out there where things really happen and the world of worship where we think about, reflect on, pray about, preach about the real world is so built into liberal religion as to be a part of the air we breathe.

Our colleague, the Rev. M. Jean Heriot has a wonderful book, "Blessed Assurance" which is her study of an evangelical Southern Baptist community in the South, with whom she spent many months.

She argues that for those folks, what happened in church was not a world apart from the real world, but, in some ways, perhaps the realest and most important part of life. After all, the individual soul was brought into a contemplation of ultimate reality and asked to make a decision about the direction of his or her life. What could be more important than that?

What if liberal religion took more seriously the power of the worship experience to pose real questions about life to the worshippers and to ask them to make decisions and commitments about how they were going to live?

What if we rephrased Bill Sinkford's summation of worship. Instead of saying that worship is "calling us to be our best selves as we go back into the world to face another week", we say that "worship is where we face the choices and make the decisions about how we are going to live in the week to come." ?

Yes, there is a nurturance and comfort and consolation in worship. But there is also confronting, choosing, deciding and committing.

I am afraid that we are so trapped in our desire to not guilt-trip people about coming to church on Sunday, and so averse to any sacramental sense of worship, that we act like it nothing happens on Sunday morning at church anyway.


  1. The most "spiritual" thing my wife and I do every month is hold our new-moon meeting. It dates back to our pagan days in the 80's, and so it has all the trappings: We call the four directions, light candles, burn a few pieces of paper, and so on.

    But at its heart, the new-moon ritual is a review-and-plan meeting. We look at what happened last month, summarize what was important, discuss the unresolved issues, look at the calendar for the month ahead, and state some intentions for how we want to handle the challenges we see coming.

    We've done this every month since 1988, and it has become like brushing our teeth -- we feel grungy if the new moon has come and we haven't gotten our ritual done yet. I think it's the combination of practicality and ritual that makes the tradition so durable.

    I'll draw this conclusion: The point of setting a ritual space apart from the mundane world isn't to run away. Ritual space is the "place to stand" that Archimedes talked about. If you have one, you can move the world.

  2. One way that I keep my Reformed past alive (though barely!) as a UU is to think about Sunday as a sort of mini-eschaton.

    The idea that the church service is an approximation of what it will be like when the Lord Jesus Christ returns makes sense when you're eating at his "table" and feasting in his presence through the Eucharist.

    But presently I understand it in the sense of a religiously plural service, in which many beliefs come together in more than tolerance, but in interconnection and healthy pressing forward, too. Instead of the exlusivist image of the church as refuge at the end of times, where the only ones invited to the feast are covenant members, it's an image of a covenant with humanity.

    At least that's my intuition. I haven't fleshed it out further.

  3. It's not just liberals who do this. I have attended several retreats with a Catholic Monk whose ministry is mostly to Catholic priests and nuns, and he never fails to insert into his retreats his story of how bemused he is when people have great retreats, work hard, and say, towards the end, "well, now back to the REAL world."

    It's his opinion that the retreat world is the REAL world, and that all else is the necessary but in the end ephemeral accretions of our lives. And after being with him for several spans of days over the past few years, I'm coming to glimpse that perspective.

  4. When I read Sinkford's comments I thought about a point made by Grace Jantzen in her powerful book, "Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism." She offers a Marxist critique of the interplay between religious experience and society. If the role of religious worship is to heal us and build us up for a world that tears us down and injures us, then isn't that a kind of unethical enabling?

    If religion isn't a transformational agent - changing the way the game is played - then it is like the trainer in between rounds of a boxing match.

  5. Oh, Thom, Jantzen's line of analysis is SO why I am not a Marxist anymore. What on earth does it mean to say that worship should be transformational in a way that prevents the world from tearing us down? The reason why the world keeps tearing us down is that no one, NO ONE, including the Marxists, have ever figured out how to stop it from doing so. So, to accuse, even if it is a self-accusation, that religious worship somehow unethically enables people to withstand this destruction, as though down the street someone was doing something better, is not very helpful.

  6. I might challenge things on several levels. Admittedly from a Christian, albeit liberal, stance.

    One, when I read what Bill Sinkford wrote and many others hve before him, about worship being the central act of the religious community, it is at this early point that I want to say "but but." Yes it is, perhaps, when the most people get together in the community at any one time (in many emerging postmodern communities and multiple site approaches with as many different times and places for worship as we typically have for classes this isn't necessarily so, nor will be in the future). But when we phrase it like so we so easily can drift into seeing worship then as the spiritual destination place for the individual in community, instead of as the spiritual departing place for the individual in community to go really be the church, that is people in mission. Which is the dog and which the tail and whose wagging whom? Deeper question is how is the worship experience a part of the mission that forms the church and gives it meaning? I think different churches can and should respond differently to that.

    To me community worship (which btw might be a redundancy, and I would like to hear people pick up more on John Wolf's ritual-liturgy dichotomy which I've heard many a time) is a means to an end--a part of the process of creating more and better disciples (disciples of what? each church can determine that). It's a fantastic means to that end, especially when discipleship shapes the worship. But given that end, I wonder if the "order of service" might not too easily become our service in a disordered world. Which isn't to say, that as LT describes it, worship itself doesn't have a transformational effect on the individuals, the community, and thus the world. It should. But we need to constantly in this consumer society point that up and reveal it, else the transactional effect of worship (i come as part of my giving x and i get y out of it, each time, or i don't come back)will dominate.

    And then you can move on to considering what to make of the examples given of commonality, of chalice lighting and singing a series of praise-oriented songs and including prayer of some sort (which we do here btw but i know great churches among us who don't do any or all of that)and what is it that makes any of that important as what unites us? What is beyond or underneath the urge for such commonality, not within a single church where I think it is crucial but UUA-wide?

  7. You wrote: "Yes, there is a nurturance and comfort and consolation in worship. But there is also confronting, choosing, deciding and committing."

    Ah... What is the meaning of Psalm 23's 'thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.'?

    Sometimes the most nurturing and comforting thing we can offer is a metaphorical swift kick to the behind to get us moving again, feel the blood quicken through our beings to get us out from harm's way.

    SOme of my most powerful worship experiences are those that motivated me (perhaps via that swift kick) to some higher level of being, to some new perspective that led to a new decision and action.

    Thank you for wonderful thought provoking blogs... Blessings abound.


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