My good friend and former co-blogger abc recently shared with me some thoughts she wrote for a church discussion on worship. I thought they made good material for reflection, and asked her if she would share them on the blog. To my delight, she agreed! Feel free to comment. If one or the other of us fails to respond to comments, it will be because I’ve forgotten to give the far-more-reliable Ms. abc administrative access to the blog. Let’s hope I remember to do that. Thanks again, abc!
This reflection came about during a process of communal self-examination in the small “progressive Christian” congregation to which I belong. In one of the all-congregation gatherings to share the findings of an outside consultant on the state of the congregation, I expressed concern about what seemed to me to be a lack of focus in the worship services. Subsequently I was asked by two members what changes I would like to see in worship. The following is my response, edited slightly to remove specific identifiers of the congregation.
I would be grateful to readers of “Left at the Altar” for feedback. All theology is a work in progress!
Thank you for the questions, and for the opportunity to try to clarify my comments regarding worship here .
First, let me be very clear that what I am saying in this message is to be construed as only my own views and reflections. I do my best to respect others who may hold different views and to avoid being judgmental about the differences. (I am not always successful in these efforts.) I do not expect agreement; I am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I am only speaking of and about my way of seeing things.
As I see it, what is at issue is the nature and purpose of what we are doing when we gather at 10:00 on Sunday morning. We call it “worship.” The word implies an entity to which the action of worshiping is directed. My understanding of that entity is that for Christians it is God as revealed through Jesus who is for us the Christ, an embodiment of the divine and the one I want to follow. (Notice that I have not said the sole embodiment of the divine, nor have I said that he – Jesus – is the Christ for everyone.) In worship we receive and celebrate God through scripture, song, prayer, sermon, the Eucharist. It’s fundamentally about God, then about our relationship with God, and then about us. It’s certainly not just about us.
What I have just done is to propound a theology of worship. It’s rudimentary, it’s inadequate and partial (as are all theologies), and it could stand for a lot of unpacking. It could be greatly improved by dialogue. In a congregation that wants to claim the identity of “Christian,” I believe there has to be agreement that Jesus is at the very least a distinctive revelation of God. (As my divinity school teacher often said, “We look Godward through Christ.”) I am a Christian; that is my religious identity and my religious commitment. So for me, worship that focuses elsewhere does not offer the opportunity to do that looking Godward.
I believe it’s desirable and necessary to build one’s faith in many ways, through conversation and dialogue, reading, times of silence, personal devotions, works of service, and acts of justice. I don’t believe that any of these is worship. The time set apart for what we call worship not a time for education or socializing or focusing on programs; that’s what a Sunday School class or an adult learning forum does. Worship is an end, not a means.
You have noticed that I am not answering your questions directly. That is because I think they address second-order issues. I believe that our congregation needs to recover and articulate a consensus on its identity, and to do the same regarding its theology of worship. I have been told that this congregation doesn’t do theology. Maybe so (although I would find that odd for a thinking Christian community, but maybe my assumptions are incorrect). For me, there is in our worship a lack of sustained attention to God, or a kind of blurriness about God and an avoidance of Jesus that confuses me. I miss a sense of awe and transcendence that for me is constitutive (not solely, but certainly in part) of authentic worship. It has led to my finding alternative locations for Sunday worship that I experience as authentic. So I don’t think that tweaking the service in its present form, or offering a variety of forms, is going to address my concern.
I want to be clear that I am not talking about adopting some creed, or installing some legalistic requirement of belief, doctrine, or dogma. I am also not talking about robes and crosses, “smells and bells,” or any of those externals. If the worshiping community (which includes pastoral leadership) is clear on its own self-understanding, the nature and purpose of worship will flow from that self-understanding, the content of worship will follow from that understanding of intention, and matters of the specific forms will follow accordingly.
I’ve tried to be as clear as I can be with the above, and I hope it’s helpful. Please ask me about anything that doesn’t make sense to you.