Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Worship, a Leisure Activity!

A discussion starter for Advent Study Groups

The existence in the U.S.A. of many well-attended churches, belonging to a vast variety of denominations & sects, makes clear that religion is not neglected in America. However, the sociologists tell us that this religion is generally “a privatized religion” by which they mean that it has little impact on “the public square” and is practiced chiefly in the home and in the church building.

I do not want to discuss the relation of privatized religion to the virtual absence from, or minimal presence of, religion in the public square. Rather, I want to reflect upon how worship is conceived on the evidence of how it is practiced. And I want to suggest that for many local churches – from Roman Catholic to interdenominational community church – it is one form, howbeit an important form, of leisure activity for which members are ready to pay well. Further, I want to suggest that the same may be said of some congregations in Britain and Canada, where church attendance is much lower than it is in the U.S.A.

The very fact that religion is privatized in America tends to make the practice of religion into a leisure activity, howbeit a regular and important one, whether we like it to be so or not. This is because the choice is made to go to church rather than to go to the Mall, the Golf Course, take the kids to soccer games or to creative dancing or the like. Church-going is one of the many choices (in a society which celebrates choice as a “value”) open to people to engage in when they are not at work or in school.

Then the powerful reality of individualism and of the therapeutic culture also point and push people into the idea of seeing worship as leisure and of being casual for “worship”. In the context of going to the church of one’s choice, wearing clothing of one’s choice is an expression of the self; and the power of the “community” [church] wherein this individualism is preserved is seen as empowering and conducive to self-worth and self- realization and fulfillment.

Thus the impact of this social and cultural situation is that many people dress for worship in much the same way (even in an identical way) as they do for going to the Mall, taking the kids to soccer and so on. So to see people going to church on Sunday mornings, to see them at the coffer hour and in the sanctuary is to view a people who are to all outward appearances dressed for leisure. Also, even those taking part in the service also often do so without special vestments – e.g., the distribution of Holy Communion at the R C Mass is often done by men in sports slacks and open shirts and by women in blouses and shorts or slacks.

Further, the way that “worshippers” and “worship leaders” dress appears to be conditioned by (certainly very much related to) the type of services in which they participate. Services are often informal, easy-going and participatory and to dress up for them in formal clothing is seen to be “over-dressed”. In this kind of assembly, as the style, the words and the music appear to indicate, the presence of “God” seems to be perceived or thought of as being that of an Invisible Friendly Spirit and a “Father-God” whose function is to make people feel good about their religious exercises and experience together and to bless them according to their needs. [The classic sense of the presence of God as above and beyond (transcendent) in his holiness and glory and yet present to the humble and lowly soul does not seem to go with the leisure-style mindset, dress and deportment, and neither does the classic doctrine of worshipping the Father through the Son and with the Holy Spirit in the beauty of holiness and in spirit and in truth.]

Where this form of worship as attractive experiential religion is well presented, it is very attractive to millions of middle-class Americans (and to some middle-class Brits and Canadians). The reason is, I suggest, because it is culture friendly in a general way, even though in a few specifics it is anti-cultural (e.g., anti-abortion or pro-life). So its distinctiveness is primarily in the very narrow area where it actually differs from the dominant western culture of individualism, rights, leisure activities and communities of mutual interest. Yet as was seen in the recent Presidential Election this narrow area of difference (opposition to same-sex marriage, pro-life etc.) is, at the moment, important and is more than sufficient to be distinctive – even though this experiential religion as a whole is so very obviously only possible to practice in modern western society.

Of course there is a minority of middle-class churches where people attend dressed in their “Sunday-best” because they have been taught that in going to meet with God one should dress in at least as formal a way as one would if one were going to the White House for an audience with the President. (Usually these traditional churches have a formal liturgy with minimal participation by other than ordained ministers who are dressed in some form of vestments.)

And then also many of the African-American churches present to the onlooker on Sunday mornings congregations of people “dressed up” for their members are taught that in the Lord’s House and presence they are to dress appropriately as they meet with King of kings.

What seems clear – when one seeks to separate religion from the strong cultural and social elements – is that where a congregation has a profound sense of the glorious transcendence of God the Holy Trinity and also a vital sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of the Lord Jesus in its midst, then it does not regard what it is doing in worship as recreational and its members do not dress as if they were going to a ball game!


WORSHIP An utter lack of an ulterior purpose.

“Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve.”
“Worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”

The most difficult and yet the most glorious thing that we care called to do in this world – in anticipation of the next – is to worship the LORD our God, the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity. As the congregation of Christ’s flock, we are called “to enjoy and glorify God, the Holy Trinity, for ever and ever, even unto the ages of ages and world without end.”

In the Anglican context, I see at least four major temptations arising within western culture which both undermine the true purpose of Christian WORSHIP and reduce IT or change IT into something else. Professional and amateur liturgists, clergy and worship committees face these temptations and, regrettably, seem not always to resist them. It is not that they always re-write liturgies but that they use existing liturgies to serve new purposes by the spirit and ethos in which they are actually used. And, if growth in numbers or increase in “ministries” or making an impact are the real criteria by which to judge then Satan’s suggestions are good ones.

1. Satan comes along and, with excellent examples and/or stories, presents the thesis: that “a worship service” is (at least in part) to keep people interested and in an acceptable and dignified way to entertain them. So the people sit as the audience and the performers are at the front FACING the audience. God is assumed to be the friendly, non-judgmental Onlooker who blesses the occasion for the people are sincere in their desire for religious activity, performance and entertainment. Satan’s aim as the tempter is to make the people feel welcome, happy and emotionally satisfied/ fulfilled. What he wants to cause them to avoid is to fear God the Father, to bow before His Majesty and to seek His Face through and in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. Satan comes along and using telling phrases and ideas created by the modern therapeutic culture suggests that how people feel and their sense of self-worth are of major importance in true and vital religion. So he presents the thesis: that “a worship service” and all other church activities must have as a major aim the purpose of making people feel good about themselves. Folks need to know that God actually loves everyone unconditionally and wants each one to feel affirmed as His child, and this despite whatever they have done and whatever be their position or state in life. What Satan wants to avoid is the idea that it is much more important to be obedient to the Lord of glory and to seek His holiness through bowing before His Majesty than to be nice and to feel good about one’s individual faith.

3. Satan comes along and with moving illustrations suggests that people are alienated from one another and even from themselves in modern society and thus they need a real human community to which to belong. So he presents the thesis: that is it necessary to make the church of God in this place into a “community of faith” where the “worship service” is truly a community celebration. Alienated and lonely souls need to find soul-mates and soul-companions so that they feel they belong and that they existence is meaningful. So each person’s “faith and feelings about God, Jesus and religion” is affirmed and the church is seen primarily to exist as the place and sphere of affirmation one of another and each one by all. Satan wants to make sure that the idea of belonging to the local group and affirming each other rather than belonging to the communion of saints of earth and heaven is the ethos here. He is most happy when a lot of emphasis and time is spent on the “passing of the peace” with its walkabout to embrace as many people as possible.

4 Satan comes along and demonstrates that many people are ignorant of the basics of religion and of the meaning of the liturgy. So he presents the thesis: that “a worship service” is basically a teaching opportunity for instruction (they may not stay for Sunday School but they are here as a captive audience). Instead of the liturgy flowing naturally according to its own inherent ethos and logic, it is interrupted often in order for the “worship leader” or the clergyperson to use the opportunity to add comments to whatever is being sung or said or prayed in order to further the education of the people. The service is treated as an evangelistic or missionary opportunity. Satan is most happy when a congregation is engaged in learning about religion rather than involved in knowing God as GOD, the LORD, and experiencing communion with the Father through the Son and with the Holy Spirit.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon November 22nd 2004

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