I am exploring why I struggle with so much Christian worship. I find many services I attend boring, even offensive. I often struggle to lead worship.
How does one lead worship speaking to a God in whom one does not believe? How does one relate to a worship community, and find meaning, when the God of which they speak makes no sense?
Let me explain. Within church there are two broad world views.
One is the traditional theistic understanding of the personal intervening God, to whom it makes perfect sense to pray, “Dear Father....” It is this God that is being referenced by my friend who says, “I did not need a fire in the church this week, God. But you’ve given me one. So I’ll learn from it and grow.”
It is a world view which has given service for millennia. It is where I began. It gave me life and helped me get life together from a point of despair.
I am not out to scorn people who live here. In many ways they are more consistent, and far more honest about their beliefs, than those who ridicule them, especially those ‘atheists’ who pretend that by making a scientific explanation about something, or debunking some straw theology , they have said something helpful about the meaning of life. I am not sure if such ‘atheists’ are naive, or just dishonest.
None the less, this traditional theological view does not work properly. I am not talking about the foolishness of suggesting we take Genesis as a scientific explanation of origins. Any unnatural intervention by God is problematic. And the old unsolvable questions of theodicy simply break the theistic model of God.
The traditional theistic theology has become like the end of Ptolemaic astronomy. Too many epicycles and subtleties must be introduced to make the system work. We must give up on the system.
The developing theologies; the second world view, are nowhere as frail and undeveloped as one might imagine. Philosophically and epistemologically, I am happy. I am comfortable with where I sit. A coherent, scientifically aware, and reasonable theology— one as at least defendable as the so called new atheisms— is not difficult to find. The problem of Sunday mornings and worship is not here.
It is also not a problem to preach on Sunday morning. True, there are denominations and congregations which are self defensively dug in. They are on high alert for anything that has the slightest deviation from the accepted norm, and traditionalist to the core. However, if I am prepared to do the work beforehand; that is, think carefully and thoroughly through my understandings, and place them alongside the scriptures, I find little trouble.
As long as I am respectful to people, I can preach new theological understandings without controversy. Obviously, I need to maintain communication. Communicating and respecting means I do not come in on the first Sunday in a parish and tell people that everything they believe is wrong. (For one thing, it is not!)
Respect means that I must maintain dialogue. It means I don’t belittle people who have had little opportunity to undertake the long and wholesale rethinking that a new theology requires. It means I can’t spout arcane concepts that cannot be understood without careful introduction. When I am respectful and gentle, I find people welcome a new viewpoint, and sometimes, with great excitement, and relief.
If I respect and maintain communication, people will follow my reasoning and preaching far more than I ever thought possible. The problem of Sunday mornings and worship is not here.
If preaching is the problem—let’s be honest—when preaching was the problem, it was my problem. I was not sure of my position. I did not know what I believed. I did not know which way I was going to follow the Christ; whether through the old paradigm, or by risking the search for a new one.
My problem on Sunday morning is the condensed language of worship and prayer. This is the place where folk who say in the context of sermon discussion or bible study, that it is inappropriate to expect God to violate the natural laws of the universe, sing hymns and pray prayers inviting God to do just that. Worse than that, they want me to lead them, and assist them, in what we have sometimes already clearly agreed is non-sense.
I find writing prayers of adoration which at least leave open the possibility of a non interventionist God, and which may even attract a person to the glory of such a God, without those prayers being a lecture, is very difficult. Intercessory prayers are even harder; almost impossible.
The way I have introduced new paradigms in my preaching does not work so well for other parts of a worship service. You can’t really explain what you are doing in the middle of a prayer. It doesn’t quite work to say “This might sound odd,” or “Why do the scholars say this?” whilst praying.
Am I just lacking in courage? Am I afraid of unemployment? The argument of some of the atheists is that if I had any courage, I simply would tell people they are wrong. “All this agonising is just being dishonest about your fear of losing your job.”
Such a person could reasonably ask, “If it is not an intervening personal God who listens, why are you praying anyway?”
I think the issue is deeper than this. The real issue is not intellectual integrity or purity. It is about being human, in community.
Intellectual truth on its own counts for very little. We are communal animals. We are not arguing an abstract theological point when we change worship. We are not arguing about who is right or wrong. We are seeking to be community, and yet change the way we are community. Right or wrong, without community, is nothing.
A theological agenda to move the community of the church to a new a paradigm for understanding God is a theological agenda about moving our understanding of all of life. Most of all, it is a theological agenda about understanding how we will be community together; you, the Divine, and me.
There is only a certain distance that the leader can walk in front of the community without leaving the community behind. Some of my discomfort comes from feeling the implications of my changing theological understanding. I face the question: “If it is not an intervening personal God who listens, why are you praying anyway?”
But if I force people to change the way we worship before they feel the weight of this question, I am not enabling growth. I am destroying community, and ceasing to communicate.
Some who decry religion seem to think there is a list of things religious people believe which can easily, and inconsequentially, be changed. This underestimates how tightly people integrate what might be called philosophical ideas with the way they live life.
Church is not about believing six impossible things before breakfast, which can be changed to something intellectually more palatable. Church is a way of being. It is identity. The fact that this integration of ideas is often unconscious makes it all the more difficult to change.
In a family we can change some things quite easily. Other things are much harder to change. The way partners relate to each other is deeply ingrained. Overcoming the history of our birth family and, perhaps years of patterning together, is a major task. It leads to trauma, and often, severe conflict. It is not an intellectual issue. It is far easier to change the housing loan than who cleans the house!
The words of prayer and hymn are issues deeply ingrained in the ‘family’ of the church. They are the way we do church; the way we are ‘family.’ They are our identity, which can only change slowly and with difficulty, if we are to remain ‘us.’
When we argue and struggle and muse on how we will be community; how we will be church, we are seeking to redevelop a tradition to feed and carry us, and express our needs and fears and joys. Changing our worship will challenge all that we do, and our relationship to the status quo of society. It is not a mere intellectual exercise.
Worship develops as a tradition among peers, as love among sisters and brothers. It is not done alone. Worship and community are the work of artists, who struggle, and play with, and cajole their media. They are not particularly open to deliberate intellectual crafting.
Worship is never a simple a case of agree, or not agree. At the very centre of our worship and our community is that we are a community, which we live and develop together. To decide to leave, or to leave some folk behind, is far more serious that whether one believes in a point of doctrine. Shifting the way we worship and commune with each other is much more than making an intellectual change. It is the major part of the shift into a new paradigm.
Here, then, is why I find much worship I attend so unsatisfying, and so hard to change when I lead it. My whole community is bound up in it. Rapid change is difficult. I have begun to walk ahead, and have therefore lost some of my sense of community.
— — —
What I have done in my own thinking, and then in my preaching, is only the easy beginning of a shift to a new paradigm! Changing the way we worship is where we get into the heavy surgery of connecting the head and the heart. It is where thinking and theory become action.
I could not preach justice, and then not seek to do it, or live it in some measure. As soon as I began to do it, the “talk at God and tell him how good he is” style of worship began to fail me. Justice, even just thinking about it, is exhausting and frightening. The implications are vast.
In this enterprise I need friends. I need people who understand. I need people who will support me. I need people who speak the same language, and who have the same ideals and allegiances.
Our talking together, our supporting each other, weeping and struggling together, our wondering what, or who, God is, and how we should respond, will constitute our new worship.
The pattern of worship which I learned in college, which was something like this:
I suspect that within this formal structure, and in the coffee and tea which followed, we have always talked together, supported each other, wept and struggled together, wondered what, or who, God is, and how we should respond. In doing this, we built our community, our patterns of worship, and our ways of being.
As a minister, perhaps I need only question where I place my energy. How much do I seek to help my current congregation change, and how much do I let them remain comfortable whilst I start new congregations around them? One of my colleagues is putting much energy into starting new congregations. I feel a call to grow what we have, if it will come with me. I am not sure if I am simply avoiding the hard challenge of starting over again!
Andrew Prior 2011
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