In my last post, I described a spiritually-based approach to revitalizing religious institutions. I suspect that some who read that article were surprised (or even appalled!) by the fact that I made no mention of corporate worship. I know from experience that some religious institutions consider it their primary mission to offer public worship to their local communities. That purpose is often explicitly stated in their By-Laws or constituting documents. Nevertheless, my failure to mention worship as a central part of the spiritual renewal of religious institutions was not an oversight, but intentional. Having led weekly worship services for more than 40 years, I’m not saying that worship has no value. Following my retirement as a pastor, there were many things about the institutional church that I was happy to leave behind, but worship was not one of them. I continue to long for and participate in meaningful corporate worship.
But as important as worship may be, I’m convinced that it must be considered a secondary development to what I described in my previous article. While healthy spirituality will always have a certain social “magnetism” that draws us into loving relationships with others, we must never forget that it is the intimacy of each person’s relationship with the Divine that is foundational to the life of religious institutions. It is that relationship which forms the basis of every other relationship in a person’s life. That is why, as Jim Wallis has often said, “faith is always personal but never private.” But if a worship service becomes impersonal and routine, then the religious institution has lost its connection to the Source of its vitality.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens when traditions and rituals take the place of a personal experience of the Divine. Too often, worship services have become just a comforting, familiar routine instead of a deep response to a God that has already transformed the lives of the participants. For many, worship is more of a social event than a spiritual one. It’s as if someone decided to throw a party, and went to great lengths to decorate the room, set the table with the finest tablecloth, dishes, and silverware, and carefully select appropriate dinner music. But after making sure everything was in its proper place, failed to give any attention to the nutritional value of the meal to be served!
Corporate worship must emerge from the ways that we experience the Divine breaking into our everyday lives. Those are the events that unexpectedly hit us with such force that we are involuntarily drawn to share and celebrate them with friends and strangers alike. Such experiences will always be more than words alone can express, and we will need to use poetry, art, music and drama to convey how our minds, hearts, and bodies have all been affected. But whatever form those expressions initially take, they will need to continually evolve on the basis of the spontaneous ways we find ourselves encountering God in unexpected situations day by day.
Jesus, for instance, on the eve of Passover – the traditional observance of God’s liberation of Hebrews from slavery in Egypt – found the common mealtime process of sharing bread and wine offered a profound symbolism that could help his disciples experience a new kind of freedom in their own lives. His spontaneous words and actions have been remembered and reenacted ever since in the Christian sacrament variously known as “The Lord’s Supper,” “The Holy Eucharist,” or simply “Holy Communion.” But the value of that now-highly-stylized ritual can only be determined by the degree to which it enables us to access a God-given freedom from our own deepest fears and limitations.
Worship can never be taken for granted or allowed to calcify into anything less than a heartfelt response to an encounter with Divine Reality. Once it loses its ability to evoke the power of such personal experiences, we must return to the drawing board and rediscover them. (I described a process for doing that in my previous article.) Worship can enhance our personal experience of the Divine and enable us to share it, but it can never become a mechanical substitute for it!
Some may argue that corporate worship is where we go to discover God’s presence in our lives, but I doubt that it happens that way for most people. Rather, it’s because of what God has already been doing within us that makes it possible for worship to sharpen and intensify those experiences in ways that reconcile our differences and generates community. Moses, for example, was confronted by God in the Burning Bush long before he gave any thought to building a portable worship space or organizing a worship service. (Exodus 3). Likewise, the Hebrew people had to experience God’s power to set them free from slavery before they were motivated to worship together . . . and even then, their first attempt required some major modifications afterward! (Exodus 32)
That’s why I believe that Spiritual Direction can be instrumental, not only for renewing the spiritual lives of individuals but also for renewing the vitality of corporate worship. It’s no secret that worship attendance is declining and is increasingly regarded as both meaningless and irrelevant. If those trends are ever going to change, it will not come from tinkering with the Order of Worship, but from deepening our spirituality and creating greater openness to Divine interventions in our everyday lives. Consequently, religious institutions (including both their present constituents and those they hope to reach) probably need the assistance of Spiritual Directors much more than they currently realize!