As the world continues to change at a dynamic pace and the church continues to attempt to minister faithfully in that changing world it will force us to ask difficult questions, questions that reach right to the heart of our identity. One of the earliest questions we learn as toddlers is “why?” and I think that as the church continues to evaluate what we are called to do going forward we need to be willing to go back and ask that question of why are we doing the things we are doing. Do we even understand why we do many of the actions and say many of the things we do? I am convinced that there is a lot of wisdom in the actions that have been passed down from generation to generation-but if we are unable to ask the why questions what was passed down as a tradition, which to use Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous way of talking about it is the living faith of the dead, can calcify into traditionalism, which Pelikan referred to as the dead faith of the living. Our actions do have meanings but if we find ourselves going through the motions do we have a dead faith? What is the end that we are seeking?
Even Protestant Christians rested for a long time on Cyprian of Carthage’s( a 3rd Century Catholic Bishop) famous dictum “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” (No salvation outside the church) if not in theology in practice. People came to church because it was a way of earning their salvation (and what people mean by salvation may differ widely, but that is a topic for another time). Attendance in worship was something that people were expected to do, now certainly not everyone attended all the time but there was a societal expectation to attend worship. I remember one of my instructors in Marriage and Family Dynamics at the University of Central Oklahoma whose father had been a minister and who had members of the mob in his community who were at worship every Sunday. That expectation is no longer there in society, and officially in most protestant churches it has not been theologically there since the time of Luther, and so in a time of change maybe we need to be willing to ask the difficult questions of what are people getting out of the time they spend in worship. Reggie McNeal, who I have referred to in other posts, tells of a time when he had to confront the question:
I remember it as if it were yesterday, even though it was over twenty years ago. We had just comleted a midweek leader luncheon at the two-year-old church where I served as founding pastor. Everyone else had left the building. I sat alone in the fellowship hall And the Lord spoke to me. It was in the form of a question: “Are people better off for being a part of this church, or are they just tireder and poorer?” …The question bothered me. A lot. Not only did I not know the answer, I feared knowing! (McNeal 2009, 89)
I am convinced that worship has meaning, that the church as an organization has a purpose and meaning, that we have a mission and things that God calls us to be a part of in the world. Yet, I am also aware that sometimes it is so easy to become distracted by things that are not important. Working my way through Jeremiah, like I am currently, you can’t help but see the disconnect between the cultic practice of the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time and the ways in which they were not living out of God’s vision of shalom (peace, harmony). If we are merely coming to worship out of a sense of duty, doing the same things we have always done then perhaps we are just tireder and poorer, perhaps it is a traditionalism, a dead faith of the living and God is doing what God does in the midst of death. God is creating new life!
There is meaning in the things that we do, the words that we say, but ultimately our work should be an expression of love. The two great commandments, “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” should be at least one of the ends of our worship-to help us to learn to love. In a world where spirituality and our religious lives have become one segment of our increasingly busy lives perhaps we as church leaders and members need to be asking questions on how our worship and our investment of time and resources are helping us integrate who we are as people of faith into the rest of our lives. It will not be an easy transition, but the bible itself is concerned with life much more than it is with afterlife. We may be the people who to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language from his Letters and Papers from Prison are keeping the archane disciplines-these ancient practices that help us make sense of our faith and our lives-in a world that has come of age. As faithful people and congregations we will continue to wrestle with the difficult questions of how to be faithful in our time and place, and hopefully in the midst of that wrestling we will be shaped by the love of the one we come together to worship so that we may be a blessing to the world we are called to serve.