web analytics
Empty Church

The End of Liturgy?

Empty Church

I write this post thinking aloud (thinking allowed) in dialogue with a blog post I was pointed to that argues that collective Christian worship will not last:

Here is why Christian worship doesn’t work anymore: Christian worship is designed to allow people to worship God, and people don’t want or need that relationship with God anymore. We have moved past this vertically shaped relationship with God. Since the beginnings of the Christian movement, the majority opinion about God has been that God is above, powerful, merciful, forgiving, and just. God dispenses grace and other good things to people below. People are worms, at least compared to God, and don’t deserve these good things. The vast gulf between the character of God and the character of humanity is the basis of Christian worship. On Sunday morning we practice a ritual in which we primarily ask God for things, and thank God for the things we have received from God. Then, for good measure, we heap a lot of praise onto God to hopefully keep God happy for another week. In Christian worship we center this ritual on the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. We embody the theology that states we are such worms that we cannot earn or deserve forgiveness from God for our worminess. Only the substitutionary death of a divine being, masquerading as a human but minus the true worminess of a human, could make thing right with God.

The author, Amber Patrick, argues that there has been progressive tinkering with the paradigm, but that the core is unaffected, and that we are due for a regular 500-or-so-years earthquake (the last being 1517) which will totally destroy Christianity as we know it. What might be rebuilt after the destruction cannot be foreseen. But Amber Patrick has some pointers:

The practice of Christian worship will come to an end for the majority of Christians because they are seeking and experiencing a different kind of relationship with God. Following in the footsteps of the Christian mystics, more and more people are seeking union with God. People want to live lives completely aware of the holiness of all creation. People want to act in ways that preserve and strengthen the holiness of creation. They want to know how to live with others in such a way as to reveal the divine in others. Christian worship does not help with any of these efforts.

We do know some practices that encourage this desire to be in union with God. Contemplative prayer, deep study of scriptures and theological ideas, compassionate joining with the poor and oppressed, engagement with beauty in all its forms, and long sojourns of silence, are all practices that can open the doors to possible union with the divine. None of these practices is possible to engage in an hour long “worship service.” Christian worship is not designed to encourage union with the divine.

So let’s just chuck it. Let’s let go of Christian worship in favor of communities engaged in practices that lead to union with the divine. This change will feel like living through an earthquake 24/7 for a while.

On this site I have long and often been arguing for

But I also know that when I lead a group, or have people read my book which works through all this, people nod and affirm with enthusiasm, and then mostly go back, and worship continues, more or less, as they are used to.

Also, to pick up the earthquake metaphor, regulars know that I live in a city that has actually been destroyed in an earthquake (Christchurch, New Zealand), and, many years on, it is difficult to see whether what is happening after the quakes will be better than what we had before. If Amber Patrick is correct, that what we are seeing in the demise of Christian community worship is a destructive earthquake, I’m not as convinced as she is that something better will be around the corner.

What do you think?

If you appreciated this post, do remember to like the liturgy facebook page, use the RSS feed, and sign up for a not-very-often email, …

Similar Posts:

21 thoughts on “The End of Liturgy?”

  1. Another thought provoking article, thank you.

    I can only comment with regards my own experience, but I have found that the deeper I have gone into contemplative practice and engaged with God on that deep level, which Amber references, the more collective worship with my brothers and sisters has come alive. I have found my desire to meet up with others in worship has only grown. Perhaps our notion of what constitutes worship is too narrow. Certainly as you suggest contemplative practice needs to be at the heart of it.

    Worship doesn’t need to be opening hymn, lots of words, gradual hymn, more words, offertory hymn (the most important part of the service ) more words, final hymn. Worship can just be sitting silently together, or just singing hymns in the local pub (one of my favourite types of worship). Or not in a building at all, like the forest church I lead. Or the contemplative Eucharist service, which is stripped almost completely of words.

    When your love of God and for others deepens through contemplative practice, then the natural out pouring of this is the desire to spend time with your family, God and all your siblings in Christ. Surely this is the essence of worship? Where 2 or more are gathered.

    1. Thanks, Philip – yes, I stress again and again: liturgy is action (what we do) which may be accompanied by some interpretive words. Being silent together is a community action. Blessings.

  2. The community aspect seems to have been overlooked here. We need community both for support and mtutal discernment. I agree some aspects of worship need to change but we need community & Eucharist – well I do!

    1. Thanks, Glenda. Yes – I would reinforce your point and stretch it further. What if we make community a goal? So often I-the-individual is more of a focus. Particularly in Protestant theology, church becomes a means for me. And when it isn’t helping me – out it goes. Blessings.

      1. And much of modern “worship” tends to encourage an “audience” mentality too!

        I think the Christchurch earthquakes showed the benefit of community. That is something the churches can focus on. It should be a natural consequence but also needs to be intentional.

  3. Jonathan Streeter

    At a Stephen Ministry training conference I attended in Dallas, Texas last month, I casually asked a number of people there “how many are there in your congregation”…and frequently my interlocutor responded with a number in the THOUSANDS.

    Now, I am unfamiliar with what church services look like for such organizations (if they even have them). But we were shown “praise music” videos at the conference and the mega-church parishioners knew all the tunes and would stand up and hold their hands high and sway back and forth with the power of the Holy Spirit.

    This may be purely a U.S. phenomenon, I have no idea. But apparently there are many people who belong to such large churches and they are happy and willingly attend church in great numbers. Perhaps they hold the key to what 21st Century Christian liturgy will look like.

    As for my old-school, mainline Episcopal parish, we are flourishing in terms of Sunday attendance, and we largely follow the well-worn format of the mass as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer (although we no longer use the book itself). But we number perhaps 75 on a Sunday, not THOUSANDS.

    Finally, I’m a big proponent of contemplative practices and I do think the church could go a long way in exploring ways to be more mystical and less focused on procedural, structured services. But I still think meditation and centering prayer and the like work best when we are in fellowship.

    Just my musings.

  4. I agree with Philip, the more I practice contemplative prayer, the more my communal worship is enhanced.

    I worship in a community with a Pentecostal tradition, and when I first started visiting this site didn’t think it was very “contemplative”, mostly because the music is generally louder than more traditional styles. But over the years, I can see more and more that much of what we are doing fits the communal contemplative worship yu’re describing. My response to Amber would be that the two types of worship are not mutually exclusive.

    On a different subject, would you be able to point me in the direction of any resources for setting up a labyrinth?

    1. Thanks, Claudia. I think you are right: often, as here, it is both-and, not just either-or. On your different subject: I think in Christchurch I suggest you contact St Luke’s Christchurch – they have put in a labyrinth where the church building was on the corner of Manchester & Kilmore St. Blessings.

  5. The passion narratives are central to our faith and will always be despite a possible earthquake in Christian worship. I was never affected by the “worm theology” because prior to my conversion to mainstream Christianity I was raised a Mormon. As a Mormon we even borrowed from an Anglican poet William Wordsworth to express our divine origins. Also, as Anglicans we need to utilise in a theological way the findings of that other great Anglican Charles Darwin in making human connections with the soil beneath us and the stars above us. I admit that many of the hymns we sing should be thrown out. I do love John Michael Talbot and the songs of Taize. I do love the moments of silence in worship as well.At church no-one sings my favourite hymns which is why i am glad we have You Tube + Google.

  6. My experience of traditional liturgy, even at it’s best is
    We say god is great
    We confess we are nothing but miserable sinners
    We are told stuff about God
    We ask things from God
    We say God is great and we are miserable (again) in great thanksgiving
    We bow and say we are sorry and we are nothing without god (again)
    Mea Culpa, and we will try and do better

    Liturgy will last if it is framed as
    Us living in the love of God
    Our work and lives and loves are celebrated as part of that great love of God, rather than as powerless, ignorant sinners
    Celebrating being partners with God in the great act of creation and living that continues to call us us to live more fully in love
    Reflection on how together we can act and live more fully in love

    If I could find liturgy like that, i would go

    1. Thanks, Rosemary. I’m interested in the term “traditional liturgy” – do you mean Cranmer-based, or other? I would not like to lose the sense of growing in union with the source of all, and of our being. I think we can have a healthy sense of our own shortcomings – but what you describe seems to be an unhealthy obsession with that. Blessings.

  7. Not convinced. A vertical Christianity – God and me – I think I could manage, albeit it would be unlike yours. I don’t have any problem with substitutionary atonement for a start: I do have a big, big problem with the insistence on calling Christianity a “relationship”.

    The problem comes with the horizontal (in the shape of church), which requires me to suspend disbelief in a way I can no longer do. It appears, from the increasingly empty pews, that I’m not alone in this.

    1. Thanks, James. I think when you refer to “you”, you probably mean Amber Patrick? There seems, to me, a lot you could helpfully expand on – what you mean by not being a relationship; what you mean by the requirement horizontally to suspend disbelief. Blessings.

  8. One of the most attractive factors that the church can offer is beauty, as reflection of God. While beauty might be in the eye of the beholder surely there is a beauty in well constructed liturgy, that engages our senses and has the potential to be a portal by which we can encounter the numinous. This beauty is surely undeniably attractive however the big issue is how to we enable people to experience this.

    1. Thanks, Caro – yes, I’m very aware, in this “age of communication” how poorly church communicates what we do. Blessings.

  9. I have made my own comment on the author’s website, Bosco, to the effect that the worship of the Holy Eucharist goes on somewhere around the world at every moment of every day – not only on Sundays. As long as there are priests who are faithful to their calling, and communities who gather around the Table of The Lord, this will continue – in obedience to the call of Christ.

  10. Bosco, I can’t help thinking that the attributes that you refer to above were all present to a greater or lesser degree in the old Roman mass, which was dumped by the Latin Church in 1970 in favour of something more user-friendly and supposedly inclusive and contemporary. Now, over 45 years later, I see evidence of a slow but sure re-emergence of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, driven it seems by demand from those of the faithful who are unable to derive the spiritual benefit they seek from the new liturgical forms. I don’t think liturgy is dead, and I think we will always need it whether we realise it or not, but I do think very unwise things have been done to it across the Western Church. This is why my Orthodox friends tell me they never change anything! It all seems to tie in with what you say above.

    1. Yes, Chris – “greater or lesser degree” – the “greater” could be kept and built on, the “lesser” could be eliminated or reformed. “Never change anything”, IMO, is not the answer. Blessings.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.