Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 2

Second in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.

(B) What is worship for a post-Christian congregation?

What is the purpose of worship in a post-Christian congregation? The Unitarian Universalist Commission on Common Worship (1983) says of worship:

Though it is often defined as reverence given to a divine being or power, it need not have supernatural implications. The origin of the word “worship” is in the Old English weorthscippen, meaning to ascribe worth to something….

This is a start towards an understanding of why we worship, although it leaves unanswered the question of what that “something” is to which we are going to ascribe worth. James Luther Adams (1998) goes further, saying:

The free church is that community which is committed to determining what is rightly of ultimate concern to persons of free faith.

While Adams might not be comfortable with the term “post-Christian,” his words apply to the post-Christian congregation. As individuals come together in community to seek that ultimate concern and to give themselves up to its life-transforming reality, then “roots of faith grow in the individual as one participates in the worshipping, educating, socially active fellowship of the church.” (pp. 39-40)

Worship, then, is an act where we come together to ascribe worth to something. Individual persons coming together in a corporate, common act of worship are shaped and changed through contact with something larger than their individual selves. But how does that play out in a real post-Christian congregation? To answer that, it is helpful to look at the reality of specific post-Christian Unitarian Universalist congregations. Since I am most familiar with my own Unitarian Universalist tradition, I’ll use my tradition as an example.

Scholar Mary Boys (1989, p. 121), citing Judith Hoehler, finds three main strands or “faith-stances” in Unitarian Universalism: Judeo-Christianity [sic], naturalistic theism, and humanism. Individuals in the “Judeo-Christian” tradition define that something larger as the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Individuals in the naturalistic theism have a greater diversity of understandings of the something larger; we can take Emerson’s “Oversoul” as a representative form of naturalistic theism. Humanism might want to define that something larger than ourselves as humanity, or that which is best in humanity. This diversity of faith stances within a single congregation is probably characteristic of most or all post-Christian congregations, and this diversity represents a move away from Christian notions of uniformity of belief, to a new post-Christian notion of heterogenous belief united in one congregation.

Thus in the context of post-Christian congregations, while it may be important to some individuals to define that something to which they ascribe worth during a worship service, given the essential plurality of individual belief it is often difficult or impossible to precisely define that something to which we collectively ascribe worth within the frame of reference of a worshipping congregation. Indeed, such precise definitions will be seen as constituting a Christian approach to worship. Given the essential pluralism of individual beliefs, I believe that a key task for a worship leader in a post-Christian congregation is to attempt to define and understand what is meant by common worship. How is it that we come together, in our post-Christian pluralism, in a common worship service?

In common worship, individuals come together a worshipping “fellowship” or “community.” I don’t mean “community” in the sense of a group of people who have removed themselves from the rest of society. Rather, the worshipping community provides an “open space” within mass society (to use James Luther’s Adams’s formulation), where individuals may be shaped by coming into contact with something that is larger than themselves. Again, the question of what is doing the shaping is left open; there are no required beliefs or theological positions.

Beyond shaping the individual, common worship must also incorporate the understanding that the congregation is part of a larger world. This is implicit in the understanding of the congregation as an open space within mass society. However, while common worship may be related in some way to social action, it cannot be reduced to social action. Nor should social action be reduced to the narrow sense of the term often used in many liberal congregations, where social action gets defined merely as acts of social welfare (it must be remembered that while providing social welfare is important, we can no more dictate the form of social action than we can dictate the theological position that an individual should take; social education, direct action, etc., are all valid too). Common worship must recognize and support the “socially active fellowship” of the congregation, but it is not reducible to social action.

Common worship is also common in the sense that it is open to all. By definition, post-Christian common worship should be exoteric, that is without hidden meanings or doctrines. In North America, this characteristic openness of post-Christian common worship may arise in part from our understanding of the congregation as a voluntary association with democratic ideals in a religiously tolerant society, and it will definitely arise from our tolerance of diverse theologies and belief systems. At the same time, in an increasingly multicultural society, cultural misunderstandings may result in the perception of post-Christian worship as having hidden meanings. (One difference between a post-Christian congregation and an interreligious congregation will be found in how much previous knowledge is assumed; a post-Christian congregation will assume that newcomers know more about the way things are done than will an interreligious congregation.) At the end of this series, I’ll have more to say about this tension between the exoteric ideal, and possible esoteric impulses.

Having said that common worship is open to all (at least in theory), it must be distinguished from two other strands of post-Christian worship experiences: private devotions, and small group worship. It is worth briefly defining these last two forms of worship, and examining their relationship to common worship.

Next: Private devotions and small group worship in a post-Christian congregation

4 thoughts on “Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 2

  1. ck

    I think this is partly why I have some a conceptually difficult time with UU worship. I come from a very worship-focused Christian background, in which worship is the shaping of a community that is, at its core, antithetical to the rest of the world. It’s a mini-eschaton, each Sunday.

    I think that could still fit into a UU worship–just that the eschaton isn’t 1) something ever entirely achieved, unlike the historical event looked forward to by Xns; 2) nor is it thought of as homogeneity achieved but rather the plurality co-existing is the goal.

    However, with Peacebang (who has said this in other places) I have the feeling that if we are not worshipping god, we’re left with worshipping ourselves. Now, as an agnostic, I have no problem *not* worshipping god, but don’t really feel comfortable with worship of humanity (probably because of what I import into the concept “worship”). I’m more comfortable being UU Monday through Saturday than I am on Sundays…

    Anyway, this is all very interesting. I continue to look forward to more of your thoughts.

  2. Administrator

    ck — I happen to disagree with Peacebang on the issue you mention. Gramatically, the verb “to worship” can be transitive or intransitive; pragmatically, “to worship” doesn’t require a supernatural object, nor does it require a natural object. I’d make the analogy with the verb “to walk” — at times I may walk to some specific destination (I walked to work this morning), or I may go out walking with no specific destination (I went for a walk this afternoon). Thoreau’s essay “Walking” addresses this topic, and he defines “sauntering” as “Saint Terre-ing,” that it, a kind of walking that is like going to the holy lands, without actually literally trying to walk to the literal holy lands. Similarly, as a pragmatist, I seek after truth and goodness but I don’t expect to find them, I just expect to get nearer to some practical realization of truth and goodness.

    Maybe the difference is that philosophically you’re more of a metaphysician — you are willing to bet there’s some kind of underlying reality — as a philosophical pragmatist, I just don’t worry about whether there’s an underlying reality or not.

  3. Phil on the Prairie

    First, let me say I love this series so far and I’m looking forward to reading more. I’m not sure if you’re covering this in later posts, but when you say, “[c}ommon worship is also common in the sense that it is open to all,” I’m wondering where multi-generational community fits in (as part of the “all”). I ask because I’ve recently read a post by a pastor of a large emergent Christian congregation where he states very clearly, “Children under three months [or some such arbitrary age] are NOT allowed in our services.” I was surprised at this exclusive stance on what is supposed to be an inclusive message. Is there room for children in post-Christian worship?

  4. Administrator

    Phil-on-the-Prairie — Personally, I support welcoming all ages in worship. But there are some key issues that congregations must sort through as they face the practical realities of welcoming children of all ages into common worship.

    One key issue is how you define “person” in a post-Christian context — that goes with a related issue of whether you welcome all persons into common worship. If we say we want to welcome all persons into worship, and if we define babies apersons, then we will find a way of welcoming babies into worship. If we say that we do not wish to welcome all persons into worship, then it behooves us to determine where we draw the line — which persons will we shut out, and based on what criteria?

    Another key issue concerns whether or not you feel that persons of different ages require different religious experiences. Here again, we would ahve to think through the religious grounds on which we would present different worship experiences for different ages — after which, we would have to accept that we are no longer doing common worship per se, but rather exclusive worship. Another problem is splitting up worship services into different age groups arises when you try to decide the practical limits of such division — as a middle aged person, don’t I get my own worship service? –and what do you mean I have to worship with older Baby Boomers who want rock music when I want a more contemplative service as a Gen Xer? –and how big does a congregation have to be, anyway, in order to provide such divided worship services?

    However, given what I’m saying about common worship is for everyone, I think everyone should mean everyone, as far as we can do so. In my tiny congregation we cannot provide an ASL interpreter for deaf persons — but the minister can at least post sermons on the church Web site, and can welcome email correspondence with deaf people, and perhaps the rest of the congregation could support other kinds of contact not based on hearing.In my tiny congregation, we may not be able to provide a worship service that’s truly welcoming to all ages (given our meagre resources), but at least we can change our attitudes to welcome babies in common worship, while balancing the needs of persons who are hard of hearing and can’t hear over baby vocalizations. But insofar as we can, we should welcome everyone into common worship.

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