Third in a series. Bibliography will be included with the final post. Back to the first post in this series.
(C) Private devotions and small group worship in a post-Christian congregation
(C.1) Private devotions
Private devotions, the act of an individual worshipper, appear to be as necessary as common worship. James Luther Adams (1976, p. 64) notes that individuals are not “wholly comprehended in the community or the state of the family or the other associations. Individuals possess an integrity and freedom of their own”; thus implying the possibility and even the necessity of a private devotional life. At the same time, Adams (1998, p. 122 ff.) is equally clear that an inner life of devotion is not enough. What, then, is the relationship between private devotions and common worship?
Liberal Quaker philosopher and theologian Douglas Steere (1992), speaking from a liberal Christian theology, beautifully describes the tensions between private devotions and what he calls corporate worship:
The person who had found a living, firsthand contact with God in prayer is holding this norm up to the church and demanding that its corporate services of worship should accomplish regularly for its members the same transforming awareness of God’s abiding presence. But the scruple has also its dark side, namely, a certain puffed-up spirit of loftiness, of pride, of superiority that goes badly with the fellowship… into which the one who prays is called. (p.98)
Steere uses liberal Christian theology to support his contention, yet his statement is certainly accessible to a post-Christian position. Underlying his theology is a psychological truth. As Steere puts it, in the act of common worship “we are lifted out of our private world into a public one, out of our personal situations into a social situation.” (pp. 98-99) Common worship has a broadening effect on the individual that private devotions can never accomplish. At the same time, Steere contends that common worship requires of the individual that he or she maintain the habit of private devotions. (pp. 100-101) Neither one is sufficient unto itself; both are necessary.
Private devotional life without common worship is in fact a manifestation of individualism. For example, Robert Bellah (1998), speaking about Unitarian Universalism as an outsider, addresses this when he says: “If we are fundamentally relational creatures, as I think both biology and sociology affirm, then ontological individualism, religious or secular, is simply a mistake.” Bellah’s observation about Unitarian Universalists applies more broadly to a pluralism characteristic of post-Christian groups, a pluralism that can can devolve into rampant individualism.
Let’s look at how it might be possible for post-Christian groups to escape the trap of “ontological individualism,” by looking at possibilities within my own religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism. The Unitarian Universalist Commission on Common Worship (1981, pp. 12-13) states clearly that the individual “worshipper must be willing to work at the service to get the most out of it,” and that we must bring “our own unique experiences into the common experience”; unfortunately, the Commission stops short of Steereâ€™s position, which demands that each individual in common worship to maintain a private devotional life. However, some years later, the Unitarian Universalist minister Scott Alexander (1999) made the case for what he calls “everyday spiritual practice.” Alexander asserts that an individual Unitarian Universalist “is expected, with the help of clergy and community, to nurture and tend the garden of his or her own religious life each and every day.” (p. 6) Although Alexander unfortunately does not make an explicit connection between private devotional life and common worship, yet both he and the Commission move in the direction of such a connection.
I believe that Steere’s contention — that common worship requires private devotions and vice versa — is as true for post-Christian congregations as it is for his Quaker congregation (indeed, the liberal Quaker meeting Steere was a member of supposedly had some post-Christian individaul members). Without some kind of private devotional life on the part of individuals (Alexander offers a wide range of activities that constitute private devotions, from meditation to social action), common worship suffers. In the unprogrammed Quaker meetings (the type of meeting that Steere belonged to) where there is no paid worship leader or “hireling minister”, this becomes particularly evident; as it does in lay-led post-Christian groups.
Good worship services result from the combined efforts and self-discipline of the gathered community; obviously they are not simply the result of the efforts of a preacher. And in a post-Christian congregation that does not rely on traditional Christian theologies, we are no longer able to state that good worship results from the working of the Spirit. Therefore, the ultimate responsibility for the quality of the worship service must rest with the individual participants in the post-Christian worshipping community.
Finally, we must ask the question of how private devotions could be fruitfully linked to common worship. In an appendix to this series on post-Christian worship, I will offer a rough outline for a “post-Christian lectionary,” that is, for a three-year cycle of religious and spiritual readings. This cycle of readings could be used both for private devotional study, and as the basis for common worship services. The readings could also be used by small groups, and by young people’s religious education programs, further linking parts of the congregation through common study and devotion.
Next: Private devotions and small group worship in a post-Christian congregation, continued