Fourth 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, continued
(C.2) Small groups
Small group worship occupies a middle ground between private devotions and common worship. At its best, small group worship offers a continuing opportunity for renewal and reform. James Luther Adams (1976, p. 85) talks about this aspect of small groups when he describes the ecclesiola in ecclesia as a possibility for ongoing reform of voluntary associations:
In the modern period the ecclesiola has been the small group of firm dedication that sometimes promotes the disciplines of the inner life, sometimes bends its energies to sensitize the church afflicted with ecclesiastical somnolence, sometimes cooperates with members of the latent church in the world to bring about reform in government or school or industry, or even to call for radical structural transformation.
Small group worship can take on this positive, reforming aspect in post-Christian congregations. Feminist worship groups in the second wave of feminism (1960’s and 1970’s) may serve as an example of small groups helping to sensitize larger congregations to the possibility of ecclesiastical somnolence. Many such feminist worship groups worked on developing new worship language and new forms of worship that allowed men and women to be true equals (the wide-spread “Water Communion” in Unitarian Universalist congregations in fact originated with a small feminist worship group). Certain Neo-Pagan groups within a larger Unitarian Universalist congregation have operated in this way, challenging liturgical and theological assumptions of the congregation, particularly in the areas of feminism and environmentalism, while remaining fully connected with it. Outside Unitarian Universalism, we might consider the revolutionary role assigned to small groups (base communities) by practitioners of liberation theology.
Post-Christian small group worship need not look outside our Christian heritage (e.g., to Neo-Paganism or to newly invented forms) for inspiration. Interesting possibilities for small group worship exist within our own historical (Christian) tradition. For example, D. H. Tripp (1992, p. 449), in “The Office in the Lutheran, Reformed, and Free Churches,” says that in the 18th and 19th centuries, “individual Congregational ministers produced variants of the Anglican office, chiefly for local use.” Tripp notes that “provision for daily office concentrated on materials to help the individual express by prayer the believer’s in Christ’s priesthood,” but also, “even more generously, to enable the family to function as an ecclesiola through daily corporate worship.” This appears to be the tradition from which the Congregation of Abraxas drew to create The Book of Hours c. 1988, which set forth what might be termed a post-Christian daily office. The Congregation of Abraxas offered formats for four daily offices, saying that each one “is designed to be said privately (as a personal devotional discipline) or in common with others who gather to share meditation and prayer.”
But at its worst, small group worship can become a kind of esoteric flight from common worship. Where this happens, it likely results from the same kind of hubris that allows individuals to pursue a private devotional life while removing themselves from the demands of common worship. There is a particularly dark side to this hubris, and that is when bias results in the refusal to engage with persons who are different from ourselves by removing ourselves from common worship. Age and theology are common forms of bias that result in an esoteric flight from common worship.
Such small group worship services are designed to meet the needs of small in-groups, and tend to function as divisive elements, rather than as revolutionary or challenging elements, within the wider congregation or association. Examples of this kind of small group worship can be found throughout Unitarian Universalism. Two examples will suffice: there exist youth and young adults groups which exclude older adults and children from their small group worship and which avoid attendance at common worship; there exist neo-Pagan groups which remove themselves from common worship and solely participate in small group worship. Not infrequently, these small groups try to widen the division by creating new and esoteric forms of worship which act to exclude non-initiates. Of course, these problems (as we shall soon see) are not limited to worship services where there are few people in attendance.
Having looked at (all too briefly) private devotions and small group worship, we can return to an examination of common worship.
Next: Post-Christian preaching?