Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 6

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

(E) Some challenges for post-Christian worship

At this point, I’d like to face up to several challenges faced by post-Christian congregations trying to shape meaningful common worship. I see two groups of challenges: first, the challenges of liturgical changes; second, several challenges to the commonality of common worship. The liturgical innovations that challenge common worship are the challenge of new liturgical elements, the redefinition of the sermon, and the challenge of false intimacy. Current threats to common worship include the esoteric impulse and the danger of invisible oppression (or not seeing who isn’t there), and the idolatry of worship as entertainment.

(E.1) Liturgical innovations

~~(E.1.1) The challenge of new liturgical elements:

Let me begin by examining a new liturgical element that has crept into my own religious community, Unitarian Universalism. The lighting of a “flaming chalice,” typically a candle or alcohol lamp in a footed vase, is a liturgical innovation that has become widespread in Unitarian Universalist congregations over the past two decades. It is my belief that lighting a chalice at the beginning of a worship service dates back to Kenneth Patton’s Charles Street Meeting House in the 1950s, where a lamp (in the shape of an ancient Greek lamp), similar in shape to today’s chalices, was lit at the beginning of each worship service, and extinguished at the end. Now, nearly every Unitarian Universalist congregation uses a flaming chalice in its liturgy. The challenge is this:– what does this new post-Christian symbol mean?

D. H. Tripp (1992), in “Liturgy and Pastoral Service,” notes that “Without the practice of worship there would be no theology at all. Theology begins in worship, and its end is worship.” This remains true even in a post-Christian congregation: liturgical innovations must be coupled with sound, well-articulated reasons for the innovation. Without sound, well-articulated reasons, the liturgical innovations either are meaningless, or they carry so many disconnected meanings imputed by diverse individuals in the congregation, that they might as well be meaningless. The flaming chalice suffers from the latter problem: individuals in the congregation tend to have widely diverging understandings of its significance. By contrast, Patton’s theology of his lamp, that the lamp represented the Greek and Roman traditions of wisdom that we still draw upon today, was sound and carefully articulated to his congregation (and it has been utterly lost as the lamp turned into a chalice). Similarly, while the chalice is the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and it would seem obvious that the chalice should serve as a reminder to the congregation of the role of worship in helping them understand one’s responsibility to the greater good of humanity, this is by no means widely understood. The ongoing challenge of the chalice is how to allow symbol, meaning, and worship to shape each other, without losing all meaning whatsoever. This larger issue is one of the biggest challenges of post-Christian worship — how is it that new symbols and their attendant meanings are integrated into the worshipping life of the congregation?

~~(E.1.2) The redefinition of the sermon:

The redefinition of the place of the sermon has been a constant concern of the traditions that grew out of the Protestant Reformation; since at least part of the impetus of a post-Christian congregation is a continuation of that old Reformation impulse, it is not surprising that contention exists around the place and role and importance of the sermon. The most compelling redefinition within our tradition, at least in my opinion, comes again from Kenneth Patton’s work at the Charles Street Meeting House. Patton (1964) began to substitute dance, drama, music, etc., in place of sermons using the spoken word. Assuming post-Christian worship is no longer limited to preaching God’s Word, i.e., no longer constrained by Christian notions of word and Word, it seems possible that arts other than preaching can clearly lead to the same kind of meditative thinking outlined above as central to post-Christian worship. However, because one concern of post-Christian worship is to remain exoteric and accessible to all, it could be argued that language (not written: spoken, or in some form like ASL) is the most fundamental form of human communication, and therefore preaching should remain as the central act of post-Christian common worship.

An additional challenge is posed if we accept the earlier discussion of post-Christian preaching, where post-Christian preaching results in a kind of shared meditative thought, which in turn leads to practical wisdom (phronesis) and action in the community (polis). The problem here isn’t so much one of whether preaching occurs in the modality of language, or in some other modality (dance, visual art, etc.). The problem lies in the creative, and created, nature of the sermon. Preachers generally preach sermons they themselves have written; thus the act of preaching is a creative act, an act of making, an act of poiesis. I would argue that there is a direct relationship between poetic making of a sermon, and the resulting meditative thinking (and subsequent phronesis and action in the polis). Therefore, if we are going to integrate other art forms into post-Christian worship, we should demand of them that they not be mere performances:– they should be works created specifically for that worshipping community.

~~(E.1.3) The challenge of false intimacy:

Here again, I’ll begin with an example from within Unitarian Universalism, and move to wider conclsuions for that example. Many post-Christian Unitarian Universalist congregations include what is commonly called “candles of joy and concern” in their worship services. In this liturgical element, people in the congregation are invited to come forward and tell the congregation about a “joy” or “concern” they have, while lighting a candle. I have been unable to trace the origins of candles of joy and concern, but they seem to be a combination of the old-fashioned pastoral prayer, prayer requests, and the personal testimonies offered in some charismatic Christian churches.

When the candles of joy and concern function well, liturgically speaking, they can serve as a symbol for all the joys and concerns that each person present at common worship may carry; appropriate rubrics can be used to emphasize this. I would expect that when individuals in the common worship are engaged in the discipline of a private prayer life, or are members of a disciplined small support group, the candles of joy and concern would work particularly well. However, the candles of joy and concern can turn common worship into a forum for private problems more appropriately brought out in a small group. Indeed, in my experience it is rare for candles of joy and concern to work well, and they often turn into a forum for such private problems. This brings us to the problem of false intimacy.

The idolatry or cult of false intimacy in post-Christian worship may result from many causes. At the most basic level, if you can no longer count on gaining a deep connection with God during post-Christian worship, there may be a desire to find other ways to have some kind of intimate relationship. On another level, it is likely that some people confuse private devotions, which are personal and intimate and revealing of the deepest secrets of the self, with common worship, where the needs of the common good must take precedence over, or at least balance with, the needs of the self. Similarly, it is likely that people confuse the experience of small support groups, where a semi-public confession about one’s personal problems may be made, with common worship (for example, when the “candles of joy and concern” serve merely as an inappropriate public confession of very private matters). Other things that can contribute to a cult of false intimacy include: the increased secularization of the wider culture and a concomitant ignorance of the purposes of common worship; the spread of false intimacy throughout the wider culture.

The challenge of false intimacy will probably be overcome in large part through continuing education about the purposes of common worship. Some of this education must take place in common worship, through the inclusion of appropriate rubrics, through sermons on the topic, and through the example set by experienced lay persons. The establishment of well-run small groups, and instruction in personal devotion, would also help by providing appropriate outlets for intimacy.

Next: Some more challenges for post-Christian worship

5 thoughts on “Possibilities for Post-Christian Worship, pt. 6

  1. Chris

    At their worst, candles of joy and concern go on too long and can be trivial. For example, I question whether announcing birthdays (which seems to happen a lot in our church) has a place in a worship ceremony. At their best, candles can be pretty mind-blowing. To me, the best candles compare favorably with the most moving messages I heard in many years of Quaker meetings. Whether they actually promote intimacy, false, cultish, or otherwise, I don’t know. I do think they present a significant challenge to a minister, because if they occur before the sermon, they offer an opportunity for everyone’s thoughts to be transported off onto whatever tangent(s) the candles raise. More than once, I’ve spent an entire service thinking about a candle someone lit, basically ignoring whatever was going on in the pulpit. I can’t comment on the quality of those services, but I’ll say that I didn’t feel my time was wasted on those occasions. Our minister might not agree.

    Admittedly, I’m approaching candles of joy and concern from an experiential and somewhat consumerist point of view, as opposed to either the academic or professional lenses you look through.

  2. Jaume

    Dan, you may be interested in the following scholarly event:

    Call for papers: Post-christian religion and spirituality, Glasgow, September 3-6, 2007

    Dear friends and colleagues,

    During the 8th Conference of the European Sociological Association in Glasgow, 3-6th September 2007, Stef Aupers and I plan to organize some sessions on post-christian religion and spirituality under the auspices of the ESA’s Research Network Sociology of Culture.

    If you are interested in presenting a paper in one of these sessions, please submit a paper proposal through the conference website:

    – Go to http://www.esa8thconference.com/

    Dr. Dick Houtman

    Department of Sociology
    Faculty of Social Sciences
    Erasmus University
    P.O. Box 1738
    3000 DR Rotterdam
    The Netherlands

  3. Administrator

    Chris — I, too, worshipped in a Friends meeting (for about three years in my case).I don’t think it’s an accurate comparison. The Friends have a rich and complex understanding of what it means to offer spoken ministry during an unprogrammed meeting, including theological reflection (“there is that of God in each of us,” “the Light within,” “moved by the Spirit to speak”), and mechanisms of instituional education and boundary-setting (“eldering”). Similarly, in Pentecostal and other traditions where there is a tradition of sponatneously offering testimony (or whatever term is used), again we find social and theological structure to make it happen.

    I don’t believe it is possible for a post-Christian congregation to do a theological grounding using Spirit-language or God-language, since there will be individuals in a post-Christian congregation for whom that language is meaningless. Therefore, a new philosophical/theological/religious grounding is essential, but as yet I have not seen such a comprehesive grounding (although I can imagine one). Similarly, the only soci-cultural restraints on personal sharing in a post-Chrstian congregation seems to be taken straight from secular support groups, viz, say whatever you want as long as it’s true of you and no one else may offer comment or judgment on what you’ve said. In short, I believe that without a philosophical/theological/religious understanding of what sharing is, and without a soci-cultural mechanism to support/bound sharing, such sharing is essentially meaningless from a religious point of view — and without a framework, my observation has been that such sharing simply doesn’t result in meaningful human connnections, nor does it result inn any real benefit to the community as a whole (though it may benefit the individual who shares in public).

    That’s not to say that it can be utterly compelling from other viewpoints — as human drama, as public confession, as entertainment, as spoken ministry, as a mini-sermon — and yes, it’s often more compelling than the sermon (in fact, you should try preaching a sermon after someone shares something really compelling — hard to stay focussed). But I stand by what I say in the last paragraph — if we want to keep public sharing in a post-Chrsitian worship service, we have to do the kind of work the Friends have done to make it meaningful — so it doesn’t devolve into false intimacy.

  4. Phil on the Prairie

    I think the joys and concerns problem is another area where small groups can fulfill a necessary function in post-Christian worship. If being part of a small group were an expectation in every congregation, then the need for intimacy would be covered there. If a joy or concern were of major significance (a life-changing event–birth (not birthdays), marriage/union, illness, death), then it would (and should) be prayerfully included as part of the worship experience.

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