Guest Post by the Rev. Kathy Neary
Christianity is bracing for the Big One. We are waiting with anxious hearts to see what cataclysmic change is bearing down on us from history. Phyllis Tickle popularized the theory that every 500 years a great, mind-blowing transformation occurs within Christianity, and we are due. The last major shift in the way we theologized and practiced Christianity occurred during the Protestant Reformation, marked by Martin Luther posting his debate invitation on the Wittenberg Church doors in 1517.
We’re due. We may be past due.
I think the next major shift involves the end of Christian worship. I’m not referring to the style of benedictions, which is what I found when I Googled “the end of Christian worship.” I’m saying that Christians will no longer gather on a weekly basis to worship God. Of course, that type of practice will continue in small pockets of Christian communities, but it will not be the central identifying mark of Christian life. This change in Christian practice has been coming for some time now, but we just haven’t recognized the seismic shifts sending tremors up through our souls. Now it’s time to face this possibility.
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.
This 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.
I hear the objections hurtled my way from “progressive” Christian corners. “We have fixed worship in my church so that we don’t think of God and ourselves in that way.” My experience is that many people put on theological noise cancelling headphones when they go to Sunday worship. They don’t listen to the words of the music, prayers, communion liturgy, or the sermon, all of which are, by their very nature, designed to convey this theology. However, the very fact that we go to Sunday worship services belies the idea that progressive Christians have moved off this idea of a relationship with a God that needs or wants to be worshipped. The mental gymnastics that thinking Christians must go through to survive a typical Christian worship experience are just pitiful.
The end to Christian worship is a hopeful and marvelous development for Christianity. 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. It will feel like the earth is shaking under our feet all the time as we try to move forward. I believe it is better than sitting in quicksand and slowly sinking into complete irrelevance. Of course, I also think seeking union with the divine might be a worthwhile path for my life.
Kathy Neary serves as pastor of the McMinnville Cooperative Ministries, a joint UMC/ELCA congregation. She is celebrating her 20th year of ordained ministry and hoping to spend the rest of her active ministry years serving churches wanting to step into the uncertain but exciting future.
Image Credit: “Family going to church” by flickr user Elizabeth, CC BY-NC 2.0.