These days people want congregations to do many things. Walk into a megachurch like Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, and you will find large service counters to help visitors and members find the particular connection they are looking for. The range of options is astonishing—from a support group for the recently divorced to a ministry that fixes up old cars and gives them to those who cannot afford to set foot on a showroom floor. Or listen to President Bush and other political leaders talk about moving more responsibility for meeting social needs onto congregations and other faith-based organizations. Expectations mount. We live in a time when more and more people (including members themselves) want congregations to step up.
This is not necessarily bad news. Part of what is going on is a growing recognition that congregations are pivotal institutions for our flourishing as a nation. Great! After decades during which congregations were ignored or dismissed as hopelessly obsolete, it is encouraging to see their importance being rediscovered. But let’s not underestimate the impact of these growing expectations. Most of our congregations are small. Often they are overwhelmed by all that people want from them. They can suffer mission creep and loss of direction. They can be involved in so many projects that they are unable to distinguish between good ideas (the world is overflowing with these) and the essential ones that are their reason for being.
The Most Important Thing We Do
So what is the main thing—the most important thing that congregations do? The answer is so self-evident that we may be embarrassed to say it. The most important thing congregations do is worship God. Worship, that mysterious human activity in which people gather, sing, dance (at least some do), tell stories, pray, share meals, and celebrate birth, death, and all the life passages that come in between. Worship, that sacred space where people get caught up in a reality much larger than themselves, where they see themselves differently than in the other spaces of daily life. Worship, that powerful condensation of human practices that reshapes all the fragments of our little lives into a magnificent new creation called the people of God.
The stunning truth—given all the knowledge we have accumulated, all the violence we have experienced, all the trivia that crowds every corner of our consciousness, and all the pressures we feel toward individualism and self-realization—is that we still do this thing. Week after week, millions of people stop whatever else they are doing and gather to participate in this most ancient, traditional, even countercultural of activities. Why, given all the choices that compete for Sunday morning or Sabbath evening, do so many of us keep on doing this? That’s the visible edge of the mystery. For some unfathomable reason, humans keep seeking this experience of grace and transcendence. Deep within us is a yearning, or as St. Augustine called it, a restlessness, “that cannot be quieted till [our hearts] may find repose in thee.”1
A Rich Diversity
Worship is difficult to talk about in the abstract; indeed, it is dangerous to do so for too long. So let me speak out of my own experience as a Lutheran Christian. Recently our family, like millions of others, participated in the great liturgies of Holy Week. To be sure, we are (post?)modern, so we did not do so in one place or even in one tradition.
On Palm Sunday, we worshiped at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, a historic congregation that now lives in the basement of Manhattan’s sky-scraping Citicorp Building. This congregation is about as “high church” as Lutherans can get, with incense, elaborate vestments, and lots of traditional liturgical gestures. There we were, processing around the lobby of this most modern of office towers, raising palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor.” On Maundy Thursday, back home in Virginia, we were at Community Lutheran Church, a suburban congregation that now finds itself in the middle of a shopping center and that teems with young families. In a much more informal style, the congregation reenacted Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. One by one, young children and still-young parents made their way forward to have their feet washed.
The next day, Good Friday, we worshiped at historic Bruton Parish, an Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. There, in the quiet, candlelit darkness of early evening, sitting in pews that even the stalwarts of colonial days must have found uncomfortable, we sang Lenten hymns and reflected on the central mystery of the Christian faith, the death of the son of God. As we sang and prayed, I felt the presence of centuries of predecessors, starting with those who performed the rituals of the earliest Christian communities, then picking up echoes from Reformation England and later from the patriots who met in Williamsburg to chart a new destiny for America.
We celebrated Easter at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, a much younger Williamsburg congregation. The worshipers included representatives of both town and gown, the latter including our son, who studies at the College of William and Mary.
How different each of these worshiping communities is from the others! And how much richer the diversity when we think of all the congregations of this land and beyond, representing all the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and the other great religions, and all the world’s races and cultures. All of them—each, to be sure, in its own way—keep on doing this most important thing, worship.
A Common Hunger
Those of us who work closely with congregations know that it keeps getting harder to do this most important thing. In addition to the pressure from a culture’s great, conflicting and diffuse expectations, we now are experiencing an immense mixing of religions and traditions that often results in what some call “worship wars.” There is a joke making the rounds these days that asks what the difference is between a liturgist and a terrorist. Answer: you can negotiate with a terrorist. The joke reminds us that many who want to do the most important thing find it difficult to deal with others who want to do that same thing, but in a different way. In many churches and synagogues, lines are being drawn between groups colliding over differing worship traditions, styles, and preferences. Musicians line up against clergy, newcomers against old-timers, reformers against traditionalists, formalists against informalists, one ethnic group against another.
Many find these worship wars frightening and want to end them at any cost. But others find in these deep disagreements a common hunger and a possibility for something new to come to life. Not too long ago, I visited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Founded in 1980, St. Gregory’s has embraced the challenge of worshiping in an age of cultural mixing. In particular, it seeks to incorporate elements of traditional Christian and Jewish worship into something new. This is, obviously, risky business. Not everyone will be comfortable with the menorah and the Coptic crosses sitting in close proximity. Others will be puzzled, and maybe intrigued, by the Shinto shape of the shrine that houses the Scriptures and the Buddhist bells that are rung at key moments in worship.
But few will be unmoved by the life and spirit stirring in this congregation. On my visit I encountered robust and full-harmonied chanting; a great, dancing procession of the whole congregation to the communion table; animated and very personal responses to the sermon, so natural that people competed for a time to talk about their lives in light of the preacher’s message; and some of the most beautiful and spontaneous offerings of corporate prayer I have ever heard.
Gregory’s is a congregation for whom worship is the most important thing. In seminary, long ago, I learned that the word liturgy means the work of the people. This congregation, like so many others around the world, does this strenuous work with joy and excellence. In so doing, these congregations call all of us to a fresh commitment to worship that heals the world and gives us the freedom to be more than we think we are.
1. The Confessions, book 1, chapter 1.