Have you ever heard someone say, “God told me to…” or, “God lead me here…”? I feel like I so often hear that when it comes to some new idea, new movement, maybe someone is leaving their current place of work to pursue something else, maybe someone is staying in their current place of work when they should be leaving, all because, God said. Likewise, if you are like me you hear that phrase thrown into these sort of statement, “God is leading me to tell you to…” It becomes all the more fun when God starts telling other people what you should do and asks them to over see it for him.I think that is a small example of how as a Church (global) we have allowed our preference of individualism to recast our spiritual practice in an often misleading way.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe God still speaks, I just don’t know that we actually listen. it seems that in scripture, even when God speaks to an individual, the message is meant for a broader audience (most yet not all the time). Likewise in the New Testament, the writings are written to a corporate audience, to be read aloud, interpreted openly, and pursued collectively. Now we set aside time for quiet solitary devotions, independent interpretation, and collective argumentation over who heard from God more in their private moment. I think individual spiritual practices are good, and necessary but only when they are equally balanced and critiqued by corporate ones. I think we have so privatized our faith that we choose self affirmation over self critique, throw a “God said” label on it, and call it a day. We often site passages like Matt 14, where scripture discusses Jesus withdrawing to a quite place. However, what of the Acts 2 where the disciples were daily together, praying, devoting themselves to the word, sharing fellowship, and breaking bread… not to mention sharing all they had. How come we are ok with only taking one of these options?
Before I go further, I am not saying God cannot and does not speak to the individual, but I think he is more concerned with the collective that we choose to see. It is interesting how often God speaks to communities as opposed to individuals in Scripture. It is also interesting how he calls us to speak back. In Matt 6, Jesus calls his followers to pray using community language, “our Father,” “Give us,” “Forgive us,” “Leadus,” “deliver us.”
Doesn’t the church exist to invite us out of our private worship into collective worship? The beauty of liturgy and tradition is that it was set in place to invite the community of worshipers into a movement when they often could not understand the language and could not read the biblical texts as well. I come from a non litugical background which certainly has its benefits in some respects however I think too often we miss the beauty of liturgy. When liturgical churches stand and recite the Creed, pray the Lord’s prayer out loud, even pass the peace or partake in call and response, we do so affirming that we are part of something bigger and something greater than ourselves. We are not allowed to be privatized, God calls us to be collective. it is the Church, not the “I” that is the Bride. We have used our comfort in individualization to have, “every eye closed and every head bowed.” We sit in auditoriums where we don’t really have to make human contact if we do not want to. We can now just watch church from our computer or TV without ever leaving the comfort of our home.
I don’t mean to overly criticize because I 100% affirm that that these advances in some church practice have revolutionized the demographics that we can reach and have aided bringing more people into the community of God. They have been great tools! The Church I am privileged enough to work at, Willow Creek Community Church, has done unbelievable things in terms of contemporary service offerings to reach the unchurched and those uncomfortable with “old” religion. The downside is however, we (American Church) still rest in a position of individualization as opposed to incorporation. And what is interesting is this is predominantly an American and Western culture issue. I sat through a multi-hour service in Costa Rica when the power and lights had gone out and I didn’t hear anyone complain that the pastor had gone over time. Those people lived their liturgy and the time at church was when they got to express it corporately.
I had a conversation with a high school student this last week who said he grew up Catholic and although he appreciated his heritage, it was really a boring service. I said that we often find boring what we don’t understand. We find it archaic and having little place in our 21st century worshiping culture. Where the contemporary church can do more to lead congregants to the necessitation of corporate worship and practice, the liturgical Church must to more to not simply practice but inform and teach of the beauty that is in the actions and life of worship. When we recite prayers we offer common belief, when we pass the peace we reconcile and commit to peace not only with our neighbor next door, but our neighbor in the Middle East, or in Asia, or Latin America. When we reconcile with our brother before communion, we offer reconciliation to more than just our small church but to the whole Church.
I will admit, I watched the Royal wedding, but while my wife wanted to see Kate’s dress, I kept searching for the liturgical practice, the ancient cathedral, the recitation, the prayer. I think when you start to see the beauty in the corporate worship, it is hard to settle for only individualization. However when you only rely on ritual it seems like we are just doing ritual for ritual’s sake… and in that context it is boring. There must be a balance. I think we as a Church are effectively practicing on both extremes. How do we begin to meet in the middle?